Mingy­ong glacier is shrink­ing

Mingy­ong glacier — a fresh­wa­ter bank in South­west China — is shrink­ing. Lo­cated near the Qing­hai-Ti­bet Plateau, a world hub of ice and snow, it un­der­scores the re­al­ity of cli­mate change

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By SA­TARUPA BHATTACHARJYA in De­qen, Yun­nan prov­ince sa­tarupa@chi­nadaily.com.cn

An el­derly woman clutches onto two sticks as she walks up the nar­row path of a moun­tain at­tached to the Meili range in De­qen county in Yun­nan prov­ince on a re­cent week­day.

Catch­ing her breadth from time to time, she fol­lows her younger com­pan­ions on the 4-kilo­me­ter trek, which is of­ten in­ter­rupted by herds of ponies car- ry­ing ce­ment and rocks for re­pair work at a tem­ple that pil­grims like her seek to visit. Prayer ban­ners of dif­fer­ent colors flut­ter in the wind above their heads.

Their climb will not end un­til they have reached a higher ob­ser­va­tion deck from where the Mingy­ong glacier is vis­i­ble in its full splen­dor.

Lo­cated in South­west China at an el­e­va­tion of nearly 3,000 me­ters above sea level, the glacier — a sa­cred site in Ti­betan Bud­dhism — draws hun­dreds of pil­grims and tourists from home and abroad each year. For lo­cals, it is a source of fresh­wa­ter that feeds sev­eral streams in the prov­ince’s north­west, and can be used for ir­ri­ga­tion and drink­ing.

But all this could change in com­ing decades. The low­est-ly­ing of China’s 48,570 or so glaciers, Mingy­ong, has been in a state of re­treat for long.

“The glacier has re­ceded about 300 me­ters at the end and in height, re­spec­tively, from 1975 to 2009, which means it has over­all shrunk from 12.64 square kilo­me­ters to 12.38 sq km,” Liu Shiyin, a glaciol­o­gist from Yun­nan Univer­sity in Kun­ming, says in a writ­ten re­sponse to ques­tions from the pa­per.

Twelve other glaciers to the east of Lan­cang River, which flows from the Qing­hai-Ti­bet Plateau through Yun­nan to five coun­tries (as Mekong), have thinned since 1968. The ma­jor­ity of China’s glaciers are on the plateau. The coun­try’s to­tal glacial area had shrunk to some 50, 000 sq km by 2010, an es­ti­mated 17 per­cent re­duc­tion, Liu says.

The rates of pull­back and con­trac­tion, among other changes over 50 years, have var­ied from glacier to glacier. And, while within the world sci­en­tific com­mu­nity, there could be dif­fer­ent opin­ions on the health of glaciers, mea­sured largely by satel­lite data or on-site mon­i­tor­ing, there is lit­tle dis­agree­ment over the rea­son that has trig­gered the great thaw.

“Glaciers have ex­pe­ri­enced a uni­ver­sal re­treat since the mid-19th cen­tury,” Liu says. “But the ac­cel­er­a­tion in shrink­age has be­come more ap­par­ent in re­cent times.”

Cli­mate change, which is com­monly known as global warm­ing, is caused by man-made and nat­u­ral ac­tiv­i­ties, and glaciers are sen­si­tive to it.

Glaciers have ex­pe­ri­enced a uni­ver­sal re­treat since the mid-19th cen­tury. But the ac­cel­er­a­tion in shrink­age has be­come more ap­par­ent in re­cent times.”

Liu Shiyin, glaciol­o­gist

The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion (1760 on­ward) has con­trib­uted sub­stan­tially to cli­mate change.

Ac­cord­ing to a pa­per by the In­sti­tute of Ti­betan Plateau Re­search, an af­fil­i­ate of the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, the cen­tral body in Bei­jing, glacial re­treat in China has been no­ticed more among small moun­tain glaciers in the south­west of the Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gion, where the mass deficit has been build­ing up since the 1970s.

