Expedition documents melting Himalayan glaciers

G8 meets as glaciers melt on World Environment Day

Feature story - 5 June, 2007
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.

Audio slideshow - Himalaya photos


Expeditionphotographer John Novis shares his favourite shots and the stories behind them.

View thestory

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.

               

[Note:Comparison photo taken from nearest safe vantage, as described below.]

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 close by.

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 park'."

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.

Melting glaciers

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.

Tibet

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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