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Scientists probe fall of Yulong glacier
By Tang Min (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-12 23:42

The "natural museum of glaciers'' is falling, a rare occurrence along the Yulong Snow Mountain, Wu Guangjian with the Beijing-based Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) confirmed to China Daily Wednesday.

He Yuanqing, a leading research scientist on the glacier, was not available for a comment Wednesday. He was said to be on his way to the site with a research team to analyze the implications of the glacial development. He led research between 2000 and 2002 for the CAS Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute in Lanzhou, capital of Northwest China's Gansu Province.

About 26 kilometres north from the tourist magnet area of ancient Lijiang in Southwest China's Yunnan Province is the towering mysterious Yulong Snow Mountain, which fascinates tourists from across the world. But this latest happening has reduced glacialists to serious worry over whether the glacier, where most of the mountain's charm lies, is on a fast track towards disappearing?

The first report that reached the local government on the glacier falling was in mid-March. But to the surprise of many who eventually drove to the site after pervading fog lifted, the failure of the glacier to hold its mountain top position seemed to be a continual, slow event with clear indications it could happen again.

Wu said he could not produce any proof without a proper foundation in facts as to what has triggered the event this time. One of the most common causes in such cases are earthquakes, but no earthquake has so far been recorded in the region.

If not, the worries will be more profound, because it might indicate that global warming, the underlying cause of the constant shrinkage of the Yulong glacier since the early 1980s, has put the magnificent glacier on the road to disappearing, said Wu.

The Yulong glacier is the southernmost marine glacier in the temperate zone of the northern hemisphere, and has been called the "natural museum of glaciers'' for the rich glaciers it contains.

But during the two decades between 1982 and 2002, the glacier has been shrinking noticeably, with the ice tongue of its largest component -- the Baishui No 1 Glacier -- backing off 250 metres during the period.

After carefully comparing the shrinkage with the changes of temperature in the area and in the world as a whole, He concluded in a research report that the shrinkage is a direct result of global warming.

He said the temperature change in the Lijiang area in the past 20 years is roughly the same as that in the northern hemisphere on average, which has been 0.4 C and 1 C higher than that of 1960s, respectively.

There are 8,600-odd glaciers of various scales in the country's temperate zones, of which the one on the Yulong Snow Mountain is of the smallest scale and the lowest latitude, and therefore, should be the most sensitive to temperature changes.

If the shrinkage of the Yulong glacier takes on added speed, so will a number of Chinese glaciers in the near future, according to He.

Glaciers are much more than breath-taking scenic gifts from the nature. They allow room for bio-diversity and are a crucial source of water by storing snow in the winters and releasing water in hot dry summers.

In view of there being no likely slowdown in the current global warming trend, Yao Tandong, director of the CAS Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, predicts that as many as 64 per cent of the country's glaciers may disappear by the end of 2050s.

Tan believes Chinese glaciers are shrinking at a rate that is unprecedented in this century.

He expresses grave worries over the future of people living on oases in western China, about 23 per cent of the country's total population.

Water released from glaciers is the very lifeline of their oases, but shrinkage of glaciers, which started in 1950s, has already cost as much as 586.9 billion cubic metres of water, roughly 10 times that of the Yellow River, he said.

Although this might mean a more generous water supply in the short term, especially for western China it will inevitably result in worsened desertization, said Yao.

Therefore, Yao strongly urges the government to adopt measures to help retain the country's glaciers.

Of course, more thrift use of the valuable water resources is always a must, he said.

Moreover, the government should establish a supervision-system to monitor the changes of more glaciers, instead of the present three.

Yao also promoted constructing hydra-power projects by making use of the valleys and lakes left by past glaciers, saying they will help add moisture into the air over existing glaciers, which presupposes more snowfall in the area.

The central government has started several research projects in the regard and expects to have results in the near future, according to Yao, who declined to give more details.

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