Event Series Highlights Threats to Tibet’s Glaciers

Tibet accounts for an estimated 14.5 percent of the world’s total glacier mass, but climate change and air pollution are an increasing threat to the nation’s glaciers. The retreat of these glaciers causes grasslands to shrink and permafrost to thaw. It also endangers the water supply of those who rely on the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Yellow Rivers—all of which are fed by water from Tibet’s glaciers.

During the week leading up to World Environment Day, which occurred on June 5, four groups—the University of Washington’s South Asia Center, the Canada-Tibet Committee, the Mountain Resiliency Project, and the Himalayan Mountain International Film Festival—teamed up for series of events in British Columbia and Seattle, Washington to highlight why China needs to address environmental degradation. The groups hoped to bring awareness to the fact that there was too little discussion happening in China or at the United Nations about the negative environmental impacts taking place on the Tibetan Plateau and their impacts on people living downstream.

Courtesy of Tsechu Dolma

World Environment Day was established in 1972 when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution creating the celebration. June 5 was chosen because it marked the beginning of the Stockholm Conference, which took place June 5-12, 1972 and was the first, major United Nations summit on environmental issues.

A different country leads the effort each year by choosing a theme for the day that is recognized by more than 143 UN member nations. In the past, host countries and themes have included India and plastic pollution, Angola and the illegal wildlife trade, and Barbados and the dangers of rising sea levels.

China led the 2019 celebration, titled “Beat Air Pollution.” The goal was to promote renewable energy and other green technologies that could help improve air quality around the world. According to the UN World Environment Day website, more than 6 billion people breathe air that puts their health at risk. Nine out of ten people worldwide are exposed to levels of air pollution that exceed World Health Organization guidelines. That exposure is lowering life expectancy and harming economies.

Social activist, founder of the Mountain Resiliency Project, and former GlacierHub writer Tsechu Dolma spoke to GlacierHub about the China-themed World Environment Day events. “Whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world because the Tibetan plateau is home to the largest reserve of freshwater outside of the poles,” she said.

She added that the Chinese government has devoted a great deal of resources to buildings dams on the headwaters of major rivers originating in Tibet, which impacts the water supply for millions of people living in the region.

Source: Dream Tibet Travel

The events, said Dolma, were also meant to provide a space for Tibetans to share their opinions on China’s air pollution. “Tibetans are considered indigenous people of China,” she said, “and so [the organizers] wanted to elevate indigenous voices on what World Environment Day means for people living within China.”

Dolma stated that she believes that the Chinese government is making an effort to rectify some of the environmental damage it has caused. “It realizes that thousands of people in China are dying from pollution, and the environmental impacts directly undermine the government’s legitimacy for the people,” she said.

The high-profile participation of the Chinese government was, according to Dolma, “their way of putting in an effort.” But, she added, it was picking and choosing which issues to highlight and downplaying its role in perpetuating the problem.

World Environment Day is largely about raising public awareness about environmental degradation and providing a forum for UN nations to outline potential solutions, such as expanding access to public transportation and electric vehicles, encouraging energy efficiency and conservation, and reducing meat and dairy dairy consumption, which produces high amounts of methane emissions. Governments were encouraged to increase investment in renewable energy, while the private sector was encouraged to cut emissions along its supply chains.

A prominent event of 2019’s World Environment Day celebration was the Mask Challenge. Organizers asked participants from around the world to post on social media a photograph of themselves wearing a protective mask and pledging to take some type of action that could help reduce air pollution. Thousands of people across the globe, including singer Ellie Goulding and model Gisele Bundchen, participated in the event using the hashtag #BeatAirPollution.

The UN also turned to social media to highlight science about air pollution, including one study conducted by the National Institute of Research on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems in Peru. The study focused on black carbon, which comes from vehicular and industrial emissions, wildfires, and the burning of waste. The soot from those sources can accumulate on the surface of glaciers, which darkens them and increases the amount of sunlight they absorb. China’s air pollution and even the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War have been sources of black carbon in Tibet.

