The impacts extend beyond the threat of flooding to the loss of habitats and biodiversity. Far more is at stake.
The world’s “third pole” in western China is melting, and Greenpeace East Asia is the latest science and advocacy group to warn of the dire consequences of global warming and glacier melt in the region. Those impacts extend beyond the threat of flooding to include habitat and biodiversity loss, fresh-water salination affecting humans, and even the UNESCO natural heritage site designated in 2017 at the Hoh Xil region of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.
There are more than 48,000 glaciers in this part of elevated and semi-arid China, and it’s called the third pole because it is the next-largest source of frozen water beyond the Arctic and Antarctic. Ten of Asia’s largest rivers begin there, including the Yangtze and the Irrawaddy, and the mighty Ganges of India. About 20 percent of the glacier area is already gone, and melted water volume is up by 53.5 percent.
Satellite data released by Greenpeace in November 2018 shows rapid glacier retreat in Qinghai, Gansu and Xinjiang, and connects the melt to two major disasters in western China in the past four months. On August 10, 35 million cubic meters of floodwater was released into the Yarkant River Basin by a glacier lake, forcing the evacuation of nearby residents. Again on October 17, a glacier collapse caused an avalanche into the Yarlung Zangbo River, blocking it and leading to the evacuation of 6,600 people.
“This is a wake-up call for China and the world. Glaciers in China supply water to 1.8 billion people, and they’re melting, fast,” said Dr. Liu Junyan, Greenpeace East Asia Climate and Energy Campaigner. “In just the last few months, thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes due to threats of flooding. Downstream, changes in water availability are impacting agriculture and cities.”
The satellite imagery shows melt has more than doubled in recent decades at Laohugou glacier in the Qilian Mountains, while Halong glacier in Qinghai is shrinking by 72,000 square meters per year.
Shen Yongping, a professor and research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says there have been dramatic changes since 1983 when he first began studying glaciers. “The risk of glacial disasters is on track to increase sharply in the future, and there is a critical need for more glacial monitoring and protection for affected communities,” he said.
Chinese scientists have warned for years that glacier melt poses a threat to human life as well as potential devastation for ecosystems. The Yangtze River, with its headwaters in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is one example. About one in every three of China’s 1.4 billion people lives somewhere in the Yangtze valley and relies on its water; all 10 rivers touch a fifth of global population.
Some experts warn that China’s Salt Lake, ever-growing from the ice and permafrost melt, will overtake the Yangtze and compromise its freshwater status—along with all that relies on it. It is the largest, but it is just one of many salt lakes in the region. The impacts extend to plant and animal life in the high plateau, home to the endangered Tibetan antelope and 50 percent of the planet’s wild yak as well as hundreds of other native species.
Heat waves and flooding rains associated with climate change are accelerating the melt; so are particles and pollution that originate from far beyond the pristine plateau. If the planet transitions to clean energy and holds average warming to 1.5C, Greenpeace estimates two-thirds of the glaciers can be saved.
With them, we can save both our human habitats and our human heritage.