This week‚Äôs blizzard in the central Himalaya was a wakeup call to install effective early warning weather systems
The devastating death toll¬†from this week‚Äôs blizzard¬†and avalanches in the¬†Annapurnas has once more¬†highlighted the urgent need for¬†weather early warning for trekkers¬†in the Himalaya.
Till press time on Thursday,¬†32 people were confirmed dead¬†in Manang and Mustang, with¬†85 still unaccounted for. There¬†is still no word on dozens of¬†trekkers who were planning to¬†cross Larkya La in the Manaslu¬†circuit on Tuesday.
Hover over the map for photos and number of casualties.¬†
This is not the first time¬†blizzards and avalanches have¬†hit the high Himalaya in recent¬†years. Post-monsoon typhoons¬†from the Bay of Bengal have¬†been particularly disastrous. In¬†November 1995, 13 Japanese¬†trekkers and 11 Nepali guides¬†were killed as they slept during¬†a blizzard on the Gokyo trail. In October 2005, 18 Nepali and French climbers were killed in an avalanche on Kang Guru in Manang.
The casualties among¬†trekkers in blizzards and floods¬†tend to be higher in the peak¬†autumn season, since heavy¬†rains are not expected. However,¬†weather experts say October is¬†when trekkers and mountaineers¬†have to most careful because it is¬†the cyclone season in the Bay of¬†Bengal.
‚ÄúGiven that there is mobile¬†and internet access along the¬†Annapurna circuit, you cannot¬†blame weather alone,‚ÄĚ says¬†climate analyst Ngamindra¬†Dahal, ‚Äúthis wasn‚Äôt a surprise¬†storm. The real question is why¬†weren‚Äôt the warnings heeded?‚ÄĚ
Indeed, Indian and Nepal¬†meteorological offices had¬†been warning about heavy¬†precipitation from the remnants¬†of Cyclone Hudhud as it veered¬†north towards Nepal ever since¬†it made landfall on 12 October.¬†International tv channels warned¬†of heavy rain in western and¬†central Nepal. Two days before¬†the storm arrived, Nepali media¬†had warned farmers to protect¬†their harvests.
The information was there,¬†but it doesn‚Äôt seem to have got¬†to the trekkers high up behind¬†the Annapurnas. The question is¬†why.
One reason could be that¬†weather forecasts are usually¬†unreliable and Met offices have¬†cried wolf so often that many¬†people ignore the warnings. Also,¬†for a country that is so dependent¬†on¬†trekking and mountaineering,¬†there isn‚Äôt a formal channel to¬†provide official and dependable early¬†warning to people in¬†the mountains. Since climate¬†change is making weather more¬†unpredictable globally, there is¬†all the more reason to have multidisaster¬†preparedness systems in¬†place.
While trekkers in Chame and¬†Manang watched weather reports¬†on tv or on mobile internet, up¬†the valley lodges do not have¬†electricity and there is no phone¬†signal. Trekkers at Thorung Phedi¬†or Kangshar would essentially¬†have been incommunicado unless¬†they had satellite phones.
The Annapurnas had seen a¬†spell of brilliantly clear and crisp¬†autumn weather till Sunday,¬†which suddenly turned overnight.¬†By the time the blizzards hit¬†on Tuesday 14 October, many¬†trekkers and their guides were¬†trapped high up on the passes.
Former British Gurkha¬†officer and avid trekker Gen¬†Sam Cowan says the Thorung¬†or Larkya traverses are closer to¬†mountaineering, with the very¬†high and exposed mountain¬†passes requiring long¬†commitment at high altitude,¬†and allowing plenty of time¬†for the weather to change¬†rapidly for the worse.
‚ÄúIf it looks bad, it probably¬†is going to be bad,‚ÄĚ says Cowan,¬†and advises, ‚Äústay put in your¬†tent or shelter, wait for one¬†day or two. To hell with the¬†flight home. No one should¬†have ventured out to cross¬†Thorung La with the weather¬†as threatening as it was, nor¬†should their trekking guides¬†have allowed it.‚ÄĚ
The other aspect is proper¬†disaster planning with¬†preparation and proactive¬†dissemination of early warning¬†of weather. In 1999 when¬†a cyclone hit the coast of¬†Odisha in India, 10,000¬†people were killed, but with¬†new satellite-based early¬†warning, communications and¬†mandatory evacuation of coastal¬†areas there were minimal¬†casulaties during cyclones¬†Phailin in 2013 and Hudhud¬†this year even though physical¬†damage from both storms were¬†huge.
It is not enough for the¬†authorities to know about¬†approaching weather through¬†weather satellite imagery, they¬†need to communicate this quickly¬†and effectively to people and¬†visitors on the mountains. In¬†Nepal, this could be done through¬†the media, networks like the¬†Trekking Agencies‚Äô Association¬†of Nepal (TAAN), Nepal¬†Mountaineering Association,¬†Himalayan Rescue Association, or¬†even telecom companies which¬†can send warnings through mass¬†texting to selected parts of the¬†country.
In the high mountains of¬†Nepal there are telecommuncaiton¬†blind spots, which means trekkers¬†may not receive warnings. To¬†get around this, it could be made¬†mandatory for huts at Thorung¬†Phedi or below Larkya to have¬†CDMA phones. Trekking groups¬†on passes above 5,000m could be
required to carry satellite phones.
Says Cowan: ‚ÄúSadly, it is¬†all so obvious but people think¬†that because it is trekking, they¬†can take chances. You can never¬†do that in the high mountains¬†where the weather can change so¬†quickly.‚ÄĚ
Narrow escape Sunir Pandey
Anatomy of a Himalayan tsunami¬†Kunda Dixit
Extreme Everest¬†Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller
Working in high places ¬†Ayesha Shakya
Taking chances in Chomolungma¬†David Durkan
A dangerous place to work¬†Jon Gangdal