24 November 2007

'Roof of the World" falling in

Tibet, a Plateau region in central Asia, is a region facing many problems. Besides having its culture overrun by China in the 1950s, the “roof of the world” has a host of environmental issues to contend with, many wrought by encroaching climate change.

Tibet was covered in tall cypress trees 4600 years ago but today is mainly a desert pasture. Tibet's spiritual leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, seems to imply that this is due to corrupt Chinese officials. They may very well be exacerbating the trend, but Tibet has been largely deforested for a long time, a result of clearing primarily to accommodate crops and livestock.

The average of altitude of Tibet is over 4900 m, and the region is mountainous. There are many glaciers in the region, with more being discovered all the time. As is the trend worldwide, many of the glaciers are shrinking. Over the past 100 years, the area covered by glaciers in the area has shrunk by an estimated 30%. The Tibetan Plateau is the source of of many of China's major rivers. As the glaciers there melt away, China's future water supply comes under threat.

As with the deforestation issue above, attribution of the source of this is somewhat politicized. The Chinese government hypothesizes that climate change is driving much of this. Tibetan activists place much of the blame on China's environmental policies. In reality, it is not likely an either/or situation, but rather a combination of both. That Mt Everest, the world's tallest mountain (which is not entirely within China's control), is undergoing significant melting (see image pair -- same site, 1968 on top, 2007 below), would suggest that climate change is driving much of this. Still, humans can have a large impact on the climate through land use changes...

Other evidence also suggests climate change. Temperatures in Tibet are rising at a rate about twice the global average, about 0.3 C per decade. This is consistent with other elevated regions of the world. The region has also been facing something of a drought, which is of course not a sign of climate change by itself. Still, much of the region has seen record-low humidity over the past few months, and parts of Tibet have seen 'Exceptional' levels of drought (see here for interactive global map). These observations are consistent with accelerating climate change around the globe. The Chinese are resorting to the creation of artificial snow, a first for the region in order to alleviate the extended dryer-than-normal conditions.

The impacts of climate change in Tibet have serious implications for the globe. Millions of people rely on the rivers which begin in this region for drinking water and irrigation. As a whole, China has been observing many impacts of climate change during the course of this year, from increasing desertification to extreme floods. Attempts to stabilize the flow of the Yangtze river (which incidentally originates in Tibet) with the Three Gorges dam have not been going well to date; the dam is creating more environmental problems than anticipated. If not effectively managed, these events create the possibility for future humanitarian crises (like food shortages), which in our increasingly volatile world can create the triggers for larger conflagrations.

Such a possible future highlights the need for effective action in adapting to and mitigating against climate change. The western nations need to show leadership at the upcoming Bali climate talks, rather than bickering and finger-pointing. Assigning blame is a pointless exercise. It may be too late to avoid some problems, but giving up and doing nothing insures that the worse will happen.

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