Ignored Warnings: Sikkim’s Lhonak Lake Disaster Foreseen by Experts

Flash flood in Sikkim, India, claims ten lives, 82 missing
Flash flood in Sikkim, India, claims ten lives, 82 missing

Ignored Warnings: Sikkim’s Lhonak Lake Disaster Foreseen by Experts

The tragedy at Sikkim’s Lhonak Lake, claiming 14 lives with 102 missing, was not unforeseen. Over the past decade, both governmental bodies and researchers repeatedly sounded alarms about the potential for catastrophic glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) in the region.

In 2021, another caution was issued regarding the precarious state of North Sikkim’s Lhonak Lake. Tragically, these warnings went unheeded. The recent cloudburst over the lake culminated in flash floods throughout the Teesta River basin, affecting over 22,000 individuals.

GLOFs are the result of bursting glacier-formed lakes due to excessive water accumulation or seismic activities. South Lhonak Lake, situated in Sikkim’s far northwestern expanse, is identified as one of 14 lakes prone to GLOFs. Nestled at a lofty altitude of 5,200 meters above sea level, its formation arises from the melting Lhonak glacier, causing its size to expand rapidly.

Sikkim's Lhonak Lake Disaster Foreseen by Experts
Sikkim’s Lhonak Lake Disaster Foreseen by Experts

Recent satellite imagery starkly portrays a GLOF incident, illustrating a dramatic reduction in the lake’s expanse from 167.4 hectares on September 28 to 60.3 hectares on October 4.

A 2012-2013 study by the National Remote Sensing Centre and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) highlighted the elevated outburst risk of the lake, estimating a 42% probability.

In 2016, an expedition led by Sonam Wangchuk of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh foresaw the potential GLOF event. They took proactive measures, installing high-density polyethylene pipes to redirect water and subsequently conducted a recent inspection for an early warning system and automatic weather station.

A 2021 ELSEVIER journal study pinpointed South Lhonak Lake as critically perilous, with a high outburst probability. It underscored the glacier’s concerning retreat, raising alarms about the downstream valley’s densely populated settlements and infrastructure.

The 2001 Sikkim Human Development Report echoed similar apprehensions, emphasizing the ‘serious potential hazard’ stemming from GLOFs in the region. The warnings were there, but action was regrettably delayed.



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