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5 reasons why Tibet's melting ice is a disaster for India, Europe and US

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 22 October 2015, 13:22 IST

Did you know that rivers originating in Tibet's glaciers supply water to 1.3 billion people? That's equivalent to the entire population of India.

But these glaciers are fast disappearing due to global warming.

Tibet's sustainability is crucial for sustenance of the world, but this fact is not commonly known. The glaciers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Tibet occupies a unique position in the world climate - it affects heat waves in Europe and carbon emissions that threaten the entire planet.

As a result, the Tibetan government-in-exile recently appealed to the United Nations, and the world's countries, to keep the Tibetan plateau in mind during the climate change conference in Paris this December.

The Tibetan administration has no control over its land, and hence cannot make a formal contribution to the conference. But its word carries a lot of weight. Here are five reasons why Tibet's appeal is important for all of us:

Water tower of Asia

Tibet's 46,000 glaciers directly supply water to 1.3 billion people through at least five major rivers: the Brahmaputra, Indus, Yangtze, Salween and the Yellow River.

In all, 40% of world's population is said to depend on these rivers. But 82% of the ice has retreated.

At this rate, it is estimated that two-thirds of the glaciers will be gone by 2050. There has been no net accumulation of ice since the 1950s.

Carbon emissions

Tibet is known as the "third pole". Like the north and south poles, there is a permafrost under the Tibetan plateau. Permafrost is a sheet of ice that formed several millennia ago and contains a lot of carbon dioxide.

The permafrost in Tibet is known to store 12,300 tonnes of carbon dioxide. But global warming causes the permafrost to melt, releasing the carbon dioxide. As a result, global warming in turn causes more global warming.

In Tibet, 10% of the permafrost has degraded in just the last decade.

Melting glaciers

The Tibetan plateau, spread over five million square kilometres, has the most amount of ice after the north and south poles. Because of global warming, the glaciers' melting season arrives earlier and lasts longer. This has released a lot of water into rivers, raising flooding risks.

Moreover, every major river has been dammed, which only raises the chances of a sudden release of water in case they fill up too much.

Rain maker

The heating up of the Tibetan plateau is known to affect the circulation of air, influencing rainfall in South Asia. Several studies have established this link.

This way, a changing climate would influence both how much, and when, it will rain during the monsoon.

Changing weather in Europe

Recent research shows that a warmer climate in Tibet directly affects cloud formation in Europe and north-east Asia. Thus, thinning snow cover in Tibet is linked to the increasing instances of heatwaves in these regions.

In fact, what happens in Tibet has such far-reaching impact that Chinese scientists are gathering data to establish links between warming in Tibet and climate change in North America.

Things are getting worse. Every ten years, Tibet sees temperatures rise approximately 0.3 degrees Celsius. In the last five decades, temperatures have risen 1.3 degrees Celsius - three times the global average.

Clearly, the Tibetan administration's appeal ought to carry a lot of weight at climate negotiations. Although the administration seems committed to solving these problems, it is in exile in India, and the real control over Tibet lies with the Chinese. There is no indication that China's climate action commitment to the United Nations has any focus on Tibet.

That's a good reason to worry. If not for the changing weather patterns Tibet causes, but also the water it supplies.

At a press briefing on 20 October, the Tibetan administration's prime minister-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, warned: "Before, wars were fought over land. Nowadays, they are fought over energy. The next wars will be fought over water. And Tibet is the major source of water."

Is anyone listening?

First published: 22 October 2015, 13:22 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.