The British Columbia and Seattle events were aimed, according to Dolma, to raise awareness on how this is a planetary crisis. “And whatever happens on the Tibetan Plateau and in the rest of Asia will impact all of our livelihoods around the world,” she said.

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Puruogangri Ice Core Study

A team of scientists led by Emilie Beaudon and Paolo Gabrielli et al. from the Byrd Polar and Climate Center of Ohio State University conducted a study published in Science of the Total Environment presenting a 500-year atmospheric contamination history through the analysis of 28 trace elements from an ice core collected from the Puruogangri glacier in the central Tibetan Plateau. The purpose of the study was, as the authors indicated, “to assess different atmospheric contributions to the ice and provide a temporal perspective on the diverse atmospheric influences over the central Tibetan Plateau.”

The researchers found an overall increasing trend in the levels of trace elements within the ice core from 1497-1992. But what explains the increase of these trace elements in Tibetan glaciers? Was it due to natural or anthropogenic causes?

Atmospheric Dynamics and Tibet

The researchers indicate that the trace element contaminations in the ice core come from two main sources. Prior to 1900, natural causes (such as volcanic fallout) were the primary contributor present in the findings. But with global development of industrial processes in the 19th and 20th century, it became evident to the scientists that post-1900, the main contributors are from anthropogenic sources. The authors argue that the dominant source for the Cd, Zn, Pb, and Ag enrichment increase in the 20th century originates from the metallurgy emission products of former republics within the Soviet Union, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Figure 1. A visual representation of global atmospheric circulation (Source: Creative Commons).

But how would pollutants from Soviet plants reach Tibet? Atmospheric circulation is the key. As Puruograngri lies on the 34th parallel, its position is along the path of the strong mid-latitude westerlies that blow from west to east across the Asian continent as seen on Figure 1 and a NASA GEOS-5 simulation demonstrating the movement of aerosols in atmospheric circulation. As a result, these winds deposit dust and any other particulates in the air on the tall, vast barrier of the Tibetan Plateau.

In addition to Soviet steel production, the authors mention a second proximal source. An increase of Chinese steel production during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) corresponds well to the increases in Sb and Pb enrichment in the ice core. But instead of the subtropical westerlies carrying the pollutants, the inconsistent summer monsoonal circulation patterns brought them from the east (China) and south (India and Southeast Asia). As Puruogangri straddles the summer monsoon-dominated south and the year-round dry, westerly-dominated north regions of the Asian continent, it receives influences from both atmospheric patterns depending on the time of year.

But in order to fully understand the significance of the Puruogangri ice core study, a historical perspective is also necessary. With increases in Soviet Union and Chinese steel production identified, it is important to understand the underlying dynamics of steel production in these two countries.

Historical Perspective of the Soviet Union and China

Central Asia was the crossroads of the continent that connected Europe and all parts of Asia with the Silk Road. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the newly established Soviet Union fully incorporated Central Asia into its domain. As a means of building legitimacy in a new world order post-WWI, the Soviet government sought to transform the previously agricultural country to, as American historian Stephen Kotkin describes, a “country of metal.” A detailed account of the social history surrounding the Soviet industrialization may be found in Kotkin’s book Magnetic Mountain.

China’s Great Leap Forward (1958-1962)(Source: Orient’Adicta/Flickr).

Under the advisement of the Soviet Union, China underwent a similar economic transformation with the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and Mao Zedong in 1949. The study pinpoints the decadal events like the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as significant periods of industrialization, corresponding to the anthropogenic Sb, Cd, Zn, and Pb levels peaking in 1965. Modern Chinese historian Gina Tam from Trinity University gave GlacierHub a deep-dive into why industrialization was particularly heavy in the 1960s in China.

