Glaciers in China are disappearing quickly, an environmental institute in Lanzhou confirmed on Wednesday.
Scientists with the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute conducted a lengthy survey of southern glaciers, which provide vital drinking water to India, and found that their total geographic area had decreased by 13 percent since 2002.
In the immediate future, the melting glaciers may release some amount of water, Liu Shiyin, who led the survey, told Science magazine. But any short-term effects “will be exhausted when glaciers disappear under a continuous warming,” Liu said.
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In 2002, Chinese scientists released the first full inventory of the country’s glaciers, the largest glacial area outside of Antarctica and Greenland. The data came from topographical maps and aerial photographs of western China’s Tibet and Xinjiang regions taken from the 1950s through the 1980s. That record showed a total glacial area of 59,425 square kilometers. The Second Glacier Inventory of China, unveiled here last week, is derived from high-resolution satellite images taken between 2006 and 2010. The data set is freely available online.
Liu and his colleagues calculated China’s total glacial area to be 51,840 square kilometers—13% less than in 2002.
In 2007, Beijing Climate Center director-general Dong Wenjie warned that “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… This in fact is closely associated with global warming.”
Liu told Science that his team’s inventory found the latest glacier retreat in the southern and eastern corners of the Tibetan Plateau. “We found the fastest shrinking glaciers are those in the central upper reach of the Brahmaputra River, between the central north Himalaya [and] the source region of the tributary of the Indus River,” Liu said.
Scientists have called attention to the risks of melting glaciers for years. The Chinese side of the Tibetan Plateau holds nearly 37,000 glaciers, which in turn feed some of the most vital rivers in Asia.
The Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported similar findings in May, and warned that the plateau is more likely to be affected by climate change because it is the highest place in the world’s mid-latitude regions.