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article imageMelting of Earth's Third Pole is accelerating at a shocking rate

By Karen Graham     Nov 10, 2020 in Environment
Glaciers in China's bleak, rugged Qilian mountains are disappearing at a shocking rate as global warming brings unpredictable change and raises the prospect of crippling, long-term water shortages, scientists say.
China's Qilian Mountains stretch for 800-kilometers (500-miles) - from the south of Dunhuang, China to the southeast, forming the northeastern escarpment of the Tibetan Plateau and the southwestern border of the Hexi Corridor.
The Tibetan plateau, along with the Pamir, the Hindu Kush, and Himalayan mountains is known as the world's Third Pole for the amount of ice long locked in the high-altitude wilderness. The glaciers in this "third pole" make up the third-largest mass of frozen freshwater on Earth.
Image of the Qilian Mountains taken on May 9  2016.
Image of the Qilian Mountains taken on May 9, 2016.
Stefan Wagener
Water from the estimated 46,000 glaciers of the Third Pole is critical to the survival of 250 million people living in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region.
Another 1.65 billion people rely on the rivers flowing from the great peaks into India, Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and other nations.
Topographic map of Laohugou glacier No.12.
Topographic map of Laohugou glacier No.12.
Yang Li, et. al.
The largest glacier in the Qilian Mountain Range is a 20-square kilometer (7.7 square miles) glacier, known as Laohugou No. 12. The glacier has retreated about 450 meters (1,476 feet) since the 1950s, when researchers set up China's first monitoring station to study it.
Today, the face of Laohugou No. 12 is crisscrossed with rivulets of water running down its craggy surface. The glacier is estimated to have shrunk seven percent since measurements first started in the 1950s.
More alarming is the loss of thickness, with about 13 meters (42 feet) of ice disappearing as temperatures rise, said Qin Xiang, the director at the monitoring station.
Glaciers are pictured in the Qilian Mountain range of central China as the International Space Stati...
Glaciers are pictured in the Qilian Mountain range of central China as the International Space Station orbited 252 miles above the Asian continent on August 22, 2018.
NASA
"The speed that this glacier has been shrinking is really shocking," Qin told Reuters on a recent visit to the remote, spartan station.
But since the 1950s, average temperatures have risen more than 35 degrees Fahrenheit in the area, Qin said, and with no sign of an end to warming, the outlook is grim for the 2,684 glaciers in the Qilian range.
Data from the China Academy of Sciences shows that across the Qilian Mountains, glacier retreat was 50 percent faster in 1990-2010 than it was from 1956 to 1990. This data, along with a rise in temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius across the region since the 1950s, portends a grim outlook for the 2,684 glaciers in the Qilian range.
Photograph of highest site on the Tibetan plateau where samples were taken for carbon dating.
Photograph of highest site on the Tibetan plateau where samples were taken for carbon dating.
Simon L. Pendleton et. al.
"When I first came here in 2005, the glacier was around that point there where the river bends," Qin said, pointing to where the rock-strewn slopes of the Laohugou valley channel the winding river to lower ground. Qin also notes that the flow of water near the terminus of the glacier is nearly double what it was 16 years ago.
The dangers of global warming
There more to this developing story than the retreat of glaciers in the Third Pole. The impacts of a warming world have been studied in this region, just like the studies going on in the Amazon, North and South Poles, and other regions of the world.
In this region of the world, the vulnerability of a large swath of the planet's people who live in hard to reach areas has to be considered. In the event of a climate catastrophe, they are usually harder to reach, as we have seen in the past. There are also political tensions to consider.
Sulixiang village  along mthe Shule River. The river is fed by glaciers in the Qilian Mountains  and...
Sulixiang village, along mthe Shule River. The river is fed by glaciers in the Qilian Mountains, and now, flucuations in water sometimes leaves the river dried up.
摩游乐 (Mó yóulè)
And the fluctuations in temperature are also dangerous. "Across the region, glacial meltwater is pooling into lakes and causing devastating floods," said Greenpeace East Asia climate and energy campaigner Liu Junyan, reports CNN News. "In spring, we're seeing increased flooding, and then when water is needed most for irrigation later in the summer, we're seeing shortages."
The way it looks now, "glacial melting could peak within the decade, after which snowmelt would sharply decrease due to the smaller, fewer glaciers," China Academy of Sciences expert Shen Yongping said.
Most important is that the evidence is all too clear. Student researcher Jin Zizhen, checking his monitoring instruments at the glacier says, "It's something I've been able to see with my own eyes."
More about third pole, China, Qilian mountains, accelerated melting, Global warming
 
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