Crisis on high
Updated 25 July 2016, 18:10 AEST
At the top of the world a climate disaster is unfolding that will impact the lives of more than 1 billion people.
Deep in the Himalayas sits a remote research station that is tracking an alarming trend in climate change, with implications that could disrupt the lives of more than 1 billion people and pitch the most populated region of the world into chaos.
The station lies in the heart of a region called the Third Pole, an area that contains the largest area of frozen water outside of the North Pole and South Pole.
Despite its relative anonymity, the Third Pole is vitally important; it is the source of Asia’s 10 largest rivers including the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Ganges — and their fertile deltas.
Flows from the glaciers that give the pole its name support roughly 1.3 billion people in China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — and the glaciers are melting fast.
Chinese authorities have opened up a remote research station on the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau and revealed alarming research on the pace of global warming.
Half a century of research shows the temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees in the area, more than double the global average. More than 500 glaciers have completely disappeared, and the biggest ones are retreating rapidly.
See Matthew Carney’s report on Lateline tonight at 9:30pm on ABC News 24
Journey to the pole
It was strategically important as it was located at the junction of the northern and southern Silk Roads.
At its height in the second century, Dunghuang had a population of 76,000 and was a key supply base for caravans to load up with food and water to make the trek across the desert.
Water from the Third Pole feeds a series of jewel-like oases that sit amid the arid dunes of the Gobi desert.
Today water from the glaciers has been harnessed into an extensive irrigation system that sustains a population of 5 million in what’s known as the Hexi Corridor.
It’s made the desert bloom with fields of sunflowers, corn, and wheat, but the glacier melt means the desert will eventually reclaim this land.
After surviving for so long in such a fragile environment, the oasis lakes are under threat. The glaciers that feed them are drying up.
“The volume of water will increase in the short term, but with the shrinking of glaciers in the next 30 years it will decrease, and drastically affect agriculture and life here,” he says.
He’s found the glacier melt is happening much faster than anticipated, and says the urgent task is to understand the complexity of what’s happening.
“We’ve already done lots of work on what happened in the past, but for future prediction, due to uncertainty of climate change, we have a lot to do,” he says.
The canary in the coal mine
The temperature can plummet to 0 degrees Celsius in summer, and oxygen is about half of what you usually find at sea level.
During the winter, scientists try to make a visit once a week if access is not blocked by snow or ice.
The station was the first one to open in China, in 1958, so it has a long history of collecting data.
Compared to the North and South poles it is understudied, so what Professor Qin and his team are discovering is hugely significant for the fate of the world.
Professor Qin has been in charge of the Tiger Valley station since 2005. He says the team’s research shows the glacier melt is happening much faster than anticipated.
In Tiger Valley the melt is fast, furious and constant: water just keeps pouring out of the 10-kilometre glacier.
The work can be dangerous for Professor Qin and his team. As the melt hollows out the glacier from the inside, collapses are almost a daily occurrence.
Professor Qin has found the rate of melting has almost doubled in the past decade.
“Based on the figures from 1960 to 2005, in that 45 years, it only retreated by 260 metres. But in [the most] recent 10 years it retreated by 140 metres,” he says.
“The speed compared to the previous period has nearly doubled.”
But he says in the wider area of the Qilian mountains — where there are a total of 2,684 glaciers — the damage has been more devastating.
A recent report he compiled found 509 smaller glaciers have vanished in the past 50 years and many more will go by 2050.
Now Professor Qin and his team fear the bigger ones will shrink dramatically.
He says the reason for the great melt is that the temperature has been increasing at a much faster rate up in the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau.
“From the data we had over 50 years, it showed in our research areas the temperature increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius — it is much higher than the national temperature increase,” he says.
“It is because, in the high altitude areas, the temperature is sensitive to the global warming.”
The scientific team has been confirming the extent of the glacier melt by checking the speed and depth of water flow at the same positions downstream for 50 years.
“Compared with the river discharge in 1959, we found the volume of the melting of glaciers has nearly doubled compared to 50 years ago,” Professor Qin says.
“It means, since the global warming, it caused the glaciers to melt more than before.”
Turning up the heat
Black carbon particles and dust land on the glaciers and absorb the sun and heat, unlike the white ice that reflects it.
Chen Jizu is just finishing his PhD on the issue and walks all over the Mengke Glacier collecting samples of dirty ice.
“We did the calculation for a year, it was between 2013 and 2014,” he says. “It was in summer when the melting was the strongest.
“We calculated the dust and the black carbon: two of them could cause around 50 per cent of melting.”
The Chinese research is alarming, but much more needs to be done to work out how best to deal with the massive melt to come.
It’s estimated there are nearly 46,000 glaciers in the Third Pole.
Professor Qin says there needs to be more coordination between scientists around the region, and that can be difficult because countries in the area are often in conflict.
They have only now decided on a standardised set of measurements so scientists working on the Third Pole can understand and learn from each other.
There is no map of potential risks that could serve as a planning tool.
The real worry is the melt will set off a chain of climate disasters like the recent epic floods in Pakistan and China, or unprecedented heatwaves in India, or increasing desertification across the region.
And the deeper concern is that while scientists know the changes in the Third Pole will affect global weather patterns such as monsoons and the El Nino, they don’t know by how much.
And in a region where tension between countries over shared water resources is becoming increasingly common, the environmental threat is likely to spark a political one.
Professor Qin says the world has to do more to avert a potential crisis.
“For the time being, the entire world hasn’t done enough. If they had, then global warming wouldn’t be getting worse,” he says.
“If people make great efforts now, we might still be able to control it — otherwise it’s going to become harder and harder.”
They come here in the summer months and pack up when winter hits.
But when the grasslands turn to deserts, their distinct way of life might be lost too.
One of the first villages below the snowline, Shibai, has already suffered the full force of extreme weather linked to climate change.
In 2012 a raging torrent of water, rocks and mud swept down from the mountains and destroyed much of the village. The locals say they have never seen a flood like it before.
“At the beginning the flood was huge, houses collapsed and were washed away,” one villager says.
Most of the residents have been relocated about three kilometres to higher land — perhaps just the first of many more climate change refugees to come in China.
- Reporter: Matthew Carney
- Photographer: Wayne McAllister
- Producer: Tim Leslie