Environment

Tibet Faces Grim Scenario with Glaciers on Retreat

Kharola glacier. credit: Eric/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kharola glacier. credit: Eric/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Beijing:  Tibet is facing a grim scenario as its glaciers, the source of key rivers like Brahmaputra, are retreating and natural disasters are on the rise due to climate change, according to a new report.

The glacier on the Tibetan plateau has been backing off since the 20th century due to rising temperature and doing so at a faster speed since the 1990s, a scientific evaluation report on environmental change of the Tibetan plateau published by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research under the Chinese Academy of Sciences said.

The glacier’s response to climate change can be best seen in its progress or retreat.

Glacier loss in the Tibetan plateau is most prominent in the Himalayan mountains and southeastern Tibet, whereas the glacier stays relevantly stable, even progressing, in the Karakoram and Western Kunlun region due to increasing precipitation, the report said.

The report also said natural disasters are on the rise on the Tibetan plateau due to global warming and increased human activity.

Tibet, with an average altitude of over 4,500 metres is also called the roof of the world.

It said disasters including landslides, torrential floods and snow disasters are expected to increase and fires in the region will be more difficult to prevent and extinguish.

The report warned that iced lakes and barrier lakes on the plateau are also posing a threat as more than 20 overflowed during the 20th century, leading to severe disasters in the region.

According to the report, about 1,500 mountain torrents were reported on the plateau from 1950 to 2010, with the worst in 1998 when more than 50 counties in Tibet were affected, state-run Xinhua news agency said.

The floods on the plateau are attributed to frequent extreme precipitation during rainy seasons.

On the positive side, the report said the number and area of lakes on the Tibetan plateau increased notably.

The number of lakes exceeding 1 square km climbed from 1,081 in the 1970s to 1,236 in 2010, and 80% of the lakes in the region have been expanding.

The report also forecast that in the future, from 2015 to as far as 2100, the dominant changes in water bodies of the region would be a retreating glacier, reduced snow cover and rising river run-off.

The overall situation of the ecological system on the Tibetan plateau is improving as the boundaries of frigid and sub-frigid zones are moving westward and northward.

The temperate zone is expanding, according to the report.

The area of the arctic-alpine steppe is increasing and the growth period is extending, while meadows are shrinking.

The report also noted that the area and growing stock of forest on the plateau have increased significantly since 1998, from 7.29 million hectares in 1997 to 14.72 million hectares in 2013 and 2.09 billion cubic meters in 1997 to 2.26 billion cubic meters in 2013, respectively.

The increase is mainly attributed to efforts of forestry conservation and restoration, the report said.

The scope of arable land has been expanding since the mid 1970s, which helps increase the income of farmers and herdsmen, the report said.

But the report warned of the degeneration of the wetlands and frozen earth as well as accelerating desertification.

It predicted that the frozen earth will continue to shrink from 2015 to 2100.

With an average altitude of over 4,500 meters, the Tibetan plateau, which is known as the core of “the Third Pole,” refers to the areas mainly within southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.

As one of the major forests in China, the risk of fire is high due to strong wind and lack of rain and snow, it said.

From 1988 to 2014, a total of 373 forest fires were reported, according to the report.

In addition, the scale of snow storms and avalanches has expanded markedly over the past 40 years under the influence of climate change, affecting human activities and the climate in the north hemisphere, the report said.

In 2011, WikiLeaks reported the contents of a cable from the US ambassador in New Delhi in which he  reported the views of the Dalai Lama on the shrinking of Tibetan glaciers:

The Dalai Lama argued that the political agenda should be sidelined for five to ten years and the international community should shift its focus to climate change on the Tibetan plateau. Melting glaciers, deforestation, and increasingly polluted water from mining projects were problems that “cannot wait.”

PTI. With inputs from The Wire‘s staff.