Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in China

Lead Author Meeting of IPCC Report Held in China

Qilian Mountains Tibetan Plateau on GlacierHub
Qilian Mountains, with the Tibetan Plateau in the distance (source: Susie Crate/Facebook).

Researchers from several countries gathered in July to advance their work on a report that will assess the state of research on glaciers and related topics. The IPCC meeting took place in Lanzhou, China, the capital of the province of Gansu in the central part of the country, close to a number of glaciated peaks in the Qilian Mountains. This location reflects the focus of the document, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report traces cryosphere-ocean links, particularly the contribution of meltwater from the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets to sea-level rise, and also considers other topics related to oceans and the cryosphere. This event was the third Lead Author Meeting (LAM3) for SROCC.

The report’s Chapter 2, High Mountain Areas, examines a variety of topics which include observed and projected changes in glaciers, permafrost and snow, as well as links to climate, hazards and water resources. It also discusses risks for societies and the strategies to respond to these risks. The full chapter structure can be found in the outline of the report, which was approved last year.

This chapter is being led by two Coordinating Lead Authors, Regine Hock, a glaciologist and hydrologist from the University of Alaska, and Golam Rasul, an economist and rural development specialist from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. The 13 Lead Authors come from four continents and represent 10 countries—the U.K., France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, China, Japan, Ecuador, the U.S. and Canada.

Activities at the Meeting

The IPCC meeting, hosted by the State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was held on 23-27 July at the Lanzhou Hotel in Lanzhou. Shichang Kang, the director of the laboratory, coordinated the event and served as host.

IPCC Speakers in China Ko Barrett Yun Gao Weihua He Shichang Kang Panmao Zhai on GlacierHub
Speakers at the opening session of the meeting. Left to right, Ko Barrett, Yun Gao, Weihua He, Shichang Kang, Panmao Zhai. (source: IPCC/Twitter).

The meeting was opened by Panmao Zhai, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I and Secretary General of the Chinese Meteorological Society. The first speech was given by Yun Gao, the Dputy Director of the Science and Technology and Climate Change Division of the China Meteorological Administration, who emphasized the country’s commitment to the IPCC and to international cooperation more broadly.

The next address was given by Weihua He, the vice-inspector of the Gansu Science and Technology Department. She emphasized the importance of developing a low-carbon economy in the province which could contribute to poverty reduction while improving economic and environmental quality. She said that she could envision “a new happy and beautiful Gansu,” and closed her speech with wishes for the meeting’s “great success.” In the evening of the meeting’s inauguration, the provincial government also sponsored a performance by a troupe of folk dancers, who presented the diverse cultural styles of the ethnic groups in central and western China, and showcased as well developments in Chinese media.

The meeting drew over 100 participants from 30 countries. In addition to attending plenary meetings, the chapter teams discussed the comments which they had received from experts on the First Order Drafts of their chapters. They coordinated with each other to promote the integration of the chapters, and also began the planning of communication products. They advanced as well on five cross-chapter boxes which address topics that span the report’s topics. The discussions continued at meals and in the evenings.

This meeting was distinguished by the relatively large proportion of women among the lead authors and by the international diversity, with representatives from more than 30 countries across six continents and the Pacific. It received wide coverage in a number of Chinese media outlets  

Yaks in the Qilian Mountains on GlacierHub
Yaks in the Qilian Mountains (source: Susie Crate/Facebook).

After the conference, a number of participants set off on a four-day tour of the province. Their travels included a visit to the Qilian Mountains, a glaciated range which forms the border between Gansu and the neighboring province of Qinghai. Although severe flooding had damaged roads, preventing the group from reaching Laohuguo Glacier, they did explore regions up to 3780 meters, where they saw large herds of yaks.

After the tour, a conference was held on 31 July and 1 August on Cryospheric Changes and the Regional and Global Impacts. A number of authors from Chapter 2, including Shichang Kang, Regine Hock, Miriam Jackson and Stephan Gruber, gave talks at this conference.

Comments on the Meeting

IPCC authors on GlacierHub
IPCC authors at dinner in a hotpot restaurant (source: Ben Orlove)

Hans-Otto Poertner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, described the meeting. “We are grateful for the comprehensive feedback we received in the first Expert Review of this report,” he said. “By ensuring that the latest scientific knowledge is included in our assessments, the reviews help us to provide the best available basis for global climate policy. The outcomes of our Lead Author Meeting in Lanzhou will take us a huge step closer to this goal.”

“We are looking forward to the meeting in Lanzhou as we continue developing and refining the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. We believe this report will help policymakers better understand the changes we are seeing and the risks to lives and livelihoods that may occur with future climate change,” said IPCC Vice-Chair Ko Barrett. “The gracious hospitality of our hosts is much appreciated,” she added.