After falling short of economic goals in the 1950s, Mao instigated a campaign called the Great Leap Forward in hopes to invigorate the economy. “The Great Leap Forward was, above all else, an emphasis on ‘leaping’ forward in terms of economic output. The key targets were steel and grain–the former to make China into a more industrialized country to compete with the West, and the latter to feed all those workers. Given that this was an ‘all hands on deck’ sort of situation, industrialization increased heavily during this time,” Tam told GlacierHub. Devastation followed in terms of mass starvations as well as widespread environmental degradation. Relating this history back to Puruogangri, today’s scientists were able to observe the magnitude of the emission production in both China and the Soviet Union.

What the Records Tells Us

While both of these countries hungrily pursued economic prosperity through metallurgical means, the policies in place put heavy pressure on natural resources and the local environment. The recent Puruogangri study reveals how atmospheric circulation serves as a conveyor belt for anthropogenic pollutants to reach remote glaciers like those in central Tibet.

As the authors noted, “the extraction of multi-century atmospheric pollution records from central Tibet is essential to assess the magnitude of the recent contamination of this remote region and to provide a long-term perspective for the changes observed.” What is particularly noteworthy about this statement is the purpose of scale. While the study assesses patterns across multiple centuries, the authors identify specific decadal events within the 20th century to emphasize a potential shift in the trace element enrichment prior to 1900. Heavy industrialization like during the Great Leap Forward stands out compared to other decades, but based on the results of this study, the researchers ultimately emphasize how the 20th century emission production stands out in comparison to previous centuries.

While scientists like Beaudon and Gabrielli analyze the glacial records for atmospheric contamination input, historians like Koji Hirata from Stanford University are analyzing the written records to trace the levels of steel production output. Despite the tumultuous political atmosphere in both countries throughout the 20th century, historical accounts correspond well with the glacial records. Bridging the understandings between the two disciplines, as well as others, may lead to more informed decision-making on emission controls, ultimately helping to mitigate our changing climate in the uncertain future.

Dam Spill Threats at a Gold Mine in Kyrgyzstan  

In light of the Mount Polley tailings dam spill in British Columbia, Canada, environmental activists in Kyrgyzstan are ringing alarm bells over a possible scenario of a similar outburst at Petrov Lake near the Kumtor gold mine project. At Mount Polley, the tailings dam at a copper and gold mine burst in August last year, spilling 25 million cubic meters of toxic waste into nearby lakes. The British Columbia provincial government appointed a commission to probe into the disaster. The commission has concluded that a “dominant factor in the breach of the Mount Polley tailings dam was a failure in the dam’s foundation”. All the while in Kyrgyzstan, the main concern has been and still is the Kumtor project’s chemical waste tailings pond, managed by Centerra Gold. Coincidentally, the very same engineering firm of record for the Mount Polley dam, AMEC, was hired to investigate the Centerra Gold’s environmental record at Kumtor mine in 2013.

Kumtor mine
Kumtor Mine (source: Ryskeldi Satke)

The most worrisome issue at Kumtor has been evolving with the stability of the glacial Petrov Lake, which is situated in direct proximity (7 km) above the tailings pond. The northwestern perimeter of Petrov Lake, where the dam is the narrowest, has become a major cause for concern in the Kyrgyz environmentalist community. The length of this particular section is approximately 30 meters. A Petrov Lake outburst could be expected to wash away the Kumtor tailings. where 60 million tons of cyanide liquid waste has been collected and stored so far. Just as in the case with the design of the Mount Polley dam, Kumtor tailings pond’s flawed feasibility has led to the instability of the dam and to seepage of toxic substances into the groundwater. The first report of the movement of the Kumtor tailings dam was recorded in 1999. And it was found that in the initial stages of the construction, the active layer of relatively unstable alluvial deposits had not been removed from the base of the tailings pond. That has made the remaining loamy interlayers (at depths of 4 to 6 meters) alsovulnerable to instability. The Prague-based group CEE Bankwatch has indicated that “in spite of measures to stabilize the dam in 2003 and 2006 (so-called shear keys and toe berm), the dam is still continuing to move.”

