Melting Glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau

Posted on 10 July 2007   |  

By Claudia Delpero*

"If I compare this land to what it used to be in the 1960s, it is difficult for me to recognize it," recalls Qi Mei Duo Jie, a 71-year-old nomadic herder from Yanshiping in China's central-western Qinghai Province.

"Glaciers are melting, temperatures are rising and rainy seasons have become unpredictable."

Yanshiping is the last town on the Qinghai-Tibet Highway before entering Tibet. At an altitude of 4700 metres, its landscape in summer is marked by shaggy yaks grazing in the green alpine pastures and the transparent blue waters of Buqu River, a tributary of the Yangtze. Winters are white and freezing, with temperatures reaching as low as -20°.

It is no surprise that people welcome a warmer, more comfortable climate in this remote region. But there is another side to the changing climate story.

Pressure on the Plateau
Nomadic groups of Tibetans have been moving around this area for time immemorial, following the natural rhythm of the seasons and availability of grassland to raise their livestock.

Qi Mei Duo Jie 'sfamily has been raising yaks for at least three generations.

"This year has been very dry, and with less grassland it will take longer to properly feed and raise livestock," he says. "This will mean a lower income for us."

To compound the situation, warmer climate conditions are attracting more cattle and sheep farmers to this harsh but beautiful high-altitude area, putting additional pressure on the already fragile alpine landscape. This pressure is also starting to squeeze out local wildlife, such as Tibetan antelopes, that depend on the grasslands too. There have even been reports of brown bears wandering close to villages in search of food.

And if bears roaming around town aren't enough to lose sleep over, the remote rural region is experiencing pollution from greenhouse gases that have been emitted from big cities as far away as Beijing and Shanghai.

These are some of the consequences of climate change on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

Monitoring the river
"It is only by reducing greenhouse gases across the country, as well as worldwide, that vulnerable ecosystems can be preserved and continue to function as a source of livelihood for people living here and downstream," stresses Dr Li Lin, Head of Conservation Strategies at WWF China.

"With global warming hitting hard, our efforts must be extended to find ways for this region to adapt to climate change."

WWF, the global conservation organization, is embarking on a series of studies on how high-altitude wetlands in the Yangtze source area -- including the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau and parts of the Kunlun Mountains -- can cope with changing climate conditions. Results of the studies will help WWF and its Chinese partners come up with practical solutions to protect vulnerable ecosystems from the adverse affects of climate change.

At the village of Tuotuohe -- also along the Qinghai-Tibet Highway and one of the first places to cross the Yangtze by bridge -- a hydro-geological station monitors the river's water levels. This year, despite an increase in precipitation, water depth has slightly decreased. One spring that used to supply drinking water has already dried up.

The water level decrease is a direct result of rising temperatures," explains Professor Li Shijie from Nanjing's Institute of Geography and Limnology.

"With warmer weather, evaporation is happening at a rate faster than the melting of the glaciers that supplies water to the river. Overall, this means a less supply of water for local inhabitants."

Melting glaciers
Some 150 kilometres to the east, in the permafrost area of Fenguoshan, average precipitation has been increasing only in certain months of the year, while the general trend points toward drier periods.

The evidence is found in the permafrost itself, the overlying ground surface layer which freezes in the winter and thaws in the summer.

"In the last 20 years, larger portions of frozen ground have melted during summer," says Professor Li. "With less water and more sand on the ground, desertification is just one step away."

"Farming temperatures will certainly continue, but weather events such as rain, snow and wind are becoming less predictable," Professor Li adds.

Experts today agree on one trend: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands and lakes -- all elements of the fragile high-altitude ecosystem -- are being altered at a speed never seen before.

Professor Li has personally witnessed the retreat of Yuzhu glacier, the highest peak in the Eastern Kunlun Mountains.

"I was in Xidatan, near Yuzhu Peak, for the first time in the 1980s, and when I went back, ten years later, the tongue of the glacier had retreated by 50 metres," he says. "Nowadays it is about 100m higher than it used to be."

According to scientists, projected climate change over the next century will further increase the rate at which glaciers melt. In particular, glaciers in China, as well as Nepal and India, are receding at an average rate of 10.5 metres per year.

"Once destroyed, it will be extremely difficult to restore the high-altitude ecosystems," adds WWF's Dr Li Lin.

"If industrialized and developing countries will not focus their efforts on cutting emissions, some of this land will be lost forever and local populations will be displaced. What we need is commitment to continue and increase the efforts of reducing warming pollution so that the next generations will inherit a healthier environment."
In early June, China released its first Climate Change National Action Plan. The plan is the first formal acknowledgement of China's goal to reduce CO2 emissions through a cut of energy consumption by 20 per cent per unit of GDP by 2010.

For WWF, this clarification of the country's basic stand on the issue is expected to play a positive role and stimulate an international agreement on greenhouse gases emission cuts in the future.

* Claudia Delpero is Communications Manager with WWF's European Policy Office.


The Tibetan Plateau Steppe -- one of the largest land-based wilderness areas left in the world -- has the most pristine mountain grassland in Eurasia. Known as the "Roof of the World," this ecoregion has an average elevation of 4500 metres (15,000 feet). From here, several major rivers (including the Yangtze, Mekong and Indus) begin their long journeys to the sea. Due to its size and its position near the tropics, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on Earth.

The Yangtze River rises in the mountains of Qinghai Province on the Tibetan plateau and flows 6,300km to the East China Sea, opening at Shanghai. The Yangtze river basin accounts for 40% of China 'sfreshwater resources, more than 70% of the country's rice production, 50% of its grain production, more than 70% of fishery production, and 40% of the China's GDP.


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