BEIJING, CHINA — Chinese scientists have warned that the melting glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, known as the world’s Third Pole, will cause a reduced water supply in coming decades, affecting billions of people downstream.
The plateau, with tens of thousands of glaciers, is the headwaters of Asia’s 10 largest rivers, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Indus, Yarlung Zangbo and Syr Darya rivers, which provide water for three billion people across Asia.
By 2060 to 2070, rising temperatures due to climate change will lead to ever-stronger glacier retreat on the plateau, and rivers fed by the seasonal melting will provide less freshwater, said Yao Tandong, an award-winning glaciologist and director of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
A team of scientists led by Yao completed a research mission to the plateau in September. They found that from 1960 to 2012 temperature hikes in the polar region reached a staggering 0.3 to 0.4 degrees Celsius per decade, over two times that of the global average, and the glacier lost 15 percent of its mass.
“If temperatures increase two degrees Celsius globally as indicated by the Paris Conference on Climate Change, this region could see a temperature hike as high as four degrees Celsius,” said Yao.
Though the glacier melting on the hotter plateau so far has not caused less river flow but created more water, it has resulted in ice avalanches, floods and other risks to the region.
In 2016, two glaciers collapsed and ravaged meadows, causing a lake tsunami and killing nine herders and hundreds of livestock at Aru village in Ngari Prefecture of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Another glacier collapsed in October at the Yarlung Zangbo River in Tibet, blocking the river and forming a barrier lake. The backwater even destroyed a bridge above the river.
Without actions to mitigate global warming, the rise in temperatures will aggravate evaporation and accelerate glacier retreat, causing small glaciers that cover less than two square kilometers to disappear, large glaciers to shrink and main rivers to lose water, said Yao.
In October, 16 Chinese research institutions launched a project on the environmental study of the Pan-Third Pole, a 20-million-square kilometer region encompassing the Eurasian highlands.
Researchers will build an unprecedentedly integrated observation network with advanced facilities in air and space, such as polar-orbiting satellites, remote sensing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.
The project will provide support and management strategies for pushing forward the ecological protection of the plateau.
Yao also called for joint efforts with neighboring countries in scientific research “to explore pathways for sustainable development of the polar region.”