Scientists observe how distant glaciers in China are melting at a “stunning” fee


© Reuters. The broader picture: Thawing the third pole: China’s glaciers on the retreat


By Martin Quin Pollard

QILIAN MOUNTAINS, China (Reuters) – Glaciers in China’s desolate Qilian Mountains are disappearing at a shocking rate as global warming brings unpredictable changes and increases the prospect of crippling, long-term water scarcity, scientists say.

The largest glacier in the 800 km long mountain range on the dry northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau has retreated about 450 meters since the 1950s when researchers set up China’s first monitoring station to study it.

Known as Laohugou No. 12, the 20-square-kilometer glacier is criss-crossed by streams of water on its rugged, granular surface. It has shrunk about 7% since measurements began, with melting accelerating in recent years, scientists say.

Equally alarming is the loss of thickness, with around 13 meters of ice disappearing as temperatures rise, said Qin Xiang, director of the monitoring station.

“The rate at which this glacier has shrunk is really shocking,” Qin told Reuters recently during a recent visit to the Spartan station in a frozen, treeless world, where he and a small team of researchers are following the changes.

The Tibetan Plateau is known as the third pole in the world for the amount of ice that has long been trapped in the wild at high altitude.

But average temperatures in the region have risen 1.5 degrees Celsius since the 1950s, Qin said, and with no sign of warming end, the outlook for the 2,684 glaciers in the Qilian range is bleak.

On the other side of the mountains, glaciers retreated 50% faster between 1990 and 2010 than between 1956 and 1990, data from the China Academy of Sciences shows.

“When I came here in 2005, the glacier was where the river bends,” Qin said, pointing to where the stone-strewn slopes of the Laohugou Valley lead the meandering river down.

The flow of water in a creek near the end of the # 12 Laohugou drain is about twice what it was 60 years ago, Qin said.

Further downstream, near Dunhuang, once an important crossroads of the ancient Silk Road, the water flowing from the mountains formed a lake in the desert for the first time in 300 years, state media reported.

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Global warming is also blamed for weather changes that have brought about other unpredictable conditions.

Snowfall and rain have been much less than normal at times, and although the melting glaciers have brought more runoff, downstream farmers may still face water shortages for their onion and corn crops and for their animals.

Much of the Shule River on the outskirts of Dunhuang was either dry or reduced to cloudy pool spots isolated in desert scrub when Reuters visited in September.

The new fluctuations also bring danger.

“Glacier meltwater collects in lakes throughout the region and causes devastating floods,” said Liu Junyan, climate and energy fighter for Greenpeace East Asia.

“In the spring we see increased flooding, and later in the summer when water is most needed for irrigation, we see bottlenecks.”

For Gu Jianwei, 35, a vegetable farmer on the outskirts of the small town of Jiuquan, the weather changes this year meant poor water for his cauliflower.

Gu said he could only water his crop twice in two crucial summer months while holding up a small head of cauliflower that he said was only a fraction of its normal weight.

Melting in the mountains could peak within a decade, after which snowmelt would decrease sharply due to the smaller, fewer glaciers, said Shen Yongping, an expert at the China Academy of Sciences. That could lead to water crises, he warned.

The changes in Qilian reflect the melting trends in other parts of the Tibetan Plateau, the source of the Yangtze and other major Asian rivers, scientists say.

“These glaciers monitor the atmospheric warming trends that apply to nearby glaciated mountain ranges that contribute to the runoff of the Upper Yellow and Yangtze Rivers,” said Aaron Putnam, associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Maine.

The evidence of the wilting ice is all too clear for student researcher Jin Zizhen, who examines his instruments in the glow of Laohugou No. 12 under a deep blue sky.

“It’s something I could see with my own eyes.”

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