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Climate Change: A Sacred Glacier Recedes

Mingyong Glacier Receding in Northwest Yunnan.

By Megan Fetzer Sheehan

Climate change is causing glaciers in China's northwest Yunnan Province — including a glacier on one of Tibetan Buddhism's eight sacred mountains — to recede at a historic pace, according to findings by Nature Conservancy scientists.

Northwest Yunnan— which has one of the most diverse temperate ecosystems on Earth — is threatened by rising temperatures that are double the average global trend, according to Barry Baker, a climate-change modeler for the Conservancy. One of the biggest indicators of this warming trend in northwest Yunnan has been the receding glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau — including the Mingyong Glacier, considered sacred by Tibetan Buddhists.

Baker and fellow Conservancy scientists have been studying the effects of climate change in northwest Yunnan Province for the last five years. He talked with Nature.org about the trends he and his partners have discovered, the natural impacts of glacial recessions on local communities and what can be done to adapt to the impacts of climate change.
"The Mingyong Glacier is receding faster than we expected."

Barry Baker, climate change modeler for The Nature Conservancy

Nature.org:

How badly have these glaciers receded, and how long has it been going on?

Barry Baker:

Uniformly, the glaciers in northwest Yunnan have gotten smaller in the last 100 years, and they are continuing to recede. The Mingyong Glacier on Mount Kawagebo, one of Tibetan Buddhism's eight sacred peaks, is one of the fastest receding glaciers in the world.

Since we’ve been watching this glacier in the last 10 years, it’s receded about 530 meters. Other glaciers in the region are melting as well: The Hailuogou glacier, located about 250 miles south of Mingyong, has retreated 522 meters since 1983.

Nature.org:

Why are these Tibetan Plateau glaciers in particular so susceptible to climate change? Are they melting faster than you expected?

Barry Baker:

These glaciers are very unique. The Tibetan Plateau is often called the “Third Pole” because the mountains in this region are extremely high. However, they are found very near to a subtropical zone. The glaciers can exist due to the extreme heights of the mountains on which they are found, despite those mountains being located in a monsoonal temperate region of the world. Also, temperatures in this region seem to be rising a lot faster than in other areas of the world. We have no idea as to what is causing that.

The Mingyong Glacier is receding faster than we expected. When the glacier was at its maximum (in the late 1800s), the tip of the glacier tongue was almost in the village. It has since receded approximately 2.7 kilometers up the mountain. Glaciers in this region are melting at a very fast rate, and this is believed to be because of changes we have documented in regional climate patterns.

Nature.org:

Are glaciers good indicators of climate change?

Barry Baker:

Glaciers are our equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. The only thing that’s going to affect a glacier is climate, so when they recede quickly like they do here in northwest Yunnan, you know it’s got to be because of climate change.

Nature.org:

The mountain on which the Mingyong Glacier sits is sacred. How does this affect your work there?

Barry Baker:

Yes, Mount Kawagebo is a sacred mountain, and as a result we can’t do anything invasive to the Mingyong Glacier. Every time we visit the glacier, we get permission from the Mingyong Village leaders, who often walk with us to the glacier. We cannot walk directly on the glacier, and we obviously cannot core the glacier for ice samples.

But we can take pictures of Mingyong, and those pictures help us with repeat photography comparison, in which past images are compared with more recent ones to determine how much the glacier has indeed changed.

Nature.org:

Does the rapid warming that is happening on the Tibetan Plateau have an effect on climate in other areas around the world?

Barry Baker:

Indeed it does. The Tibetan Plateau is so high in the atmosphere that a warming trend in this area is akin to sticking a hot frying pan in the atmosphere: Other surrounding areas are very quickly affected. Temperature differences between China’s interior and its coasts affect the patterns of monsoons in the South China Sea. So warming in the Tibetan Plateau is predicted to have an affect on the frequency and strength of these monsoonal patterns, as well as global weather patterns.

Nature.org:

What kind of effects do the melting glaciers have on local communities?

Barry Baker:

As these glaciers melt, the water patterns of the local area will change. The water quality is affected, because more sediment enters the water, and the water quantity will decrease because the amount of freshwater coming from the glacier decreases as it shrinks in size.

From an ecological standpoint, the recession of these glaciers is huge, and will have a huge impact on the local communities who depend on the land for their economic well-being.

Nature.org:

Are there specific things we can do — in addition to trying to reduce emissions — to help these natural systems and local communities become more resilient to the impacts of climate change?

Barry Baker:

The biggest thing we can do is educate. My personal opinion is that we have become separate from nature in the West and we don’t understand what our daily impacts have on nature. We really need to take a good, long look at how we’re using natural resources, and take our own personal action to make changes happen. It’s up to us, as people from a developed nation, to set an example.

Nature.org:

China has been characterized by some analysts as not being environmentally friendly. What's your view?

Barry Baker:

I’ve been coming to China since 1981. What I see here is encouraging: China recognizes that they cannot grow as a country the way the United States has grown. They realize their growth needs to be sustainable, and I hear more and more of this from the Chinese government.

I see a 1960s U.S. mentality in China now — a growing environmentalism that includes more recycling bins, solar panels and wind power. If you look down from a high building you’ll see many roofs with solar panels. China has the potential to be a leader in the world for sustainable growth. Megan Sheehan is a marketing specialist with The Nature Conservancy. Let us know what you think of this story.


About the Interviewee

Dr. Barry Baker began his career with The Nature Conservancy in 2001, and in January of 2002 he joined the Conservancy's Global Climate Change Initiative. His research focuses on the understanding of how climate change will influence the distribution of plants, animals and natural communities. He is working closely with other scientists throughout the Conservancy, as well as researchers at several universities and academic institutions around the world to translate this research into on-the-ground conservation action.

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