The Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau, dubbed the “Third Pole” for having the largest ice mass on Earth after the polar regions, are rapidly losing their glaciers. Eighteen percent of China’s glaciers have vanished in the past 50 years according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Air pollution and rising air temperatures are combining to increase glacial melt, threatening water supplies for one billion people.
Glacial surfaces are vulnerable to the effects of black carbon. What, exactly, is black carbon? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines it as “the most strongly light-absorbing component of particulate matter (PM), and is formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass.” Airborne black carbon absorbs sunlight, creating local atmospheric warming. Deposited on glaciers, it darkens the surface, allowing the sun to warm the snow and ice just as wearing dark clothing on a summer day can make you feel the heat.
Source: Nature Communications
It’s not just China’s famous pollution or fossil fuel burning that’s to blame. It’s also yak dung.
Traditional Tibetan use of biomass such as animal dung for cooking and heating, along with open burning of garbage and crop waste, was found to be a greater contributor to the creation of black carbon in certain areas of the Himalaya-Hindu-Kush and Tibetan Plateau than burning of fossil fuels. A new study published this week in Nature Communications concludes that “the results of this extensive observation-based source-diagnostic study provide strong isotope-based evidence that biomass-sourced BC [black carbon] plays a quantitatively more important role in TP [Tibetan Plateau] glacier melting than fossil fuel-sourced BC, especially in the inland TP, and presumably arises mainly from domestic sources.” The research was conducted by the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The mineral-rich lands of Tibet are a source of diamonds, gold, uranium and copper, bringing extractive industries to the region. China is the world’s fourth largest lithium producer, most of it coming from the Chang Tang plain in Western Tibet.The Tibet Express stated, “Glacier-water mining has major environmental costs in terms of biodiversity loss, impairment of some ecosystem services due to insufficient runoff water, and potential depletion or degradation of glacial springs.”
Degrading glaciers threatens a critical Asian water source.
China, India and other countries surrounding the Tibetan Plateau have looked to it to supply growing water needs as populations increase and fresh-water sources suffer from industrial and human-waste pollution. China is also tapping the glaciers of the Himalaya’s to support its bottled-water market, the world largest. At least 30 companies have been granted licenses to tap Tibetan glaciers.
Fossil fuels are by no means blameless in the degradation of the Himalayan glaciers. In the Himalayas, the Chinese study found fossil fuels accounted for 46 percent of black carbon versus 54 percent for biomass burning. Fossil fuel sources ranged as high as 70 percent in the Langtang and Mustang Valleys, largely from sources in Kathmandu and Northern India. The study also saw seasonal variations. Biomass-sourced black carbon decreased during monsoon season, presumably because these particles are more efficiently flushed out by precipitation.
Most of the 5,500 glaciers in the Himalaya-Hindu-Kush region—home of Mount Everest—may vanish by the end of this century. The long history of climbing through the Khumbu Icefall and up the Lhotse Face may become a rock scramble instead.