Tibetan Headwaters of the Yangtze Under Threat

The glaciers which feed the “Yangtze River Source Region” (YRSR) are in the “most sensitive area to global warming” atop the Tibetan Plateau, according to a study led by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. Nearly a quarter of the glacier coverage throughout the headwater region melted from 1970 through the late 2000s, as the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research found.

A view of Jianggendiru Glacier from the south [Source: ]
A view of Jianggendiru Glacier from the south (Source: Yangtze River Cruises)
 Across China “glaciers will play a key role in determining river runoff” in the future, research led by Peking University determined. However, they projected that the nation’s glaciers will “suffer substantial reductions,” with over a quarter of glaciated regions potentially lost by 2050. By the end of the century, in the worst case scenario, as much as 67 percent of China’s glacier volume may completely “disappear.”


China’s water crisis

The nation already faces crippling water crises. As of 2012, two-thirds of China’s 669 cities endured shortages and more than 40 percent of waterways were “severely polluted.”Additionally, 80 percent of its lakes were plagued  by eutrophication, and 300 million rural citizens had limited access to safe drinking water. In 2016, China’s Ministry of Water Resources announced that 80 percent of groundwater across the mainland — including  the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai and Hai Rivers’ catchments — was “unsafe for human contact.”

To address these issues, China has implemented ambitious water schemes, designed to store and reroute billions of gallons of water from “China’s Water Tower,” the Tibetan Plateau, to thirsty northern provinces. The ‘South-North Water Diversion Project’ and the Three Gorges Dam are two of the best known (and most controversial) projects deployed to address China’s unfolding water crisis.

Asia’s longest river — the Yangtze — sustains over 584 million people, and serves an economic zone which represents nearly 42 percent of China’s GDP (US$4.18 trillion), according to the Hong Kong-based non-profit China Water Risk. The operations within the catchment provide 40 percent of the nation’s electricity and73 percent of its hydropower. The fortunes of China have been built upon the banks of the Yangtze.


The Yangtze’s glaciers

Climate change is having a dramatic effect on the freshwater stores in the Yangtze’s headwater region. In 2007, the State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences (SKLC) determined that between the 1970s and 1990s the local rate of warming more than doubled, from 0.9°F (0.5°C) per decade to 1.98°F (1.1°C) per decade. According to China’s Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), between 1961–2000 glacier melt contributions averaged 11 percent of the total runoff feeding the Yangtze — over 3 trillion gallons (1.13 billion m3).

By 2013, research led by the State Key Laboratory of Hydrology-Water Resources and Hydraulic Engineering (Hydro-Lab) indicated that glacier melt now only contributes 5-7 percent of the Yangtze’s annual flow.

Projected temperature anomaly for the Yangtze River Source Region 1970-2100
Projected temperature anomaly for the Yangtze River Source Region 1970-2100

Chuancheng Zhao of Lanzhou University, and his colleagues, predicted that temperatures in the YRSR will have increased 5.4°F (3°C) by the end of the 21st Century. This would result in temperatures 9.18°F (5.1°C) above those observed in the 1970s. This pessimistic projection exceeded by Steve Birkinshaw of Newcastle University and his team in 2016. Their models predicted that if business continues as usual, the region could face a temperature increase of “more than (7.2°F) 4°C” by 2070, compared with pre-2010 conditions.

This would be catastrophic for the YRSR’s glaciers, with severe consequences for all downstream inhabitants and operations. Li Xin of CAREERI projected that across China “glacier runoff will increase continuously from 2000 to 2030,” but will begin to decline after reaching ‘peak water’ by 2030.

Shen Yongping and his colleagues project that, if temperatures rise 5.4°F (3°C) by 2100 as Zhao suggests, “glaciers less than [2.5 miles] 4 km in length in the YRSR would disappear entirely, resulting in a decrease of 60 percent or more in the total area of glacier cover in the region.”

During periods of reduced overall runoff, glacier melt has historically remained constant, or increased, being a staple source for the Yangtze. In the 1990s, total runoff (from all sources) into the Yangtze declined 13.9 percent, according to the SKLC. During this period, 17 percent of the Yangtze’s waters were sourced from glaciers, as glacier melt contributions increased over 15 percent.

There are 753 glaciers in the YRSR, identified through the Chinese Glacier Inventory. The greatest concentrations are located in the Tanggula Mountain Range, which delineates over 370 miles (600 km) of the Qinghai-Tibetan border.


