On Thin Ice: Xinjiang Glacier Could Melt Away in 50 Years
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2017-11-15 10:32:56

XINJIANG, Northwest China — As travelers make their way through scattered rocks and streams toward the mouth of Urumqi River, they may have a shrinking feeling as the enormous Urumqi Glacier No. 1 towers over them. But this giant is rapidly diminishing. Over the course of just a year, sections of the glacier receded more than six meters.

“Under extreme conditions, Glacier No. 1 could disappear in 50 years,” Li Zhongqin, who runs the Tianshan Mountains Glaciological Station at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

Located about 130 kilometers from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Glacier No. 1 sits atop the 3,800-meter-high Tianshan mountain range. The melting of the mass — listed as one of the 10 most significant glaciers for scientific observation and study by the Switzerland-based World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) — reflects changes in glaciers around the world. Last year, 40 glaciers under observation were all found to be retreating at an accelerated rate, according to WGMS statistics.

Ma, a 46-year-old resident of a nearby village who declined to give his full name, remembers the snow-cloaked Glacier No. 1 from his childhood winters. In the summer, the snow would melt away to reveal the glacier’s true shape, which resembled a tilted “V” from afar. But in 1993, the mass split at the base into two parts, which scientists now call No. 1 East and No. 1 West.

A view of Glacier No. 1 East and No. 1 West in the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 3, 2017. Zhao Meng for Sixth Tone

A view of Glacier No. 1 East and No. 1 West in the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 3, 2017. Zhao Meng for Sixth Tone

Since 1959, Li’s station has closely monitored the receding glacier, and recent findings have exacerbated the scientists’ concerns. Between April 2016 and April 2017, the eastern and western sections receded 6.3 meters and 7.2 meters, respectively, with the recession rate for No. 1 West at its highest since 1993. Meanwhile, in 2016, Glacier No. 1’s mass balance — measured by the gain or loss in ice volume between seasons — recorded the second highest loss on record, with more of the glacier melting away in the summer.

The numbers show that Glacier No. 1 has continued its rapid retreat— an important indicator of the impact of climate change. According to Li, rising temperatures linked to global warming account for 70 percent of glacial melting. Studies show that since 1997, the annual average temperature of the area covered by Glacier No. 1 has risen 1 degree Celsius.

Glacier No. 1 could last up to 90 years if all the targets for fighting global warming set in the Paris Agreement are met.

Glaciers are often referred to as “natural water storage.” When it’s cold and humid, precipitation in the form of snow falls on the glacier and adds to ice accumulation. In warmer and drier years, glacial melting intensifies and provides an abundance of water for living things — particularly important in an arid region like Xinjiang. In addition, if the glaciers were to melt away completely, the water they provide to regulate and supply rivers would also disappear, said Li.

But that’s not the worst of it. Glaciers are highly reflective, redirecting much of the solar energy that hits the Earth back into space. With nearly all the ice on the planet melting at an accelerated speed, less energy is being reflected into space, causing the Earth to warm up even more. Without Glacier No. 1, the region around it would start to dry up.

Another factor impacting the glacier’s reflective power is the poor quality of the roads that run beside it. As trucks drive by, they stir up dust that coats the surface of the ice mass and reduces its reflectivity, said Li. The glacier then continues to soak up more heat and melt faster, “just as if it were dressed in black,” Li explained.

It is impossible to prevent the glacier from melting altogether, but it is possible to slow down the process. “Glacier No. 1 could last up to 90 years if all the targets for fighting global warming set in the Paris Agreement are met,” Li said. The 2015 climate change accord, which has been signed by nearly all countries, aims to keep the rise in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. “The difference of 40 years is colossal to us,” Li added. Limiting human activities such as walking on the glacier would also help preserve the ice mass for longer.

A rare patch of flora is seen near Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 3, 2017. Zhao Meng for Sixth Tone

A rare patch of flora is seen near Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, July 3, 2017. Zhao Meng for Sixth Tone

At the beginning of 2016, Li Jidong, then the Party secretary of Xinjiang’s tourism bureau, announced a tourism ban on the glacier until 2020. Factories and mines in the town below are being shut down, and efforts to repave nearby roads are underway. The area surrounding the glacier is now fenced off, and the road from Urumqi to Glacier No. 1 is dotted every few kilometers with blue warning signs, indicating to travelers they have entered a glacier protection area and advising them to drive carefully. The herdsmen living nearby have also started to move away.

Before the tourism ban, the site served as a popular stop for backpackers traveling to Xinjiang. With no entry fees or designated management staff, hundreds of people would visit each day and leave trash all over the place. “Glacier tourism in Xinjiang earned less than 1 billion yuan [$150 million] over the past decade,” said Li Jidong, “but the damage caused by the glacier collapsing and melting is immeasurable.”

A Chinese version of this article first appeared in Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper.

Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Li You and Doris Wang.

(Header image: Scientists observe Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in the Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Aug. 31, 2016. Courtesy of Tianshan Mountains Glaciological Station)