October in Nepal is a peak season for trekkers to gather and work their way up the Himalayan mountains. Skies are usually clear and sun shines though. However, heavy snowfall on Tuesday followed by a series of avalanches has caused a nightmare scenario, leaving at least 32 people dead and 85 missing.
Most of the fatalities happened as the blizzard reached a point on the Annapurna Circuit, 100 miles northwest of the capital, Kathmandu. A well-known trekking route in central Nepal, the area is about 14,800 feet above sea level and close the the circuit’s highest point, the Thorung La pass. Helicopters have saved survivors stranded in lodges and huts along the route, with at least 200 trekkers already rescued according to authorities. Tourists from countries around the world, including Israel, Indonesia, Germany, Spain, India, Canada, Russia, and Poland, were caught on the mountain. This is the worst disaster in the history of Nepal’s mountain-climbing industry — snowfall from the storm topped six feet in some places.
“I was sure I was going to die on the way to the pass because I lost my group, I lost all the people I was with and I could not see anything,” said Linor Kajan, an injured trekker from Israel, who said she was stuck in waist-deep snow. “One Nepalese guide who knows the way saw me and asked me to stay with him. And he dragged me, really dragged me to the tea shop. And everybody there was really frightened.”
CREDIT: AP/Nepalese Army
The blizzard was the tail end of Cyclone Hudhud, which hit the Indian coast a few days earlier and was reportedly one of the strongest storms on record to hit the region. The equivalent of a category 4 hurricane, Hudhud made landfall on October 12 in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Climate scientists are hesitant to link any one weather event to climate change, but they have pointed out in the past that the Himalayas are especially vulnerable to the increased storm intensity expected to result from climate change.
“Storms in that region are getting stronger,” John Stone, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, told the Toronto Star. “It is not inconsistent with what scientists have been saying … by making the atmosphere contain more energy, we have increased the likelihood of more frequent and severe storms.”
The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional agency based in Kathmandu that serves eight countries, released a report in May showing that rising temperatures caused Nepal’s glaciers to shrink by almost a quarter between 1977 and 2010 — at an average loss of about 15 square miles per year. The report also pointed out that Nepal’s average temperature change has been two to eight times greater than the global average. The report says that these changes could bring more intense and frequent floods, avalanches, and landslides.
This is not the first time a deadly blizzard has struck trekkers during the hiking season. In 1995 and 2005 more than a dozen climbers and guides were killed by storms. Then earlier this year in April an avalanche killed 16 Nepalese guides near a base camp on Mount Everest in the deadliest disaster in the mountain’s history. This avalanche was not caused by a storm, but melting ice on the famous Khumbu Icefall.
“Accurate weather forecasting has reduced the risk of being surprised by a killer storm like the one that struck in 1996,” wrote Jon Krakauer, author of a book about a deadly 1996 storm event on Everest, in the New Yorker. “But the pronounced warming of the Himalayan climate in recent years has made the Icefall more unstable than ever, and there is still no way to predict when a serac is going to topple over. And Sherpas spend much, much more time in the Icefall than their Western employers.”
Of this disaster, former British Gurkha officer and avid trekker General Sam Cowan said “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.”