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Why Tibet matters now (1)

Few places are as globally important as the Tibetan Plateau, writes Daniel J Miller. Understanding this means looking at the region from a holistic, ecological standpoint.

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From a global environmental perspective, few places in the world are as important as Tibet. Rising concerns about global warming, climate change, receding glaciers, desertification, food insecurity and loss of biodiversity all point to the significance of Tibet. Tackling these important issues requires greatly increased scientific research in Tibetan areas and improved understanding of current land use practices, especially of agriculture, forestry and livestock grazing. Critical examination of existing environmental conservation and economic development policies and new thinking on how we view the Tibetan landscape are required.   

In this article, I use the term "Tibetan Plateau" to refer to a unique geographical area of Asia; a landscape not marked by lines drawn on a map, but defined by topography. It is a region with particular geological, ecological and socio-cultural characteristics. Tackling global environmental challenges in the twenty-first century demands that we view the Tibetan Plateau holistically to understand its unique ecology, its natural resources and illustrious cultural heritage. 

Encompassing an area of about 2.5 million square kilometres, or about one-third the area of the continental United States, the Tibetan Plateau is the largest and highest region on Earth. With an average elevation of 4,500 metres above sea level, the Tibetan Plateau stretches for almost 3,000 kilometres from west to east and 1,500 kilometres from south to north. The Plateau is ringed by high mountains – the Himalayas to the south, the Karakorum in the west and the Kunlun across the north. The Tibetan Plateau goes beyond political frontiers and encompasses much of the higher elevation Himalayan regions in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bhutan as well as all of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Qinghai, western Sichuan, northern Yunnan, western Gansu and southern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. 

I have a plastic, raised-relief map of China in which the Tibetan Plateau and adjoining mountain ranges stand out clearly. It depicts the vast area encompassed by the plateau and the abrupt uplift of the Himalaya rising from the plains of northern India. Looking at this map you can see how the Tibetan Plateau dominates the geography of Asia. 

Photographs taken by astronauts at heights of 200 to 400 kilometres above the earth also provide an out-of-the-ordinary observation of the Tibetan Plateau. Unhindered by the clutter of political boundaries, the land is defined by watersheds, by mountain ranges and large lakes; the natural demarcations of an environment.

These views from space provide a perspective that helps one to think globally and to see the landscape in its entirety. Environmental conservation strategies for the Tibetan Plateau need to encompass a broad scale and implement programs at the level at which natural systems operate. This landscape level of attention ensures persistence of populations and ecological processes and has to work across political boundaries. Man-made lines on a map do not stop a river from flowing downhill nor do they prevent black-necked cranes from migrating or Tibetan argali and Tibetan wild ass from crossing international borders in search of forage. Birds and animals travel across the earth and we need to adopt a similar style in how we perceive landscapes.

The American poet Gary Snyder wrote, “Now, with insights from the ecological sciences, we know that we must think on a scale of a whole watershed, a natural system. A habitat. To save the life of a single parrot or monkey is truly admirable. But unless the forest is saved, they will all die.” Saving the Tibetan Plateau requires an approach that recognises watersheds to define plans of action for conservation and development. It also requires acceptance of the complex nature of the Tibetan landscape, not only in the physical forces that shape it, but also in the interaction of socio-economic and institutional forces that impact the nomads and farmers who use the natural resources.

The Tibetan Plateau plays an important role in global climate change. With its extensive alpine grasslands that store carbon in their plants and soil, the Plateau is a significant carbon pool. The carbon stored in the grassland ecosystem is important to regional and global carbon cycles; it has the potential to modify global carbon cycles and influence climate. What takes place in the Tibetan grasslands therefore should be of increasing importance to a world more and more concerned about climate change.

With thousands of glaciers scattered across the Plateau and the Himalayas, the region has the most snow and ice outside of the polar regions. The glacier-fed rivers originating from the Tibetan Plateau make up the largest river run-off from any single location in the world. With global warming, the total area of glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau is expected to shrink by 80% by the year 2030. The loss of these glaciers will dramatically affect major rivers that provide water for more than one-third of the world’s population. The effect of glaciers receding will be felt well beyond the borders of the Tibetan Plateau, with profound impacts over a wide area in Asia and great risks of increased poverty, reduced trade and economic turmoil. This presents major political, environmental and socio-economic challenges in the years ahead.