Changes in the Tanggula Mountains

Combined, Tanggula’s glaciers span an area larger than Dallas, Texas — over 102,100 hectares (1,021 km2). The westernmost glaciers surround a 21,722 ft (6,621 m) peak named Geladaindong. Six of the largest glaciers, each expanding over 3,000 hectares (30 km2), radiate outwards from the mountain.

The official source region of the Yangtze River (Source: USGS Landsat Archives)
The official source region of the Yangtze River (Source: USGS Landsat Archives, annotated)

Overall, the 40 glaciers of Geladaindong lost almost 12 percent of their areal extent between 1977 and 2009 — 12,600 hectares (126 km2) — coinciding with a 2.52°F (1.4°C) rise in temperature.

The “most important glacier in the region” is Jianggendiru, the symbolic source of the Yangtze discovered in 1976. Gao Shengyi of the Changjiang Spatial Information Technology Engineering Company accorded the glacier this title in a 2014 study. It is comprised of two ice streams, the north and south, which have been in decline for at least 32 years at an annual rate of 50 ft (15 m) and 68 ft (21 m) respectively.

Despite Gao’s et al. insistence for focus on Jianggendiru, the most catastrophic change has taken place at Gangjiaquba Glacier. Gangjiaquba flows east, and is a source glacier of the Tongtian River, via the Ga’er River. Seventy percent of the glaciers in the YRSR feed into the Tongtian, which accounts for 60 percent of water in the upper Yangtze.

A comparison of satellite images from June 1973 (middle of the melt season) and February 2016 (post-winter maximum extent) reveal that the snout of the glacier retreated up to 2.6 miles (4.2 km). Inferences from trimlines (‘tidemarks’ indicating the glacier’s former extent) on the valley sides, cross-referenced with Landsat satellite imagery, indicate that parts of the Gangjiaquba Glacier thinned up to 190 feet (57 m) over 43 years. Gao and his colleagues calculated Gangjiaquba retreated 330 ft (100 m) per year, on average.

The Gangjiaquba Glacier, source of the Tongtian River (Source: USGS Landsat Archive)
The Gangjiaquba Glacier, source of the Tongtian River (Source: USGS Landsat Archive, annotated)

Within the Tanggula Mountain Range, CAREERI project glacial melt will increase up to 30 percent over the coming 34 years (compared to 1961–2000 average). More than 10 percent of the region’s ice will likely disappear, reducing its areal extent by 11,850 hectares (118.5 km2) — twice the size of Manhattan.

In the short term, increased glacier melt will be a boon for hydropower, drought-stricken agricultural lands and towns, thirsty industries, and the like. However, the post-2030 “tipping point” brought about by ‘peak water,’ coinciding with peak population, has even propagandistic mouthpieces, like China Daily, sounding the alarm.



An ever-present barrier to research of remote regions of the Third Pole, is the inconsistency of nomenclature (naming). For instance, Gangjiaquba Glacier, which feeds the Tongtian River in the east, is referred to as “Retreating glacier R2” in a 2006 study led by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, has appeared on regional maps as “Shuijingkuang,” and appears elsewhere in Mandarin — “岗加曲巴冰川.” It appears as “RGI40-13.18831,” with the ‘name’ “CN5K444B0065” in the Randolph Glacier Inventory. It is denoted as “5K444B0064” in China’s Glacier Inventory. And it appears as “G091171E33460N” in the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space (GLIMS) database.

Photo Friday: Sichuan–Tibet Highway

The Sichuan–Tibet Highway is known as China’s most dangerous highway. The highway begins in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and ends in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region. The highway spans 2,142 km, or 1331 miles, over 14 mountains (some with glaciers), runs through ancient forests, and crosses many rivers.  Because of the steep inclines of the landscape, the road was constructed with many curves and zigzags. Running through valleys, up and down mountains, and across or alongside rapid rivers, the route is made even more perilous by the fact that it is not fully paved with proper roads in some places.

Originally called the Kangding-Tibet Highway, this lengthy road will take the most dedicated traveler 44 hours to drive, but can take up to 15 days for someone who wants to stop and see all the sights (like a glacier or two) along the way.

