End of an ice age

By Yang Jinghao Source:Global Times Published: 2012-10-10 19:00:04

Visitors head up Yulong Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan Province. Photo: CFP
Visitors head up Yulong Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan Province. Photo: CFP

Bai Qing had a busy start to October. As China's week-long holidays started, tourists began to swarm to the inn the 31-year-old man runs in the ancient town of Lijiang, Yunnan Province. But travelers hoping to crest the well-known Yulong Snow Mountain were often disappointed.

"The awkward fact is that the number of mountaineers is soaring while the snow is obviously shrinking," Bai sighed.

Bai told the Global Times that other snowy mountains in Yunnan Province, such as Haba and Meili in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, are faced with the same grave situation, with their glaciers rapidly melting. "But Yulong is the most critical."

Many tourists are disappointed to find that many sections of Meili that used to be blanketed by snow are now covered by vegetation.

Ci Cheng, head of the meteorological bureau of Deqin county, where the Meili Snow Mountain is located, explained late September that vegetation has been growing over the tundra in recent years. This is closely related to unusual climate patterns, which have seen no snow accumulating during winters on the mountain while summers have seen too much rain.

The Mingyong Glacier in Meili, China's lowest and southernmost glacier, has shrunk by at least 40 meters within 13 years, a study in 2007 showed.

It's still unknown if meteorological scientists' earlier prediction that the Meili Snow Mountain will be devoid of snow within 80 years will become true, but it's clear that under the impact of global warming and more frequent human activities, natural beauty is vanishing both nationally and globally.

Some local governments have stepped up to try to prevent the situation from worsening, but experts say it will be a tough job to find a way out since economic growth still dominates the development blueprint and tourism has long been seen as an easy way to generate GDP.

Disappearing ice

Yulong Snow Mountain has 13 peaks along the range, 35 kilometers in width, including 19 glaciers. In the last two decades, the snow-capped mountain has been experiencing an unprecedented melting of glaciers.

"It's no exaggeration to say that the Yulong takes on a different look every single month. At this rate, it's possible that the glaciers would disappear in eight or 10 years," He Yuanqing, former head of the Yulong Snow Mountain Glacier Observation Station under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), told the Global Times.

He explained that Yulong is the closest to the equator of the Eurasian snow mountains and is more susceptible to climate change.

So far, four of 19 glaciers have completely disappeared from Yulong, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

On Meili, a holy mountain for local Tibetan residents, the famous Mingyong Glacier retreated by 50 meters between 1994 and 2002, and had shrunk a total of 200 meters by 2006, provincial news portal yunnan.cn cited data from Deqin meteorological bureau as saying.

Due to the massive shrinkage, a large number of sea-buckthorn shrubs began to grow over the formerly icy areas. Once-spectacular glaciers are now covered in the mountainous plant.

The Tianshan Mountains in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are not exempt from the growing crisis. The No.1 Glacier in the mountains has been retreating by more than four meters every year and its thickness has shrunk by more than 15 meters from 1958 to 2010, Li Zhongqin, head of the Tianshan Mountains Glacier Observation Station under the CAS, revealed.

Li added that the shrinking of the glacier has gathered pace since the 1980s.

China has a total of 46,377 glaciers with 18,311 located in Xinjiang. Approximately 120 kilometers away from the regional capital Urumuqi, the Tianshan No.1 Glacier is the closest to an urban community in the world.

Apart from these, glaciers in Southwest China's Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, the major source of the country's largest rivers, are also melting at an ever growing speed.

Cheng Haining, a senior engineer with the Qinghai provincial surveying and mapping bureau, said in 2011 that about 5.3 percent, or 70 square kilometers worth, of the glaciers in the Yangtze headwaters had melted away over the past three decades, Xinhua reported.

Humans to blame

When trying to come up with the prime culprit for the looming crisis, global warming has been commonly fingered as the main reason for the acceleration of glacier thawing.

"Global warming is undoubtedly the major factor. For Yunnan, continuous droughts have deteriorated the situation," said He Yuanqing.

