Roundup: Lakes Grow, Fish Feed, Pruitt Seethes

Marine-Terminating Glaciers a Boon for Fish

From Global Change Biology: “Accelerated mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet leads to glacier retreat and an increasing input of glacial meltwater to the fjords and coastal waters around Greenland. These high latitude ecosystems are highly productive and sustain important fisheries, yet it remains uncertain how they will respond to future changes in the Arctic cryosphere. Here we show that marine-terminating glaciers play a crucial role in sustaining high productivity of the fjord ecosystems.”

Read the research paper here.

Model comparing hydrodynamic circulation in marine-terminating and land-terminating glaciers (Source: ETH Zurich/Global Change Biology).


Why Are Lakes Growing on the Tibetan Plateau?

From Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: “Since the late 1990s, most closed lakes in the interior TP expanded and deepened dramatically, in sharp contrast with lake shrinkage in the southern TP. Although some evidence shows that glacier melting and permafrost thawing within some lakes may influence lake level changes, they can not explain the overall lake expansion, especially for lakes without glacier supply. More and more evidence from lake water balance modeling indicated that the overall lake expansion across the interior TP may be mainly attributed to a significant increase in precipitation and associated runoff.”

Read the paper here.

Tso Moriri high in Ladakh (Source: Jochen Westermann/Creative Commons).

Scott Pruit (EPA) Fires Shots at Glacier Enthusiasts

From The Onion: “Oh my god, what is it with you people? It’s like you’re obsessed. It’s all you ever talk about: Wah, wah, wah, the glaciers are melting! We just can’t live without our precious glaciers! I hear it so often I’m seriously starting to wonder if maybe there isn’t something else going on here. So tell me, are you guys totally in love with glaciers, or what?”

Read more parody journalism here.

EPA director Scott Pruitt (Source: Creative Commons).

Different Views of a World Heritage Site in China

On July 12, 2017, after careful consideration of China’s nomination, UNESCO declared the Qinghai Hoh Xil region in Western China a World Heritage Site. The IUCN, a major international conservation body, recognized the strengths of this nomination but raised two concerns— first, threats from development, and second, failure to engage with local communities and cultural valuesalso echoed by other groups, including the NGO World Heritage Watch.

UNESCO defines a world heritage site as a cultural and/or natural site, area, or structure recognized as being of outstanding international importance and, therefore, deserving special protection. In order to become a World Heritage Site, there is a four step process that must be followed. First, a country must create a tentative list of important natural and cultural heritage spots that it wishes to nominate. Second, a state party decides when they want to present the nomination. The nomination is then sent to the World Heritage Site committee, which, if they approve it, sends it to the advisory bodies for evaluation. The three advisory bodies chosen by the World Heritage Convention evaluate the sites. Finally, the World Heritage Committee makes the final decision on the site’s inscription.

The Qinghai Hoh Xil region, designated a natural world heritage site, lies in the north-eastern part of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China. The plateau is the largest and highest plateau in the world, with alpine mountains reaching more than 4,500 meters above sea level and diverse ecosystems, including grasslands, scrublands, glaciers, and tundras. Its unique topography of alpine mountains and steppe systems, and climatic conditions, allow for a multitude of species and diverse plants to thrive. More than one third of the plant species and all herbivorous mammals are indigenous to the area. The heritage site nomination was part of an effort to protect the chiru species, Pantholops hodgsonii to scientists, tsö in Tibetan, commonly known as the Tibetan antelope, according to Chinese officials.

Endangered Tibetan antelopes, known as the chiru, in Qinghai Hoh Xil, China (Source: Live Trading News/Google Images).

The plateau’s glaciers are an important source of freshwater in the wetland system of lakes and rivers, making up a total area of 180,000 hectares. Due to rising temperatures, about 15 percent of the plateau’s glacial area, about 8,000 square kilometers since 1980, has retreated in the past half-century, according to a Chinese government-related study. Climate change effects would likely result in the destruction of the Tibetan antelope’s habitat, as well as other plant and animal species in the area. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species states that the chiru is near-threatened because the population size can be maintained with higher levels of protection and controls on trade and manufacturing from its fur. The local Tibetan herders protect the antelopes from hunters by patrolling the area, with little equipment or money.

During the evaluation of the Qinghai Hoh Xil region as a World Heritage Site, members of the local population expressed concern about the possibility of being displaced or resettled as a result of site’s new status. The IUCN report states that “it is imperative that questions of rights, access and traditional use are addressed rigorously and carefully by the State Party, and the World Heritage nomination must not be used to justify any deprivation of traditional land use rights of the concerned communities.” The report suggests that local herding communities should be consulted and involved in governing the land. It notes, as well, that the Qinghai Hoh Xil region contains many cultural and spiritual sites valued by its people, and it should be properly recognized.

