With soaring mountains and vast grasslands, the Tibetan Plateau covers approximately one quarter of China. The plateau’s glaciers hold the largest store of freshwater on earth outside the North and South Poles. Though remote and sparsely populated, the plateau is of crucial importance to China and its downstream neighbors: Three of Asia’s most important rivers—the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong—originate here.
Over the past 150 years, China’s average temperature has risen just 0.4 to 0.5 degrees centigrade. However, the high plateau has warmed much faster than the rest of China or anywhere else in the world – just like a roof on a hot summer day –
And the glaciers are melting fast. The Hailuogou glacier on the 23,000-foot high Mount Gongga retreated over two kilometers during the twentieth century alone.
An screen shot of the book. Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Glacial-fed flooding has become a major problem throughout the watersheds. The grasslands, degraded by climate change and development, are losing their ability to soak up the spring melt. And so moisture rushes downstream and ironically, the soil left behind on the plateau gets drier. Warmer weather has increased evaporation rates, and without the sponge effect of healthy grasslands and peatlands, patches of the once lush grasslands are becoming barren brown desert.
For 5,000 years nomads roamed the area with flocks of yaks, sheep and cattle. In recent decades however, the government, citing the grasslands’ degradation, has forcibly settled nomads and enacted laws to restrict grazing. Thousands now live in half-built “relocation villages,” where bittersweet memories of the grasslands give way to mounting piles of refuse.
“Life is more convenient now, but I worry that Tibetan culture is disappearing,” said one former nomad as people in a mixture of modern and traditional clothing walked by on the dusty streets of the town of Zaduo. While some like the business opportunities available in town, others struggle to make ends meet.
Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Another young man told me “There is nothing to do here except sell caterpillar fungus.” The fungus is used in traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and the man worries that climate change will once again disrupt his livelihood. “The fact that the weather is getting warmer here each year isn’t good for harvesting caterpillar fungus. If we lose this, what will we do? How will we earn money?”
But other resources on the plateau are becoming more reachable with the warmer weather: minerals. Mining for gold, copper, lithium, lead, iron and coal has become a major industry – and it looks like the bounty could be huge.
This has increased tensions. A herder explains: “Tibetans believe that when the gold is mined, the grass is disturbed and it is very bad for the sacred mountains. The locals never try to get the gold from the mountains.”
There has also been an increased awareness about conservation. In late 2010, the Chinese government announced that it will “halt the loss of biodiversity in China by 2020.” It is a wildly ambitious target, but one that needs to be at least attempted before the traditions and landscapes of the plateau change forever.
Photo courtesy of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
An interactive map of the route author, Sean Gallagher, took through the Tibetan Plateau
– Post adapted by Caroline D’Angelo from “Meltdown: China’s Environment Crisis,” a new interactive e-book by award-winning photojournalist Sean Gallagher. Download a copy free from the iBookstore, Amazon, or Creatavist.
A big fuss is being made about a new study published in Nature that suggests clearing of forests north of 45 degrees latitude cools climate — the opposite effect of deforestation in the tropics. But the findings aren’t much of a surprise — the same conclusions were reached in papers published in 2005, 2006, and 2007. In fact the same story seems to come out around this time — late November to early December — every year.
(05/12/2011) Megafires are likely both worsened by and contributing to global climate change, according to a new United Nations report. In the tropic, deforestation is playing a major role in creating giant, unprecedented fires.
(04/28/2011) The short answer to the question of whether or not on-going floods in the US Midwest and fires in Texas are linked to a warming Earth is: maybe. The long answer, however, is that while it is difficult—some argue impossible—for scientists to link a single extreme weather event to climate change, climate models have long shown that extreme weather events will both intensify and become more frequent as the world continues to heat up. In other words, the probability of such extreme events increases along with global average temperature.
(02/07/2011) Food prices hit a record high in January according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), threatening the world’s poor. Rising 3.4% since December, the FAO stated that prices reached the highest point since the agency began tracking food prices in 1990. Given the complexity of world markets and agriculture, experts have pointed to a number of reasons behind the rise including rising meat and dairy consumption, the commodity boom, fresh water scarcity, soil erosion, biofuels, growing human population, and a warming world that has exacerbated extreme weather events like last year’s heatwave in Russia.
(02/03/2011) In 2005 the Amazon rainforest underwent a massive drought that was labeled a one-in-100 year event. The subsequent die-off of trees from the drought released 5 billion tons of CO2. Just five years later another major drought struck. The 2010 drought, which desiccated entire rivers, may have been even worse according to a new study in Science, adding on-the-ground evidence to fears that climate change may inevitably transform the world’s greatest rainforest.
