A number of cloudbursts caused several homes and roads in a number of villages in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli, Tehri and Rudraprayag districts to be flooded with water and debris in early May 2021.
Cloudburst-like events have hit Uttarakhand since May 2021 and have caused considerable damage in the four hilly districts of Tehri Garhwal, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Chamoli.
GS-I: Geography (Physical Geography, Climatology, Important Geophysical phenomena), GS-III: Environment and Ecology (Climate Change and its effects), GS-III: Disaster Management
Dimensions of the Article:
- What is a Cloudburst?
- Why do cloudbursts happen only in the mountains and hilly areas?
- Why does cloudburst cause so many deaths?
What is a Cloudburst?
- Cloudbursts are sudden and extreme rainfall events over a limited area in a short span of time. There is no universal definition of a cloudburst.
- The India Meteorological Department (IMD) defines a cloudburst as any event where 100 millimetres of rainfall have fallen in a span of an hour over a region that is 20-30 square kilometres in area. By this definition, 5 cm of rainfall in half an hour would also be classified as a cloudburst.
How do Cloudbursts occur?
- A cloudburst occurs when moisture-carrying air moves up a hilly terrain, forming a vertical column of clouds known as ‘cumulonimbus’ clouds.
- Such clouds usually cause rain, thunder and lightning. This upward motion of the clouds is known as an ‘orographic lift’.
- These unstable clouds cause an intense rainstorm over a small area after becoming heavy enough and locked in the ridges and valleys between the hills.
- The energy necessary for the cloudburst comes from the upward motion of air. Cloudbursts mostly occur at elevations between 1,000-2,500 metres above sea level.
- The moisture is usually provided by a low-pressure system (usually associated with cyclonic storms in the ocean) over the Gangetic plains associated with low level winds flowing in from the east.
- Sometimes winds flowing in from the north west also aid the occurrence of cloudbursts. The many factors that have to come together to make a cloudburst event happen make them highly unlikely.
Why do cloudbursts happen only in the mountains and hilly areas?
- Cloudbursts do happen in plains as well, but there is a greater probability of them occurring in mountainous zones; it has to do with the terrain.
- Cloudbursts happen when saturated clouds are unable to produce rain because of the upward movement of very warm current of air.
- Raindrops, instead of dropping down, are carried upwards by the air current.
- New drops are formed and existing raindrops gain in size. After a point, the raindrops become too heavy for the cloud to hold on to, and they drop down together in a quick flash.
- Hilly terrains aid in heated air currents rising vertically upwards, thereby, increasing the probability of a cloudburst situation.
- In addition, as pointed out earlier, cloudbursts get counted only when they result in largescale destruction of life and property, which happens mainly in mountainous regions.
Why does cloudburst cause so many deaths?
- The rainfall itself does not result in the death of people, though sometimes, the raindrops are big enough to hurt people in a sustained downpour.
- It is the consequences of such heavy rain, especially in the hilly terrain, that causes death and destruction.
- Landslides, flash floods, houses and establishments getting swept away and cave-ins lead to the deaths.
Is the frequency of cloudbursts increasing?
- There is a paucity of past data on cloudbursts; in addition, since only some of them get counted – only those that result in death and destruction – there is a problem of accuracy as well.
- But what is very clear is that events of extreme precipitation have been on the rise in the last few decades due to global warming; it is expected, keeping in mind that trend, that cloudburst events might be on the increase as well.
- Extreme weather events are indeed increasing in the Himalayan region.
-Source: Down to Earth Magazine