The Chinese government has affirmed its plan to guarantee the integrity of the region. Han Jianhua, the Vice-Governor of Qinghai Province, in which the site is located, stated “[The Chinese government] made a commitment that [they] would protect the ecological environment heritage in strict accordance with the relevant requirements of the Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.”

The decision has been scrutinized by many advocacy groups, such as the International Campaign for Tibet, who have argued that the new site’s status would aid China in displacing tens of thousands of Tibetan nomads from the grasslands to towns, threaten the habitat of the antelope, and endanger the environment. The 2017 World Heritage Watch Report describes the nomination as an “international endorsement for China’s policies of intensified development and mass tourism, and the removal of Tibetan nomads from their lands.” By removing Tibetan nomads, the survival of the rangelands and the plateau’s biodiversity is threatened.

The UNESCO Decision

A resettlement village (Source: Tibet Nature/Google Images)

What does this new status as a World Heritage Site mean for the local populations? In the nomination which the Chinese government submitted to UNESCO for the site, it listed 35 households of 156 herders within the nominated region, and 222 households of 985 herders and 250 other residents in the buffer zone. In the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Heritage Evaluations, one of the three Advisory Bodies, the Chinese government stated that “there will be no forced relocation or exclusion of the traditional users of the nominated site, whether before or after succeeding in the application for World Heritage site.” However, it also indicated that across a large section of the site, the management agency will gradually “impose a ban on herding among sparse residences in the resettlement area and further consider specific voluntary resettlement policies, locations, compensation mechanisms and other measures that can promote the wellbeing of the resettlements.”

One of the goals under UNESCO’s operational guidelines is to establish services for the protection and conservation of the cultural and natural heritage of local and indigenous people. When asked about the effects of UNESCO’s decision on the local people, Marc Foggin, associate director at Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, said, “consideration of local people’s livelihoods has been explicitly embedded within the review process leading to the nomination/approval of the World Heritage Site (WHS), particularly through the lens of ‘community co-management’. The area’s previous classification as ‘nature reserve’ really considered only the natural heritage, but under WHS both natural and cultural heritages are explicitly considered. The WHS actually may allow for – and to some extent even promote – more equitable forms of resource governance than in previous [protected area] management regimes.”

Recent History of the Region

A Tibetan tent and family (Source: Marc Foggin/Springer Open)

These uncertainties have raised concerns because of other actions of the Chinese government elsewhere in the Tibetan Plateau. In 2003, a policy called tuimu huancao, or “converting pastures to grasslands,” was established in the plateau, which makes up about 85 percent of the country’s rangelands. The policy puts grasslands into zones where grazing is completely banned, where it is banned to grazing for three to ten years, and where rotational grazing or seasonal bans are put into place.

When the herders, largely ethnic Tibetans, were relocated beginning in 2004, many were not fluent in Chinese or have the skills to earn a fair income in the Chinese-dominated towns, leaving them unemployed. According to the agreements, if the Tibetans resettled, they would receive job training and educational opportunities for their children, but, unfortunately, many did not. When asked about the future impact of the World Heritage Site on the Tibetan herders, Lucia Parrucci, an advocacy officer at the Unrepresented Nations & Peoples Organization (UNPO), said, “It remains to be seen what China’s promise not to displace Tibetan people is worth in practice. In this regard, the role of UNESCO itself is crucial, as it should ensure Tibetan livelihood, culture and way of life remain unaffected.”

Tibetan herders’ economic and social well-being remains at stake. Some have argued that herders are a main cause of grassland degradation, due to overgrazing. As a result, a policy of herder resettlement  — now also justified as a form of climate adaptation- has been put in place. “The ill effects of resettlement have now been amply documented by researchers,” Emily Yeh, professor of geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder, told GlacierHub. “They include a lack of job training; a lack of jobs that make use of the linguistic and other abilities the herders do have, leading to idleness and attendant social ills; lowered income, even with subsidies, in part due to rising inflation; subsequent declines in health status; and shoddy house construction.”

Some suggest that the situation is shifting from its harshest phases. Throughout his research, Marc Foggin found that “the focus now is increasingly on working with nomad families in-situ (on the grassland) and providing development support, rather than on their re-settlement.” He added, “In other arenas, I have also come across indications that resettlement policies are (partially) reversing, with some instances of people even being supported to return, if they wish, to their prior grassland homes.” The attention and resources from the new World Heritage Site status could prove positive for the area. 


Roundup: The Godfather of Modern Ecology and China

A Hundred Years of Data

From National Geographic: “It’s not often an ecologist gets to play sleuth in so adventurous a fashion— picking through musty papers in the Midwest for 100-year-old hand-drawn maps that lead through dense Alaskan underbrush populated by wolves and brown bears. But that’s how scientist Brian Buma tracked down the work of a legend— a godfather of modern ecology so prominent in his field that the Ecological Society of America has an award named after him.”