With 6,400 solar cells producing 1.56 megawatts, the Cincinnati Zoo says its new solar parking lot the largest publicly accessible urban solar array in the US. The zoo says that on average the solar array with cover 1/5 of its total energy use and on some days will actually send clean energy back to the grid.
“Innovative projects like this solar canopy showcase the benefits of public and private investment working together to provide a powerful economic boost to communities that need it,” said Assistant Treasury Secretary for Management Dan Tangherlini in a press release. “New Market Tax Credits and a Treasury Recovery Act program that funds renewable energy development helped make this project possible, resulting in new jobs, reduced energy costs and less carbon dioxide being released into the air.”
(03/29/2011) According to a report by the US Pew Environment Group global clean energy investments, which do not include nuclear power, jumped 630% since 2004. The report detailing 2010 clean energy investments found that China remains the global leader in clean energy, while the US fell from 2nd to 3rd. This is the second year in a row that the US fell: in 2009 it lost first place to China. In all $243 billion were invested in clean energy in 2010.
(01/26/2011) Last night US President Barack Obama called for a massive green energy make-over of the world’s largest economy. Describing the challenge as ‘this generation’s Sputnik moment’ the US president set a goal of producing 80 percent of America’s energy by clean sources by 2035. While this may sound improbable, two recent analyses back the president up, arguing that a global clean energy revolution is entirely possible within a few decades using contemporary technology and without breaking the bank. “Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources,” Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford said in a press release. “It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will.”
One billion people in the world are going hungry–more than any other time in history. Yet food security remains a pretty low concern in most industrialized countries. That may not last long according to renowned environmentalist, Lestor Brown, who says that climate change, population growth, rising consumption of meat and dairy, and water issues could soon make food a flashpoint worldwide. Already, high food prices this year played a role in the Arab Spring revolutions and has pushed a number of countries, such as China and South Korea, to begin buying up land in Africa under century-long leases that could create further crises.
Lester Brown is the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.
(03/07/2011) As the world’s largest migration in the Serengeti plains—including two million wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelles—has come under unprecedented threat due to plans for a road that would sever the migration route, a far lesser famous, but nearly as large migration, is being silently eroded just 1,370 miles (2,200 kilometers) north in Ethiopia’s Gambela National Park. The migration of over one million white-eared kob, tiang, and Mongalla gazelle starts in the southern Sudan but crosses the border into Ethiopia and Gambela where Fred Pearce at Yale360 reports it is running into the rapid expansion of big agribusiness. While providing habitat for the millions of migrants, Gambela National Park’s land is also incredibly fertile enticing foreign investment.
(03/03/2011) Food prices in February hit a new record, breaking the previous one set in January and continuing an eight-month streak of rising prices, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Experts fear that rising food prices could lead to another food crisis similar to that of 2007-2008.
Last month on the one year anniversary of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (dubbed the US’s worst environmental disaster), author Carl Safina spoke about the impacts of the spill and the even bigger disaster that the media has overlooked. Safina has recently come out with a book called: A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout.
(02/07/2011) Being compared—by more than one reviewer—to Henry Thoreau and Rachel Carson would make any nature writer’s day. But add in effusive reviews that compare one to a jazz musician, Ernest Hemingway, and Charles Darwin, and you have a sense of the praise heaped on Carl Safina for his newest work, The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. Like Safina’s other books, The View from Lazy Point focuses on the beauty, poetry, and crisis of the world’s oceans and its hundreds-of-thousands of unique inhabitants. Taking the reader on a journey around the world—the Arctic, Antarctic, and the tropics—Safina always returns home to take in the view, and write about the wildlife of his home, i.e. Lazy Point, on Long Island. While Safina’s newest book addresses the many ways in which the ocean is being degraded, depleted, and ultimately imperiled as a living ecosystem (such as overfishing and climate change) it also tweezes out stories of hope by focusing on how single animals survive, and in turn how nature survives in an increasingly human world. However, what makes Safina’s work different than most nature writing is his ability to move seamlessly from contemporary practical problems to the age-old philosophical underpinnings that got us here. By doing so, he points a way forward.
“Twenty-two years ago, I wrote the first book about climate change and I’ve gotten to watch it all, and I know that simply persuasion will not do. We need to fight. Now, we need to fight non-violently and with civil disobedience. [...] One thing you need to make sure that you manage to get across in your witness is that you are not the radicals in this fight. The radicals are the people who are fundamentally altering the composition of the atmosphere. That is the most radical thing people have ever done. We need to fight with art and with music, too. Not just the side with our brain that likes bar graphs and pie graphs, but with all our heart and all our soul. [...]
