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Story Publication logo April 27, 2016

Nepal: When Mountains Collapse

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Landscape badly scarred by last year's quake
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The legacy of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake in Nepal could last for decades. Scientists begin to...

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What would it be like to lose all your family overnight? And how would you cope? It's with these questions in mind that I trekked with a heavy heart along the Langtang Valley, a popular touristic destination in northern Nepal.

Exactly a year ago this week, this remote Himalayan watershed witnessed the single most horrific catastrophy of the Gorkha Earthquake: a massive avalanche engulfed Langtang and nearby villages, leaving nearly 400 people killed or missing.

The quake shook up ice and snow at five locations along a 3-kilometer ridge between 6,800-7,200 meters above sea level. They went into motion and swept huge amounts of loose debris and fractured rocks along their way — before crashing several kilometers down to the valley floor.

The avalanche generated 15 million tonnes of ice and rock, and sent powerful wind blasting down the valley, flattening houses and forests. Wind speeds exceeded 322 kilometres per hour and the impact released half as much energy as the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. Nothing in its path could have survived.

Where the villages used to stand is now a gigantic pile of debris, up to 60 meters deep. It's effectively a mass grave where people pile up stones and put up prayer flags to mark where their loved ones used to live.

It's hard to come to terms with the scale of the devastation. Everybody in the valley has lost somebody to the monstrous landslide. About two dozen children from 16 families, who were in schools in Kathmandu during the earthquake, lost all their family in the matter of a few minutes.

It's a somber reminder of how dangerous it can be in the Himalayas — where people live so close to ice and where population growth and the search for livelihood often push them to build in hazardous areas.

Under-appreciated danger

The Langtang tragedy also reminds us how deadly landslides can be during an earthquake — a danger that is often under-appreciated. While earthquakes and landslides are like conjoined twins that go hand in hand, most of the resources go into building houses that can sustain strong shaking, and far too little into mitigating landslide risks.

In both the 2005 magnitude-7.6 Kashmir Earthquake in Pakistan and the 2008 magnitude-7.8 Wenchuan Earthquake in China — which killed approximately 26,000 and 90,000 people, respectively — a third of the fatalities were caused by landslides. While it's certainly important to build earthquake-proof houses, it's equally important to build them at safe locations.

In addition to the killer avalanche in Langtang, the Gorkha Earthquake unleashed over 10,000 landslides across Nepal, which blocked rivers and damaged houses, roads, and hydropower stations. Many valleys are totally shattered — with landslide scars running down from the ridge top like gigantic waterfalls, and numerous small failures marring the landscape like fireworks shooting across the sky.

Driving along the Aniko Highway that connects Nepal with Tibet, it's not difficult to see that many houses had survived the shaking only to be crushed by debris flows and rock falls. The border remains closed because of continuing landslide hazards. The highway, which used to have some of the worst traffic jams in Nepal, is totally deserted.

Enduring legacy

A major concern is that Nepal will suffer from more severe landslides than usual for a long time. During the last monsoon, the landslide rate was about ten times greater than an average year. And my trek along the Langtang Valley was accompanied by frequent sound tracks of falling rocks and shifting slopes. A number of times, I had to run from boulders crushing down onto the trail — a clear sign that there are lots of instability in the system.

The instability could go on for years or even decades and will be exacerbated by rainfall and aftershocks. This enduring legacy is often not fully taken on board in quake recovery — with devastating consequences. Eight years after the Wenchuan Earthquake, for instance, settlements built after the disaster continue to be inflicted by a heightened level of landslides, which cause floods and destroy infrastructures.

This points to the importance of rigorous risk assessment before reconstruction and close monitoring afterwards. There is also an urgent need to better understand what makes mountainsides more susceptible to landslides after an earthquake and how they recover over time.

To achieve that end, several research groups went into landslide-ridden areas in Gorkha's immediate aftermath. They wanted to capture what happened to the landscape immediately after the quake, so they could track the changes in the coming years.

Early warning

Last month, I joined one such team — consisting of Christoff Andermann, Kristen Cook and Camilla Brunello, of the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam, Germany, and their Nepalese coordinator Bhairab Sitaula — on a field trip along the Arniko Highway.

That was their fourth trip in Nepal since last June when they began to map the landslides and installed a dozen broadband seismometers, along with weather stations and river-flow sensors, over 50 square kilometres of badly shaken terrain.

The team often attracted a few curious onlookers when they worked away, but nothing provoked more excitement than the drone, says Cook. The crowd, especially kids, were thrilled to see the little robotic device buzzing around like a gigantic mosquito, she adds. A camera and sensors onboard can help them to locate the landslides and monitor debris movement, especially after rainstorms.

Another exciting aspect of their research is the use of seismology to probe geomorphic processes over a large area. Landslides are effectively earthquakes that occur near the surface, and produce signals that can be picked up by seismometers.

The team, led by Niels Hovius of GFZ, can detect precursory seismic signals days before a landslide happens. They also study ground properties by measuring how traffic vibrations travel through the ground.

Because seismic waves travel faster when subsurface materials are wet, the researchers are able to trace how rainfall penetrates into and through the ground. This determines the pressure of water in spaces between soil and rock particles, a key factor controlling slope stability.

Such studies will one day allow researchers to determine the rainfall thresholds that could precipitate a landslide and capture deformation precursors days in advance. This offers a real prospect of an effective early warning system, which is urgently needed in a country that is increasingly plagued by landslides.

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