As this statement suggest, the company’s plans have not solved the issue of the tailings dam stability. An underlying issue is that the plans to store and manage the tailings from Kumtor did not include a hydrogeological study of the chosen location. The storage pond was built on the riverbed of the Arabel creek. It was later discovered that an old bed aquifer remained at a depth of 6.85 meters.  This active bottom (underflow) is contributing to the instability of the tailings dam. Dr. Robert Moran, a hydro-geologist who visited the Kumtor mine in 2012,  said that the tailings dam instability was “enhanced by the relatively high temperatures of the tailings when they come from the process plant (a highly contaminated mix of about 50% solids, 50% liquids), which would increase permafrost melting [in this high-elevation location]. Such deformation and movement of the tailings structure, combined with the partial melting of the permafrost raises concerns about a catastrophic failure of the tailings impoundment — especially if a severe earthquake were to occur [in this seismically-active region].”

Expansion of tailings pond from 1977 to 2014 (source: William CoOlgan)
Expansion of tailings pond from 1977 to 2014 (source: William Colgan)

Dr. William T. Colgan, a researcher with Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, believes that Petrov Lake presents an “additional geotechnical hazard confronting the Kumtor tailings pond”. According to Colgan’s analysis, “glacial moraine and till is often a poorly consolidated material, outburst floods from proglacial lakes due to berm breaches present a non-trivial hazard. Petrov Lake is one of approximately fifteen proglacial lakes in Kyrgyzstan for which the moraine dam has been classified as ‘at risk of rupture’ by previous researchers. The stability of the lake is important for the stability of the Kumtor tailings pond, as an outburst flood could result in failure by over topping of the downstream Kumtor tailings pond. The lake has grown in size from an area of 1.8 to 3.4 km² between 1977 and 2014. In 1957 it was just 0.96 km2 in area. This growth is due to climate change, which has enhanced both the retreat and melt of Petrov Glacier. This multi-decadal growth indicates that the volume of Petrov Lake is not in steady-state (whereby lake inflow is balanced by lake outflow), and thus the forces being exerted on moraine and till berms are likely changing over time.”

Kumtor tailings pond (source: Flickr/anonymous)
Kumtor tailings pond (source: Flickr/anonymous)

The threat of the environmental disaster over Kumtor tailings pond was highlighted at the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing by Dr. Amanda Wooden (Associate Professor of Environmental Politics & Policy, Bucknell University) in November 2014. Wooden’s testimony has indicated that the “changes in the permafrost underneath this extensive tailing pit at the headwaters to the Naryn River and breach threats to Petrov Lake above the tailing pond are concerns that should be monitored”. Moran believes that in the scenario with Kumtor tailings dam failure, it would rapidly release “masses of contaminated water and sediments (the tailings) into the Kumtor river, endangering downstream people, facilities, downstream rivers, and would likely kill much of the mountain trout population and other aquatic organisms. Such a collapse could negatively-impact waters throughout much of the Naryn River basin, which flows into Uzbekistan.”

In sum, the tailings pond at Petrov Lake, with large quantities of toxic substances in an unstable glacial environment, represents a serious threat to the ecosystems and human populations in two countries. The efforts of environmental activists may serve to bring this serious risk to attention within these countries and beyond, pressing for tighter and more effective regulations.

For other stories on mining risks in glacier regions, look here and here.

Author information:

Dinara Kutmanova: PhD in Environmental Law from Kyrgyz State Law Academy; leading environmental expert and member of the Kyrgyz State Commission probe into Kumtor mine operations in 2012-2013: co-chairman of the Green Party of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Ryskeldi Satke: contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail address: rsatke at gmail dot com

Dark Snow Spells Doom for Glacial Melt Rates

lack ash covered the summit of New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu after an eruption in 2007, but was soon covered by fresh snow. Long-term accumulation of black carbon aerosols in the Arctic and Himalaya is leading to increased melting of snow. (Photo: New Zealand GeoNet)
Black ash covered the summit of New Zealand’s Mount Ruapehu after an eruption in 2007, but was soon covered by fresh snow. Long-term accumulation of black carbon aerosols in the Arctic and Himalaya is leading to increased melting of snow. (Photo: New Zealand GeoNet)

“One week-old snow was turning black and brown before my eyes,” American geologist Ulyana Horodyskyj told the Guardian in earlier this year as she stood at her mini weather station, 5,800 meters above sea level on Mount Himlung, on the Nepal-Tibet border. Horodyskyj studies glaciers in Nepal’s Himalaya mountain range and is one of the many scientists, bloggers, and photographers who are documenting the pernicious effects of a phenomenon called “dark snow.”

