22 July 2007

Climate impacts in China

Several stories regarding the climate change impacts have been in the news recently. Many of these are focused on the Tibetan Plateau. Due to its size and its position near the tropics, the Tibetan Plateau is one of the most ecologically diverse alpine communities on Earth. Impacts here have widespread consequences.

Aerial photos and satellite images had shown wetlands on the frigid Qinghai-Tibet plateau, which feed the Yangtze and Yellow rivers, had shrunk more than 10 per cent over the past four decades, reports the China Daily, citing the Chinese Academy of Sciences - a key government think tank.

"The wetlands at the origin of the Yangtze have suffered the most, contracting by 29 per cent," the paper said.

Wang Xugen, a CAS researcher, says the wetlands play a key role in regulating the flow of the rivers, which provide water for hundreds of millions of people and nearly half the country's farmland.

"The shrinking of the wetland on the plateau is closely connected with the global warming," the paper quoted him as saying.

This isn't the only problem on the Plateau...

...[I]n the permafrost area of Fenguoshan, average precipitation has been increasing only in certain months of the year, while the general trend points toward drier periods.

The evidence is found in the permafrost itself, the overlying ground surface layer which freezes in the winter and thaws in the summer.

“In the last 20 years, larger portions of frozen ground have melted during summer,” says Professor Li. “With less water and more sand on the ground, desertification is just one step away.”

“Warming temperatures will certainly continue, but weather events such as rain, snow and wind are becoming less predictable,” Professor Li adds.

Experts today agree on one trend: Glaciers, rivers, wetlands and lakes — all elements of the fragile high-altitude ecosystem — are being altered at a speed never seen before.

Professor Li has personally witnessed the retreat of Yuzhu glacier, the highest peak in the Eastern Kunlun Mountains.

“I was in Xidatan, near Yuzhu Peak, for the first time in the 1980s, and when I went back, ten years later, the tongue of the glacier had retreated by 50 metres,” he says. “Nowadays it is about 100m higher than it used to be.”

There is some apparently good news...

But how significant is that statistic really, when the same story later says that China has 2.64 million sq km of desert? It's a pretty marginal area in comparison.

There is also an unusual flood season this year.

Unusually heavy summer rains led to widespread flooding across central China in June and July 2007.

Large swathes of the country have been hit by severe flooding this summer, killing more than 400 people so far.

In the nearby landlocked city of Chongqing, hit by the heaviest rainfall since records began in 1892 [my emphasis], 37 people had died and the city and its suburbs had become "isolated islands" as streets flooded, Chinese media said.

The Health Ministry said the floods, and outbreaks of algae on lakes caused by hot weather and pollution, threatened drinking water supplies. It said officials must pay more heed to the problem.

While these floods and precipitation cannot be explicitly attributed to climate change, the timing of it says something ...Why are all these 'unusually heavy' and 'highest ever'-type events happening on a global scale occurring now? Surely the fact that 2007 is the 1st or 2nd hottest year on record thus far gives some validity to the hypothesis that these floods and other events are due to climate change.

China's huge population (1.3 billion) and economic circumstances place mean it is a pivotal player in determining the future of the planet. In terms of totals, China is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (The US still emits the most per capita) and they have recently released their first climate change plan, saying it is intent on tackling the problem but not at the expense of economic development.

This attitude is something of a disaster for the planet, not only in terms of climate change, but also the use of the finite resources available on our planet. Yes, China has every right to better her people through economic development, but it would be better if they could learn from the mistakes made by the West during the 20th century. But, we in the West must do something too, other than cutting emissions by shifting them to China. That is a fool's game that benefits nobody. We should lead by example, altering our lifestyles to reject the mindless consumerism of the past 60 years or so, and allow for generous foreign assistance to developing nations to raise their standard of living to produce an equitable standard for all of the world's citizens. The selfish 'me first' attitude we currently exhibit will only bring resentment, and indeed already is.

No comments: