The Thirsty Dragon: An “Icy Water Tower” Melts

While the source of this article (Conde Nast Traveler) is unusual for content that this blog normally features, the author – Dr. Orville Schell – is a long time China expert who has been increasingly focused on the gradual shrinking of the glacial, soaring, peaks of the Tibetan Plateau which act as the icy water tower that feeds the great rivers of Asia.  As the report notes, the situation is indeed getting worse with significant regional implications as well:

“…All that is visible across the succession of deep, folding valleys hidden in darkness before me is the faintest outline of a sawtooth silhouette lancing up into a dazzling array of stars. I am standing alone on the rooftop of the dingy Pearl Hotel in Feilai Si, a small town that clings to a mountainside in southwestern China. Around me is a ghostly shroud of hotel linens that luff gently in the night breeze, seeming to mimic the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering on the hill behind. Otherwise, there is silence.

I am jolted by a sudden sound of knocking below. “Qilai! Kuai daole!” a Chinese voice calls out—”Get up! It’s going to happen soon!”

The sleeping hotel begins to come alive. Voices murmur. Water moans through pipes. Then the sound of boots clumping up stairs heralds the arrival of others on the roof. As the first hint of dawn brightens the eastern sky, a blurry group of people in puffed-up parkas begin to materialize around me, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other as they wait in the chill night air.

Then, as the light crescendos, the peaks of Meili Snow Mountain Range emerge in outline. At 22,000 feet, Kawa Karpo (“White Pillar” in Tibetan), is the tallest of the range’s thirteen spectacular snowcapped summits. Tibetans in this remote corner of Yunnan Province, sandwiched between Tibet proper to the west and Myanmar to the south, consider Kawa Karpo a neri, or sacred mountain.

In addition to the tens of thousands of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims who circumambulate the mountain each year, prostrating themselves inchworm fashion along the kora, the route around the mountain’s base, to earn merit for their next incarnation, growing numbers of Chinese tourists now visit. Kawa Karpo is said to have gotten its name from a nine-headed, eighteen-bodied monster who, after renouncing his worldly ways and studying Buddhism, gained enlightenment.

The Buddha was so moved by the conversion that he invited Kawa Karpo to journey throughout Tibet to find a home. He chose this mountain. The other twelve peaks of the range, according to legend, are his wife, children, and retinue.

A distant rooster crows, and the sun bursts into full flame over the ridge. As if some switch were thrown to make them artificially glow from within, the mountains’ peaks become tinted with gold and orange. The Chinese tourists around me begin clicking away on their cameras with the intensity of tail gunners whose bomber squadron has suddenly come under attack.

“Has anyone climbed it?” asks a young woman. “No! No!” someone replies. “It is a sacred Tibetan mountain. The Japanese tried in 1991, and they all died.”

With the Mingyong Glacier cascading down the east side of its fang-like peak, Kawa Karpo is perhaps the most magnificent and defiant mountain I have ever seen. Indeed, the surrounding jagged peaks and deep gorges, dotted with colorful Tibetan temples festooned with prayer flags, make the region one of the most beautiful in China. Almost half of all the species of plants and animals cataloged in the country and more than a third of its fifty-six official ethnic minorities (including Tibetans) live here, making Yunnan one of the most biologically and culturally diverse places on earth.

But there is a more urgent reason to visit. Because the 45,000 glaciers in the Greater Himalayas constitute the largest ice mass between the two polar regions, scientists have come to call this part of Asia “the third pole.” Unlike in the Arctic and Antarctica, whose meltwaters flow into the ocean (threatening coastlines with rising sea levels), waters from these frozen reservoirs feed into the major river systems of Asia, affecting the lives of well over a billion people downstream.

But for reasons that climatologists are only just beginning to understand, temperatures at these high altitudes are rising more rapidly than at sea level. Many glaciers, including the Mingyong, are literally wasting away. The glaciers are “a water bank account that has been built up over thousands of years,” explains Ohio State paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, who has spent years taking core samples in the Himalayas and from glaciers elsewhere in the world. “In the twentieth century, we’ve been taking out more from that bank account than we’re putting in. And we know that long term, if you do that with any bank account, soon it’s gone.”

The Mingyong, which is roughly seven miles long, is also one of the lowest-altitude glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau. As such, it is something of a canary in the global-warming coal mine. What happens here forewarns of what is to come elsewhere.

