Pre-collapse motion of the February 2021 Chamoli rock-ice avalanche, Indian Himalaya


On the 7th of February 2021, a large rock-ice avalanche triggered a debris flow in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India, leaving over 200 dead or missing. The rock-ice avalanche originated from a steep, glacierized north-facing slope. In this work, we assess the precursory signs exhibited by this slope prior to the catastrophic collapse. We evaluate monthly slope motion from 2015 to 2021 through feature tracking of high-resolution optical satellite imagery. We then combine these data with a time series of pre- and post-event DEMs, which we use to evaluate elevation change over the same area. Both datasets show that the 26.9 Mm$^textrm3$ collapse block moved over 10 m horizontally and vertically in the five years preceding collapse, with particularly rapid motion occurring in the summers of 2017 and 2018. We propose that the collapse results from a combination of snow-loading in a deep headwall crack and permafrost degradation in the heavily jointed bedrock. Our observation of a clear precursory signal highlights the potential of satellite imagery for monitoring the stability of high-risk slopes. We find that the timing of the Chamoli rock-ice avalanche could likely not have been forecast from satellite data alone.

Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences Discussions