Read more about Buma’s trekking and his findings here.

When William Cooper visited in 1916, this bay was filled with glacier ice (Source: Brian Buma).


All Not Quiet on the Western Front

From the BBC: “China has accused India of incursion into its territory between Sikkim and Tibet, in a dispute which has raised tensions between the countries. Officials said Indian border guards had obstructed “normal activities” on the Chinese side, and called on India to immediately withdraw them. India also recently accused Chinese troops of incursion on its side.”

Read more about this geopolitical hotspot here.

The entrance to the Nathu La pass, between India and China (source: Abhishek Kumar/Creative Commons).

On the Tibetan Plateau…

From the Chinese Academy of Sciences: “China on Saturday began its second scientific expedition to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to study changes in climate, biodiversity and environment over the past decades. The expedition will last five to 10 years and the first stop will be Serling Tso, a 2,391-square-kilometer lake that was confirmed to have replaced the Buddhist holy lake Namtso as Tibet’s largest in 2014.”

Read more about the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ upcoming research project here.

Satellite image of the Serling Tso lake (source: NASA/Creative Commons).

Seasonal Lake Changes on the Tibetan Plateau

Kunlun Mountain Chains (source: Yunsheng Bai / Flickr).
Kunlun Mountains (source: Yunsheng Bai/Flickr).

The Kunlun Mountains, featured as a mythical location in the legendary Chinese text Shanhai Jing, are one of the longest mountain chains in Asia. From the Pamirs of Tajikistan, the mountains run east along the border of Xinjiang and Tibet to the Qinghai province, forming part of the Tibetan Plateau. A number of important glaciers and lakes are found in the area, attracting glaciology researchers to the region throughout the year. Yanbin Lei, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is one scientist conducting important field work in the region.

Recently, Lei et al. published a paper  in the American Geophysical Union Journal Geophysical Research Letters that describes how lakes in the Tibetan Plateau are growing and deepening due to climate change. In particular, the scientists identified two patterns of lake level seasonality.

Because the climate is warming, an earlier melt and a relatively large increase in spring runoff are observed for all scenarios. This in turn increases water availability in the Indus Basin irrigation scheme during the spring growing season, according to Lei et al. This finding projects that rainfall will increase, according to another study by Su er al. In addition,  the discharge in the major large rivers of South and East Asia will also increase.

Kotra Tso at the Kunlun Mountains (source: Dr. Yongjie Wang).
Kotra Tso at the Kunlun Mountains (source: Yongjie Wang).

“Though crucial, the paucity of instrumental data from the sparsely populated Tibetan Plateau has limited scientific investigations of hydroclimate response to recent climate change,” Lei told GlacierHub. The Tibetan Plateau has a large spatial coverage and high elevation (the average latitude is over 4000 meters), not to mention an incredibly harsh climatic condition, which makes conducting research and taking measurements difficult. Because the seasonal dynamics of the lakes is not sufficiently understood, the research conducted by Lei et al. in the Tibetan Plateau was unprecedented.

“In general, there is a lack of monitoring of lake levels in the Kunlun Mountains, and consequently, data is missing for the lakes,” Lei  added. “Even if remote sensing were developed as a major method for studying inter-annual changes of lakes, the accuracy and frequency of this method would still be limited to study seasonal changes.”

With the help of “situ observations,” Cryosat-2 satellite altimetry data between 2010 and 2014, and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) data, Lei et al. managed to identify two patterns of lake level seasonality. “In the central, northern, and northeastern Tibetan Plateau, lake levels are characterized by considerable increases during warm seasons and decreases during cold seasons, which is consistent with regional mass changes related to monsoon precipitation and evaporation,” Lei et al. describe in their paper.  “In the northwestern Tibetan Plateau, however, lake levels exhibit dramatic increases during both warm and cold seasons, which deviate from regional mass changes.”

In an interview with GlacierHub, Lei summarized the reasons for this finding: “The difference was mainly caused by the glaciers and precipitation. There are widespread glaciers in the northwest Tibetan Plateau and the area of glaciers is larger than the area of lakes. The precipitation in summer is also low, resulting in high spring snowfall and large summer glacier melt to feed the lake. Meanwhile, in the northern Tibetan Plateau, there are fewer glaciers but more summer rainfall, causing an increase in the lake level,” Lei told GlacierHub.

The location of the selected lakes in the NWTP, NTP, CTP, and NETP (source: Lei et al. / Wiley).
The location of the selected lakes in the NWTP, NTP, CTP, and NETP (source: Lei et al. /Wiley).