The melting glaciers are particularly important because the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most hydrologically charged regions on earth. The Yangtze River, whose headwaters begin near here as the Jinsha, rushes down through Yunnan to Sichuan Province and the Three Gorges, and east to Shanghai. The Mekong, which begins as the Lancang, flows southward, bound for Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before spilling out into the South China Sea. The Salween, which starts as the Nu here in Tibetan China, crosses the border into Myanmar to ultimately debouch into the Andaman Sea. For about two hundred miles, these three rivers flow side by side through an area that, because of its varied flora and fauna and some of the most beautiful gorges in the world, has been declared the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Farther west on the Tibetan Plateau, the Brahmaputra cascades out of the Himalayas through India’s northeast to Bangladesh before reaching the Bay of Bengal. Even farther west, the Ganges and the Indus begin their journeys southward from the western tier of the Tibetan Plateau and the Karakoram Range.

The Mingyong, which feeds the Mekong, is “one of the fastest-receding glaciers in the world,” says Barry Baker, a Nature Conservancy climate modeler who has been studying the region for more than five years. When Baker first started researching the glacier, it was retreating about eighty feet per year. Now, he says, that pace has doubled. In 2007, scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserted that glaciers in the Himalayas “are receding faster than in any other part of the world” and that “the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035, and perhaps sooner, is very high, if the earth keeps warming at the current rate.”

Until recently, the region’s governments have done little to draw international attention to the fact that their countries’ people, agriculture, and even industrial development are vulnerable to continued glacial melting. Of late, however, the subject seems to have become a political football. India’s minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, for reasons which are unclear, recently issued a report challenging the IPCC findings. In response, Rajendra Pachauri, a well-respected climatologist and chairman of the IPCC, countered by saying that the government report had few scientific citations, was not peer reviewed, and was reminiscent of “schoolboy science.” Pachauri added, “I don’t know why the minister is supporting this unsubstantiated research. It is an extremely arrogant statement.”

Glaciologist Thompson insists that the science speaks for itself: “A glacier is a wonderful archive. You can take it to any government, or the U.S. Senate, and no one has yet come up with any political agenda that a glacier might have except that the climate on the planet is changing.”

The journey to this edge of the Tibetan Plateau is still as exotic as it was a hundred years ago. But thankfully, it has become much easier. A group of friends and I started with a flight from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, to Shangri-la (formerly known as Zhongdian). At ten thousand feet, many visitors experience altitude sickness, and we suffer through ours in the commodious Banyan Tree Ringha Resort, situated on a sylvan river with sheep, yaks, and horses grazing on its banks.

A picture book monastery, Gandan Sumtseling, perches on a mountainside above town. In hopes of capitalizing on the Buddhist promise that an earthly paradise known as Shambhala lies hidden somewhere in these mountains, the city fathers changed Zhong­dian’s name to Shangri-la in 2001. It was the Englishman James Hilton who, playing on the myth, invented the notion of Shangri-la in his 1933 epic, Lost Horizon, creating one of the most powerful utopian visions ever to carve itself into the imagination of the West.

In an effort to present a simulacrum of this potent fantasy, officials in Shangri-la are well on their way to turning the shabby but inviting oldness of the place into a version of tradition that looks embalmed. Shangri-la seems to be taking a page from Lijiang, the once charming nearby city that has become a high-kitsch carnival of Naxi minority culture but which still hangs on to its matriarchal traditions. Situated near Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Lijiang was where the eccentric Viennese explorer Joseph Rock made his home for more than twenty years, beginning in the 1920s. When he sallied forth into the mountains to photograph for National Geographic or collect botanical specimens, it was with a small private army, a formidable mule train, an entourage of personal retainers, a dark room, a rubber bathtub, and even a windup Victrola on which he played Western opera.

Not so long ago, this area was virtually untouched by the outside world. The only way to travel was by mule or yak caravan over the Chamadao, or “Tea Horse Route,” a network of perilously narrow trails that one can still see carved into sheer cliffsides high above new roads. For centuries these trails were used to transport tea, a staple of Tibetan life, from southern Yunnan, where it is still grown today, to Lhasa and onward to India. In the face of tribal fiefdoms and bandits, few were foolish enough to travel these trails unarmed.

Even today, when one escapes Lijiang and Shangri-la, the beauty of Yunnan that so enthralled Joseph Rock is still gripping. Our group leaves Shangri-la, not on mules with a private army but unarmed in a van heading northwest through a finger of Yunnan that protrudes into Tibet proper. All day, we labor up and down one high-altitude pass after another on narrow roads that soar above verdant fields and orchards of barley, potatoes, rice, fruit, and walnuts. An occasional monastery, countless stupas (called chorten by the Tibetans), and one breathtaking mountain vista after another mark our way. We climb from subtropical forests to alpine fields, and then down again in a few hours, as if traversing whole latitudes.

Driving past bucolic Tibetan villages with chalet-like living compounds stacked neatly with firewood, I am oddly reminded of the orderliness of Switzerland or Norway. Indeed, when political unrest rocked many other Tibetan regions of China in March 2008, this area remained calm, thanks to flexible policies that allowed more local self-rule and freedom. And despite the increasing number of outside visitors, traditional rural life and religious practices in the region still seem to cohere.

