Change on the roof of the world: new book explores climate change and the Tibetan Plateau

August 30th, 2013

Excerpt from the new book Meltdown: China’s Environmental Crisis by Sean Gallagher
Adapted By Caroline D’Angelo

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.

Connecting the climate dots (video)

June 13th, 2011

This video is based on an op-ed by Bill McKibben, author and founder of, with narration and illustration by Stephen Thomson of

To see additional coverage of the connections between climate change and extreme weather:

Burning up: warmer world means the rise of megafires

(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.

Are US floods, fires linked to climate change?

(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.

Numerous causes, including climate change, behind record food prices

(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.

Two massive droughts evidence that climate change is ‘playing Russian roulette’ with Amazon

(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.

Will food dominate 21 century geopolitics? (radio)

May 22nd, 2011

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.

For more information:

Rising food prices threaten to push over 60 million Asians back into poverty

(04/27/2011) The Asian Development Bank has warned that high food prices on the continent could push 64 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty, reports the AFP.

Foreign big agriculture threatens world’s second largest wildlife migration

(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.

Food prices hit new record high—again

(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.

Carl Safina on the gulf spill (video)

May 16th, 2011

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.

For a recent interview with Carl Safina:

The ocean crisis: hope in troubled waters, an interview with Carl Safina

(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.

Series of films explore challenges in Monteverde cloud forest (videos)

April 19th, 2011

A new series of 11 films looks back on the last 50 years of history in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica, and looks forward to the future.

According to Monteverde Now website: “‘Monteverde Now’ gives you access to place where change cannot be ignored-Costa Rica’s Monteverde Cloud Forest. It is a collection of 11 short films about people who live and work in one of our planet’s most diverse and delicate ecosystems. Wherever you live, these stories will give you new perspective on the rapidly changing relationship between people and the planet.”

For more information: Monteverde Now website

For all eleven videos: Monteverde Now channel on YouTube