We need to fight with unity. We need to have a coherent voice. [...] We need to speak with one loud voice, because we are fighting for your future.”
“We fight not just for ourselves, we fight for the beauty of this place. For cool trout streams and deep spruce woods. For chilly fog rising off the Pacific and deep snow blanketing the mountains. We fight for all the creation that shares this planet with us. We don’t know half the species on Earth we’re wiping out. And of course, we fight alongside our brothers and sisters around the world. You’ve seen the pictures as I talk: these are our comrades. Most of these people, as you see, come from places that have not caused this problem, and yet they’re willing to be in deep solidarity with us. That’s truly admirable and it puts a real moral burden on us. Never let anyone tell you, that environmentalism is something that rich, white people do. Most of the people that we work with around the world are poor and black and brown and Asian and young, because that’s what most of the world is made up of, and they care about the future as anyone else.
“We have to fight, finally, without any guarantee that we are going to win. We have waited late to get started and our adversaries are strong and we do not know how this is going to come out. If you were a betting person, you might bet we were going to lose because so far that’s what happened, but that’s not a bet you’re allowed to make. The only thing that a morally awake person to do when the worst thing that’s ever happened is happening is try to change those odds.”
On Saturday, March 26th at 8:30 PM lights will go out across the world in the 5th annual Earth Hour. Will you join in? To date this will be the biggest Earth Hour yet with 131 countries and territories signed up to participate on all seven continents. Yes, that’s right, people working in Antarctica will be turning out their lights too.
“Earth Hour is a chance for people and communities across the globe to join together with the common purpose of a sustainable future for our planet,” said Andy Ridley, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Earth Hour in a WWF article. “This year Earth Hour asks people to commit to an action, big or small, for the coming year, taking Earth Hour beyond the hour.”
By asking participants to ‘go beyond the hour’, this year’s Earth Hour hopes to go beyond past years with a larger and more long-lasting impact.
On a side note, skip the candles if you can, since most candles are made of petroleum-based products.
While Earth Hour has received criticism in the past, it should be remembered this is an event meant to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental impacts, not fix the world in one hour.
During the rainy season in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, there’s an impressive storm and our water tanks overflow nearly every day. We’re in the equatorial rain forest after all: we have the location, trees and weather to prove it. But is the forest here because of the rain or is it the other way around? Being in a highland area we probably get much of our rain simply due to the terrain (mountains tend to be wet even in dry regions) and the forest vegetation takes advantage of that.
Clouds over Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Clouds are often found over forests. What causes what?
But what about in the wet lowland forests of the Congo and Amazon basins? How does so much rain get so far inland from the oceans? You might think that climate scientists know the answer. Actually they don’t. That troubles me.
I have spent some time trying to understand how so much rain gets into the interior of wet continental regions. Why do winds blow the way they do and why do they carry so much rain?
One new theory really deserves recognition. The theory suggests that forests are the reason: they attract rain. The physical principles behind this idea have been explained by two Russian physicists. Their publications are not easy to read and follow, but I have spent some time trying to share their ideas because I think they are important.
Clouds forming over the forest — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
The basic concept relates to how water vapor, via condensation and evaporation, gives rise to differences in atmospheric pressure between areas and thus cause winds — these winds in turn control where water (i.e. rain) comes from and goes to. If the theory is true we have a whole new way to understand how climate works and a whole new reason to value forests.
Last year, Daniel Murdiyarso and I published an overview of the basic ideas that got some media coverage. You may have seen some of it: e.g. Mongabay, New Scientist and Scientific American. We even got a recent mention in to the Economist. . If you like, you can see our original article in Bioscience. So why is this news? Well, I’ll get there in a moment.
Morning time clouds — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.Would the clouds be there without the forest?
The theory received its fair share of criticism. We should not be surprised—science works through critical scrutiny and radical ideas should certainly be well scrutinized. I welcome that. But it also seems to me that some, perhaps most, of the comments are misdirected—when we look in detail the theory is not being understood in the manner intended. Misreadings and assumptions get in the way.
So to get a fair hearing we need to communicate the ideas as clearly as we can. To do so I have teamed up with the physicists themselves: Drs. Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov (you can learn more if you visit their site). We now have a new manuscript up for anyone, including you, to see. Feel free to take a look at the text here. It’s technical because climate science needs to be, but we also hope it makes good clear sense.
Will it change the world? I don’t know. But it might.
So now we wait and see what the rest of the scientific community thinks. Some may like it, others may not. If their comments are insightful I wont mind either way (well not too much). After all, that’s how science moves forward.
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