This so-called dark snow is being discovered everywhere from the Himalayas to Greenland. Snow can be darkened by naturally made particles, such as soot from wildfires and volcanos or dust from bare soil. But industrial pollution is also a culprit: ultra-fine particles of “black carbon” from industrial plants and diesel engines are often carried in on fierce winds from thousands of miles away. The dust, soot and carbon darken the color of the snow, causing it to absorb more light from the sun, which speeds up glacial melting and lengthens the melt season.

“Governments must act, and people must become more aware of what is happening. It needs to be looked at properly,” said Horodyskyj.

Dark dust deposits on the Yanert ice field and glacier in Alaska. (Ins1122/Flickr)
Dark dust deposits on the Yanert ice field and glacier in Alaska. (Ins1122/Flickr)

In India, about 30 percent of glacial melt is attributed to black carbon, according to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). In addition, most of the black snow in the Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau comes from Indian and Chinese soot (e.g. diesel fumes, coal burning, funeral pyres, and etc.). It’s even a problem in the Arctic, according to a paper recently published in Nature Geoscience by a team of meteorologists from the French government. They found that the Arctic ice cap, which is thought to have lost an average of 12.9 billion tonnes of ice a year between 1992 and 2010 due to general warming, may be losing an additional 27 billion tonnes a year due to dust.

This isn’t the first time in the earth’s long history that dust was blamed for glacial melt. Last year, a NASA-led team of scientists published a study in the Proceedings of Natural Academy of Science that found industrial soot led to the retreat of glaciers in the 19th century. The European Alps experienced the abrupt retreat of valley glaciers by about 0.6 miles from 1860 to 1930, during which time the temperature actually dropped continuously. Scientists suspected that the glacier retreats were caused by human activity. After years of research, it turns out that the lower-elevation pollution is a major cause of the mysterious loss of glacier mass.

Darkened ice is found near the edge of Byron Glacier. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)
Darkened ice is found near the edge of Byron Glacier. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr)

To better understand and document the dark snow problem, Danish glaciologist Jason Box started the Dark Snow Project around 2 years ago, which measures the impact of changing wildfire soot, industrial black carbons, and snow microbes on snow and ice reflectivity. The Dark Snow Project is currently trying to raise $15,000 for the purchase of three drones to photograph the surface of glaciers in Greenland from a low altitude to examine surface melting.

Glacier stories you may have missed this week – 10/6

California droughts and glacier melts lead to massive Mt. Shasta mudslide

“Experts believe glacial melting, accelerated by the drought, may have released “pockets of water” that destabilized massive ice blocks and causing the debris flow Saturday afternoon in Shasta-Trinity National Forest, officials said.”

Read more about Mt. Shasta mudslide in the Los Angles Times.


The culprit of glacier melting – pollution

“When Kaser’s team looked at ice cores previously drilled at two sites high in the western Alps – the Colle Gnifetti glacier saddle 4,455 m up on Monte Rosa near the Swiss–Italian border, and the Fiescherhorn glacier at 3,900 m in the Bernese Alps – they found that in around 1860 layers of glacial ice started to contain large amounts of soot.”

Read more about how pollution melts glaciers instead of rising temperatures in Climate Central news.


Cooling of the Earth increases erosion rates

“Every year, billions of tons of rock and soil vanish from Earth’s surface, scoured from mountains and plains and swept away by wind, rain, and other elements. The chief driver of this dramatic resurfacing is climate, according to a new study. And when the global temperature falls, erosion kicks into overdrive.”

Read more about cold climate shrinks mountains in Advancing Science, Serving Society (AAAS) news.