Melting in the North Pole, South Pole and Third Pole?

ID-10050797So often we hear about the melting of the ice at the North and South Poles. Their rapid decline is a dire warning of further changes to our ecosystems a warming climate might bring as well as a wake-up call that climate change is happening right now. But if a shrinking Arctic and Antarctic aren’t enough to convince you, perhaps a shrinking third pole will.

A recent article in the Economist explores the third largest area of ice on our planet. 46,000 glaciers cover 100,000 square kilometres in Tibet’s plateau and surrounding mountains. While it is only 6% the size of Greenland’s ice cap, another 1.7m square kilometres is permafrost, equivalent to 7% of the permafrost of the Arctic. But the third pole’s significance is its direct relation to people. It is the source of Asia’s 10 biggest rivers, the basins of which are home to about 1.5 billion people, in 12 countries. If this pole were to melt you can imagine that would be a lot of water to deal with, water that would no longer be available year on year.

Despite its social importance, the Tibetan plateau glaciers have yet to be comprehensively studied and, on the nature of their decline, there is conflicting information. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that the Himalaya’s glaciers could disappear by 2035, a figure later strongly contested. Reversely a study published in Nature in 2012 showed that glaciers on the Tibetan plateau were indeed growing. But again these figures were criticised not least for relying on satellite imagery  unable to distinguish between frozen glaciers and glacial lakes. So what is the situation, are Himalayan glaciers advancing or retreating? Well scientists, Dr Yao Tandong of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, in Beijing, Dr Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University and Dr Tobias Bolch of the University of Zurich agree that some glaciers are growing, such as those in the west of the region while those in the eastern Himalayas and east of the Tibetan plateau are rapidly declining. Those in the central regions are also decreasing in size but at a less rapid pace.

The main reasons for this variation by region are weather-related. Firstly that the westerlies that bring snow during the winter to the western regions are driven by hot air, global warming means more hot air is rising, making westerlies stronger, resulting in more snow. Secondly Indian monsoons which bring snow to the south, central and eastern regions in summer are getting weaker, for reasons yet to be determined.

In 2009, Dr Yao, Dr Thomson and Dr Volker Mosbrugger of the Senckenberg World of Biodiversity established an international programme called the Third Pole Environment (TPE). At its fourth workshop in April 2013 researchers acknowledged that the pole is shrinking and that research around the third pole has to date lacked cohesion. To address these  the Chinese Academy of Sciences has set up a fund of $65million for research on the Third Pole specifically around regularly monitoring the glaciers as well as looking to past changes in order to understand how this crucial resource may change in the future.




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