The speed and scale of change on the Tibetan plateau have made Chinese leaders react to something they understand — a potential threat to the future of China itself.
They are clearly seeking to mould opinion in favour of “greener” policies after decades of a highly polluting dash for economic growth that has poisoned China’s rivers and darkened its skies.
Last month, for example, researchers discovered that levels of black carbon in the ice core of the Tibetan plateau had soared since the 1990s because of smokestack industries and coal fires in millions of homes.
The plateau’s 36,000 glaciers, which once extended for 18,000 square miles, could vanish before mid-century if present rates of warming persist. More than 80% of them are in retreat. The overall area has shrunk by 4.5% in the past 20 years.
Most ominous of all, in the area that Chinese know as Sanjiangyuan, where three mighty rivers rise — the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Mekong — the headwaters run shallow and weak, threatening the water supplies for hundreds of millions of people.
For documentary videos and interactive slideshows on this topic, see also Asia Society’s China Green project. An introduction to the video “On Thinner Ice”:
A quick visual tour of some of the world’s highest glaciers on the Himalayan Mountain Range and other regions on the Tibetan Plateau. With the match photography contrast, let’s trace back what these giant ice sheets looked like 80, 40 or 20 years ago and how much they have thinned down, or melted up into the air. These images document glaciers at the foot of Mt. Everest, those in eastern Qinghai Province and in Tianshan Mountains in Xinjiang, and also expanding lakes due to accelerated glacial meltdown and shrinking lakes thanks to a drying and desertifying trend in some areas at lower altitudes. The picture is bleak and alarming.