Monday, 12 March 2012

Tibet and Climate Change: What’s the underlying story?

Why Tibet matters? Several scientists have realized the importance and Tibet’s role in the planetary climate. However, the six million Tibetans are silenced and forbidden to form their own organizations, people think Tibet is small and unimportant on a global scale. Actually, it is an immense upland, with an area of ~2.5 million sq. km and averaging over 4500 meters in elevation. It is not just the largest and highest area in the world today (also referred to as ‘the roof of the world’); it may be the largest and highest in all geologic history. It is also close to 2% of the land surface of the planet.

Scientists are increasingly calling the Tibet the planetary ‘Third Pole’, because it is home to around 46,000 glaciers, storing more freshwater than any other region except the North and South poles. These scientists also know that Tibet is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world resulting in more extreme and unpredictable weather across Asia. Tibet’s glaciers will be gone within decades. These glaciers feed the rivers that are the lifeblood of Asia, providing water for more than one billion people in ten nations downstream of Tibet.

Global warming is not only causing extreme weather conditions and particularly affecting extreme elevation regions of the world. On the one hand, global warming could cause the submergence of low-lying islands and coastal lands, while on the other hand its effect on the Tibetan Plateau is higher than any part of the world. Tibet is virtually an island in the sky so vast it deeply affects wind circulation, draws the Asian monsoons deep inland, affecting even storm tracks of the north Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

The Alpine grasslands of the Tibetan Plateau play an important role, like the rainforest of Amazon, in absorbing Carbon dioxide and acting as a Carbon sink. Over one-third (37%) of the Plateau’s grassland Soil Organic Carbon is stored in its permafrost regions. The release of the carbon contained within the Plateau’s grasslands (positive feedback) could also accelerate global warming. Like the vast Amazon rainforest, it is on the brink of being turned into a desert, which could in turn have catastrophic consequences on the world’s climate.

As the climate change on Tibet’s fragile mountain ecosystem continues or even accelerates, their effects will resonate far beyond the plateau, changing the water supply for billions of people and altering the atmospheric circulation over half the planet. More than ever before, the need to save the Tibetan Plateau from ecological devastation is urgent because it is not a question of the survival of Tibetans, but also half of the humanity.

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