According to recent research, avalanches in the Himalayas are responsible for a growing number of fatalities and pose a risk to the safety of mountain climbers.
Experts are warning that the risk of avalanches during the climbing season in the Himalayan mountain range is increasing due to global warming, even though high-altitude mountaineering comes with its own inherent avalanche risk.
A new study found that throughout the last fifty years, at least 564 people have been killed by avalanches when ascending peaks in the Himalayas that are higher than 4,500 meters (14,770 feet). Suppose we limit our analysis to the 14 summits in the Himalayas that are higher than 8,000 meters and the few other prominent climbing peaks that are higher than 6,000 meters. In that case, we find that there have been at least 1,400 mountaineering deaths between the years 1895 and 2022. Of these deaths, 33 per cent were caused by avalanches.
Alan Arnette, a mountaineer and chronicler of climbing seasons in Nepal, stated that catastrophic avalanches on popular summits such as Everest, Ama Dablam, Manaslu, and Dhaulagiri had been occurring for quite some time. “The mountains are going to have avalanches. He explained that it was something that had been going on for many years.
However, the regularity of these recent avalanches, in addition to their timing, may be a premonition of what the future holds for mountaineering in the Himalayas in a world that is warming.
The typical climbing seasons in the middle Himalayas, where the majority of the other popular climbing peaks are located, are when the weather is clear from March to May, before the monsoon season, and from September to November, after the monsoon season. This happens to coincide with the season for cyclones in the Indian Ocean, although it was not a major issue until very recently.
“The highlands of the Himalayas are generally protected from the impacts of cyclones originating in the Indian Ocean,” said Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a climate scientist at International Centre for the Integrated Mountain Development. “The cyclones lose energy as they travel across the landmass,” he added. “However, on occasion, cyclones do impact the interiors of the Himalayan highlands, causing excessive snowfall and even causing people’s lives to be lost.”
In response to the rapid warming in the Indian Ocean, the monsoon has become more erratic, with short spells of heavy rains and long dry periods, and the cyclones in the Arabian Sea have increased in frequency, intensity, and duration – and they are intensifying quickly both in Arabian Sea as well as Bay of Bengal, according to Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.
As a result of dramatic shifts in the monsoon precipitation patterns and the formation of cyclones in the Indian Ocean more frequently and with higher intensity as a result of the ocean’s rapid warming, the previously predictable climbing season is now being thrown off by these supercharged storm systems.
“In 1996, when we had that disaster on Everest [in which eight climbers died in a blizzard], it really absolutely entrenched the concept that you have to consider what’s occurring in the Bay of Bengal. This is something that needs to be taken into consideration at all times. According to Chris Tomer, a meteorologist and weather forecaster who works with climbing expeditions in the Himalayas, “If there’s a cyclone there, you need to keep an eye on it.”
“During the busiest climbing season on Everest, we had to be concerned about something in the Bay of Bengal four out of the five years that have passed since we started monitoring it.”
According to the data, well-known summits in the central Himalayas, such as Annapurna and Everest, and those that are within the sphere of influence of the monsoon, such as Nanga Parbat in the western Himalayas, already present a very high danger of avalanches to mountain climbers.
Fresh and heavy snowfall is one of the primary causes of avalanches, and when storms that are out of season occur in these mountains, the risk of danger and the likelihood of fatalities also increase.
Tomer, who has been making weather predictions for close to twenty years, stated, “Not that the weather wasn’t challenging 20 years ago, but it’s really been something to see the amount of snow on Manaslu and Dhaulagiri the last couple of years.” Tomer has been making weather predictions for close to twenty years. They have been distinguished by some of the most severe weather in the world during the past few years.
The risk of avalanches is also increased as a result of rising temperatures. Warmer temperatures during the winter and early spring have been linked to an increase in the frequency of avalanches, according to a study that was conducted in 2018 and that used tree rings as a proxy in the absence of long-term observations to reconstruct the snow avalanche history in the Indian Himalayas.
In addition, a study that was conducted in 2021 indicated that avalanches may become more deadly, with hypoxia and trauma becoming more common causes of avalanche deaths in a changing climate. This is due to the fact that higher snow densities in wetter avalanches might impede the respiration of entirely buried victims. As snow cover decreases and terrain becomes more rugged, there is a greater potential for an increase in the incidence of blunt force trauma and subsequent injuries.
Temperature-driven snowpack instability, which has led to an increase in avalanche activity, can be expected to continue into the future, according to scientists, and the Himalayan range is warming at a rate that is twice as fast as the average rate for the rest of the world.
According to Jakob Steiner, a hydrologist at the Himalayan University Consortium and the University of Graz in Austria, and one of the authors of the recent paper, the steady increase in avalanche fatalities cannot be definitively attributed to any single factor at the moment due to the lack of long-term observations and poor documentation, as well as limited understanding of the complex relationship between climate and potential triggers. Steiner issued this warning in a recent paper. He is also one of the authors.
It is impossible to state that climate change is the only thing going on when there are so many other things happening. However, evidence of its passing can be found. It is because we eventually intend to perform the attribution work that we are doing this work [preparing a complete database of avalanches], he said.