The Tibetan Plateau forms the headwaters environment where the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Sutlej and Indus rivers originate. In addition, rivers from the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau flow into the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor, providing precious water for the oasis towns along the old Silk Road. The management of these river source environments has global implications, as the water from their watersheds will be of increasing importance in the future. The water they provide is critical to the survival of millions of people downstream. The recent floods in the Indian states of Bihar and Assam draw attention to the critical role of the Tibetan environment in regulating water flow to downstream areas. How many people realise that the Kosi River, which recently flooded and displaced millions of people in the northern Indian state of Bihar, actually has its origins on the north side of Mount Everest?  Or that almost 60% of the total length of the 2,906 kilometre-long Brahmaputra River that floods India and Bangladesh every year is located in Tibet? Simply for the water that it provides, the Tibetan Plateau demands greater attention.

 

NEXT: Protecting biodiversity on the Tibetan Plateau

Daniel J Miller is a rangeland ecologist and agricultural development specialist with over 15 years professional experience in agricultural development, natural resource management and biodiversity conservation in Asia. He has worked in Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan and has traveled widely throughout South and South-east Asia. He speaks Nepalese, Tibetan and some Chinese.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect those of the US Agency for International Development or the US Government.

Homepage photo by Daniel J Miller

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关注需要高超的智慧

青藏高原在气候变化的背景下确实显得越来越重要,问题的全球性要求我们用整体的眼光来看待这个地区,如何在既有的政治边界范围内,用整体的思维关注青藏高原问题,需要参与者付出高超的智慧

Attention needs extraordinary wisdom

It is true that the Tibetan Plateau is becoming more and more important under the background of climate change. Since it is a global problem, we need to look upon this region in a comprehensive perspective. Participants need extraordinary wisdom to pay attention to the Tibetan Plateau problem within the current political border.
(Translated by Xiaoyu Guan)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

这是个科研的好地方

青藏高原是一个圣地,但在中国的话,它只有在涉及政治事件,像西藏自治问题的时候才会引起关注。而说到青藏高原的其他方面,很少有人会给予其中的环境科学更多关注。我们的专家们到哪儿去了,为什么我们这么长时间都不做一些相关的研究?如果我们真不在乎的话,那就让别人去做,因为西藏并不只属于中国,它也是全世界的。如果其他国家是真的想做纯粹的科学研究的话,那我们就应该和他们进行更多的沟通和合作。
translated by diaoshuhuan

this is a good place for scientific research

Tibetan Plateau is a holy land, but in China we seem to be not very concerned about the place, only about political affairs, such as the Tibetan autonomous problem. People rarely pay attention to other aspects of the region, such as the significance of environmental science. Where have all our specialists and experts - why hasn't there been any relevant research for such a long time? If its because we don't care, then we should let other people carry it out, because Tibet doesn't just belong to China, but to the whole world. If other countries really want to do pure scientific work in the region, then I think we should enter into more communication and collaboration with them. (Edited by Poppy Toland)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

回复

"青藏高原是一个圣地,但在中国的话,它只有在涉及政治事件,像西藏自治问题的时候才会引起关注。"
对于这句话 本人不能苟同。
虽然西藏条件艰苦,但是还是有一部分科研人员常年在那边工作,除此之外,内陆的很多学者也是在做关于西藏环境,生态,经济等研究。
没有调查就没有发言权,话不能说的太绝对。

marchy (edited by Poppy Toland)

reply

“but in China we seem to be not very concerned about the place, only about political affairs, such as the Tibetan autonomous problem.” I don't agree with this. In spite of the harsh conditions in Tibet, there are many researchers who work there all the time. Also, there are also many scholars from the mainland who are carrying out research on the environment, ecology and economy of Tibet. One should not issue an opinion without proper investigation, and one should never speak in absolute terms. marchy
(translated by xiulu)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

