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Climate Change

A Sacred Glacier Disappears in China

By Lauren Miura

The villagers on Mount Khawa Karpo in the northwest part of China’s Yunnan Province have varying explanations for why their sacred Mingyong Glacier has been disappearing before their eyes.

One man correlated the retreat of the glacier (shown in photo above behind hanging prayer flags) with the installation of electricity in a nearby monastery. Others blame an increase in visitors. But the most likely culprit is rising temperatures caused by climate change, according to Barry Baker, a scientist with the Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Initiative.

Losing More than 200 Meters in Just Four Years

Photos of the landscape taken over the past 100 years show that the glacier is retreating, with a loss of more than 200 meters in the past four years. Repeat photography taken by Bob Moseley, former director of science for the Conservancy’s China program, also shows that the alpine treeline in the area — already among the highest in the world — is climbing even higher.

"We had evidence that this glacier was changing, and we decided to monitor it," Baker says. "Because it is a sacred glacier, you can't do a lot of things you would normally do to monitor it. So we mostly used photographic evidence and historic climate data."

Around the globe, rising temperatures and changing patterns of rain and snow are forcing trees and shrubs into polar regions and up mountain slopes. But on neighboring mountains to Mount Khawa Karpo, a ban on fire may also be affecting the rising treeline — complicating the research into just how big a factor climate change has been.

"Repeat photography is very reliable, but it’s only one piece of evidence," says Baker. "We wanted to see if we could make a correlation between climate and the changes we saw in the photos."

Helping Land Managers Adjust to Climate Change

Indeed, climate data shows a trend of higher summer and winter temperatures in Yunnan since the early 1970s, a phenomenon witnessed worldwide. In an upcoming study to be published in the journal Arctic, Antarctic and Alpine Research, Baker and Moseley assert that this warming is indeed causing the retreat of glaciers and is contributing to the vertical migration of alpine trees.

The study concludes that land managers need to recognize that climate change is occurring. The Conservancy is helping them adapt their conservation practices accordingly, exploring strategies such as changing grazing patterns and fire management techniques to keep the ascending treeline from permanently altering the area's unique alpine meadows.

"Climate change is the largest threat to our mission," Baker said.

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