The climate crisis is hitting the world's third pole and will affect Tibetans, climate expert says

The Khumbu Glacier, Nepal. Credit: Eugene Ga/Shutterstock
The Khumbu Glacier, Nepal. Credit: Eugene Ga/Shutterstock
The Khumbu Glacier, Nepal. Credit: Eugene Ga/Shutterstock
23rd October 2019

The climate crisis is warming the world’s third pole in a shift which could leave Tibetans and others in the region with severe water shortages.

The global climate crisis could see the Tibetan Plateau and the rest of the Himalayas warm by 4.5ºC to 5ºC by the end of the century in a shift which will impact Tibetans and others living in the region, a climate expert who specialises in mountains and the frozen world has told Free Tibet.

The region, which includes the Tibetan Plateau, the Himalayas and the Karakoram mountains, has been called the third pole because it holds the largest reserves of glacier ice outside of the North Pole and Antarctica. 

Projections show the area could lose about two thirds of its glacier ice volume by the end of the century, affecting the climate and changing water supplies for those living in or near the mountains, said Joseph Shea, a geographer and cryosphere expert at the University of Northern British Columbia.

“We’re talking about an average global temperature increase of about 4ºC, and that’s probably going to be about 4.5 to 5 in the mountains. So these are really big changes and that is just going to continue to the loss of glacier ice,” Shea told Free Tibet. 

“You’re going to see changes in the mountain snow packs. More permafrost thaw... those sorts of things will have a big impact on people that live in the region… And it’s impossible to avoid it.”

The latest IPCC report on the region said warming will see snowfall replaced by more rain in the mountains over the winter. This means less water will be stored as glacier ice which produces meltwater in spring when farmers need it most to plant their crops.

Water from melted snow and ice makes up around 70% of the river flow in the Ganges during the spring and autumn seasons. But changes in climate could mean more water will run off the mountains and past farmers fields in winter when it is less needed. 

The warming could result in milder winters and more crop options but the disruption to river flows could also cause water shortages which will particularly impact farmers and the poorest in society, Shea said.

"Changes in the water supplies could force people to start migrating from the mountains,” Shea told Free Tibet, adding “if you don’t have water, what are you going to do? You can’t stay in those places anymore.”

The rising temperatures are also set to thaw permafrost which covers large areas of the Tibetan Plateau, allowing water to penetrate into the soil more easily and likely reducing river flows across the already dry Tibetan Plateau.

Buildings, rail lines and other infrastructure built on permafrost could be damaged or destroyed, Shea said adding Tibetans and others living on the plateau will be affected.

Nina Holmelin, a researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Oslo, Norway specialising in human adaptation to climate change co-wrote a paper in 2013 which looked at the impact of climate change on farming communities in Nepal, Tibet’s neighbour.

“There is adaptive capacity and flexibility in the farming system but the main bottleneck and threat is getting enough meltwater at the right time,” Holmelin said, adding “the new climate projections do not look at all good in that respect and represent a severe threat to their food production.” 

Scientists have previously reported desertification accelerating across mountain grassland on the Tibetan Plateau because of climate change. The Independent reported in June that populations in high-mountain Asia can be particularly vulnerable to shortages of water, which have killed more than six million people in the region over the past century.

Joseph Shea said the climate crisis could also cause further changes to the physical environment at the world’s third pole.

In 2016 two glaciers near Aru Co lake in western Tibet collapsed within two months of each other in an event that cryosphere radar applications researcher, Silvan Leinss described as something that was “never seen before.” 

One glacier collapse is considered “extraordinarily rare” but no one imagined two would occur within two months of each other, Leinss said in an online article about the event. 

The first glacier collapse killed nine herders and hundreds of animals. 

There are suggestions both events were caused by rainfall which penetrated into the glaciers causing them to collapse and slide downhill, Shea said. Shea added this is a sign that unique and potentially dangerous changes are happening in the mountains because of climate change.

Some of the warming at the third pole may be driven by regional pollution coming from areas like the Indo-Gangetic plain, but Shea believes it is mostly a result of global CO2 emissions, particularly following “a century and a half of emissions from the biggest industrial countries in the world.”

In September The Guardian reported that an assessment backed by the world’s major climate science bodies found pledges to cut emissions need to be at least tripled for the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to be met.

The report said current plans would lead to an average global temperature rise of between 2.9ºC and 3.4ºC by 2100, which would likely cause devastating changes to the climate. 

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