Halong Glacier, Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Greenpeace
I was gazing at Mount Everest recently. Considering all of the human and ecological drama surrounding this godly formation, I expected the mountain to look intense, battered even. But its serenity was so complete -- its summit so peaceful and normal in the sharp blue sky, with only the slightest whiff of snow blowing off its highest peak -- that I was sure it was hiding something, some unpleasant truth.
Gasping for air at the 5100 meter high base camp, near a military outpost, at the farthest point tourists can go before they begin an attempt, I stared at it hoping for some clue, and trying to burn its image at this moment into my mind. At the very least, I got a sunburn on my nose.
The mountain, Qomolangma, or 'Goddess,' in Tibetan, was oblivious. She didn't seem to notice her own sunburn, steadily melting her white gown of glacial ice. But the millions of people who depend upon the water that comes from that ice and that of all the Himalayas, which happen to contain the most ice after the polar caps, do care. And increasingly they have special reason to be concerned.
The snows of Everest could be gone in three decades. The prospects are chilling.A leading Indian researcher, Syed Hasnain, chairman of the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), argues that all the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating and could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas by 2035.
Less Every Year
As we began our drive back to Gyantse, Everest at our backs, I asked our guide about the river that trickled past base camp and alongside the road. "It's been lower every year since I started coming here" in 1996, said Ugay. "There's less snow every time."
Another recent study by researchers at Ohio State University found that high-altitude glaciers in the region are no longer accumulating ice.
As Greenpeace described in a report about its own trip to the area last year,
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has a staggering 46,298 glaciers. However, recent surveys via remote sensing and fieldwork have recorded a 10 percent reduction in the last three decades, from 48,860 square kilometres (18,865 sq miles) in the 1970s to 44,438 sq km (17,158 sq miles) today. The alarming acceleration of the retreat is being attributed to increased global warming.
By now, humans' direct impact on the climate -- thanks in part to China's record levels of CO2 production, thanks to the sort fossil fuels that are being increasingly extracted in Tibet -- has been well documented. But anyone doubtful about climate change's direct impact on humans would be advised to come to this spectacular frontier.
These glaciers act as what some have called the "water towers of Asia." Himalayas and Qinghai-Tibet plateau are the source of some of the world's major river systems: the Indus, the Ganga-Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and the Yellow River. In China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh, almost one billion people live in the watershed areas of these great rivers.
Melting glaciers not only threaten to decrease access to water in the long term, and cause floods in the near term: water shortages in China and India could flare into serious cross-border water wars.
And the danger of these reductions in the Himalayan water supply could be exacerbated by the threat of carbon emissions on other fronts: desertification, drought and pollution.
Skepticism in Beijing
A researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences has questioned the claim that the glaciers could be gone by 2035. Instead he says, it's more likely to take another 50 years. For the Himalayan glaciers to melt completely would take a global temperature rise of at least 5 degrees, said He Yuanqing. During the 20th century, the average global temperature rose by about 0.74 degrees Centigrade.
But the IPCC predicts a rise in this century by between 1.8-4 degrees Centigrade. "Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world," the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last year. "If the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate."
"We need to bring about mitigation actions to start in the short term even when benefits may arise only in a few decades," said Rajendra K. Pachauri, the Chair of the IPCC, last year.
The difference between 1.8 and 4 degrees could be the difference between prosperity and despair for millions. And it's a difference we can make.
Fortunately, the next big opportunity to cut CO2 is just around the corner, next week in Poland. (Beijing, ni hao? You there, Washington?)
Peaceful in that bright autumn light, the snows of Everest harbor an inconvenient truth. Now is the time to face it, before it melts away.
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