Watch the Impact of Global Warming: "Tibetan Plateau in Peril"

For decades, and especially in the past year, Tibet has come to be associated with China's fragile political condition. But it's also the site of one of China's and the world's biggest environmental crises. When I visited Everest in October I saw glaciers in retreat, and heard Tibetans worry about flooding and a reduction in water levels.

But they're not the only ones concerned. Global warming is taking an increasing toll on the entire Tibetan Plateau, a source of most of the major river systems in Asia from China to Pakistan. Some are concerned the glaciers could be mostly gone within three decades.

The ongoing danger to what glaciologist Lonnie Thompson has called the "fresh water bank account" of Asia is the subject of a new interactive website, "Tibetan Plateau in Peril," by the Asia Society's China Green project, and a symposium this Friday at the Asia Society in New York.The site features interactive images and stunning video by filmmaker David Broadshears that illustrate vividly the impact that China's and the world's CO2 production has had on the region's glaciers, lowlands and people.

At the day-long symposium, which will be shown live on the web, environmental luminaries including Lonnie Thompson and IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri will introduce the film, and discuss the ecological changes taking place in Tibet.

Michael Zhao of the Asia Society Center on US-China Relations recently described the threat of melting glaciers to the region at the Far Eastern Economic Review:

Just like rivers flow off the plateau, through the gorges in central China and empty themselves into the seas, the problems on the Tibetan Plateau can export quickly to the lowlands.

The Yellow River, which gets nearly half of its water from the Tibetan Plateau, now rarely flows all the way to the sea year round. The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and other rivers that flow off the plateau seem to be doing fine now. But with accelerated warming and faster melting of glaciers and permafrost, these great rivers will soon be under threat.

Meteorological scientists warn that the changes in heat composition and air pressure over the Tibetan Plateau may have implications beyond Asia's river basins, as shifting dynamics of the atmospheric circulatory system over the plateau could change wind and monsoon patterns across much of the world. There is still yet no model to predict what will happen, but there's plenty of evidence to warrant immediate action to avoid a crisis that would imperil billions of people across Asia.

To address the challenge, Zhao notes that the world's biggest carbon players must be involved. The website and Friday conference, along with a report published jointly with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and a few other organizations, is meant to add the Tibetan Plateau to the growing list of joint environmental challenges confronting Beijing and Washington.

Tibetan Plateau in Peril at China Green
Symposium: "Meltdown: The Impact of Climate Change on the Tibetan Plateau," January 16th, 8:00 am - 6:00 pm, Asia Society and Museum, Auditorium and 8th floor, 725 Park Avenue, New York. Free admission; advance registration required. Call the Asia Society Box Office at 212-517-ASIA or visit to register. The event will also be webcast live.

See also "Tibet: Plateau in Peril," by Michael Zhao and Orville Schell for World Policy Journal's 25-year anniversary special issue of Fall 2008

Also on TreeHugger
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Tibet: When "Sustainable" Development Goes Awry
China Mulls Building Hydroelectric Dams in Southern Tibet
On the Train to Tibet: Railroading the Roof of the World
When Nature Won't Cooperate in China, Photoshop!

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