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Tens of millions of people around the world, climate calamity has already arrived. To help understand climate change — and what it means to the people living through it — GlobalPost's award-winning team of correspondents and videographers spent much of 2013 investigating this global phenomenon.

Himalayan tsunami: Climate change triggers deadly floods among the world’s highest peaks

Last summer more than 6,000 died after glacial melt cascaded through valleys. Scientists expect such disasters to become more common.

UTTARAKHAND, India — The raging torrent hit in the morning, as Gopal Singh Bhist and his son, a cook and the leader of a pony train, prepared for work.

In minutes, the Mandakini river had breached its banks, sending a crushing hammer of water, ice and rock through the Himalayan villages in this north Indian state of Uttarakhand.  

“There was no meaning in it. It didn't give anyone a chance to survive,” Bhist, a gaunt, weather-beaten man with a piercing stare, told GlobalPost. “Instantly, the water turned everything upside down.”

Bhist and his son were in Rambada, 5 miles downstream from the Hindu pilgrimage town of Kedarnath. Each day during summer, an estimated 5,000 people trek through the valley to the bustling mountain outpost to visit the majestic eighth century temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

For the cooks, dishwashers, porters and other men who made their livelihood from the pilgrimage, a typical morning was suddenly transformed into a life or death struggle. The young and strong scrambled up the mountain. Older men, like Bhist, sought whatever cover they could find.

“I found a tree and threw my arms around it. I thought, if the tree is washed away I will go along with it. I hung on alone,” Bhist said.

His son ran off with the younger men.

Soon, unknown thousands were swept away or buried under swirling sand.

The rain beat down as Bhist clung to the tree. A sudden hailstorm pelted him with ice, and then the rain beat down again, adding to the surging current surrounding his refuge.

Finally, in mid-afternoon, the weather cleared. Slowly, a tiny group of survivors gathered, and waited.

The pilgrimage route, and the entire town of Rambada, had washed away. There was no way up and no way down. It was as if the world they had known all their lives had been erased.

For four long days Bhist and the rest of the older men huddled amid the ruins of Rambada, surviving on packages of crackers and bags of bread dropped by an air force helicopter. The weather was too rough to land. Fearing the river was contaminated, they shared four bottles of water scavenged from a local shop, rationing their sips to make it last. Finally, the air force was able to evacuate the survivors.

There was no sign of the young men who had scrambled for higher ground. Neither Bhist’s son nor any of the others ever came back.

“I waited four days hoping they would come back, but the people who went up the hill did not return,” Bhist said.

Himalayan Tsunami

The mid-June 2013 deluge affected tens of thousands of people, washed away hundreds of villages, and killed at least 6,000 people. It stranded around 70,000 religious pilgrims in the mountains for weeks, as the Indian army and air force worked day and night to evacuate them. The official tally continued to fluctuate months after the disaster as more bodies were recovered.

Across rugged Himalayan valleys, hundreds of bridges were destroyed. Landslides covered thousands of miles of road. Houses, schools and hotels toppled into the torrent. Bustling markets were swept downstream.

The epicenter of the disaster was Kedarnath, near where Bhist lost his son. There, it leveled everything but the Shiva temple.

The immediate cause: the bursting of a natural dam holding back a glacial lake that ultimately triggered the “Himalayan tsunami.”

But the root cause was climate change, according to experts.
As the weeks passed, scientists concluded that something more complex had occurred than the simple bursting of a glacial dam.

The devastation was unleashed by a perfect storm consisting of heavy rain; warmer, looser snowpack; and most insidiously by a climate-induced glacial instability that, in future years, threatens to wreak havoc across the region, dozens of miles from the high peaks.

Underlying all of these is a factor beyond India’s control: the changing pattern of the monsoon.

Lifelong residents say they have never seen a torrential downpour like the one that struck