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A group of adventurous drivers took 11 sports cars on a journey along the famously perilous Sichuan–Tibet Highway, six of which didn’t even make it halfway. The disastrous results from the ill-advised adventure include a Ferrari and a Maserati with damages like broken axles and sheared tires. See the video below for highlights from their trip.

Photo Friday: Jade Dragon Snow Mountain

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, in southern China’s Yunnan province, is known for its beauty and for the many tourists that flock there yearly. But the glaciers that top this mountain range may not be around for much longer. A Chinese info site stated in 2010 that four of the 19 glaciers on Jade Dragon have already disappeared.

The mountain’s location at the edge of the Tibetan plateau may be contributing to the accelerated melting since the plateau’s glaciers are generally melting faster than other low-lying ones. This decline is of utmost importance since much of China depends on glacial run off for their water supply. Experience the beauty of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and its dwindling glaciers in the slideshow below.


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Why Is a Region in China Banning Glacier Tourism?

In order to protect the glaciers, tourists in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region will only be allowed to enjoy the sight of them from a distance, instead of walking on them, according to a proposed new regulation in China’s latest Five-Year Plan (2016-2020).

Local Kirgiz are building a simple bridge with roundwood on the tributary of the Tarim River, clear glacial melt water is the source of life. (source: Chinese National Geography, photo by George Steinmetz)
Kirgiz are building a bridge on a tributary of the Tarim River (source: George Steinmetz/Chinese National Geography)

Glaciers are “solid reservoirs” in dry regions such as Xinjiang, and thus an important water source. The accelerated destruction of the glaciers, affected by global warming, have led to water shortages in some areas of the country.

There are over 46,000 glaciers in China, with more than 18,000 located in Xinjiang, which accounts for about 43 percent of the national ice reserves by area. The Tian Shan Mountains is the “watertower of Central Asia,” with the most important, and the biggest, being the Urumqi Riverhead Glacier No. 1.

The temperature of Xinjiang, which is in China’s northwest, increased by 0.06 degrees Celsius per decade over the past 50 years, a rate which is much higher than the global average.The meltwater from the glacier has reduced after years of the glacier receding. Chen Xi from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) said that small glaciers at low altitudes are more sensitive to climate change.

“Glaciers in the Tianshan Mountains have receded by 15 to 30 percent in the last three decades,” Chen said, according to China Daily. “And they will continue to retreat by 60 percent in the next 20 years, and by 80 to 90 percent half a century from today.”

In recent years, glacier tourism in Xinjiang attracted large number of tourists, but the revenue has been relatively low, at less than one billion yuan ($152 million).

Li Jidong, party secretary of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Tourism Bureau, said according to ts news, “Glacier tourism brought in revenue of less than one billion yuan ($152 million) over the past dozen years, but the collapse of glaciers and loss from shrinking glaciers is incalculable.”

Up-close glacier travel will be banned in Xinjiang, according to the new policy. Xinjiang has called for other countries and regions along the Tianshan Mountains to stop glacier tourism as well according to Chinanews.

Tourists were going hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers
Tourists hiking on Tianshan Mountain glaciers (Source: Lianhe Wanbao)

However, Kang Shichang, director of State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Sciences, Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute (CAREERI), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Lanzhou, China, said a total ban on glacier travel is not supported by scientific reasoning.

There are hundreds of thousands of glaciers in the world, and few glaciers carry travelers, but overall glaciers are still in a state of retreat. In other words, glacier retreat is still happening, even though most of them are inaccessible to people. Therefore, the main cause of glacial retreat is not tourism.

“In the future I hope glacier travel managers attach more emphasis on the popularity of glaciers literacy and arouse awareness of environmental protection and emission reduction based on current situations,” Kang said in an email to GlacierHub.

Global warming is mainly responsible for glacier erosion. “Global glaciers are in an accelerated retreat trend nowadays, mainly due to global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” Kang said.

He has his own ideal model for glacier tourism: observe glaciers from a reasonable distance. Kang noted that human activities, such as hiking and skiing in glacial areas, are not the main reason for retreat. At the same time, he worried about other human activities, such as the large number of construction, mining and other industrial activities, disorderly foot traffic on the glacier surface, and garbage.

“The impact of these behaviors on glaciers is more severe by changing the surface albedo of glaciers, so lead to glacier melt acceleration,” Kang said.

He Yuanqing, master director of Yu Long Xue Shan Study Station, take a strong stand and takes Yu Long Xue Shan Mountain as an example; glacier tourism development can promote regional economic development.

