Climate change threatens Qinghai-Tibet plateau
Updated: 2010-03-26 21:58
XINING – The “roof of the world” is getting warmer, and people on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau region clearly feel the changes.
“The past few winters have been quite unusual,” says Hou Fusheng, 83. “It’s getting warmer every year.”
Hou has lived all his life in Xining, capital of northwest China’s Qinghai province. In his younger days, he remembers, winters were bitter and even the thickest heavy coat did little to keep out the chill.
“Nowadays young urban women wear elegant overcoats without looking padded up. Even people my age don’t need heavy coats most of the time,” says Hou.
The past winter was the 15th warmer-than-average winter in Qinghai since 1986, and the average temperature from December to February was minus 7.4 degrees Celsius, almost 2 degrees Celsius higher than the average of the past decade, according to the provincial climate center.
Meanwhile, the average temperature in the Tibet Autonomous Region was 5.9 degrees Celsius last year, 1.5 degrees higher than normal and the highest in almost four decades, according to the regional climate center.
Asia’s water tower in danger
Ngawang Lhundrup, a lama at a centennial monastery at the foot of Qomolangma, is getting used to the increasing number of mountaineers, hikers, scientists and environmentalists who flock to the plateau.
But he loathes those who drive to the Qomolangma Base Camp. He believes the exhaust fumes will accelerate glacial melting on the plateau.
“Nobody has ever told him about the greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. He simply figured it out by himself,” says Zhong Yu, who has participated in four Greenpeace expeditions to the Tibet plateau in a decade.
“He complains the winters are getting warmer, and the glaciers are shrinking,” says Zhong.
While urbanites talk about disaster films like 2012 and worry about the future of humanity, Ngawang Lhundrup cares only for the future of Qomolangma, she said.
Zhong’s expeditions took her to Qomolangma and the origin of China’s three major rivers — the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Lancang (which becomes the Mekong outside China) — an area known as the Three-River headwaters and a “water tower” for Asia.
During an expedition to Qomolangma last year, Zhong says, a sand dune she saw in 1999 had grown from 2 to at least 10 meters high.
“The annual precipitation has decreased by 13.99 millimeters every 10 years,” says Liu Jiyuan, research fellow of Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Except for its westernmost section, the headwaters area has been generally getting warmer and drier in recent decades, one of the main causes of the ecological deterioration.
Tibetan tour guide Lhashi says half of Mt. Galadando was covered by snow when she visited the mountain, in Nagqu prefecture of Tibet Autonomous Region, in 1997. “This year, little snow was visible on its peak.”
The average temperature at Mt. Galadando, the tallest mountain in the Tanggula Mountain Range of the Tibet plateau and the source of the Yangtze River, China’s longest waterway, has risen by almost 1 degree Celsius.
The Himalayas have the world’s third largest glacier reserve of 1 trillion cubic meters in an area of 11,000 square kilometers.
Yet 82 percent of glacial surfaces on the plateau have retreated, and the glacier area has decreased by 4.5 percent in the past 20 years, according to China Meteorological Administration.
“Along my way to the mountain tops, I’ve seen many landslides caused by melting glaciers,” says Zhong Yu.
According to a report released by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body studying global warming, 80 percent of the glaciers on the Himalayas could vanish within three decades at present warming rates.
Human activities do not always damage nature, says Dai Sheng, a senior researcher at Qinghai provincial meteorological administration.
As an example, he cites artificial precipitation that produced 8.8 billion cubic meters of rainfall in the Three-River headwaters area last year alone.
“Artificial rain and enhanced environmental protection efforts will hopefully save the water tower,” Dai says.
China launched an ambitious project in 2005 to preserve the ecological systems of the Three-River headwaters by relocating millions of herders from the area and curbing excessive grazing and other exploitation.
Meanwhile, Tibet also announced a 450-million-yuan ($66 million) environment protection project last year, following the central government’s approval of a 20-billion-yuan investment in building an ecological belt on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.
The money will be spent on protecting pastureland from desertification, planting trees, safeguarding drinking water sources, and promoting clean energy on the plateau.
“But sadly, the plateau will continue to get warmer, unless global warming is curbed,” says Dai.
The Himalayas, A Special Report
With one-fifth of the world’s population relying on seasonal Himalayan melting, the disappearance of the Third Pole is sending warning signs.
Floods, droughts, wildfires, windstorms, water contamination and illnesses plague the 1.3 billion people who live in the watersheds directly supplied by glacial melt from the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region. The waterways of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan are endangered, and scientists are gaining a bettter understanding of just how fast climate change is taking its toll on the region.
As the Himalayan glaciers disappear, ten major Asian river systems–the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtse, Yellow, and Tarim–are threatened. Twenty percent of the world’s population faces a future of catastrophe, according to a report released by University College, chinadialogue and King’s College of London in May 2010. Extreme glacial melt, seismic activity and extreme weather events are already affecting the region’s rivers, lakes, wetlands and coasts. But so far, the devastation is just an early warning sign of what is to come.
