Nepal Mission Will Assess Risks from Glacial Lakes after Earthquakes

Daene McKinney
Civil engineering professor Daene McKinney will assess post-earthquake damage to lakes in Nepal that may pose a threat to mountain communities. Photo courtesy of the Cockrell School of Engineering

AUSTIN, Texas — A researcher from the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin is headed to Nepal as part of a rapid response mission to assess post-earthquake damage to potentially dangerous glacial lakes and to begin the process of rebuilding mountain communities.

The April and May earthquakes, which leveled much of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and caused more than 8,600 deaths, also had enormous effects on the country’s mountain villages. In these remote areas, the earthquakes gave rise to massive landslides that wiped out entire villages and further destabilized the geology of high altitude mountains, glaciers and glacial lakes, which could lead to the degradation of the natural dams of rocks and soil left by the glaciers. 

“It is of critical importance that post-event assessments of Nepal’s most potentially dangerous glacial lakes be conducted as soon as possible to determine the damage caused by the earthquake as well as any increased threats of flooding and damage to downstream communities,” said Daene McKinney, project leader and professor in the Cockrell School’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering.

Since the 1960s, the Nepal region has seen the formation of large glacial lakes holding tens of billions of gallons of water, as many of the larger glaciers have melted in the Himalayas. Seismic activity can trigger the overflow and potential flooding of glacial lakes by weakening the structural integrity of the boulders and soil that hold back the water.

McKinney and a team, which includes a mountain geographer, a hydrologist and a filmmaker, are deploying to Nepal on May 27 to make a rapid assessment of several of the lakes, including Imja Lake in the Khumbu region. The team is part of the High Mountains Adaptation Partnership (HiMAP), created and managed by The University of Texas at Austin and The Mountain Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on the conservation of mountain environments. HiMAP has received $100,000 for this effort from the United States Agency for International Development, UT Austin, the American Society of Civil Engineers and private donors to cover travel, field support, helicopter costs and other project costs. 

Between June and August, the team will conduct detailed remote sensing and field-based assessments of Nepal’s most potentially dangerous glacial lakes in partnership with the country’s Department of Hydrology and Meteorology, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development and the government of Nepal’s army.

“The tragic events in Nepal have definitely affected our team,” McKinney said. “After our rapid assessment, we plan to execute a long-term program to assist these high mountain communities in their recovery.”

McKinney said that the team plans to provide materials and labor to help rebuild community buildings, such as schools and health clinics. Additionally, the team will work with communities to develop plans for managing future disasters.

Through the HiMAP program, McKinney and his students have been developing ways to assess and reduce the risk posed to downstream populations by these new glacial lakes. Although McKinney’s students are not traveling to Nepal on this trip, they will be involved in this effort. 

HiMAP was created in 2012 to focus on remote, high altitude mountain ecosystems and communities. Its goal is to create conditions necessary for all stakeholders who live in and are dependent upon glacial watersheds (including local communities, government agencies and downstream populations) to become more resilient to the effects of climate change. The Nepal region is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes and climate change effects because of its extreme topography, remoteness, lack of transport facilities and tourist-driven economy.

The HiMAP team plans to conclude the first phase of the project in August. A second phase, which will survey five other potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Makalu-Barun region, is planned for this fall.