Lake Palcacocha, perched above the Peruvian city of Huaraz high in the Andes, has been filling up with water. It sits just at the foot of a glacier and it has flooded to six times its 1995 levels. What turned it into a deadly flood time bomb?
Earth has many naturally occurring phenomena that are threatened by climate change, caused by pollution, construction, nuclear waste, industrial waste, the list goes on and on. We have been witnessing the side effects of pollution since the industrial age. We are living under the constant threat that one day the ozone layer will break completely, and we will all be toasted by the sun’s radiation. The rising temperature each day is the warning.
Trees are being cut down to make buildings for the overpopulated Earth. Many species have gone extinct, and the glacial ice, which covers 10-11% of all land on Earth, is melting every day, causing the sea level to rise and floods to occur.
As the glaciers worldwide are receding, thousands of new lakes have formed, and the old ones have expanded. There are a number of communities living around the lakes and their lives are put at risk every day because if a glacier melts and falls of the mountain completely, tsunami-like waves known as ‘glacial lake outburst flood’ will annihilate the area.
Lake Palcacocha, in the Peruvian Andes, is notorious as one of the world’s greatest flood risks. The lake is located in the Ancash Region, Huaraz Province. It has an elevation of 4,566 m. It is just under the summits of Palcaraju (6,274 m) and Pucaranra (6,165 m). There is a settlement of thousands just downstream of the lake. The reason for concern is climate change which has caused the lake to swell up to a great extent.
Deadly Flood Timebomb
The Palcaraju glacier has been melting over the years, caused the Lake Palcacocha to expanded approximately 34-fold by volume ever since 1990. The meltwater is filling the valley vacated by the retreating glacier. The media has even labeled it as a “deadly flood timebomb” as the risk to downstream communities persists despite the efforts by the local authorities towards draining the dam and the lake.
The reason why the lake is so threatening is that when an outburst occurs, most likely triggered by an avalanche; the floodwaters will reach Huaraz city, which has around 32,971,854 people residing there. Census data suggests that the habitants live in the path of a potential flood within 80 minutes of an outburst
The 1941 Flood
In 1941, on the morning of December 13, a massive chunk of the adjacent glacier fell into the lake and caused a wall of moraine to break. The wave rushed into the Cojup valley and destroyed Lake Jiracocha, which was in its way and carried large blocks of ice, rock boulders and liquid mud to the Santa River Valley. In 15 minutes, the mudslide containing all the debris, reached Huaraz and buried parts of the town, and killed approximately 1,800 to 7,000 inhabitants.
The outburst had reduced the lake’s volume from about 10 million cubic meters to half a million. As a precaution, a drainage structure was built in 1974 to maintain the water level, below the height of the damming moraine. An adjacent glacier to the lake has receded since the flood of 1941 and has increased the size of the lake. Due to climate change, the meltwater from the glacier has increased the lake water and in 2009, its volume was around 17 million cubic meters. If climate change continues, the flood will take place again and kill much more people than it did in 1941.
Human-Caused Climate Change
According to years of research, it has been found that the rise in temperature around the world, since the mid-19th century is the result of greenhouse gas and aerosol emissions. The relation between human influence and global warming was tested to see its impact in and around the Palcaraju glacier area. By using the methods of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on global warming of 1.5C, it was established that 95% of the change in temperature around the glacier is the result of human-caused climate change.
Researchers have also examined the role of temperature change in the retreat of the Palcaraju glacier and the expansion of Lake Palcacocha. The results show that the retreat would not have happened if it was for the human-caused warming. Now that the effects of climate change have been established, the local authorities have implemented hazard mitigation measures.
A farmer and mountain guide from Huaraz named Saul Lliuya has sued RWE, the German energy utility and Europe’s largest carbon dioxide emitter, seeking compensation of $4 million for helping bear the cost of measures to reduce the risk of floods from Lake Palcacocha. According to the lawsuit, the RWE is liable for part of the costs for building flood defenses in proportion to their contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientific studies like the investigation of the role of climate change in the 2018 Japan summer heatwave, where the researchers found that a heatwave that killed over 1,000 people, could not have occurred without climate change, have helped the lawyers in adding it to the growing evidence against RWE and have based their legal claims for compensation on this.
Still A Deadly Threat
The ongoing retreat of glaciers poses a deadly threat to the growing numbers of communities in the mountain areas. The findings which have been listed above, provide clear evidence that the threat to life from Lake Palcacocha is eminent and is directly related to human-caused climate change. Even though the impacts of climate change have been evident for years now, not enough measures have been taken.
Understanding what is causing the most pollution and banning that stuff would make a big difference for the entire world. It is not just the governments’ job to implement any plans and measures to save Earth, it is the citizens’ execution that needs to be on point. Many people continue to throw garbage on the roads, cut down trees, throw garbage in the sea, etc. If this continues, life on Earth as we know it will soon be extinct.