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Peril in the Pamirs

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Science  18 Dec 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5960, pp. 1614-1617
DOI: 10.1126/science.326.5960.1614

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Lake Sarez was born nearly a century ago, when a mountainside in Tajikistan crumbled during a magnitude-7.4 earthquake. The 567-meter-high landslide blocked an alpine river, forming the world's tallest dam. Since then, the valley behind it has filled with 17 billion cubic meters of snow and glacier melt. Experts fear that the natural dam could someday give way, unleashing a wall of water from the 56-kilometer-long lake on villages along the Bartang and Panj rivers and the great waterway they feed: the Amu Darya, Central Asia's largest river. Shoring up Usoi Dam is not feasible, experts concluded at a workshop last September. Rather, they agreed on the urgent need to draw down the lake, which last year reached its highest-ever water level. Several ideas have been floated for lowering the waterline. Meanwhile, researchers have proposed taking cores from Usoi.