As global warming continues, glacier recession on the Tibetan Plateau has quickened, triggering a
series of environmental calamities.
As winter sets in, the locals on the Tibetan plateau have warily
sensed the climate change unfolding before them with each passing
day. Winters are not as cold as before. The warmer climate has
sparked an onset of epidemic diseases, namely flu and pneumonia,
which rarely occurred in the recent past.
The Rongbuk River near the Himalaya glacier has started acting
capriciously regarding its unpredictable water flow. Wary Tibetan
parents tell their children to keep away from it for safety
When it comes to the weather, a native woman told a reporter
with the Nanfang Weekend that the water in summer is no
longer as clean as before. In the past, the first three months of
year were the most pleasant, but it is not the case now since the
weather has become fickle. “It seems like someone has cast a warm
spell,” she said, looking very worried.
For those people living along the river, glaciers are their life
rafts. Some locals have reported that the melting glacier is
affecting their way of life.
“For climbers, we must be able to guarantee good weather. But now,
even in the best season, the weather is not as regular as before,”
Yu Liangpu, a frequent visitor and Himalaya’s veteran climber said.
Yu has sensed the climate change on the Tibetan plateau. He
said: “Several years ago, at the height of 5,600 meters above sea
level, we could see beautiful forests in the serac regions, but now
we must climb higher to view them.”
The majority of the rivers in China and some of the world’s
major river systems have their headwaters high on the Tibetan
plateau, making the area quite significant because it is the source
of water for hundreds of millions of people.
Dubbed the “water tower of Asia”, the Tibetan plateau is home to
an expanse of glaciers measuring 59,425 square kilometers. But now
the glaciers are shrinking by 131 square kilometers yearly, mainly
as a result of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated
one third of them will have vanished by 2050.
Liu Shiyin, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences,
remarked that the warming weather would reduce any disasters caused
by cold snaps but it would also increase the occurrence of drought
and drought-related disasters. At the same time, precipitation
changes could lead to more avalanches, storms and mountain
As an indicator of the global climate, the Tibetan plateau is
vulnerable to climate changes. Its vulnerability is attributed to
its cleanness, coldness and long exposure to the sun, and its
unique geomorphology. The plateau embraces glaciers, frozen soil,
deserts and lakes; every part is closely linked to the
For this year's World Environment Day, the UN designated the
theme as "melting ice", echoing the accelerated rate of glacier
The locals know that glacier retreat will cause disasters such
as floods and mud-rock flow.
“Because the melting rate is faster now, more icy lakes are
forming than before,” Yu Liangpu said.
Icy lake on Tibetan
One danger is that these newly formed lakes may send water
cascading down mountainsides and trigger mud-rock flows that are
potentially lethal for the villages below.
The increased water supply caused by the glacier recession will
benefit local irrigation and stockbreeding. But such benefits are
short-lived because the glaciers will be gone within several
decades or several hundred years.
Last May, after three expeditions to Mount Qomolangma (Mount
Everest) and Yellow River source, Greenpeace concluded that Mount
Everest area has undergone the most dramatic climate change in all
of China. This means that southern China, Nepal and northern India
will face water shortages coupled with economic losses and
environmental damage in the near future as the glaciers
Greenpeace has fiercely urged the whole world to cut greenhouse
gas emissions to salvage the shrinking glaciers. Otherwise millions
of people are doomed to a water crisis.
Currently climate change has brought about a raft of
unpredictable disasters such as floods, drought and other unusual
weather. Scientists have appealed for more attention and greater
efforts from the scientific circle to tackle the estimated
To document the change in the country’s glaciers, China has
conducted a survey on glacier resources for the second time.
The research on microorganisms living in the highland glaciers
has just begun to garner attention from scientists in recent
Scientist Yao Tandong used evidence from the sample taken from
the glaciers to suggest prudently that the microorganisms
inhabiting the glaciers include viruses, germs, antinomyces,
filamentous eumycetes, saccharomycetes and algae, some of which are
potentially hazardous to the human being.
His student, Dr. Zhang Xinfang, confirmed his finding, and
added: “We have collected and cultivated over one million germs.
Based on comparative analysis, we have found that there are more
varieties of germs living in the Tibetan Plateau than the Antarctic
Pole. Conventionally, most germs are not harmful, but we are not
sure what the consequences would be if glacier germs were activated
or transmutable in warmer conditions.”
Some scientists have argued that so little is known about these
ancient microorganisms that they cannot avert or prevent any
potential calamity they may cause.
These microorganisms may emerge from the glaciers and then they
would be spread by wind. The situation would be compounded by human
“The unknown viruses are waiting for a host. Activated viruses
would be a threat to the human immune system,” Zhang said
Similar findings from similar studies from other parts of the
world reinforce Zhang’s concerns.
Scientists fear that viruses and germs kept at bay for thousands
of years or even longer would be unleashed from the melting ice and
could ravage the human society.
(China.org.cn by He Shan, November 1, 2007)