Vil­lage in the foothills

De­qen county, which is part of the Diqing Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, has a forested area that is among the world’s rich­est in bio­di­ver­sity. The val­ley’s sur­round­ing moun­tains are home to rare species, such as the snub-nosed mon­key, snow leop­ard and the Ti­betan pheas­ant. The veg­e­ta­tion in this part of Yun­nan strad­dles the tem­per­ate and trop­i­cal worlds.

The melt­ing of the Mingy­ong glacier will likely af­fect the lo­cal flora and fauna, and the river ecosys­tem in the long term.

For do­mes­tic an­i­mals like yaks, used to life at high al­ti­tudes, an even­tu­ally warmer place would mean al­ter­ing their nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and in­creas­ing the risks of in­fec­tious dis­eases, Nasheng Duji, a se­nior of­fi­cial with the county gov­ern­ment’s agri­cul­ture bu­reau, says in De­qen town.

In ad­di­tion, lo­cal live­stock farm­ing re­lies on nat­u­ral pas­tures. A change in the weather pat­tern — less snow — is al­ready show­ing signs of grass­land degra­da­tion. The of­fi­cial says the county has been pro­vid­ing a sub­sidy to deal with this eco­log­i­cal is­sue since 2011. The pas­tures sup­port the liveli­hoods of around 58,000 peo­ple in the county.

“Global warm­ing will also lead to the grad­ual re­duc­tion of the area’s per­mafrost, a part of which still de­pends on the glacier. But it could dry up in the fu­ture and af­fect the growth of plants,” says Wei Guodong, an­other lo­cal of­fi­cial.

Mingy­ong vil­lage, where some 300 peo­ple live, lies in the foothills of the glacier. Many ru­ral res­i­dents are farm­ers who grow and sell corn, high­land bar­ley, grapes, nuts, olives and pine mush­room, as well herbs for use in tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Ti­betan medicines. A few oth­ers have opened inns and restau­rants to cater to tourists.

A small river, fed by the glacier, runs through the vil­lage and en­riches the soil.

“I used to col­lect ice from the glaciers here,” Cili Kazhu, 57, says of her younger days when she spent time around smaller glaciers in the vicin­ity.

They have tinned in the past 30 years or so, she says while stir­ring hot bar­ley liquor in the yard of her house and speak­ing in Ti­betan through a trans­la­tor.

Ti­betans make up the ma­jor­ity pop­u­la­tion in this county of 67,000 peo­ple.

Baima Dengzhu, a 65-year-old man who mi­grated to Mingy­ong vil­lage from North­west China’s Qing­hai prov­ince a few years ago to work at a Bud­dhist tem­ple, de­scribes the glacial re­treat as a “process of na­ture” but says peo­ple in the vil­lage are plant­ing more trees these days to keep things green.

Among the vil­lage’s youth, men are into road­work or tourism, while women ei­ther study or work out­side.

“The tem­per­a­tures have risen (in the area),” says Dinzhen Zhaba, the 27-year-old driver of an ex­ca­va­tor.

Sci­en­tists and of­fi­cials speak of the con­se­quences of cli­mate change on glaciers, but China Daily’s visit to Mingy­ong glacier finds lesser aware­ness on the ground.

Views on global warm­ing

Glacial ice is con­sid­ered to be the largest reser­voir of fresh wa­ter on Earth. Go­ing by a world in­ven­tory, there are 198,000 known glaciers.

Ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts in China, “high-moun­tain Asia” has 94,000 glaciers, the largest num­ber out­side the po­lar re­gion. These gla- ciers feed many im­por­tant rivers, such as the Yangtze, Yel­low, Ganges, Brahma­pu­tra, In­dus and Mekong, which sup­ply wa­ter to more than 1 bil­lion peo­ple.

Most of these glaciers have melted over re­cent decades at an av­er­age rate of nearly 1 per­cent, with tem­per­a­ture and pre­cip­i­ta­tion mainly in­flu­enc­ing the process, they say.

“If the ice from such banks is de­pleted, there will not be enough wa­ter in 100 years for the pur­pose of ir­ri­ga­tion (in parts of Asia),” John Moore, chief sci­en­tist, Col­lege of Global Change and Earth Sys­tem Science at Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity, says.

Glacial runoffs could also lead to flood­ing in some places and in­ter­fere with the rain­fall. Some at­tribute the rise in sea lev­els to melt­ing glaciers, while oth­ers say it is due to global warm­ing.