Additionally, the seasonal difference of precipitation is also important. Annual precipitation in the northern Tibetan Plateau is 300-400 mm with 90 percent of precipitation occurring in summer, according to Lei. Annual precipitation in the northwest Tibetan Plateau is about 200 mm because spring snowfall counts more. “The lake level responses to different drivers indicates heterogeneous sensitivity to climate change between the northwestern Tibetan Plateau and other regions,” Lei noted.

As Lei et al. demonstrate in their study, climate change has dramatically influenced the lakes and rivers of Tibet. Higher temperatures saliently have led to the expansion of the watershed. However, Lei is unsure about the exact effect of climate change.

“Since 2006, lakes in the central Tibetan Plateau have been stable, while lakes in the northern Tibetan Plateau and Northwest Tibetan Plateau are growing at a high speed,” he said. “When these lakes will reach equilibrium remains uncertain.”

Health of Bees and Glaciers Linked

The Tibetan plateau, the earth’s highest and largest plateau, sometimes called the “Roof of the World,”  and its immediately surrounding mountains contain the greatest diversity of bumblebee species in the globe. But, these little-studied populations may be threatened by climate change, new research shows. A paper, entitled “Bumblebees, climate and glaciers across the Tibetan plateau (Apidae: Bombus Latreille),” published in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity in January, finds that if the many of glaciers in the Tibetan plateau melt without replenishing, they could dry up the summer streams that nourish the plants and flowers on which many of these bumblebees rely for food. It’s the first time glacier melt has been identified as a potential threat to bumblebees, even as scientists around the world race to understand recent declines in bumblebee populations and to devise strategies to revive them.

Many species of bees have pollen baskets on their hind legs. (Photo: wikimedia)
Many species of bees have pollen baskets on their hind legs. (Photo: wikimedia)

The research was conducted by scientists from China and London, who set out to understand the relationship between climate and bee species diversity in the Tibetan plateau. The researchers defined the Tibetan plateau broadly to include portions of China, Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan, a region about one third the size of the United States. To understand regional species variations, they collected data on the various species found and mapped them across the region. They then analyzed climate variables against variation in bee species composition.

The researchers discovered that the richness of the social bumblebee species in the alpine zone of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is greater than that of any other alpine region of the world. The area contains 44 species—by comparison, all of South America holds 24 species. Further, they found three principal groups of fauna, which can be distinguished by their constituent species: the Himalayan fauna of the south with many endemic species, fauna of the east in the Oriental region, and Palaearctic fauna of the north.

Map showing study region, in grey. (Photo: Williams et al.)
Map showing study region, in grey. (Photo: Williams et al.)

The research team, led by Paul Williams, was also able to find some distinct relationships between the types of bees populating an area and climate variables. The primary factor linked to bee variation was differences in precipitation across the region, which divided the study area into two parts— the dry west and north and the wetter east and south.

There are many species and types of bees which can be identified by their colors, wing sizes, behavior, and other characteristics. (Photo:  Wellcome Library, London. )
There are many species and types of bees which can be identified by their colors, wing sizes, behavior, and other characteristics. (Photo: Wellcome Library, London. )

When finalizing the data, there was one thing the researchers couldn’t figure out: why were bee populations so robust in the arid northern and western areas, such as Ladakh and Zanskar, contrary to what was expected due to the aridity in these areas? According to the study, “these small western and northern ‘oases’ appear to be strongly dependent on narrowly localized irrigation by continuous summer streams…often fed by meltwater from permanent glaciers.” However, these glaciers are believed to be melting rapidly due to climate change, the researchers note. Therefore, the rapid melt of the glaciers is a potentially serious conservation concern for the bumblebee species that thrive in these areas.

Bumblebee (Photo: Johan  J. Ingles-Le Nobel)
Bumblebee (Photo: Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel)

The impact of melting glaciers on bee populations most directly relates to the bee fauna in the north and west of the Tibetan Plateau; however, this connection could have impacts for populations across the region. The researchers conclude, “interruption of stream flow could result in sudden, complete and permanent collapse of bumblebee populations throughout these valleys.” This ecological disruption could affect ecosystems in unknown and irreversible ways.

Further, the decline of bee species in any part of the globe is significant because bees are one of the most hardworking, irreplaceable species on the planet. According to Marla Spivak, American entomologist and MacArthur Fellow, over one third of the world’s crops are dependent on bee pollination. In the recent decades, bumblebee populations have faced many perils due to habitat loss, pathogens, and pesticides. Yet, this research is the first time glacier melt has been identified as a conservation issue for bees. In this way, this unique paper points to the complex and delicate life systems that are affected by glaciers.


More on GlacierHub:

How Invertebrates Colonize Deglaciated Sites

On Tibetan Plateau, Permafrost Melt Worse Than Glacial Melt