The journey from Feilai Si, where we watched the sun rise over Kawa Karpo, to the Mingyong Glacier involves a nerve-racking drive along a serpentine cliffside road that plunges down a mountainside, past vineyards (that produce an almost undrinkable red wine), into a deep canyon carved between the mountains by the Lancang River. The road is not only twisty and narrow but landslide-prone and without any side barriers. Every time a truck barrels along in the other direction, I wish I had a copy of China’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan handy as anaesthetic.

After crossing the Lancang, which roils in great muddy whirlpools past the base of Kawa Karpo, we finally reach Mingyong village, a beautiful Tibetan farming community sitting astride a smaller river of milky-white water that bleeds from the glacier above. Until now, the glacier has been good to this village, irrigating its fields and drawing a growing number of wealthy Chinese tourists, all of whom spend money to eat, sleep, and get transported up the mountain for a look at a real glacier.

On the edge of town, there is a dusty corral where Tibetan farmers wait with scruffy mountain ponies and mules, ready to haul visitors to the toe of the glacier. I choose a motley steed and head up the valley, which is wooded with a strange mix of alpine conifers and tropical rhododendron trees. As we climb, I talk with my Tibetan muleteer, who speaks broken Chinese. “The glacier has shrunk a lot,” says Chenga Tsering, an affable farmer with a beguiling smile of crooked teeth and hair that stands up as if he had just been electrocuted.

I ask him if he has heard about global warming. “Yes, but I am not so clear about why it’s happening,” he says. “What I do know is that things are getting warmer. Look! Now these flowers come out in April instead of May.” He points to the azalea bushes and purple iris that are in full bloom along the trail on the forest floor. “I remember when the glacier reached all the way up to there,” Chenga says, pointing toward a scrub line on the valley wall where the trees begin. Now there is no sign of ice anywhere here—only the rushing river and an abandoned pagoda below the trail that once served as a viewing platform for visitors. In the intervening years, it has been supplanted by a succession of newer platforms, each built farther up the valley to keep pace with the glacier’s inconvenient retreat.

Chenga tells me that he makes about nine hundred dollars a month with his ponies and farming. “It’s a good life. I am free to do what I want! I like it,” he tells me. Then he pauses. “But what’s going to happen to us when the glacier is gone?” Suddenly his cheerful countenance clouds over. “What are we going to do then?”

Villagers fear that when the toe of the glacier moves too far up the valley, tourists will cease to visit. Ultimately, of course, as the glacier retreats to higher altitudes, where the temperatures are colder, the streams that irrigate their fields will begin to have erratic seasonal flows that won’t jibe with the traditional agricultural practices and needs of the village.

Our ponies finally reach the trailhead and White Lotus Temple, a small Buddhist outpost guarded by a white chorten fluttering with prayer flags. Surrounded by a welter of ramen noodle and soft drink stands, the temple has a lone resident monk, now napping on a patch of grass inside the temple compound.

At last I get my first close-up look at the much-heralded glacier. Rather than the pristine blue-white icefall I had imagined, I find instead a rubble-strewn junk pile of gritty ice, the failing ablation zone of this once-healthy glacier.

A report like a rifle shot unexpectedly echoes across the valley. I look up just in time to see a large, dirty piece of ice break loose from the glacier’s extremity and slough down the valley floor.

Just then, a group of breathless young Chinese tourists arrive on the trail and pause, using the glacier as a backdrop as they mug for a camera. There is something about their insouciance that makes me realize that nowhere on this trail, or at the viewing platforms, is this glacier’s imperiled future hinted at, much less explained. There is no sign or guide to suggest what is happening.

When I ask the group if they know that the glacier is melting, they look back with blank stares. “Oh, yeah, global warming!” a young man in a T-shirt inscribed with the words go crazy! finally pipes up. “But I think that’s at the North Pole.”

In fact, the melting is happening even faster right here. The Tibetan Plateau’s high altitude tends to create a “magnifier effect,” so that temperatures in the Greater Himalayas are projected to rise at more than two times the global average. The effect on the planet of this elevated warming, says climatologist Baker, is like “sticking a hot frying pan in the atmosphere.”

Because Kawa Karpo is a sacred mountain, the people living near the Mingyong Glacier won’t allow scientists even to step out on the ice. Baker has been able to study the glacier only from afar, measuring its recession remotely. But paleoclimatologists, who study past climatic patterns by analyzing core samples from glaciers, have been able to measure how concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have correlated with temperature fluctuations and the health of these glaciers. As glaciers melt, more dark surface is exposed, leaving a region less able to reflect sunlight out of the atmosphere. The cycle leads to the absorption of even more heat, which accelerates the process of warming and melting.

