Melting the Roof of the World: Impact of Climate Change on the Tibet High Plateau, China

High up in the Tibet Autonomous Region and western China lies the Tibetan Plateau, an imposing landmass of huge importance to Asia. Now, climate change is threatening to melt its glaciers. What does this mean for China and south Asia?

Nicknamed the ‘Roof of the World’, the Tibetan Plateau, or 青藏高原 (Qīng–Zàng Gāoyuán), far surpasses Mount Olympus in height and grandeur.

Standing proudly at 4500 metres above sea level and surrounded by the tallest mountains known to man, this towering landmass gives the impression that it may actually touch the sky.

However, the Plateau is heating up twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. Since the mid-1970s, a quarter of Tibet’s ice has been lost.

The speed of the Tibetan ice thaw rapidly increases the amount of water entering the rivers cascading from the Plateau, and more water leads to unexpected surges, increasing the risk of flooding in countries downstream. However, by 2060, meltwater will decrease as the Tibetan glaciers retreat, and river flows will begin to decline.

“One reason for the rapid ice loss is that the Tibetan plateau, like the other two poles, is warming at a rate up to three times as fast as the global average, by 0.3C per decade. In the case of the third pole, this is because of its elevation, which means it absorbs energy from rising, warm, moisture-laden air. Even if average global temperatures stay below 1.5C, the region will experience more than 2C of warming; if emissions are not reduced, the rise will be 5C, according to a report released earlier this year by more than 200 scientists for the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Winter snowfall is already decreasing and there are, on average, four fewer cold nights and seven more warm nights per year than 40 years ago. Models also indicate a strengthening of the south-east monsoon, with heavy and unpredictable downpours. “This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of.” I(CIMOD’s chief scientist, Philippus Wester)

Populous countries such as China will suffer especially great consequences, which is why they have been busy constructing dams along major rivers to guarantee their share of the water from the Plateau. As global warming aggravates this situation, nations reliant on the plateau are potentially going to seeing tensions escalate. Regional issues of this magnitude cannot be solved nationally. China, a country that has proven the type of environmentsaving feats it is capable of, has increasingly to become more proactively involvement in transboundary water agreements.

As Earth continues to heat up and problems exacerbate, these solutions will no longer be sustainable. We might already be too late. By 2100, 36 percent of the glaciers in the Plateau’s surrounding mountain ranges will have disappeared. But there’s no time to be disheartened. If current emissions are not curbed, rising temperatures will melt more than 50 percent of these glaciers.

SOURCE: Extract from the Kontinentalist, 11 February 2020

Mingyong Glacier Adventure Tours - Journeys International
The Mingyong glacier at the foot of Khawa Karpo or Kawagebo Peak, – the highest mountain in the Chinese province of Yunnan. It is located on the border between Dêqên County, Yunnan, and the counties of Zogang and Zayü of the Tibet Autonomous Region.