New book measures changes in China’s glaciers
The Number One Glacier in the mountains outside Urumqi, China, the largest glacier in Xinjiang province. The hydrological resources from glaciers like this one drive development in China’s remote northwest province. (Remko Tanis/Flickr)

In far northwestern China, in the province of Xinjiang, the Altai, Pamir, Kunlun, and Karakorum mountain ranges rise massively out of the earth, creating peaks that rival their famous neighbor to the south, the Himalayas. The mountains are home to some 18,000 glaciers, which have sustained the famous steppe nomadic hordes of antiquity with their annual summer melts into the rivers of the arid region.

These hydrological resources are driving the development of this remote province. A chapter from the recent book, Water Resource Research in Northwest China seeks to quantify the changes occurring to glaciers in Xinjiang.

The chapter’s authors, Zhongqin Li, Puyu Wang, and Meiping Sun, conclude that the region’s glaciers are particularly sensitive to climate change and the warming that has occurred over the past three decades. In “Glacier Change and Its Impact on Water Resources”, the researchers write that 11.7 percent of the total area of glaciers has been lost over that time. And with temperatures projected to increase over the next century by 1.2 degrees Celsius to 3.8, glacier loss is expected to accelerate rapidly.

The loss of glaciers in the region is limited in its impact on the region’s water resources (due to an increase in precipitation). Though the area now receives somewhat more rainfall than it did before, it still suffers because of the loss of glaciers. Glacier meltwater had been an important supplement to rainfall during the dry season, and also during years of below-normal rains, but it can no longer perform this role. Hydropower development is also limited because of the decline in meltwater. Paradoxically, the risk of floods has grown, because occasional pulses of meltwater course down streambeds. Other negative impacts include a higher risk of flooding.

Ultimately, the book does little to identify how changes in the region’s water resources will impact economic and social development in Xinjiang. This is particularly important, because this region—poised to experience economic and industrial development—will face increased demand for water resources at the same time that the supply of these resources will be threatened by glacier retreat.

You can find the chapter here.

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