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Glacial Avalanches May Show Signs of Global Climate Change

By Usha Lee McFarling

The entombment of a Russian village this weekend under 3 million tons of ice and mud from a collapsing glacier is a stark warning of the dangers global climate change poses for the multitude of human settlements that dot the world’s mountainous regions.

The collapse left nearly 100 people missing and at least 17 dead. Scientists say the disaster is only the latest example of the increasing risks faced by those who live beneath mountains -- from poor farmers to wealthy skiers -- as glaciers above them melt, break apart and dry up completely.

While a full scientific assessment of what caused the disaster will takes weeks or months, Russian officials said Monday there was evidence that the collapse of the Maili glacier was linked to climate change. U.S. experts said the incident was exactly the type that would be caused by the extensive global warming that is gradually melting the world’s ice and snow.

“Glaciers tend to (collapse) like that when they’re receding, and glaciers are receding all over the world,” said Dan Fagre, an ecologist and expert on the ramifications of glacier loss at Glacier National Park, where more than 100 glaciers have disappeared in the past century.

Despite such dramatic evidence that global warming is occurring, the human toll has been largely overlooked. Much of the attention that has been paid to climate change has focused on the Arctic and Antarctic, regions vulnerable to temperature change but sparsely populated.

The Russian disaster and growing changes throughout the world’s mountainous regions show that global warming is beginning to affect areas much closer to home -- temperate regions that are often densely populated.

“We have to start looking at the human dimension,” said Alton C. Byers, a mountain geographer.