US & China Research Coordination at the Third Pole

A major conference highlighted significant evolution in research and international cooperation across the world’s so-called “Third Pole”. The Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC) hosted the “Third Pole Environment Workshop”, which featured 80 researchers from 15 countries, specialised in researching Earth’s “Third Pole”. It was the sixth event since 2009.

The Third Pole (TP) comprises 1.9 million square miles (5 million km2) — equivalent to over half of the continental United States — centered over the Tibetan Plateau. It extends from the Pamirs of Tajikistan, along the length of Hindu-Kush Himalayas, through to the Hengduan, Kunlun and Qilian mountain ranges of China.

Participants at the Third Pole Environment Workshop, The Ohio State University, May 2016
Participants at the Third Pole Environment Workshop, May 2016 (Source: Byrd Polar & Climate Research Center)

The “Third Pole Environment (TPE) Workshop” — held at The Ohio State University on May 16-18 — was a rare opportunity bringing together specialists from around the world who “share an interest in the Third Pole region and wish to communicate their latest research results”, said the conference’s first circular.

GlacierHub caught up with Dr Paolo Gabrielli – a Principal Investigator and ice core specialist at Ohio State University’s BPCRC. He credited the TPE series’ success to the “longstanding collaboration and friendship between The Ohio State University’s Professor Lonnie Thompson, and the Institute of the Tibetan Plateau Research’s Professor Yao Tandong.” The American-Chinese duo began their pioneering work on China’s glaciers in the 1980s, before “the importance of studying glaciers and their connection to climate change” had been realised.

Asked about his impressions of the research being conducted at the TP,  Dr Gabrielli remarked that “the study of the TPE region is still at the beginning.” However, “impressive monitoring programs” have been established, especially on the Tibetan Plateau. He believes that whilst it is “still too early to draw firm conclusions,” the data presently being gathered will bear significant fruits in years to come.

Understanding the TP is critical, as changes there have regional and global impacts. In addition to being the source region for rivers which sustain over 1.5 billion people across ten countries, the TP “significantly impact[s] climate systems in the northern hemisphere and even the whole globe,” remarked Professor Yao Tandong in his opening address. It is also home to thousands of glaciers which cover over 38,600 square miles (100,000 km2).

The conference was the sixth in a series which has been bringing international experts together since 2009. It was supported by familiar names, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), UNESCO and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The cryosphere and hydrosphere are central components of the TPE workshops, however, experts who research the atmosphere, biosphere and anthroposphere (a ‘sphere’ of Earth specifically modified or made by human activity or habitats) were also represented. Professor Lonnie Thompson — a founding father of the TPE initiative — stated, “The Third Pole Environmental program is an international, multi-disciplinary collaboration among scientists, students, engineers, technicians, and educators.”

Building on this sentiment, Professor Thompson said, he “hoped that the TPE office will serve as a home base for collaborative research, as well as fulfil one of TPE’s most important missions: international collaboration through training of young scientists.” Dr Gabrielli revealed that students “were financially supported…[enabling them] to take part [in] this conference. ”

Mountain ranges of the Third Pole
Mountain ranges of the Third Pole (Source: National Satellite Meteorological Centre)

Asked what he thought the most pressing issues facing the TP are, Dr Gabrielli said, “The continuity of…freshwater (both in terms of quantity and quality) in the future is the main concern.” Whilst the research may well be in in its early phases, clear and troubling trends have already been revealed.

Temperature projections indicate that the region will be subject to a minimum increase of 1°C, and as high as 3.5-4°C in certain regions, by 2100. These could contribute to destabilisation of food or water, which could spell disaster for the people of the region. Research by Australia’s science agency CSIRO and the Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) stated that the TP’s glaciers and snows supply 55% of Asia’s irrigation for cereal — 25% of what is produced globally — which feeds 2.5 billion people.

Bangladesh is a clear harbinger of the plight to come. It is heavily dependent on the TP, as the nation’s three major rivers — the Meghna, Ganges and Brahmaputra — originate in the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau. In fact, 90% of Bangladesh’s water emanates from abroad, and controlled by fellow thirsty nations China and India.

A key barrier to many TP studies is the geopolitical and environmental hostility, compounded by the remoteness of areas under investigation. It can require days to weeks of travel to get to a study site, before the groundwork can even begin. Despite these significant challenges, attendees of this year’s conference called for the extension of their joint efforts, suggesting that their work expand to cover the “so-called  Pan-Third Pole Region”. It was proposed to address the numerous and expansive voids in the data across remoter Asia.

Vigorous support that TPE programs have garnered is undoubtedly thanks to Professor Yao’s passion and commitment to uncovering the region. Yet China’s ambitious long-term targets may also be in play. The “One Belt, One Road”, a revival of Marco Polo’s ‘Silk Road’, will carve its way straight through the middle of the Third Pole. And China has been expanding its influence at the other two poles as well, by gaining observer status in the Arctic Council in 2013 and increasing its presence in Antarctica in recent years.

Researchers carry ice core samples for transport and storage.
Researchers carry ice core samples for transport and storage.

In conclusion, we asked Dr Gabrielli if there were any projects announced at the conference that were especially promising. He cited a new ice core in Guliya (Western Tibet) as a project of particular merit. Overseen by TPE’s Science Committee Chair Yao Tandong, “[it] may provide evidence of the oldest ice ever retrieved at low latitudes and thus an exceptionally long climate and environmental history of the TP,” remarked Gabrielli. Fellow paleoclimatologist and TPE Co-Chair Professor Lonnie Thompson said to China Daily that they hoped to “assess the regional characteristics of climatic and environmental variability over decadal to millennial time periods.” They were endeavouring “to determine how they compare with conditions elsewhere, including the Polar Regions.”

Last year, the team reportedly recovered over six tonnes of ice cores from the TP, as part of what Thompson called a “global salvage mission.”

Following the success of their sixth conference on the TPE – Professors Yao and Thompson are no doubt sharpening their ice-axes and strapping on crampons in preparation to recover rapidly disappearing ice from the world’s Third Pole.