“In fact, glacial retreat does little with tourism, because the heat released by the tourist crowds compared to the heat increase caused by atmospheric temperature rise is slight, even negligible,” he said, according to China Science Daily.

What needs to solved now is to figure out a practical glacier tourism development model to keep harmonious tourism development with glacier protection as a prerequisite.

No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source: travel.sohu.com)
No.1 Glacier of Tianshan Mountain (Source: travel.sohu.com)

Li Zhongqin told Glacierhub through the email, “Glacial retreat is mainly caused by global warming and ice albedo decrease ( pollutants on the ice) , the ice albedo  is subject to human activities , as for this pollutants problem, it can be solved through environmental protection and governance. However, global warming is not a local problem , it is difficult to protect glaciers through local governance. Moreover, the development and implementation of these policies are still under determined. ” And as Li Zhongqin said to China Science Daily, “The starting point is the balance development of ecology for this ban decision of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. And the key is to coordinate the relationship between tourism and protection, so we can strike a balance.”

Tibet’s Melting Glaciers; The World’s Leaky Roof

Tibet is often referred to as the roof of the world, since it is the world’s largest and highest plateau. The lead-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris, or COP21, created a push to make Tibet a central part of the discussions, even though it does not have direct representation there. Though some countries, such as Peru and Nepal, incorporate minority peoples into their national delegations at COP21, China has not included Tibetan representation in their delegation. The Climate Action for the Roof of the World campaign is arguing that the COP21 agreement cannot be accomplished, and thus the house cannot be saved, without direct consideration of Tibet.

Tibet is not only the highest plateau, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, it is also known as the Third Pole of the world. With 46,000 glaciers, it is the world’s largest concentration of ice after the Arctic region and Antarctica, at the North and South Poles. Two-thirds of those glaciers may be gone by 2050 if the current rate of retreat is sustained.

In a press release on the campaign’s website there is a powerful quote from the Dalai Lama: “This blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof. As vital as the Arctic and Antarctic, it is the ThirdPole…[t]he Tibetan Plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world.” The goal of the campaign is to show the world how environmentally critical and fragile Tibet is.

NASA photo of Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (Courtesy of:NASA/Wikimedia Commons)
NASA photo of Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (Courtesy of:NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

The Roof of the World campaign highlights a few key points that they feel make the Tibetan plateau crucial to the world’s climate and therefore central to COP21; the glaciers provide water for 1.3 billion people in the surrounding area, it influences the region’s monsoons, and there has been a link made connecting thinning Tibetan snow cover with heat waves in Europe.

The campaigners believe that if the Tibetan ecosystem is to be preserved, the Chinese government needs to enforce their Environmental Protection Law more vigorously and the global community needs to engage in robust climate action. The campaign points out a number of  critical areas that need to be addressed in a worldwide: retreating glaciers, permafrost melting, the lack of snow accumulation since the 1950s, and threats from deforestation, mining, and dams as.

The campaign could be seen as a form of “clicktivism” since it is being introduced to the world by way of social media. There is an online photo challenge where people post photos of themselves with their hands above their heads, forming a “roof,” to show their solidarity with the campaign. There are even pictures of the Dalai Lama getting involved, posting his own roof photo. The Dalai Lama has been actively pursuing climate change action since 2011, so it is notable that this is the campaign he has chosen to support. There is also a Thunderclap organization that attempts to amplify users’ messages through way of active social participation that the Roof of the World campaign has used to spread it’s message. The website itself, though, is full of informative guides to help update those who wish to learn more about Tibet and seems to actively push for action beyond the social media campaign.

GlacierHub’s managing editor, Ben Orlove, who is currently in Paris for the COP, met a colleague there who is familiar with Tibet. This source, whose anonymity we are maintaining, states “Tibet.net is directly funded by the Tibetan exile government [in Dharamsala, India]. The website is from Tibet Policy Institute.” The source added that it serves as a lobby group, and that a number of academics find that Tibet Policy Institute is at times unbalanced and extreme with the information on Tibet’s climate and environment. The source adds, “Tibet Policy Institute never claimed to be in the forefront of research on original Tibetan research and their job is to lobby and they are good at making information digestible and engaging for the public.”

The COP21 will begin December 7 and will bring together world leaders with the goal of a global climate agreement. Tibet is not on the agenda, but the Roof of the World Campaign hopes to make Tibet more of a focal point in the coming weeks.



