An intense rescue mission has been underway in India since Sunday morning, following the break of a Himalayan glacier. The glacial breakoff triggered an avalanche of mud, water and rock debris that swept away a hydroelectric dam. At the time of writing, 26 people had died with at least 171 more people still missing.
The disaster started at about 10:45 a.m. local time, when part of the Nanda Devi glacier broke away from a fragile area of Uttarakhand, the northern India state that borders China and Nepal. The region is known to be prone to landslides and flooding, a situation that has caused environmentalists to warn against development there.
Those who witnessed the event from across the valley say that it happened in a flash. “It came very fast. There was no time to alert anyone,” Sanjay Singh Rana, an eye witness, told Reuters. “I felt that even we would be swept away.”
It is believed that of the nearly 200 missing individuals, most were workers at the dam. According to the Uttarakhand state chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, the number of those reported missing could rise as more information is gathered. Additionally, 180 sheep washed away in the avalanche.
It is still not clear why the glacier broke, especially when northern India is still experiencing winter. Global warming has increased ice melt in the Himalayas, but the region is still typically quite cold this time of year.
The split glacier was part of the Nanda Devi peak at an altitude of 25,643 feet. The mountain is revered in India, with its name translated to mean the blessed goddess. Some locals even worship the mountain. Currently, the national park surrounding the peak, Nanda Devi National Park, is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Image via Avalok Sastri