Sikkim faced devastating floods after heavy rain and an avalanche, resulting in at least 19 casualties. An early warning system for glacial floods at Lhonak Lake in northeast India was in progress when the disaster struck.
Scientists and government authorities had initiated an early warning system for potential glacial floods at Lhonak Lake in the Himalayas. The system aimed to provide advance notice to communities in the event of a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF), which can occur when lakes formed by melted glaciers overflow due to heavy rain or other factors.
The initial components of the system, including a camera to monitor the lake’s level and weather instruments, were installed a month before the disaster. A fully operational system could have offered residents more time to evacuate, typically providing a few minutes to an hour of notice in GLOF situations.
Geoscientist Simon Allen of the University of Zurich, involved in the project, expressed frustration at the timing of the disaster, occurring just two weeks after the team’s visit. They had plans to add a tripwire sensor that would trigger alerts in the event of an imminent burst, facilitating immediate evacuations.
However, due to logistical challenges and readiness issues, the Indian government had initially planned to implement the system in two stages. Unfortunately, the camera lost power in late September for unknown reasons, hindering its data transmission capabilities.
As global warming affects high mountain regions, the threat of glacial lake outburst floods has increased. These floods pose a significant hazard to communities in the Himalayan region and neighboring countries like India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Bhutan, with over 200 such lakes categorized as very high-risk areas.
Several countries have implemented glacial flood early warning systems in recent years, including Nepal, Pakistan, and Bhutan. The Lhonak Lake and Shako Cho systems in Sikkim were intended to be among India’s first early warning systems for GLOFs. Despite scientists warning of the risks at these two lakes, logistical and funding challenges delayed progress.
India has plans to establish early warning systems at various glacial lakes, but the potential benefits of such systems in rapidly unfolding events remain uncertain.