Everest’s dying glaciers

Glaciers in the Himalayas provide water for one-sixth of humanity, but they are shrinking ever faster, with potentially catastrophic results. Wang Guanli reports from the world’s tallest mountain.

Glaciers in the Himalayas, which provide water to one-sixth of humanity, are thawing rapidly due to climate change. Dubbed the “Third Pole,” with the largest concentration of glaciers outside the polar caps, the Himalayas boast 11 peaks over 8,000 metres and around 100 over 7,000 metres high. Scientists predict that if current rates of warming continue, 80% of Himalayan glaciers will disappear within 30 years.

I was part of a Greenpeace team that left Beijing in late April to document glacial retreat on the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest (Qomolangma). The plan was to gather visual evidence of the retreat of the Rongbuk Glacier, Everest’s main glacier, 5,800 metres above sea level, in order to build awareness in China of the mounting threat of climate change.

After a four hour flight, we reached Lhasa, “place of the gods” in Tibetan. Our Tibetan guide, Bianba Dunzhu, greeted us. Bianba, an instructor with the Tibet Mountaineer Training School, has made it to Everest’s summit twice, and has also scaled the world’s second highest peak, K2 (Mount Qogir).

“Although I am a mountain guide, I dare not conquer Mount Everest too many times, human beings must respect the holy mountains,” Bianba told us, recalling the fate of a Nepalese guide who had reached the summit over a dozen times, but died at the prime of his life – with no obvious cause of death. With this reminder ringing in our ears, we set off from Lhasa, via Shigatse, Tingri and Zaxizong, towards Mount Everest.

We also hoped to collect evidence of climate-change impacts on the region’s rivers. The Himalayas and Qinghai-Tibet plateau are the source of some of the world’s major river systems: the Indus, the Ganga-Brahmaputra, Mekong, Yangtze and the Yellow River. Almost one billion people live in the watershed areas of these great rivers in China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Thirsty rivers

We saw our first river, the Lhasa River, as we drove from the airport to downtown Lhasa, and were immediately struck by the large deposits of sand on both banks of the river, an indication of the desertification now spreading throughout the region. A similar phenomenon was seen the following day, when we crossed the Brahmaputra River. Once famous for its abundant runoff, the flow of the Brahmaputra is now much reduced, with many shallow sections visible.

Finally, as we neared Everest, we saw the Rongbuk River. The river is formed by melt water from the Rongbuk Glacier, the region’s largest. Forty years ago, the annual runoff of the Rongbuk was around 100 million cubic metres. Now the flow is a relative trickle due to rapid glacial retreat.

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has a staggering 46,298 glaciers. However, recent surveys, conducted by remote sensing and fieldwork, have recorded a reduction of 10% in the past three decades, from 48,860 square kilometres in the 1970s, to 44,438 square kilometres today. This alarming acceleration of glacial retreat has been attributed to increased global warming.

At an altitude of 5,200 metres, the tiny village of Zaxizong stands at the entrance of the Mount Everest Nature Reserve. A small trickle of a river runs past the village. Renzeng, a 48-year-old farmer, told us that generations of villagers have relied on the river to drink and to irrigate their crops. But things are starting to change. “Now, due to lack of irrigation, the yield of highland barley in our village is less than half what it used to be,” said Renzeng.

Onwards – and upwards – towards Mount Everest, we stopped at the Rongbuk Temple. At 5,030 metres, it is the highest temple in the world and the best place to view the majestic peak. The head lama at the temple had been at the temple for 20 years, and witnessed the impacts of climate change first-hand. “I have noticed a reduction in the flow of the Rongbuk River every year, and each year is hotter than the last,” said the lama. “I am worried about the harsh future our children will suffer.” Other lamas told us that they used to have to force their way through chest-high snow, but now the winter snows only reach their shins.

After leaving the temple, we headed towards base camp. April is the most popular month for mountain climbing and we saw dozens of tents dotted around the camp, temporary homes for mountaineers from around the world. On our first night, a heavy snow fell, and we set off at 6 the next morning through the fresh, boot-high snowfall towards the Rongbuk Glacier, aiming to complete a whole day of shooting and return to the base camp before nightfall.

Retreating glaciers

The Rongbuk Glacier flows north and forms the Rongbuk Valley north of Mount Everest. The main goal of our expedition was to reach an “anchor point” left by an expedition in 1968 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and take photographs comparing the state of the glacier then and now. Our route took us from the fork in the road near the base camp, towards the west side of the Rongbuk Glacier, across its ridge and north along the west ridge towards Guangming Peak.

Our map told us to expect to meet two glaciers on our way: it showed them descending from the 6,927 metre Hongxing Peak, which lies to the west of Everest, then running east to join the Rongbuk Glacier. Instead, we only came across large rocks and debris from a huge landslide where the second glacier was supposed to be. The landslide blocked our way and we had to give up with our destination only half an hour’s walk away. As our cameramen set to work beside a nearby melt-water lake, we realised why Bianba had warned us to watch out for falling rocks from to the rapid noontime snow melt, as large chunks of ice and snow and a rain of rocks fell close by.

The serac forests of the Rongbuk Glacier amazed Chinese scientists in the 1970s. Seracs are large blocks and columns of ice found near glacial crevasses that form as glacier move and melts. In a report they wrote: “With a great variety of shapes and forms, the serac forests there made us linger with no intent to leave. Those between 5,300 and 6,500 metres are extraordinarily beautiful and fantastic, like an ice sculpture park.” We did find a serac forest at 5,600 metres, but it was sparse, small and worn. The towering “ice mushrooms” that we expected had almost disappeared.

“When I first climbed Mount Everest in 2000, I saw serac forests at 5,400 metres. When I climbed the mountain again in 2006, I only found the serac forests from 5,800 metres,” Bianba told us.

Local knowledge

Himalayan glaciers could shrink from the present 500,000 square kilometres to 100,000 square kilometres by the 2030s. But the Tibetan villagers, farmers, porters and lamas that we met did not need the statistics to prove that something is very wrong. The close bond that they have with the environment teaches them to watch the signs – and these potentially catastrophic changes have been unfolding before them every day.

Tibetans have created and maintained their own living philosophy based on cherishing nature. With a dreamlike imagination, Tibetans express their deepest love for their homeland. Every Tibetan is born into Buddhism, and to them, every living creature has a soul.

Tibetan culture and the amazing environment of the region have merged seamlessly. The lives of Tibetans and the many other peoples of the region are dominated by the incredible Himalayas. If glacial retreat continues to accelerate it will be an ecological, economic and social catastrophe.

But it is not too late to avert the climate catastrophe. As well as documenting climate impacts, Greenpeace is calling for an energy revolution: a critical shift in the way we produce and use energy. The solution is to urgently switch investment from environmentally destructive and dangerous energy sources such as coal, oil, gas and nuclear, into sustainable, clean renewable energy sources like wind and solar, combined with a programme of energy-efficiency measures.

The alternative? There isn’t one. Otherwise, we will have to live with the fact that we stood by and did nothing as billions of people suffered – and a unique environment was lost.

See more about Chinese glacier melting on chinadialogue: Global warming and Chinese glacier melting

This article has been slightly abridged in its English translation.

Homepage photo by Marellaluca