The ‘Blue Gold’ Rush in Tibet

Earlier in October, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region in China released a 10-year plan to spur the companies across the country to invest in bottled water industry by tapping the Himalayan glaciers in Tibet’s already environmentally sensitive region, according a recent report. Tibet is embracing its new ‘blue gold’ rush era.

Qomolangma glacier water (source: inhabitat)

The government’s target is to reach a bottled water production capacity of 5 million cubic meters per year by 2020 according to a report, although the glaciers are melting at the rate of 4 to 8 meters every year – the glacier melting is measured in loss of length. This is just the start of the ‘blue gold’ rush–more and more companies want to enter this market, including pharmaceutical, confectionery and petroleum firms. The TAR government signed 16 agreements with various investors, totaling 2.6 billion yuan (US $409 million), including state-owned oil producer Sinopec, the second-largest food manufacturing company Bright Food Group and the state-owned power company Three Gorges Group.

Tibet is considered by many to be one of the last sacred places on land, because of its remoteness, uniqueness and purity. For Tibetans, water is not only important for daily use and livelihoods.  It also holds religious significance. Every year, they hang many new prayer flags around water temples, hoping for sufficient water supplies. To show respect for the local deities and other spirits that govern water, they treat water with gratefulness and respect. However, China is now the world’s largest bottled water consumer and a major producer, according to a study from China Water Risk. With the boom of China’s bottle water industry, companies have been eyeing up Tibet’s glacier resources for a long time and ready to start their ‘blue gold’ rush journey.

Tibet 5100 bottled water (source: Marketing China)

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is known as Asia’s water tower and provides a lifeline for China and other parts of Asia, and it has become a hotspot for new firms. By 2014, the government has approved 28 licenses for companies to produce bottled water in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. It has attracted companies such as Kunlun Mountain Glacier Water, Tibet 5100 and Qomolangma Glacier Water, which produce bottled glacier water, sold at high prices. The appeal of what is considered the purest water on earth matches current demand well. One of the advertisements of Tibet 5100 water says, “the water is sourced from a unique glacier spring at 5,100 meters above sea level, one of the world’s most remote, pristine and untraversed location.” In 2010, according to the Ministry of Environment Protection (MEP) State of Environment Report indicated that 40.1% of China’s rivers were unfit for human contact (Grade IV-V+) and 57.2% of the monitored groundwater was rated as badly or very badly polluted. Under such circumstances, many Chinese households drink bottled water, and only 59% drink tap water according to a survey done in 2014.

Tibet 5100 production line (source: thedailyeye)

Tibet is among the most vulnerable place to climate change. Glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau have already shrunk 15% over the past three decades, according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. With the continuing trends of global warming, the risks of further glacier retreat are severe. The bottled water industry thus faces an uncertain future, and it will increasingly compete with other groups in Tibetan society that use water for domestic purposes and other, long-established livelihoods. The challenge to find the balance between the economic growth and environmental stability is at stake for Tibet.

To access to the full study report, please click here.



Photo Friday: Glaciers in China

Southwest China, part of the Tibetan region, has a large number of high peaks, many of them with glaciers. The photos here are showing glacial mountains from Tibet, Szechuan, and Yunnan provinces in southwest China. These are taken by Yu Song, a Chinese traveler with a strong interest in exploring the beauty of China’s mountain.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

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Roundup: Glacier Ed, New Glacier Group, Measuring Xinjiang Ice

Educating the Public about Glaciers at a Park in Peru

“Peru, the host country for this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has one of the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in the Americas. But scientists said it is among countries which will be most impacted by climate hazards. To educate the public, one park has created a climate change route for tourists. CCTV America’s Dan Collyns reported this story from Lima, Peru.”

Read more at CCTV America.


New Glacier Climate Group Gathers in Montana

“Glacier Climate Action is a loose confederation of concerned citizens in the communities near Glacier National Park. We plan to make our voices heard, celebrate local solutions, and let elected officials know that we expect them to act now to avert a climate crisis that threatens to devastate the future of our grandchildren and theirs.”

Read more at Conserve Montana.


