Roof of the world melting away?

Expedition to Tibetan Plateau reveals devastating consequences of global warming

Feature Story - 2005-10-10
When you live off the land any change in climate can have profound effects. This Tibetan woman used to have a healthy herd of animals to support her family. Now due to the lack of rain and spreading deserts on the Tibetan plateau her income has disappeared. Try telling her that global warming isn't a reality.

A comparison of Halong Glacier between 1981 and 2005. According to the analysis done by the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, Chinese Academy of Sciences, the glacier retreated by over 400 metres between 1966 and 2000.

A saline deposit is the only evidence left of a small lake in the Star Sea Lake area which completely dried up only 4 years ago in 2001. Greenpeace believes the burning of fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and rapid lake water reduction.

Yak and sheep bathing at Eling Lake. The water level of Eling Lake has been reduced to a record low. In the past 50 years, the water level was reduced by 3-4 years. The wetlands along the lakes are seriously deteriorating.

This desert did not exist 2-3 years ago and has already encroached around 8 kilometres into previously lush grassland.

This desert did not exist 2-3 years ago and has already encroached around 8 kilometres into previously lush grassland.

A 31 year old Tibetan woman at her home in Yellow River township. She has 4 children and once owned 20 cattle and 30 sheep and lived well from the profits of the herd. However, due to the increase in degraded grassland she lost her livelihood and now is dependent on her husband to go out to find odd jobs to support the family. Global warming is already leading to the region drying up.

The Tibetan Plateau is often referred to as the roof of the world, land of high peaks, glaciers and nomadic tribal peoples. The snowy peaks and glaciers are the source of many of Asia's mightiest rivers - the Ganges, Mekong and China's Yellow River. This area is predicted to warm considerably before 2100 due to global warming. The roof of the world is melting, and melting fast.

A little less ice

So what's the big deal about a little less ice in a place full of the stuff anyway? Actually it's a disaster for the region now,  and the ramifications may yet be felt across the globe. We visited the region to highlight the impacts of the changing climate of the Tibetan Plateau.

As the area warms less rain is falling and glaciers in the region are melting. Local communities used to make a living of their herds of animals grazing on lush mountain pastures. Now those pastures are fast turning to desert due to lack of water, overgrazing and erosion caused by new animals that are thriving in the warmer conditions. Many local people now survive solely on government handouts.

On our expedition to the region we travelled on "dancing roads" distorted by melting permafrost to meet the governor of Madoi County. In 1980, Madoi was China's richest province due to its agricultural wealth. It is  now China's poorest. We interviewed once-prosperous, but now destitute, farmers and saw first hand the desert gobbling up pasture land.

Climate change is causing a cocktail of environmental effects at the Yellow River source that threaten an ecological breakdown. When you see the empty wells, bridges over nothing but dry dirt, cracked ground where there should be lakes, bare rock and sand where it was once healthy grassland you know something is seriously wrong.

See more impacts in the region at our Yellow River site in English or Chinese.

While the immediate impacts on the area are bad enough they pale compared to the possible future impacts in the rest of China. The Yellow River has fed China's people since time immemorial. Today, 120 million Chinese people, a tenth of China's population, rely on the river, especially for irrigating crops. As well as being known as China's 'mother river', is also dubbed the 'cradle of the Chinese civilization'.

Now the mother river is drying up at its source. In many places on the upper stretches the flow is much reduced. If the flow of the river continues to decline it threatens the food supplies for a large part of China's population.

Alarm bell for the world

But this isn't just a problem for China. Many of Asia's rivers begin on the Tibetan Plateau. If it continues to dry this could affect many of these rivers and the millions of people who rely on them. As well as water shortages, scientists predict that rising temperatures will reduce the rice crops that are the staple food for more than half of the world's population.

How would the world feed millions of people who cannot rely on locally produced rice?

The Yellow River source region is an urgent warning that climate change is harming people now and is going to get worse. The Yellow River story is not just about China, it's a warning signal that we need  worldwide action on global warming.

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