An investigation on the precipitation and temperatures of Lijiang between 1951 and 2008 found that the city's average temperature stayed steady at 12.6 C before 1998, but climbed to 13.2 C between 1998 and 2008. In 2009, it reached 13.9 C.

Local residents in Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai said the Lancang River would freeze by November in the 1970s, but it did not freeze at all in 1999. It is estimated that 70 percent of the glaciers in the Lancang River headwaters have disappeared due to the warm weather, according to Xinhua.

David Molden, director of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, argues that black carbon is the second leading reason for the glacier thawing.

Black carbon refers to particles, including dust and ashes, generated by incomplete combustion of carbon-containing material such as fossil and biomass material.

Researchers at the Tianshan Mountains Glacier Observation Station said there are several power plants and building material factories, which have been operating for nearly 30 years near the glacier.

The black carbon emissions from the plants have been accumulating on the surface of the glacier, and the black color of the particles can absorb heat from the sun and intensify the thawing of the glacier, researchers said.

Additionally, the plants have also been polluting the water supply of Urumqi, since the Urumqi River that runs through the city originates from the glacier.

During an interview in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region in March, Bujum, a car driver in his 50s, complained to the Global Times that an excess of human activities, in particular high carbon-emission cars, should be blamed for the glacier shrinkage in Tibet.

"Less than 20 years ago, many mountains surrounding Lhasa were covered with snow and ice all through the year. But now, you can rarely see them from here," Bujum said while driving out of the downtown area to the nearby countryside.

"Now, look at the cars on the roads. Most are off-road vehicles with high emissions, especially those from public organs," he noted.

"The glaciers are still melting. I'm afraid, a few years later when you come, you will have no chance to see them," he added.

His opinion was shared by Bai, who believes that as Yulong stands close to the downtown area, it is easily affected by factors like vehicle emissions and the crowded tourist season.

Efforts underway

Some people have sounded the alarm after realizing the disaster in process.

Glaciers are the largest source of fresh water on the planet, and their shrinkage threatens the national water supply.

Xin Yuanhong, a senior engineer with the Qinghai Hydrography and Geology Study Center, said the melting of the glaciers could lead to a water shortage and even a dry-up of rivers in the long run, and consequent ecological disasters like wetland retreat and desertification.

He Xianzhong, director of the Yulong Snow Mountain Management Committee, said earlier that the glacier melt run-off is a major water supply for Lijiang residents. He said between 2008 and 2009, the water resource of the city from precipitation was 1.9 million tons, while that from Yulong's glacier melting stood at 1 million tons.

He Yuanqing said the disappearance of the glacier landscape would also bring bad impacts to local tourism, which is the main financial revenue for such places as Lijiang.

Some local governments have geared up for countermeasures in alleviating the looming crisis. He Yuanqing said Lijiang has been trying to improve the climate through ecological restoration, including constructing man-made lakes, massively increasing vegetation, and practicing snowmaking, among other measures.

"But such artificial remedial measures can't fundamentally address the problem, they can only moderate the pace of melting," he noted.

He also said it's necessary to restrict the numbers of tourists for further protection, though the impact caused by tourism activities is very limited.

A survey to Meili Snow Mountain in September 2009 showed that the number of overseas visitors rose to 380,000 trips in 2006 from 28,800 in 1997, while domestic tourists climbed to over 2.86 million trips from 517,000.

Meanwhile, China is preparing for international cooperation in tackling the challenge. A professor with the Kyrgyzstan National Academy of Science said on October 1 that they would cooperate with the CAS's Xinjiang Institute of Ecology and Geography to monitor the changes of glaciers on Tianshan Mountains through aerial shooting and remote-sensing technologies, according to china.com.cn.

The professor said the snowline of Tianshan in Xinjiang has risen by about 30 meters and some relatively low peaks have been devoid of accumulated snow.

Molden said the melting of the glacier should ring an alarm bell to the whole world, and all countries should take measures to reduce carbon emissions and save energy in the face of global warming.

Huang Jingjing and Xinhua contributed to this story

Posted in: In-Depth

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