The rapidly shrinking glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in southwest China, dubbed the "roof of the world", might cause floods, drought as well as famine affecting millions in Asia unless measures are taken to curb global warming, Chinese experts have warned.
"The plateau has softened in recent decades as global warming melts the permafrost," said Liu Jingshi, a researcher with the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).
As a result, several lakes in Nagqu Prefecture in northern Tibet have swollen to flood pastureland and local homes since 2000.
Some waterside residents saw water spring from the ground in their homes, said Liu. "When the flood water and slush freeze in winter into ice 10 centimeters thick, they end up being forced to evacuate."
China has 46,298 glaciers covering 59,406 square kilometers. They have a total ice volume of 5,590 cubic kilometers, equivalent to 5,031 billion cubic meters of water.
But the glaciers have shrunk by seven percent, or 389 cubic kilometers, since the 1960s, according to research led by Yao Tandong, head of the CAS Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Research Institute.
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, where about 84 percent of the country's glaciers are located, has also seen an annual glacier retreat of 131.4 square kilometers, twice the size of Beijing's downtown area, in the past three decades. Experts say a further 13,000 square kilometers of glaciers will disappear from the plateau by 2050 if no protective measures are taken.
Researchers said global warming was the main cause of the glacier retreat.
They said the glacial melt would increase water inflow into rivers, lakes and wetlands in the short term, but would lead to severe water shortages and desertification on the plateau in the long run.
"If the glaciers continue to melt at the current speed, most of them will have disappeared and rivers in their lower reaches will have dried up by 2100," said Yao.
Against the backdrop of global warming, Tibet experienced its third warm winter in the last seven years between December 2006 and February 2007, with temperatures up nine degrees in some areas, according to the regional meteorological bureau.
Experts with the bureau also blamed global warming for the extreme weather in Tibet this year, including the unusually heavy snow in the eastern parts of the plateau in March and continuous high winds throughout spring.
Chinese scientists and officials are monitoring the glacial melt closely and the impact of global warming on the plateau.
Between 2006 and 2020, the central government plans to spend at least 10 billion yuan (US$1.3 billion) to build an ecological belt in Tibet, the largest ever environment protection project in the southwestern autonomous region.
The project is designed to protect the ecology of the plateau by building permanent residences for the nomadic population and restoring 20 million hectares of grassland, according to the regional environment protection agency.
The expansion of vegetation coverage in Tibet will help alleviate the impact of sandstorms on China's eastern regions and contribute to the global carbonic balance by saving 24.5 million tons of carbon per year, said Doje, chief engineer of the regional geological prospecting institute and one of the project designers.
He said the project will also cushion the impact of global warming on the plateau's vulnerable ecology.
"But China's efforts alone are not enough to tackle the threats posed by shrinking glaciers," said Dong Guangrong, a CAS expert. "Global warming is a universal issue that calls for concerted efforts from all countries."
According to China's National Climate Change Program issued on Monday, the country will likely mitigate carbon dioxide emission by approximately 50 million tons by 2010 through the development of hydropower projects. Another 110 million tons of the greenhouse gas will be cut by eliminating small thermal power projects.
Meanwhile, bio-energy projects will help reduce GHG emission by30 million tons by 2010, and wind, solar, marine and terrestrial heat projects will slash gas emissions by a further 60 million tons.
"The Chinese government is acutely aware of the importance of climate change and has always been willing to cooperate with the international community in combating global warming," said top economic planner Ma Kai at Monday's press conference.
(Xinhua News Agency June 5, 2007)