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
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.
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.
Audio slideshow - Himalaya photos
Expeditionphotographer John Novis shares his favourite shots and the stories behind them.
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.
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
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
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
[Note:Comparison photo taken from nearest safe vantage, as
Instead, we only come across large rocks and debris from a huge
landslide where the second glacier was supposed to be. The
landslide totally blocks our way and we have to give up, although
our destination is only 30 minutes' walk away. As our cameramen
work beside a nearby melt-water lake, they heed Bianba's earlier
warning as large chunks of ice and snow and a rain of rocks fall
The serac forests of the Rongbuk Glacier amazed Chinese
scientists in the 1970s. Seracs are large blocks and columns of ice
found near glacial crevasses formed by the glacier moving or
melting. At the time one of the scientists wrote, "With a great
variety of shapes and forms, the serac forests there made us linger
with no intent to leave. Those between 5,300m and 6,500m are
extraordinarily beautiful and fantastic, like an 'ice sculpture
Today we find a serac forest at 5,600 m (18,372 ft), but it is
sparse, small and worn. The huge 'ice mushrooms' which we expect to
see towering above our heads have almost disappeared.
"When I first climbed Mount Everest in 2000, I saw serac forests
at 5,400m," our guide Bianba tells us. "When I climbed the mountain
again in 2006, I only found the serac forests from 5,800m." The
disappearance of glaciers, large-scale landslides, rock falls and
sparse serac forests are all clear examples of climate change.
When our Tibetan porters, who initially thought we were a team
of mountaineers, learn of our mission, they excitedly ask our
cameramen to record them talking about their respect for nature,
conservation of water resources and love of life.
Himalayan glaciers could shrink from the present 500,000 square
kilometres (193,051 sq miles) to 100,000 square kilometres (38,610
sq miles) by the 2030s. The February 2007 release of the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the
science of climate change concluded, with a 90 percent certainty,
that global warming is caused by human behaviour. The report
galvanised the European Union to set a target of reducing carbon
emissions by at least 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and by
30 percent if other industrialised nations set similar targets.
The Tibetan villagers, farmers, porters and lamas that we met
don't need statistics to know that something is very wrong. The
close bond that they have with the environment they rely on teaches
them to watch the signs - these catastrophic changes have been
unfolding before them every day.
The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau covers an area of 2.9 million square
kilometres (1.1 million square miles), roughly three times the
combined area of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. The Kunlun
and Qilian mountains in the north, the Tanglha Mountains in the
east and the Himalayas in the south and west border the plateau,
with an average altitude of 4,500 metres (14,764 feet).
Only one percent of land on the plateau is arable and crop
yields are limited by the dry, cold climate. Although these
conditions appear harsh to outsiders, the local Tibetans treasure,
revere and celebrate this land.
Tibetans have created and maintained their own living philosophy
based on obeying nature, cherishing it and feeling awe for it.
Using dreamlike imagination and fantastic myths, Tibetans express
their deepest love for their homeland. Every Tibetan is born into
Buddhism. To them, every living creature has a soul. The body can
die but the soul will live forever.
Lhasa's Jokhang Temple, the oldest in Tibet and built by King
Songtsan Gampo when he married the Tang Dynasty Princess Wen Cheng
more than 1,400 years ago, is always crowded with pilgrims.
Buddhism's most famous mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum", can be heard
everywhere. Tibetans worship the lion, yak, macaque monkey horse,
dog, fish, bird and even plants, but above all, they worship
mountains. Surrounded by high mountains, they feel that they are
very tiny and trivial.
Tibetan culture and the amazing environment of the region have
merged seamlessly. The spirit of Buddhism and local culture is in
the blood of local people and it shapes their attitude towards
nature. The lives of Tibetans and the many other peoples of the
region are dominated by the incredible Himalayas. If glacial
retreat continues to accelerate it will be an ecological, economic
and social catastrophe.
A way forward
It's not too late to avert the climate catastrophe. As well as
documenting climate impacts - the costs of doing nothing,
Greenpeace is calling for an Energy Revolution, a critical shift in
the way we produce and use energy. The solution is to urgently
switch investment from climate changing and dangerous energy
sources such as coal, oil, gas and nuclear, into sustainable, clean
renewable energy sources like wind and solar, combined with a
programme of energy efficiency measures.
The alternative? There isn't one. Otherwise, we have to live
with the fact that we stood by and did nothing as billions of
people suffered and a unique environment was destroyed.
-- Guanli Wang
05 June 2007
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