Expedition documents melting Himalayan glaciers

G8 meets as glaciers melt on World Environment Day

Feature Story - 2007-06-06
Glaciers in the Himalayas provide the water source for one-sixth of humanity. Now that water source is threatened by climate change. As the temperature rises, these reservoirs of ice disappear. Guanli Wang, a journalist with China S&T, reports back after taking part in an expedition documenting how this is happening right before our eyes.

Guanli Wang interviews a local woman about water levels in her village.

Dubbed the 'Third Pole', for having the largest concentration of glaciers outside the polar caps, the Himalayas boast 11 peaks over 8,000 metres (26,246 feet) and around 100 over 7,000 metres (22,966 feet).

Today is World Environment day, and this year's UN designated theme is "melting ice", making today sadly appropriate for telling the story of Himalayan ice. Scientists predict that 80 percent of these glaciers will disappear within 30 years if current warming rates are maintained.

The expedition

I was part of a Greenpeace team, which left Beijing in late April to document glacial retreat on the world's highest peak, Mount Everest (Qomolangma). The plan was to gather visual evidence of the retreat of the Rongbuk Glacier, Everest's main glacier, 5,800 metres above sea level, to build awareness in China of the mounting threat of climate change.

After a four-hour flight, we reached Lhasa, "place of the gods " in Tibetan. Our Tibetan guide Bianba Dunzhu greeted us. Bianba, an instructor with the Tibet Mountaineer Training School, has made it to Everest's summit twice and the world's second highest peak, K2 (Mount Qogir), once.

"Although I am a mountain guide, I dare not conquer Mount Everest too many times. Human beings must respect the holy mountains," Bianba said, recalling the fate of a Nepalese guide who had reached the summit over a dozen times but died at the prime of his life with no obvious cause of death.

Mountainous rivers

With this reminder to respect the mountains ringing in our ears, we set off from Lhasa, via Shigatse, Tingri and Zaxizong, towards Mount Everest. The expedition also aimed to collect evidence of climate change impacts on the region's rivers. The 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. Almost a billion people live in the watershed areas of these great rivers in China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

We saw our first river, the Lhasa River, as we drove from the airport to downtown Lhasa. We were immediately struck by the large deposits of sand on both banks of the river, an indication of the desertification spreading throughout the region. The following day, we crossed the Brahmaputra River. Once famous for its abundant runoff, the flow of the Brahmaputra is now much reduced, with many shallow sections visible.

As we neared Everest, we saw the Rongbuk River, formed by melt water from the Rongbuk Glacier, the area's largest. Forty years ago the annual runoff of the Rongbuk was around 100 million cubic metres. Now the flow is greatly reduced due to the rapid retreat of the Rongbuk Glacier.

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.

At an altitude of 5,200m (17,060 ft), the tiny village of Zaxizong stands at the entrance of the Mount Everest Nature Reserve. A small, nearly dry river runs past the village. Renzeng, a 48-year-old farmer tells us that generations of villagers have relied on the river for crop irrigation and their water supply. Renzeng adds, "Now, due to lack of irrigation, the yield of highland barley in our village is less than half what it used to be".

Nearing Everest

Onward and upwards towards Mount Everest, we stop at the Rongbuk Temple, at 5,030m (16,503 ft), the highest temple in the world and the best place to view the majestic peak.

The Tibetan name for Everest, Qomolangma, means 'Goddess', and she unveiled herself gracefully, a vision of pure beauty. In Tibetan paintings, Qomolangma is always depicted wearing a white gown and riding a white lion through ice and snow.

The Chief lama of the Rongbuk Temple has been at the temple for 20 years and has witnessed the impacts of climate change first-hand. "I have noticed a reduction in the flow of the Rongbuk River every year and each year is hotter than the last. I am worried about the harsh future our children will suffer", he tells us. Other lamas tell us that before they used to have to force their way through chest high snow, however, now the winter snow only reaches their shins. We leave the temple and head towards the base camp of Mount Everest.

From Everest base camp

April is the most popular month for mountain climbing and we see dozens of tents dotted around the camp, temporary homes for mountaineers from across the globe.  Heavy snow falls on our first night at the base camp. At 6 a.m. the next morning, we set off through the fresh, boot-high snowfall towards the Rongbuk Glacier, with the aim of completing a whole day of shooting and returning to the base camp before nightfall.

The Rongbuk Glacier flows north and into the Rongbuk Valley north of Mount Everest. The main goal of our expedition is to reach the anchor point left by a 1968 Chinese Academy of Sciences expedition, and take photographs to compare the state of the glacier then and now. Our route takes us from the fork in the road near the base camp, towards the west side of the Rongbuk Glacier across its ridge and north along the west ridge towards Guangming Peak.

Bianba warns us to watch out for falling rocks from the west ridge because of the rapid noontime snow melt. Our map tells us to expect to meet two glaciers on our way. The map shows the two glaciers descending from the 6,927m (22,726 ft) Hongxing Peak, which lies to the west of Everest, then running east to join the Rongbuk Glacier.

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