Changes in Glacier Mass and Water Resources in Xinjiang, China

“It is important to understand and quantify glacier changes and their impact on water resources in Hami Prefecture, an extremely arid region in the eastern Xinjiang of northwestern China. Yushugou Glacier No. 6 and Miaoergou Ice Cap in Hami Prefecture were selected in this study. Results showed that the thickness of Yushugou Glacier No. 6 decreased by 20 m with a rate of 0.51 m/y from 1972 to 2011 and the terminus retreated by 254 m, or 6.5 m/y for the same period.”

Read more of the article written by Wang et al., 2014.

Glaciers Play Starring Role in COP20 Climate Conference

Glaciers play at least three different roles at COP20, the global climate conference taking place in Lima, Peru. The COP20 is the largest meeting this year of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The 192 member countries of the UNFCCC meet annually in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. COP20 is a lead-up to 2015 COP21 in France, whose objective is the signing of a legally binding agreement that would guarantee significant reductions in greenhouse gasses.

Most simply, glaciers are cited in newspaper articles, NGO statements, briefings by research institutes and reports by intergovernmental organizations as incontrovertible proof that climate change is producing dramatic impacts on ecosystems and societies around the world. They are featured in displays that seek to convey the urgency of addressing climate change, particularly in the Mountains and Water Pavilion within “Voces por el Clima,” (Voices Speaking for Climate) an exhibition that calls for greater attention to climate change.

Model glacier at Mountains and Water Pavilion, COP20.
Model glacier at Mountains and Water Pavilion, COP20.

Glaciers also play a critical role in specific countries with major roles at COP20. Host country Peru contains about 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. The glaciers are crucial to Peru, because they supply drinking water and water for agriculture, hydroelectricity and industry, such as agro-exports and mining.

Glaciers are also important in China and the United States, the countries whose agreement on climate change, announced on November 11, provided significant impetus to COP20. These countries are the world’s No.1 and No.2 carbon polluters. Presidents Xi and Obama staked out ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions as a way to galvanize other countries to make their own cuts. Mr. Obama announced that the United States plans to emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020. At the same time, Mr. Xi announced vowed that clean energy sources like solar power and wind mills would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

COP20, source  Wikimedia Commons .
COP20, source Wikimedia Commons.

Both China and the United States have numerous glaciers. China’s glaciers, concentrated in the western and northern parts of the country, cover nearly 60,000 square kilometers. In the United States, glaciers, primarily located in Alaska, cover over 75,000 square kilometers). They are rapidly shrinking in both countries, and also in France, the host of COP21 next year, where Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, has seen significant glacier loss in recent decades.

Finally, glaciers are specifically featured in two events at COP20, both on December 11th. A presentation by a Pakistani organization, the Moutain and Glacier Protection Organization (MGPO), and its partners, “Integrated Climate Risk Management for a Resilient World reports on adaptation projects near Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan. The event also includes lectures by the Ministers of Environment of the Netherlands and Tuvalu, concentrating on climate change and disasters in mountains, and their impacts on highland, lowland and coastal areas.

The other event is “Climate Change in the Andes and Global Cryosphere,” organized by two NGOs, ICCI (International Cryosphere Climate Initiative) and CPC (Climate Policy Center). They focus on the irreversibility of changes in glaciers and other ice- and snow-covered regions. Their discussions will center on tracing the implications of these changes for science-based commitment levels in the Paris 2015 COP.

Taken as a whole, these different documents and activities show the power of glaciers to demonstrate the significance of climate change and to stir people to action. GlacierHub is tracking COP20 closely. You can find photos from the conference here. If you are interested in keeping up with events at COP20, follow us on twitter @Glacierhub.


Major Conference Attracts Continuing Attention to Black Carbon

This past month, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the Nepalese Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment hosted the International Conference on Mountain People Adapting to Climate Change. The large attendance and extensive coverage of this conference brought a great deal of attention for the Hindu Kush Himalaya region and its specific climate vulnerability. One of the central topics of discussion during the conference was the effect of black carbon deposits on the region’s glaciers. Although there is some lingering uncertainty about the precise magnitude and reach of the effects of this substance, members of the conference agreed that evidence is sufficient to begin the creation of  goals to reduce it in the near future.

Reaching this consensus is important, because the Hindu Kush Himalaya range is essential to the health of the greater Asian continent. The range spans eight countries, covers 3 million square kilometers, and is the source of ten of Asia’s major river systems. The effects of black carbon on the region’s glaciers could have broadly negative consequences for ecosystems and livelihoods. Black carbon has a double impact. Primarily, it darkens snow and ice. The dark color allows more sunlight to be absorbed by the snow and ice, which increases melting. Secondarily, black carbon is an air pollutant,. Although the tiny particles do not remain in the air for long periods, they can be inhaled by humans and cause serious respiratory problems.