Outreach Events and Upcoming Activities

In conjunction with the meeting, outreach events were held at Lanzhou University on 24 July and at the State Key Laboratory of Cryospheric Science on 26 July. IPCC Bureau leaders, Shichang Kang, and several lead authors spoke. They presented the outline of the report to local audiences, discussed major findings of earlier IPCC reports about changes in climate and in mountain and coastal environments, and reviewed issues specific to China and other Asian countries. At both events, speakers emphasized the importance of international cooperation and the great advances of Chinese researchers. One participant described the comments of Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II at the first event as “deeply inspiring.” The participant continued, “She really renewed my optimism.”

The participants left the meeting ready to begin the process of preparing the Second Order Draft of the report. This draft will be circulated for review by experts and governments in November 2018, and will be reviewed and revised at a fourth meeting in March 2019 in Kazan, Russia. The following draft will be reviewed by governments, and the report will be completed in September 2019. The recent meeting provided highly motivating support to this long process, immersing the authors for several days in a vulnerable context of a country, impacted by glacier retreat as well as sea level rise, which is a central player in international climate affairs.

The Chinese Glacier with Three Names

Planning the Visit to the Glacier

At the entrance to the Qilian Glacier Station. Left to right: Ben Orlove, Chhatra Sharma, Shengxia Wang, Hongju Cheng (source: Young Li).

The possibility of a field trip came up early in my correspondence with Shichang Kang, a prominent Chinese geoscientist, as we planned my visit to his research institute in the central province of Gansu. The itinerary that I received last August, a month before my arrival, included a nine-day stay at the institute Kang directs, the State Key Laboratory for Cryosphere Science (SKLCS), in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. After that, I would take a five-day field trip, in which I would “visit two stations (desert and glacier),” as Prof. Kang told me, and see oases.

The desert was the Gobi Desert. And the glacier, I was told, would be in the Qilian Mountains. This range, which marks the northeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, is not as famous as some of China’s other, higher ranges, but nonetheless still significant, with peaks up to 5500 meters.

As my correspondence with the SKLCS continued, the name of the glacier did not come up, since my colleagues and I were focused on plans for the lectures that I would give in the first half of my visit. The SKLCS was seeking to expand the social science component of its research program, to include aspects of risk assessment and adaptation. The field trip, I understood, would help me understand the climate change impacts across western China, and contribute to my discussions with the lab.

Research papers on display at State Key Laboratory for Cryosphere Science (source: Ben Orlove).

During my first week in Lanzhou, I gave three talks and had many conversations with researchers at the SKLCS. I had the chance to see the papers that the lab had produced. In some of these, focused on glacier retreat and on transboundary movement of pollutants, I saw references to a “Glacier Number 12” in the Qilian Mountains, as well as others in the Himalayas and the Tien Shan. It seemed likely that this would be the one I would visit, since it had a research station at it. Its number reflected its position in the national glacier inventory.

Our conversations focused, not on individual glaciers, but on the Qilian as a whole, and on the “Hexi Corridor,” the stretch of desert territory west of Lanzhou that I would visit. It is the eastern end of the Silk Road, I learned. For centuries its oases have been watered by rivers that originate in Qilian glaciers, but they now face an uncertain future, with climate change and glacier retreat. Moreover, this region is a key to Chinese development. It serves as a link to the western provinces of Qinghai and Xinjiang, which are poorer than coastal regions of China, and it connects with the countries in Central Asia and beyond, where China is promoting ties through infrastructure projects and investments through its One Belt and One Road Initiative, also known as the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). In this initiative, the Silk Road serves as an important precedent and symbol for Chinese trade and engagement beyond its borders.


Driving to the Mountains

Dunes in the Gobi Desert in western Gansu province (source: Ben Orlove).

When we set off from Lanzhou on 14 September for the field trip, I still had not learned whether the glacier would have a more vernacular name, or whether it was known only by its number. Five of us left Lanzhou. In addition to myself and the driver, the group in the SUV included two researchers from SKLCS, Dr. Shengxia Wang and Hongju Cheng, and Dr. Chhatra Sharma, an environmental hydrologist from Kathmandu University who has collaborated with SKLCS for nearly 10 years.

To reach the glacier, we would travel more than 1000 kilometers to the northwest. Our route toward it took us through landscapes that grew ever more arid. The irrigated regions of villages along tree-lined roads, with fields of maize and sorghum, grew smaller, as the unwatered areas between them became larger and drier, shifting from low brush to grasslands and finally to bare sand. The larger oasis towns had tall apartment blocks, though the older villages still consisted of low buildings, many with internal courtyards.