Sci­en­tific equip­ment like Agro floats have in­di­cated that ocean tem­per­a­tures have in­creased in the past 30 or 40 years, caus­ing land ice and ice sheets to melt fur­ther.

“All this will af­fect the bal­ance of en­ergy in na­ture in the long term,” Li Xichen, a se­nior re­searcher at the In­sti­tute of At­mo­spheric Physics, an af­fil­i­ate of the Chi­nese Academy of Sci­ences, says in Bei­jing of oceanic and at­mo­spheric cir­cu­la­tions.

The world’s coastal ar­eas will likely take the worst hit.

Li, who has stud­ied the Antarc­tic and Arc­tic oceans, says in western Antarc­tica, for in­stance, sur­face tem­per­a­tures have also gone up by 5 de­grees.

The Antarc­tic re­gion con­tains some 500 gi­ga­tons of fresh­wa­ter in glaciers.

With glacial melt­ing po­ten­tially ir­re­versible, one sure way to deal with the sit­u­a­tion is pur­su­ing sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. The 2015 Paris Agree­ment, which seeks to rein in global warm­ing, has been rat­i­fied by most coun­tries. In June, US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump an­nounced his coun­try’s exit from the ac­cord, a move widely crit­i­cized by gov­ern­ments and sci­en­tists.

Some ex­perts are sug­gest­ing cli­mate model­ing as a sup­ple­ment to emis­sion cuts to com­bat global warm­ing.

A dras­tic re­duc­tion in green­house gas emis­sions would be needed in the next few decades to limit global tem­per­a­ture rise to 1.5 or 2 C, ex­perts have ear­lier said.

“If such tar­gets are met, then it is con­ceiv­able that plau­si­ble quan­ti­ties of sul­fate aerosol geo­engi­neer­ing may be able to main­tain 2020 tem­per­a­tures through­out the 21st cen­tury,” Zhao Liyun, a ju­nior sci­en­tist at the same col­lege as Moore, wrote in a re­cent pa­per, co-au­thored with him and three oth­ers.

But their ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of this in­ter­ven­tion, by their own ad­mis­sion, is one that could also in­evitably al­ter other im­por­tant cli­mate pa­ram­e­ters, such as pre­cip­i­ta­tion, at­mos­phere and ocean cir­cu­la­tion pat­terns. Be­sides, it would not be lo­cal­ized and could change the cli­mate on time scales of decades.

Such stud­ies are on­go­ing in other coun­tries, too, as re­searchers search for mod­els with the least side ef­fects.

China stepped up map­ping glaciers in the 1980s after global anx­i­ety over the on­set of an­other ice age.

Li Yingqing con­trib­uted to this story.

If the ice from such banks is de­pleted, there will not be enough wa­ter in 100 years for the pur­pose of ir­ri­ga­tion.”

John Moore, chief sci­en­tist, Col­lege of Global Change and Earth Sys­tem Science at Bei­jing Nor­mal Univer­sity


Mingy­ong glacier in Fe­bru­ary 2015. The glacier sits at an el­e­va­tion of nearly 3,000 me­ters above sea level. A ma­jor­ity of China’s 48,570 or so glaciers are on the Qing­hai-Ti­bet Plateau. The coun­try’s to­tal glacial area had shrunk to some 50, 000 sq km by 2010, an es­ti­mated 17 per­cent re­duc­tion, an ex­pert says. The glacier has re­ceded about 300 me­ters be­tween 1975 and 2009, an ex­pert says. From left: Mingy­ong vil­lage in De­qen county, Yun­nan prov­ince; Cili Kazhu, a 57-year-old res­i­dent, re­calls “col­lect­ing ice” from glaciers in her youth; a glacier-fed river in the vil­lage. CHINA DAILY


Mingy­ong glacier, lo­cated on a sub­sidiary peak of the Meili Snow Moun­tain in Yun­nan prov­ince, in Oc­to­ber 2009.


From left: An icy trickle near the Mingy­ong glacier; Baima Dengzhu and his wife live in the foothills; a forested path that leads to the glacier.

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