29 March 2021

Yarlung Tsangpo: another giant, high mountain landslide on 22 March 2021

Posted by Dave Petley

Yarlung Tsangpo: another giant, high mountain landslide on 22 March 2021

On Friday evening, as I was queueing to receive the first dose of the Oxford / Astra Zeneca vaccine for Covid-19 (a wonderful day), I received an email from Göran Ekstrom of Columbia University making a small group of us aware that he had detected, using seismic instruments, a probable large-scale landslide in the vicinity of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.  As always, the seismic data gives an indication of location, but not a precise grid reference, and an idea of the mass (in this case about 100 million tonnes – a very large one indeed).

Fastest out of the blocks was Marten Geertsema, who used partially cloudy Planet Labs satellite imagery to identify a possible site.  Yesterday, Planet Labs data with low levels of cloud became available.  Dan Shugar from the University of Calgary was able to identify that the location was correct, and that a large landslide had occurred:-


This is the Planet Labs image of the site, captured yesterday:

Planet Labs image of the 22 March 2020 landslide at Tsangpo in Tibet

Planet Labs image of the 22 March 2020 landslide at Tsangpo in Tibet. Image cop right of Planet Labs, used with permission.


The coordinates of the site, 29.815, 94.932 are the centre of the landslide source.  Note the scale in the bottom right corner.

Dan and I slightly disagree with how this (and Chamoli) should be described (which is fine of course).  Dan describes this event as the collapse of hanging glaciers, whereas I consider it to be a rockslide that has taken some ice with it.  Researchers love semantics!  Either way, at Yarlung Tsangpo it is clear that a large amount of rock and ice have detached from the east side of the tributary valley, moving westwards and then to the south.  Once again this has formed a catastrophic channelised flow that has travelled down the channel to deposit a large volume in the main channel.  This was probably blocked briefly, but as the image above shows water is now flowing freely.

Note the huge increase in turbidity of the water downstream of the blockage on the Yarlung Tsangpo.

Stuart Dunning of Newcastle University tweeted a very interesting aspect of this site yesterday in response to a tweet from Dan:-


This must be one of the most dynamic landslide locations on Earth.  I have previously written about another landslide at exactly the same site.  That event looks broadly similar to this one.

As Dan’s tweet above notes, there is a discussion about hydropower development in this area.  As with Chamoli, that would seem unwise given the landslide threat.



Planet Team (2021). Planet Application Program Interface: In Space for Life on Earth. San Francisco, CA. https://www.planet.com/