SPEAKING this week at the United Nations, President Hu Jintao of China declared that his country “fully appreciates the importance and urgency of addressing climate change.” As well it should. China is beginning to realize that it has a lot to lose from the carbon dioxide that the world so blithely emits into the earth’s atmosphere.
Mr. Hu’s words made me think back to a day not long ago when I found myself on a platform 14,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by throngs of Chinese tourists in colorful parkas. A chairlift had brought us that much closer to the jagged peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the glacier that cascades down its flank. People cheerfully snapped photos of the icy mass, seemingly unaware of the disaster unfolding before them.
Because of climate change, the roughly 1.7-mile-long Baishui Glacier No. 1 could well be one of the first major glacial systems on the Tibetan Plateau to disappear after thousands of years. The glacier, situated above the honky-tonk town of Lijiang in southwest China, has receded 830 feet over the last two decades and appears to be wasting away at an ever more rapid rate each year. It is the southernmost glacier on the plateau, so its decline is an early warning of what may ultimately befall the approximately 18,000 higher-altitude glaciers in the Greater Himalayas as the planet continues to warm.
Because the Tibetan Plateau and its environs shelter the largest perennial ice mass on the planet after the Arctic and Antarctica, it has come to be known as “the Third Pole.” Its snowfields and glaciers feed almost every major river system of Asia during hot, dry seasons when the monsoons cease, and their melt waters supply rivers from the Indus in the west to the Yellow in the east, with the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and Yangtze Rivers in between. (The glaciers on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain contribute much of their water to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.)
From a distance, Baishui Glacier No. 1 looks as immovable as the defiant mountain above. In reality, it is a fluid field of ice and rock in constant downward motion. Scientists speak about the reactive behavior of these glaciers as if they were almost human. The Tibetan and Naxi peoples who inhabit this region treat them, and their mountain hosts, as embodiments of deities and spirits.
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