Circle of Blue presents a series of features, briefs, photos, and graphics
70 Percent of Himalayan Glaciers Gone by Next Century, Studies Say
While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted wrongly that the Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035, photographic and scientific evidence shows that the melting third pole is still devastating the region.
By Keith Schneider
Circle of Blue
In January, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged that it was wrong in predicting that the glaciers of the Himalayas could be gone by 2035, skeptics of global warming used the error to assert that much of climate science was a fraud.
Next month, though, the Asia Society Museum opens a month long exhibition in New York of alpine photographs by David Breashears that are the strongest visual proof ever compiled that climate scientists may have been aggressive in predicting the rate of glacial melting at the top of the world, but not by much.
Breashears’ work, collected by the museum in “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalayas,” documents the rapid retreat of one of the world’s thickest and most important sheets of ice. A mountaineer, Breashears has scaled the world’s tallest mountains to take photographs of dozens of glaciers from the same perches that great photographers of the early and mid-20th century used to shoot the highest, and some of the longest glaciers in the world.
In “Rivers of Ice,” the Asia Society Museum presents Breashears’ 21st century pictures alongside those archival photographs. The message, say the museum’s curators, is unmistakable: “The comparison starkly reveals the catastrophic glacier loss sustained during the intervening years.”
The Breashears exhibition coincides with a new scientific reckoning of the pace of Himalayan melting, and the consequences to watersheds, rivers, communities and nearly 3 billion people that rely on what some scientists have come to call “the water towers of Asia.” Two years ago, Circle of Blue documented the risks to Asia’s ten major rivers–the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya and Tarim–as well as to hundreds of lesser streams that rely for water on snow, and glacial melt from the Tibetan Plateau and its young, heaven-scraping Himalayan range.
The mistake by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s preeminent climate research group, has only heaped more attention on the region. Three years ago the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Prize for its work to document the causes and effects of climate change, and for predicting an ecological calamity if emissions of carbon were not controlled. But in a too-hasty assessment of conditions in the Himalayas, the IPCC predicted wrongly that the region’s glaciers would be gone within 28 years.
Though the IPCC was embarrassed by its error on glacial melting, the panel’s substantive conclusion, that “more than one-sixth of the world’s population live in glacier-or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by the seasonal shifts in stream flow,” was not jeopardized.
More recent studies conclude that without sharp changes in global policy to curtail carbon emissions the Himalayan glaciers–and there are more than 40,000 of them spread across the peaks and valleys of the Tibetan Plateau–could be mostly gone by 2070. The underlying and inescapable fact reached by scientists who study ice and the Himalayas is that atmospheric conditions are changing fast and dramatically.
A year ago Ravinder Kumar Chaujar, a scientist with India’s Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, published an important paper in Current Science on the increasing temperatures, diminishing accumulation of snow, and rapid retreat of the Chorabari glacier in northern India’s Himalayan territory. Surface temperatures around the glacier since 1980, said Chaujar, have increased 0.8 degrees Centigrade (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Average snow accumulation, Chaujar reported, has dropped from more than 2,000 kilograms per square meter in the decades of the 20th century to just over 1,500 kilograms per meter in 2006, the lowest snowfall in the 50 years of record-keeping
Because glaciers provide regular pulses of freshwater that farmers in agricultural zones depend on in the spring and summer growing season, some agronomists worry that Asia’s already tenuous ability to feed itself could be at risk. This weekend, at the G20 economic summit in Toronto, heads of state briefly considered climate change and its effects on the global environment and food production. The leaders, in a statement that closed the two-day meeting, said the warming planet “remains top of the mind,” and that food security was an urgent global development challenge, which was being exacerbated by climate change.
“We want a comprehensive, ambitious, fair, effective, binding, post-2012 agreement involving all countries, and including the respective responsibilities of all major economies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the leaders said.
It’s too bad that they weren’t shown David Brashear’s telling photographs, which explain why the IPCC scientists in 2007 were so pessimistic.
The blue glacial ice of such famed fields as Tibet’s Main Rongbuk Glacier below Mount Everest today are thin, black with soot, and shrinking. Climate scientists and geologists from China and India warn that the range of ice on the Tibet plateau and in the mountains could shrink by 43 percent by 2070. Between 1950 and 1980, about half of the glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau were in recession, according to a number of studies. By the first decade of the 21st century, 95 percent were retreating.
Ya Tandong, a Chinese glaciologist, recently described in a UN report the condition of Himalayan glaciers this way: “Studies indicate that by 2030 another 30 percent will disappear. By 2050, 40 percent. By the end of the century 70 percent. The full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe.”
Keith Schneider is a senior editor at Circle of Blue. Reach Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about glacial melt in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region and China-Tibet water issues on Circle of Blue.