Though they remain currently unrestricted, black carbon emissions are becoming an increasing concern in the region. Sources of black carbon in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region include cook-stoves, diesel vehicles, and the industrial burning of coal. In fact, one third of the black carbon suspended in the atmosphere hovers over India and China, and these particles cause at least 30% or more of the melting of glaciers in the region. Many of the gravest effects of black carbon have been well established in scientific literature, but some aspects of the substance remain up for debate. Nonetheless, “it is never wrong to start to reduce emissions of black carbon as soon as possible and as vigorously as possible,” concludes Dr. Arun Shrestha, Senior Climate Change Specialist at ICIMOD. Shifts to other forms of energy use could reduce black carbon significantly.

The conference was a clear step toward covering these critical topics in meaningful ways. “The conference’s outcome will not change everyday life of mountain people right from tomorrow,” stated Dr. David Molden, the ICIMOD’s Director General, to Xinhuanet, “but it will help us formulate policies for better adaptation solutions.” The conference marked a shift in decision-making practices, because it brought together environmental and health experts. Their efforts are bringing black carbon to a more prominent position in adaptation planning.

Photo Friday: A Visit To Amdo, Tibet

Khashem Gyal is a photographer who recently documented residents of Amdo, Tibet, located in the northeastern part of the Tibetan Plateau in the series included here. Amdo’s glaciers are the source of Asia’s major rivers including the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers. Gyal is one of the core members of Plateau Photographers, a participatory multimedia project that trains “ethnic minority” students on the Tibetan Plateau in digital storytelling and culture documentation.

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Plateau Photographers’ three-part mission is to train members in still photography and video capture, culture documentation, visual storytelling, and multimedia technology skills, to disseminate locally-generated media in Plateau communities, and to present information and knowledge about Plateau communities to a larger audience.

Khashem Gyal graduated from Qinghai Nationalities University with a major in Tibetan Literature. Aside from his work with Plateau Photographers, he is founder of the Amilolo Film Group, dedicated to educating young Tibetans about digital video production and encouraging a new generation of Tibetan filmmakers. Khashem Gyal has directed numerous short films about Tibetan life and culture. Valley of the Heroes is his first full-length documentary film.

Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at glacierhub@gmail.com.

Bhutan’s Glaciers and Yak Herds Are Shrinking

View of forested ridges from trail outside Bumthang. (photo: Ben Orlove)
View of forested ridges from trail outside Bumthang. (photo: Ben Orlove)

Of the things that my colleagues and I hoped to see on our trek in Bhutan, only one was missing: ice. Ed Cook and Paul Krusic, both tree ring scientists, found the groves of ancient trees they had planned to take sample cores from, and our trails led us to the villages where I talked with farmers about weather and crops, thanks to interpreter Karma Tenzin. But though I kept checking the summits of the mountains that towered over us as we hiked along valleys and climbed over ridges, no glaciers came into view.

Our trek started in Chokhortoe, the home village of our horsedriver Renzin Dorji, nestled on a small bench of flat land near a river. I had thought that we might see glaciers when we ascended the slopes from the valley. But forested ridges rise up sharply on both sides of the river, protecting the valley from the harsh winds of the Tibetan plateau but also blocking the highest snowpeaks from sight.

Renzin Dorji burning juniper and rhododendron as an offering at the pass of Ko-la. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Renzin Dorji burning juniper and rhododendron as an offering at the pass of Ko-la. (photo: Ben Orlove)

In fact, most of the local people I met had never seen a glacier at all. They live in villages like Chokhortoe, located in sheltered valleys where they can grow their crops, hardy varieties of wheat and barley and buckwheat. From the vantage point of these valleys, the glaciated crests of the Himalayas are hidden behind by mountain ridges. When the villagers travel to sell their crops, they generally head south towards the market towns closer to the border with India at lower elevations. The gates still stand which mark the old trails north to Tibet, but that trade ended with the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. And the population growth and economic expansion in India has led to strong demand for Bhutanese crops in that country. Even our horsedriver, Renzin, had not travelled to the northern areas where the glaciers could be seen.