减排黑炭气溶胶可以迅速缓解气候变化和冰川消融

在最近发表的一篇Ramanathan和Carmichael合著的论文中,他们指出黑炭气溶胶对冰雪的影响可能等同于二氧化碳带来的影响。他们的模型显示,自1950年来的1°C的升温中0.6°C是由黑炭气溶胶引起的。这一变暖的趋势加剧了青藏高原冰川的融化。IPCC的预测指出,起赃高原的表面积将由1995年的500,000平方千米缩小到100,000平方千米。中科院青藏高原研究所的科学家指出,按照目前的趋势,三分之二的青藏高原冰川会在2050年前消失。科学家们建议应当优先减排黑炭气溶胶。

因为黑炭气溶胶仅在空气中存在几周时间,减排黑炭气溶胶可以在短时间内减缓气候变化。减排黑炭气溶胶可以延迟气候变化的临界点,同时为决策者在中长期内解决二氧化碳的排放问题提供时间。解决黑炭气溶胶的排放问题需要协调气候政策与地区性的空气污染政策,尤其是减排二氧化硫和其他气溶胶的政策。

Black charcoal aerosol emission reduction can ease climate change and glacial melting

In the latest thesis published by Ramanathan and Carmichael, they pointed out that the effect that that black charcoal aerosol has on snow is similar to the affect brought about by carbon dioxide. Their model showed that since the 1950s, of each 1°C rise in temperature, 0.6°C was caused by black carbon aerosol. This trend towards warming has intensified the ice melting in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. IPCC have predicted that the surface area of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau had reduced from 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometres since 1995. Scientists from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research (ITP) said that, based on the current trend, 2/3 of the ice in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau will disappear before 2050. Scientists suggest that the priority is to cut down black carbon aerosol emissions. Because black carbon aerosol only exists in the air for a few weeks, reducing black carbon aerosol emissions can ease climate change within a short time. Reducing black carbon aerosol emission will slow down our arrival at the “tipping point” of climate change, whilst lending time to decision-makers to solve the problem of carbon dioxide emission. Solving the black carbon aerosol emissions problem needs coordinated climate policy and regional air pollution policy, especially with regards to SO2 and other aerosol policies.
(Translated by Tian Liang)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

我爱西藏

我爱西藏。很多人告诉我那是一个很美的地方。我试着在goolge earth上找到它: http://googleearthpage.blogspot.com/ best wishes to all

(by Fangfang CHEN)

I love Tibet

I love Tibet. I have been told that it is a wonderful place!

I manage to find it at the Google Earth http://googleearthpage.blogspot.com/

best wishes to all

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

旅游

这些年来,越来越多的人去藏区看那里的蓝天、雪山,不知道这是否会给藏区的环境带来很大的压力?

Tourism

In the past few years, more and more people have gone to Tibet to see the blue skies and the snowy mountains. I’m not sure, will this put pressure on Tibet’s environment? (Translated by Michelle Deeter)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

藏獒

现在是我们展望更好未来、新鲜空气、清洁的水、给后代生存在这个叫作地球的美丽的地方的更好的环境的时候。但有谁真正在深入探究我们当前所面临的问题呢?世界充斥着蓄意操纵、贪得无厌、政治把戏和经济丑闻。每天我们都在让地球妈妈疲惫不堪。世界的领导者们关心许多事情,他们因贪婪、为了自我满足而把事情搞得一团糟。如果我们对地球的健康状况不管不问,我们就不会意识到情况有多糟...所以,除了政治,听听藏民们谈谈他们的土地和环境吧..西藏文化因地理而非历史原因而有别于中华文化...藏民们总告诉我们他们所熟知的环境..因为我们都抛到他们那里去看。

tibetan mastiff

Now is the time that we all have to look ahead for better future, fresh air,
clean water, best environment for generations to survive in this beautiful place called earth.
But who cares to look deeper into the problems that we face in this very time.
World is consumed by manipulation, greed, politics, economic malpractise and each day we reduce our mother earth into exhaution. World leaders cared for lot of things and tangled up in bad shape for each state greed or self satisfaction because we don`t realise much of how bad it is going to get if we don`t care more for the earth`s health.....so listen to what tibetan are saying about their land and environment, beside politics..tibet stands way different from chinese culture not historically but geographically...and tibetan always tell us about the environment which they knew very well...because we came watching in our lives.