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Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable

A damaged dam near the Dhauliganga hydropower project. Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable

A damaged dam near the Dhauliganga hydropower project. Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable

A damaged dam near the Dhauliganga hydropower project. Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Climate change: as mountain regions warm, hydroelectric power plants may be vulnerable

A damaged dam near the Dhauliganga hydropower project. Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Tragically, more than 200 people are believed to have lost their lives, many of them construction workers at the Tapovan hydropower plant.
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Simon Cook, University of Dundee

Around 27 million cubic metres of rock and glacier ice collapsed from Ronti Peak in the northern Indian Himalayas on February 7 2021, falling 1,800 metres into the valley below. The glacier ice melted as it cascaded down the mountain, mixing with rock and sediment to generate an extraordinary flow of debris that destroyed roads, bridges and two hydroelectric power stations. Tragically, more than 200 people are believed to have lost their lives, many of them construction workers at the Tapovan hydropower plant.

Though it’s always difficult to attribute any single event to climate change, rising global temperatures may have played a part in this event, known as the Chamoli disaster. And if climate change helped cause this landslide, it could threaten hydropower infrastructure globally.

Mountain regions like the Himalayas are sensitive to change. These environments tend to have steep, unstable valley walls, and earthquakes are relatively common. But climate change can tip the scales towards more frequent and higher magnitude events.

For example, we might expect more landslides where valley slopes are left without support, as adjacent glaciers thin and recede. Where permafrost thaws, it removes the icy cement that binds mountain rock and sediment together. Rising temperatures can prompt the sudden release of meltwater from growing glacial lakes, and the collapse of entire glaciers as they warm up.

So should we be nervous about developing hydropower in mountain regions if these landscapes are becoming more unstable? Well, it’s complicated. Hydropower can help reduce dependence on burning fossil fuels, and it is particularly important in the world’s high-altitude regions. Peru, for example, generates around half of its electricity from hydropower, and it continues to invest in new infrastructure.

While disasters inevitably provoke difficult questions, it’s important to keep some perspective on the sustainability of hydropower.

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