The impact on the river systems is greatest during late summer, when monsoons end and temperatures are highest. At this time, the meltwaters of these frozen reservoirs help maintain constant flows that are critical to the hundreds of millions of users downstream. But too much water is no better than too little. As Zheng Guoguang, head of the China Meteorological Administration, explains, “If the warming continues, millions of people in western China will face floods in the short term and drought in the long.”

In fact, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research estimates that there has been a twenty percent increase in water melting from these glaciers over the past forty years. But the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development further warns that “when the shortage arrives, it may happen abruptly.”

China is preparing by building more dams both for water storage and hydroelectricity generation. But these dams themselves pose a host of new problems. Not only would they submerge whole valleys, depriving indigenous people of their homelands, but they would create another hazard. As the high-altitude ice fields melt, massive new lakes often form spontaneously behind dams of glacial debris. There are now hundreds of these lakes, about a third of a square mile in area, around the plateau, and as they increase in size, the de facto dams that have created them could fail, causing glacial lake outbursts, allowing tens of billions of gallons of water, mud, and moraine to cataract down a river toward the man-made dams below, which have not been designed to withstand the shock of sudden surges. An outburst high on the plateau could have a catastrophic domino effect on the increasing number of dams being planned on almost all of Asia’s great rivers.

Protests by environmental groups have delayed a number of dam projects. But with the demand for “green” hydropower growing, there is strong pressure in China to continue building dams.

Because such projects also give China greater control over the water supplies of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, officials in those countries have registered opposition, too. But with the laws on international riparian water rights extremely vague, they have had little recourse with the Chinese government.

Back at Mingyong Village, in a small restaurant on the main street, we meet the village head, Tabaxi, over tea and a simple lunch of rice, fava beans, and pork. He is a swarthy, heavyset Tibetan farmer, dressed in a military-style camouflage jacket and khaki trousers. He has been repeatedly reelected village chief, ever since he left the People’s Liberation Army two decades ago.

“Many of us worry about our glacier,” he tells us. He recounts how the glacier shrank when he was young due to lack of snow, but then began to grow back. “But now it’s getting warmer and warmer every year, and it’s receding again,” he continues. “We farmers notice it. Before, we could harvest only one crop of barley each year. Now we get two harvests. But there are more insects these days, so farmers have to use more insecticide.” Rainfall, he adds, has also become erratic—”either too much or too little.” Tabaxi says this without rancor, but his concern is evident. “What can we do?” he asks, as if we foreigners have an answer. “We worship the sacred mountain, and we always try to protect it. This is all we can do, but it doesn’t seem to help.”

Some villagers here believe that the glacier is melting because men have not shown sufficient reverence to Kawa Karpo. “They think man is not respecting nature and this is nature’s way of retaliating,” says Baker. “In a sense they are right.”

Since eighty percent of China’s electrical power, which has driven the country’s ten percent annual economic growth rate over the past decade, comes from coal, it might be tempting to blame China’s industrial boom for this environmental disaster; after all, did not China just surpass the United States in annual greenhouse gas emissions?

But China’s per capita emissions of greenhouse gases are still four to five times lower than those of the United States, and China’s total cumulative historical emissions remain between three and four times lower than those of the United States, despite its far larger population. China has become a leader in hydroelectric, wind, and other renewable-energy sources. It has also set ambitious targets to lower CO2 emissions through energy-efficiency gains.

In reality, the problem is global. “Unless we as a global community change our consumption patterns and alter what we do to contribute to greenhouse gases,” says Baker, “there’s not much that can be done about these melting glaciers.”

In Mingyong village, one is left to ponder how the industrial world’s Promethean drive and use of ever more fossil fuel as energy is transforming the relationship between these isolated people and their ecosystem. By having produced so much CO2 in faraway factories and cities, we are all unwittingly threatening the Mingyong Glacier and making these mountains—that so defiantly resisted our intrusions and protected their vast frozen reserves of water for so long—vulnerable to forces over which Tabaxi and his fellow villagers have no control.

I ask Tabaxi if he thinks their glacier could possibly die.

“It’s been here for thousands of years,” he replies. “We Tibetans have nourished this mountain for generations. We do nothing to harm it. We don’t cut trees or burn wood anymore. We don’t allow climbers or anyone to go up it.” He pauses for a moment. “It’s impossible that it will die!” he says, incredulous. Then he continues, as if he thought we needed further convincing, “You know, we Tibetans have never had a war here. I think it’s because of our sacred mountain. It has powers.”

As we leave the restaurant, I look up again at the majestic snow-clad peaks, now wreathed in afternoon clouds. It is not difficult to understand how Tabaxi, despite his military training and official position, still believes this awe-inspiring mountain has “powers” and is an embodiment of the sacred. But Kawa Karpo, which has so defiantly survived so long in this once remote part of the world, may have met its match.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 at 12:39 pm and is filed under China, Tibet, Tibetan Plateau.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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