Shrinking glaciers, frozen earth melting, grasslands turning yellow, rivers
drying up, scientists studying the effects of global warming on Tibet are deeply
A group of scientists, organized by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), have just
explored the source of the Yangtze River on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and
reported alarming findings.
And on Monday 2 July the Tibet weather authority recorded the highest July
temperature in 30 years in Lhasa, the regional capital.
"The glaciers at the source of the Yangtze River are shrinking much faster
than we had anticipated," said Li Yajie, a scientist with the Nanjing Institute
of Geography and Limnology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who visited
the area in the 1980s and again in the 1990s.
The breathtaking view of Mount Yuzhu and 14 other snowy peaks stuns
passengers traveling along the Qinghai-Tibet railway.
But those who enter a typical glacier valley west of Mount Yuzhu will no
longer find any trace of a glacier at the snow line altitude of about 5,000
In its place, a sliver of spring water bubbles its way down the flank of the
Scientists found the remnants of the glacier on the far side of the mountain.
"There are four stages in the disappearance of a glacier. Sadly, this glacier
is already in the last stage," Li said.
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau used to boast 36,000 glaciers with an area of
50,000 sq km which feed several of the major rivers in China and Southeast Asia.
In the past 100 years, the area of these glaciers has shrunk by 30 percent.
Scientists say that if the temperature at the end of this century is 2.1 to 4
degrees Celsius higher than now -- a reasonable hypothesis given global warming
trends -- this figure will increase to almost half.
One of the most bitter paradoxes of global warming is the fact that global
warming does not have a positive effect on water supply. As the glaciers melt,
they provide water but most of this extra water is vaporized in the warmer
weather, Li said.
Data from the weather station along the Tuotuo River, the source of the
Yangtze River, testifies to this.
The whole of the Tanggula Range of mountains is suffering higher
temperatures, lower rainfall and greater vaporization losses, an overall trend
towards drier weather, said Lei Aiguo, deputy director of the weather station.
Frozen Earth Melting
Travelers on the Qinghai-Tibet highway have for years been troubled by the
bumpy and sometimes chaotic surface of the road.
The concrete surface of the highway at Wudaoliang, a small town at an
altitude of 4,700 meters, is in very poor condition -- it looks as though some
giants had smashed it angrily with enormous hammers.
The melting of the frozen earth beneath the surface is the cause of 80
percent of the damage to the road on the Plateau. As the icy core of the earth
melts, the road subsides.
The warmer weather gradually releases carbon and hydrogen into the air from
the frozen earth, affecting the regional and even the global climate, said Li
The melting of the frozen earth has also impacted vegetation at high
Over the past 40 years, water losses due to global warming and vaporization
have reduced water volume in the earth in this region and the grassland is
drying out, said Li Yuanshou, scientist from the Cold and Arid Regions
Environmental and Engineering Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of
Sciences, who has been monitoring the condition of the highland grasslands for
According to Li and his colleagues, 15 percent of rich grassland and one
fourth of wetland at high altitude have vanished in the past 15 years.
Lots of countries around the world, including China, have begun to make
efforts to slow down global warming, Li Yajie said. "But the scale of the
problem is such that every nation and every individual must get involved."
The scientists called for more support for ecological research on the
Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. They said that a foundation to attract public donations
and help fund the research should be set up.
"Whether it's the air, the land, the water or the fauna and flora, we still
don't know enough about Tibet," Li said. "But we have to act now to protect that
unique and vulnerable environment."