Gate on an old trail to Tibet. (Photo: Ben Orlove)
Gate on an old trail to Tibet. (Photo: Ben Orlove)

Only one villager, Sherab Lhendrub, had stories to tell me of the glaciers. A man in his late sixties, he has decades of personal experience to draw on. He used to travel to high pastures late in the spring, to bring a season’s worth of supplies to the three herders who cared for his yak herd. The herders would stay up at the summer camp for months, milking the female yaks and making butter and cheese. Each year he went up a second time, in the fall when the heavy snows and hard frosts were approaching, to assist the herders in closing up the summer camp and accompanying them on the two-day trek down to the winter pastures at a lower elevation. In his many years of travel, he observed the gradual reduction of the vast white cap of ice that covers the jagged peaks of Gangkhar Puensum, the Three White Brothers Mountain, which is also the highest unclimbed summit.

Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)

This glacier retreat has had not just visual, but practical consequences as well. Sherab told me that Monla Karchung, the White-covered Mountain Pass, retains its name but not its color. More importantly, it is now difficult to cross. Herders used to walk confidently across the glacier to reach a distant valley, trusting in the yaks’ uncanny ability to sense crevasses under the snow. Now the herders walk gingerly across the slippery black boulders, if they cross the pass at all. Sherab stood up and pantomimed someone walking carefully as he told me the story of a herder who lost his footing there. The man’s lower leg slid down and wedged between two boulders. The momentum of the fall pitched his body to one side, snapping his shinbone in two.

Sherab sold off his yak herd a few years ago, when he felt he was growing too old to continue the climbs to the high pastures. His son, who supplements the income from his farm with the earnings of a store and the occasional hire of his pick-up truck, is unwilling to make these arduous trips. Sherab was having difficulties finding herders to hire for the summer season as well. Many young people have become accustomed to cell phones and motorbikes, he explained. They are less willing to tolerate the weather in the high camps, which is cold even in summer, and the long hard days of work without any break. Even though butter and cheese from yaks are highly prized, and their meat is believed to confer strength on the people who eat it, fewer people in the region are herding them. Bhutan was losing not only glaciers, but also yak herders – and their yaks.

Green chilies cooked with fermented yak cheese. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Green chilies cooked with fermented yak cheese. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I was excited to discover that the next section of our trek would take us past the winter yak pastures, thousands of feet lower than the summer pastures but still well above the villages in the valleys. I quickly learned to recognize these camps as we came upon them: clearings in the forests an acre or more in size, filled waist-high with plants that had sprung up in the summer rains. Each camp had a small shack or a simple wooden frame over which blankets or a tarpaulin could be thrown, and each had a water-source nearby, a small trough placed in a stream that ran down a hillside. Most had a few poles with prayer-flags attached to them.

Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Yak winter camp on the trail between Chorkhortoe and Ko-la Goenpa. (photo: Ben Orlove)

I would have loved to see the yaks returning to these camps, but that would not take place for several more weeks. But I could take advantage of the emptiness of the camps. I examined the charcoal in the fire pits in the shacks and walked the perimeter of the meadows to locate the posts where the herders would place branches to fence their animals in. I could tell that most of the camps were still in use. I conferred with the others to confirm that a few of the camps were abandoned. We could see the saplings, several years old, which had grown up in the absence of any grazing, and the heaps of old boards that were the remains of former shacks.

One camp that we visited on the third day of our hike had me puzzled. I wasn’t sure if it was abandoned or not. The thick, dry vegetation looked more than a year old, and the prayer flags were more tattered than any I had seen elsewhere in Bhutan. I followed the gurgling of water, and found a wooden trough to one side of a stream. I discussed this evidence with Ed and Paul, thinking that this meadow might be one more indication of the decline of yak herding. As we discussed this matter, Renzin the horsedriver came up. He recognized the tall plants right away. Their name in his language, Sharchop, is shampalí. It does dry quickly after the rains end, he said, but the yaks would eat it anyway, and they would relish the new leaves that were growing at the base of the dried stems. The case was closed: the camp had been used recently, even if the prayer flags were neglected and the trough needed a small repair. In this small corner, at least, the centuries-old livelihoods that have allowed local residents to maintain close contact with the glaciers remain alive.

Sherab Lhundrub saddling a horse. (photo: Ben Orlove)
Sherab Lhundrub saddling a horse. (photo: Ben Orlove)