The Message from the Glaciers

Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers

by Baiqing Xu, Junji Cao, James Hansen, and others
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 29, 2009

On Avoiding Dangerous Anthropogenic Interference with the Climate System: Formidable Challenges Ahead

by Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Y. Feng
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 23, 2008

The Great Melt: The Coming Transformation of the Arctic

by Alun Anderson
World Policy Journal, Winter 2009/2010

A full listing of sources appears at the end of this article.

David Breashears/Glacier Works
Mount Everest and the Main Rongbuk Glacier, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, 2007; photograph by David Breashears. For a view of the same landscape in 1921, see the following page. Both photographs will be in the exhibition ‘Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya,’ at the Asia Society Museum, New York City, July 13–August 15, 2010.

It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were drawn to such desolate regions as the Tibetan Plateau, which, when finally surveyed, proved to have the planet’s fourteen highest peaks. Because these mountains encompass the largest nonpolar ice mass in the world—embracing some 46,298 glaciers covering 17 percent of the area’s land and since time immemorial have held water in frozen reserve for the people of Asia—they have come to be known as “The Third Pole.”

There was a time when the immensity of such larger-than-life features of our natural world as oceans, deserts, mountains, and glaciers evoked awe and even fear. These days, however, these once seemingly eternal and invincible aspects of our planet’s architecture are on the defensive. And only belatedly are we beginning to understand how fragile and interconnected they actually are with myriad other elements of planetary life.

Through new scientific data, scholarly articles, books, NGO studies, and media reports, we now know that the melting of polar ice will lead to rising ocean levels and the inundation of many heavily populated areas in vulnerable lowland countries. But we are only beginning to become acquainted with the less-well-known consequences that are starting to flow out of the majestic arc of mountains that begins in Inner Asia with the Tianshan Range in western China and then wraps itself around the western tier of the Tibetan Plateau as it becomes the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan. It then joins the Karakorum in northern Pakistan to become the Himalayas above Nepal, Bhutan, and India before ending with the Hengduan Range in southwest China. (See map on page 48.)

Scientists are now warning that there could be a 43 percent decrease in land mass covered with ice in these mountains by 2070 and that in numerous and complex ways this loss will affect Asia’s ten major rivers—the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Irrawaddy, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Amu Darya, and Tarim—around which many of the ancient civilizations of the world arose. It is here, among huge modern-day populations of Asia, that the melting of the Greater Himalayas’ glaciers will have the most significant impact during the coming decades and centuries.

Recent revelations that the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel…

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