Warming of Glaciers Threatens Millions in China
ANYEMAQUEN MOUNTAINS, China - More than 3 miles above sea level in these jagged, wind-scoured mountains, there's little doubt that global warming is endangering China's future.
The glaciers that ripple off the peaks of Anyemaqen, a mountain range in the western China province of Qinghai, are shrinking rapidly, endangering hundreds of millions of people who depend on the waters flowing eastward through the Yellow River.
With the rest of the country punished by record heat waves, floods and droughts this summer, it's no wonder that Beijing, which has long viewed global warming as a problem that rich nations should solve, is waking up to the fact that China may be especially at risk.
Qinghai, a poor, Texas-size stretch of the northern Tibetan plateau where yaks outnumber humans, became the unusual focus of attention when U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson visited there Monday at the start of a four-day trip to China.
Rather than climbing the peaks, he visited Qinghai Lake, a saltwater body about 200 miles away, to demonstrate U.S. concern for the effects of global warming.
"What's happening in terms of climate change globally is impacting the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, and what's happening here also impacts the global environment," Paulson said, according to news reports.
Deaths from floods, lightning and landslides across China in recent weeks have reached nearly 700, state media reported this week, and officials warned that global warming is likely to cause even more violent weather.
"The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are increasing - records for worst-in-a-century rainstorms, droughts and heat waves are being broken more often," said Dong Wenjie, director-general of the Beijing Climate Center. "This in fact is closely associated with global warming."
At Anyemaqen, a hike into the remote area last week by a Chronicle reporter found that the 5-mile-long Halong Glacier has shrunk by several hundred yards since it was last photographed by a Greenpeace activist in 2005 - and by a mile since a similar photo in 1981.
Local nomads say their livelihood is at stake.
"When I was a child, it was very cold and the grass was long, up to here," said Namgyal Tsering, a 22-year-old herder, motioning to his shin as he perched on a high ridge and watched his flock of sheep. "Now the grass is short, and many people have moved into towns."
The Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is warming up faster than anywhere else in the world, Chinese scientists said last week. The region's average annual temperature is rising at a speed of 0.7 degrees Fahrenheit every 10 years, threatening to melt glaciers, dry up the 3,395-mile Yellow River and cause more droughts, sandstorms and desertification.
The plateau once contained 36,000 glaciers covering an area of 18,000 square miles, but in recent decades, the area of these glaciers has shrunk by 30 percent, say scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The government has forcibly moved thousands of nomads into local towns, giving them free housing and 8,000 yuan (about $1,060) per year.
A scattering of interviews with the resettled nomads showed that while some liked their new life and some didn't, all agreed that their life before had become untenable.
"Before, there was no grass, and the rats dug holes everywhere and the ground was black," recalled Chith Tsering, holding her 1-year-old daughter as she multitasked around her family's three-room house in Dawu.
Since she moved from her remote grassland ranch three years ago, "it's better, but it's sad," she said.
Around Qinghai's steep canyons and rolling grassland, there's an obvious new prosperity among the rural Tibetan people. China's surging economic boom has reached into even the most remote hamlets. Nearly every tent or house has a new motorcycle - or even a sport utility vehicle - parked outside, evidence that rising demand by city dwellers for meat had driven up prices for the region's yaks and sheep.
From village to village, Tibetan Buddhist temples that were torn down during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s are now being rebuilt - often with money from newly wealthy businessmen in major cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou. Spidery webs of prayer flags stretch up mountainsides at seemingly every bend in the road, a testament to the resurgence of ethnic Tibetans' spirituality as the Chinese government loosens its harsh restrictions on religious life.
The nationwide economic boom has propelled China into overtaking the United States as the world's No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to new data released in May. China's output of emissions is rising by an annual amount that far outstrips the cutbacks that wealthy nations are committed to make under the Kyoto Protocol.
"The Chinese government is gradually realizing that global warming is something that will deeply affect the Chinese people and their economic security," said Yang Ailun, climate program coordinator for Greenpeace in China.
In international climate negotiations, China's leaders have refused to consider binding limits on the country's emissions, arguing that limits should be imposed only on wealthy nations. Instead, China has adopted a goal of reducing the amount of energy expended per unit of wealth - a weaker yardstick that many environmentalists have criticized as insufficient.
In recent months, however, officials have discussed these goals with increasing urgency, noting the recent extreme weather.
But the effects of climate change can be fickle, as Paulson found Monday. During drought years in the late 1990s through 2005, the salt lake's area shrank by more than a fourth. But during a Chronicle reporter's recent visit, the salt lake was brimming over its banks because of weeks of steady rains - the same weather pattern that, farther east, was causing severe flooding. The hills surrounding the lake were verdant, and yaks have abundant pasture, locals said. Downstream on the Yellow River, where farmers depend on the trickle to water their crops, floods and hail killed 17 people across four provinces last weekend alone. Beijing was inundated by torrential rains Monday night, and Shanghai hit an all-time record of 103 degrees Fahrenheit over the weekend.
Two hundred miles south in Dawu, however, Chith Tsering said she was glad her family had moved off the land.
"The weather is changing, and it's so hard to make a living off your animals," she said. "There are many people still on the land who are suffering."
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc. |