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
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.