Science Adventures: Averting disaster at the Lake Sarez, Tajikistan

Ontario Science Center, Science Zone  :

by Ana Klasnja MA - Senior Multimedia Producer

Dreaming of a life full of adventure? Interested in a career that's anything but boring? Well, my friend Lilyana is living proof that maths and sciences can help you reach those goals.

Lilyana Spasic-Gril,
Photo: Gibb Ltd., UK

Lilyana is a renowned dam and geo-technical specialist living in England. In 2000 she joined an international team of equally adventurous scientists—including a hydrologist, geologist and seismologist— and set off to gather data at the Usoy Dam, located in the Pamir Mountains of southern Tajikistan.

Lake Sarez, Tajikistan

One of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world...

Usoy Dam is not man-made. It's a natural dam that formed after an earthquake triggered a massive landslide in 1911. Over 2.5 cubic km of rock and debris slid into the Murgab River and buried the village of Usoy. By blocking the river, the dam caused a new lake to form—Lake Sarez—currently 60 km long and up to 500 m deep.

Located in one of the most earthquake-prone regions in the world, there is a possibility the dam could rupture. The result would be catastrophic flooding along the Pyandzh, Bartang and Amu Darya rivers. Over 5 million people in parts of Tadjikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan could be at risk and damage to the environment would be devastating.

...there is a possibility the dam could rupture.

Lilyana's camp in the Pamir Mountains

Lilyana and the team comprising engineers from JacobsGIBB Ltd (UK),Stucky

 (Switzerland) and Bureau Technique Norbert (Switzerland) and the local engineers were sent to assess the state of the dam and recommend measures to ensure its safety. At an altitude of over 3000 m above sea level, in one of the remotest parts of the Pamir Mountains, the Usoy Dam and Lake Sarez can only be reached by helicopter during a brief "warm weather window" each year. Lilyana described the team's flight there as "breathtaking." After they had performed an aerial survey, the team members were set down with their equipment. What followed was two weeks of eerie isolation from the rest of the world.

Lilyana explained, "The lake is exceptionally beautiful but it's a desolate and hostile place, frequently shaken by landslides and earthquakes. No vegetation or animals live there. There's risk of developing high altitude illness." The team's survival depended on the cook's capability to make meals from the scarce supplies they were able to bring with them. Hikes and climbs in order to inspect the area were serious undertakings; there was no one to help if someone became injured.

The team members hoped to avert disaster

By exploring the area and gathering lots of data, the team members hoped to avert disaster. Until recently, very little information about the precarious situation of the dam had passed beyond the borders of Tajikistan. Since 2000, an international effort has been made to assess the risk to the millions of people who live below the mountaintop dam and lake, and to develop a set of short-term measures to minimize the hazard. At the same time, more long-term solutions to this complex problem are being sought. Suggestions have included lowering the lake level gradually as a preventative measure.

The work done by Lilyana and her team forms the foundation of ongoing research about the Usoy Dam and Lake Sarez. As a geo-technical specialist, it's only one of the science adventures she's been able to take part in around the world