Melting the Roof of the World
by Gwyneth Cheng
High up in the Tibet Autonomous Region and western China lies the Tibetan Plateau, an imposing landmass of huge importance to Asia. Now, climate change is melting it away, threatening the very foundation of Asia’s survival. What does this mean for us?
Nicknamed the ‘Roof of the World’, the Tibetan Plateau, or 青藏高原 (Qīng–Zàng Gāoyuán), far surpasses Mount Olympus in height and grandeur.
Standing proudly at 4500 metres above sea level and surrounded by the tallest mountains known to man, this towering landmass gives the impression that it may actually touch the sky.
Such is the magnificence of the highest and largest plateau on Earth that it may appear otherworldly, but the Tibetan plateau is very much a cornerstone to life as we know it.
For one, the majesty of the plateau is intertwined with the survival of societies across the region, as it provides us with precious freshwater. Ice forming on this gigantic landmass melts into legendary rivers such as the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Mekong, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers, which 1.65 billion people rely on.
Our governments call it the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ for this reason.
Unfortunately, our Roof is disappearing. Worse, despite how so much life in Asia relies on the Plateau, many of us are not fully aware of what it would mean to lose it.
Along with many of Earth’s most stunning creations, we are gradually losing the Plateau to climate change. Its most remarkable traits also leave it particularly vulnerable to climatic shifts, making it stand out in the race towards destruction.
Greenhouse gas emissions and soot are huge contributors to the great melt. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, while soot darkens ice cover enough to make it absorb rather than reflect sunlight.
Moreover, as more ice melts, more land is uncovered, which further reduces the Plateau’s reflectivity and speeds up the rate of melting ice.
As such, the Plateau is heating up twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth.
Since the mid-1970s, a quarter of Tibet’s ice has been lost.
And as they melt away, the Tibetan Plateau’s glaciers end up hurting the people who cherish and depend on it, a helpless betrayal not entirely of their own making.
The speed of the Tibetan ice thaw rapidly increases the amount of water entering the rivers cascading from the Plateau. This may sound like good news, but the opposite is often true—more water leads to unexpected surges, increasing the risk of flooding in countries downstream.
And it’s already happening. In Mingyong, China, surges caused by meltwater have eroded topsoil crucial for agriculture and led to more frequent and intense floods and landslides elsewhere in the country.
But if you think times are tough now because of more water, wait till there’s less. By 2060, meltwater will decrease as the Tibetan glaciers retreat, and river flows will begin to decline.
Populous countries such as China will suffer especially great consequences, which is why they have been busy constructing dams along major rivers to guarantee their share of the water from the Plateau.
China’s control over Tibet makes this a particularly easy undertaking, but this greatly disadvantages other nations downstream. Reducing their water supply will impact livelihoods and potentially force many communities across Asia into greater poverty.
As global warming aggravates this situation, nations reliant on the plateau are seeing tensions escalate. If negotiations do not go well, there could be greater geopolitical conflict within Asia, with freshwater replacing oil as the next most coveted commodity.
Each • icon represents a dam either planned, under construction, or built on the Mekong River. The icons in dark blue represent China's dams. (Source: CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems)
Furthermore, with its many low-lying and densely populated communities, Asian societies are especially exposed to the threat of sea-level rise, as more meltwater rushes from the Tibetan Plateau into the oceans.
All over the world, this is happening far faster than most people realise. In 2016, five islands in the Pacific Ocean went under due to sea levels rising 10 to 20 centimetres in the past century, a phenomenon mostly caused by thawing glaciers and ice sheets.
Needless to say, governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the big melt.
Countries such as China, Nepal, and Bangladesh have made efforts from planting forests on the Plateau to remove pollutants from the air and soil, to creating ‘floating schools’, where students take classes in boats as the water rises.
Even so, international issues of this magnitude cannot be solved nationally. China, a country that has proven the type of environment-saving feats it is capable of, will have to seriously consider more proactive involvement in transboundary water agreements to curb the water crisis.
As Earth continues to heat up and problems exacerbate, these solutions will no longer be sustainable.
We might already be too late. By 2100, 36 percent of the glaciers in the Plateau’s surrounding mountain ranges will have disappeared.
But there’s no time to be disheartened. If current emissions are not curbed, rising temperatures will melt more than 50 percent of these glaciers.
Ultimately, the region’s fate lies in our hands. It might be too late for us to reclaim what we have already lost, but the least we can do is to slow the rate of destruction, in an attempt to safeguard the people who depend on the Tibetan Plateau.