Sheep in grasslands in the Qilian Mountains (source: Ben Orlove).

We visited agricultural research stations, where dryland crops and new greenhouse technologies were being developed. We saw new hotels, shops and visitor centers oriented toward China’s rapidly expanding internal tourism market; they showed off western Gansu’s attractions, such as oasis wetlands, striking geological formations, sand dunes, and ancient caves, filled with murals and sculptures, where Buddhist monks prayed and meditated.

And finally the day of the glacier visit arrived. We awoke early and departed well before dawn for the drive up the Qilian Mountains. The ascent took us through grasslands where nomadic herders camped in yurts, and then up a narrow valley, its bottom filled with rubble.

Qilian Mountain Glacier Station (source: Ben Orlove).

We arrived at the research station in mid-morning. The director greeted us, as his staff prepared breakfast. The wait gave us a chance to have at least an hour to acclimatize to the altitude; we had ascended nearly 3000 meters to the station, located almost precisely at an elevation of 4000 m.

The director told us of the history of research visits to the glacier since the 1950s and of the station’s founding in 2007. He showed us the rooms where snow and ice samples were stored for shipment to SKLCS in Lanzhou, where they were analyzed.

And we discussed the glacier itself. It has been shrinking in recent decades, retreating eight meters per year from 1993 to 2005, and then more quickly, at 16 m per year, from 2005 to 2014. Its current length of 10 km makes it the longest in the range.

At the Glacier

Walking up to the glacier, with a covering of fresh snow (source: Ben Orlove).

After our meal, we set out on the short drive to the glacier itself. We found it to be a classic valley glacier—a thick flat mass of ice that ran from one steep wall of a valley to the other. There was still significant accumulation occurring in the higher zones, we were told.

The glacier tongue was relatively low, at 4300 m. We clambered up a slope of scree, over a large boulder, and onto the surface of the glacier itself. The season’s first snow, a week before our arrival, left a fine white layer on the north-facing portions of the glacier, but we could still see details of the surface. The parts of it that were closest to the valley walls were covered with debris, the result of rockfalls from the steep sides. The portions adjacent to them had thick dust as well.

A frozen meltwater pond on the glacier surface (source: Ben Orlove).

Even though there was no fresh water flowing on the surface, we could see much evidence of melting, with streams that had incised themselves. The scientist who accompanied us confirmed that the flow was limited to the summer months. It was a few degrees below freezing where we stood, and the temperatures higher up were much colder.

We continued our way up. The new snow made the hiking easy. We found a few meltwater ponds on the surface, which had recently frozen solid. And there were some icicles in shaded overhangs, signaling summer melt as well.

We hoped to go further, and reach the automated weather station on the glacier, and see the snow pits that reseachers had dug. But Shengxia Wang, attuned to our safety and well-being, pointed out dark clouds near us, and Chhatra Sharma mentioned how he had been caught in sudden snowstorms in the Nepal Himalayas. We decided to turn around. This move proved prudent, since the snow began to fall before we reached our vehicle.


The Glacier’s Three Names

Unexpected snow at the glacier. Left to right: Hongju Cheng, Chhatra Sharma, Ben Orlove (source: Shengxia Wang).

Once we were off the ice, we stopped to take pictures. I asked Shengxia if the glacier had a name, other than Glacier No. 12. She said that its common name, as mentioned in geographical works, was Laohu Gou Bingchuan, Tiger Gorge Glacier, referring perhaps to its shape like a tiger’s tale, or to a story of a tiger that had resided nearby.

And there is one more name, she mentioned, Touming Mengke Bingchuan. She translated that as Green Dream Glacier. I made her repeat the translation, thinking that I had misheard it. She explained that it was the old name from the Mongols, who once had ruled this area; ethnic Mongols are still found in Gansu. She thought that some regional officials could have encouraged the revival of this old name in the hope that it might attract tourists to the mountains.

We speculated on what a green dream might be, and I recalled Noam Chomsky’s famous example of a nonsensical sentence that is grammatically correct, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” (I would later find the first, second and third names used in print.)

Mongolian yurt in Qilian grasslands, with solar panel, and prayerflags at left edge of corral (source: Ben Orlove).

These names remained in my mind during lunch back at the station, and on our drive back. Partway down, we passed a herd of yaks, and a kilometer or two further on, a yurt, with solar panel, and Mongolian-style prayerflags, with several long streamers attached to the top of a pole. We did not see anyone there, whom we might have asked about green dreams. And, I realized, as we continued back down to the arid Hexi Corridor, the hopes that Chinese have for resilient functioning ecosystems in the face of climate change could also be called green dreams, dreams that are increasingly common in our threatened world.