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Will another earthquake redirect the Ganges? – DW – 06/24/2024

Will another earthquake redirect the Ganges?  – DW – 06/24/2024
Will another earthquake redirect the Ganges?  – DW – 06/24/2024

 


A major earthquake 2,500 years ago caused one of the largest rivers on Earth to suddenly change its course, a study has found.

The powerful earthquake completely rerouted the main channel of the Ganges River in what is now densely populated Bangladesh, and completely changed the surrounding landscape.

Lead author Elizabeth Chamberlain from Wageningen University in the Netherlands said: “It is normal for river channels to move over time, but this was a very extreme event. The river moved into a completely new area.”

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is the first evidence that a large river delta has been completely moved by an earthquake.

The study's authors warn that Bangladesh is vulnerable to large earthquakes, and that the Ganges could shift again if another strong earthquake hits the region.

“Although such an event is rare, the risk of such an event occurring could be enormous, especially since Bangladesh hosts one of the most densely populated natural areas on the planet,” Chamberlain said.

How the earthquake redirected the Ganges River

The Ganges begins as a stream in the Himalayas and flows for 2,500 kilometers (1,600 mi), eventually uniting with other major rivers, including the Brahmaputra and Meghna.

It is a huge delta river system that empties into a wide area of ​​the Bay of Bengal, extending through Bangladesh and India.

As with other rivers, the Ganges periodically changes its course due to natural erosion of its banks.

This process takes decades, but “the Ganges-Brahmaputra system has moved several times over the past 6,000 years,” said Christoph von Haacke of the University of Salzburg in Austria, who also participated in the study.

The researchers used satellite images to identify the river's former main channel about 100 kilometers south of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

The team was exploring the area when they found signs of historic earthquakes, such as vertical dikes of light-colored sand cutting through horizontal layers of dark clay.

Chemical analysis of the sand and clay showed that several volcanic eruptions occurred at the same time, about 2,500 years ago. The strength of the explosions was estimated at 7 to 8 degrees, which is the same strength as the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in 2023.

The team, led by Elizabeth Chamberlain (centre), collected clay from an ancient Ganges river channel and used optically stimulated scintillation dating to analyze it. Photo: Mahfooz Rahman

The vast Ganges-Brahmaputra river system lies near active plate boundaries and is a tectonically active region.

“This proximity leads to frequent major earthquakes,” said Till Hahnboth, an geoscientist at Coastal Carolina University in the United States. Honeybutt was not part of the study.

Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable to catastrophic earthquake events due to its proximity to seismic zones.

While the area is not currently believed to be at risk, researchers said it is possible the earthquake could be strong enough to change the course of the Ganges in the next few hundred to thousand years.

Redirecting the Ganges would be 'disastrous for the region'

The researchers said their study showed that it is entirely possible to significantly change the course of delta rivers if they are hit by high-magnitude earthquakes.

“It was actually a very extreme event – ​​actually two extreme events happened. A 7 to 8 magnitude earthquake is already an extreme, but it caused the redirection [known as avulsion] “From the main channel of the Ganges,” von Hajke said.

Von Haacke said a new event of the same size would be catastrophic for the region because it would hit a “highly populated area.”

The penetration and transport of rivers is not only dependent on earthquakes, but can also be caused by extreme weather, Hanebut said.

“Flash floods in rivers may be caused by major monsoon or cyclone floods, or the collapse of a large river dam,” Hanebut said, adding that while these can be caused by natural events, they are also “human-made to to a big limit”.

Experts say a huge earthquake could change the course of the Ganges in the future and that the impact on local communities would be 'catastrophic' Photograph: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images Can earthquakes be predicted?

Researchers need to know more about the potential for large-scale river capsize events in the future, especially those caused by earthquakes, von Hagke said.

The difficult part, he said, is that scientists can't predict when earthquakes will occur, or how large they will be when they do occur.

“For different earthquake scenarios, one can estimate changes in the landscape and hence potential impacts on rivers and water bodies,” von Hagke said. “But we cannot pinpoint the timing of an event that only occurs every few hundred to a few thousand years.”

However, Chamberlain said knowing that earthquakes can completely change the course of rivers, and the Ganges in Bangladesh in particular, means researchers can now begin to understand and predict how seismic events occur.

“We hope this knowledge will be useful in planning and mitigating risks before a recent event occurs,” she said.

The Ganges is not the only river facing earthquake-related risks. Other waters include the Yellow River in China, the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, the Klamath, San Joaquin, and Santa Clara rivers on the West Coast of the United States, and the Jordan River, which straddles the borders of Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian West Bank, and Israel.

Investigation: Zulfiqar Abani

Primary source:

The successive risks of a major earthquake in the Bengal basin and a sudden reversal of the Ganges. Published in Nature Communications by EL Chamberlain, SL Goodbred, MS Steckler, and others. (2024)

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-024-47786-4

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2/ https://www.dw.com/en/would-another-earthquake-reroute-the-ganges-river/a-69439826

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