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Scientists Concerned over Glacial Shrinkage

The "natural museum of glaciers" is falling, a rare occurrence on Yulong ("Jade Dragon") Snow Mountain, said Wu Guangjian, of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).


He Yuanqing, a leading scientist conducting research on the glacier, was not available for comment yesterday, reportedly on his way to the site with a team to analyze the implications of the 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 kilometers north of the ancient Lijiang Town tourist magnet in southwest China's Yunnan Province stands the towering Yulong Snow Mountain, which fascinates visitors from around the world.


But the recent collapse has glacialists worrying whether it is on a fast track toward disappearing.


The first report that reached the local government on the glacier falling was in mid-March. But to the surprise of many who visited the site after the pervading fog lifted, the collapse of the glacier had evidently been going on for some time and is very likely to happen again.


Wu said that a proper foundation in facts is required in order to say with any accuracy what triggered the event this time. Earthquakes are among the most common causes, but no earthquakes have been recorded in the region.


The worries may be more profound, because it might indicate that global warming--the underlying cause of the constant shrinkage of the glacier since the early 1980s--is sending it into its death throes, said Wu.


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


But from 1982 to 2002, the glacier shrank noticeably, with the ice tongue of its largest component, the Baishui No. 1 Glacier, retreating 250 meters.


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 sizes in the country's temperate zones. The one on Yulong Snow Mountain is the smallest and the southernmost, and therefore should be the most sensitive to temperature changes.


If the shrinkage of the Yulong glacier speeds up, a number of other Chinese glaciers will follow in the near future, according to He.


Glaciers are much more than scenic gifts from the nature. They allow room for biodiversity and are a crucial source of water, storing snow in the winters and releasing water during the hot, dry summers.


With no signs of a slowdown in the current global warming trend, Yao Tandong, director of the CAS Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, predicts that as many as 64 percent of the country's glaciers may disappear by the end of the 2050s.


Yao believes Chinese glaciers are shrinking at an unprecedented rate, and he has grave concerns about the futures of people living on oases in western China. They account for about 23 percent of the country's total population.


Water released from glaciers is the lifeline of their oases. But shrinkage of glaciers, which started in the 1950s, has already cost as much as 586.9 billion cubic meters of water, roughly 10 times the volume 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 worse desertification, said Yao.


Yao is strongly urging the government to take steps to help retain the country's glaciers. It should expand the glacier-monitoring system, which current covers only three. He also advocates constructing hydropower projects that make use of the valleys and lakes left by past glaciers, saying they will add moisture to the air over existing glaciers, stimulating snowfall.


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


(China Daily May 13, 2004)

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