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'Tsunami From The Sky'


Rising temperatures have resulted in dangerously high water levels in a lake above a valley in central Bhutan. No one knows how long it can hold.

In the Himalayas, warming could spur a ‘tsunami from the sky’ - Rising temperatures have resulted in dangerously high water levels in a lake above a valley in central Bhutan. No one knows how long it can hold. The lake is swollen dangerously past normal levels, thanks to the global warming that is causing the glaciers to retreat at record speed. But no one knows when the tipping point will come and the lake can take no more, bursting its banks and sending torrents of water crashing into the valley below. Such floods from above have hit Punakha before, most recently in 1994, a calamity that killed about two dozen people and wiped out livelihoods and homes without warning. But scientists say a new flood could unleash more than twice as much water and be far more catastrophic. Because of Earth’s rising temperatures, at least 25 glacial lakes in Bhutan are at risk of overflowing and dumping their contents into the narrow valleys where much of the country’s population lives. The bitter irony here is that Bhutan probably has done more to safeguard its environment than almost any other country. Sustainable development is the official mantra. By law, the country’s forest cover must never drop below 60 percent. National parks and wildlife reserves account for one-quarter of Bhutan’s territory. A sanctuary in the east is famous as the only one in the world set aside for the yeti - or “migoi” - the mythical Abominable Snowman. Some shifting weather patterns already are being felt. “The winters are not so cold. The hot season is arriving much earlier. Even fruit trees that would not fruit in Thimphu, that people just planted as ornamental flowers, are now starting to fruit.” Less benign are diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, common in the lower-lying, warmer south, which now are appearing at higher altitudes. Officials are also worried that any changes to Bhutan’s monsoon season could deal a major blow to agriculture. Experts estimate that Bhutan’s glaciers are retreating by as much as 100 feet annually. “In the short run, we’ll have increased summer flows, but after 40 years, it’ll dry up.” Fed by a melting glacier the Thorthormi lake has bulked up to alarming size and is in danger of swamping another body of water, the Raphstreng. In a nightmare scenario, the two lakes could merge, punch through the natural but unstable moraine dams holding them back and go cascading into the valley, picking up debris as they thunder downhill.
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