Remko Tanis • 21 November 2018

The glaciers in the mountains and high plateaus of western China are the source of some of the world’s greatest rivers, including the Yangtze, the Mekong and the Yellow River. Close to two billion people rely on these rivers for their water. Rising temperatures mean these glaciers are melting rapidly, threatening Asia’s water supply.

The Tianshan Number 1 Glacier in Xinjiang, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

Yesterday, Greenpeace East Asia published research on the melting glaciers. Particularly, the melting rate of the Tianshan Number 1 Glacier has doubled in recent years. It’s now almost a quarter smaller than fifty years ago.

I climbed to that glacier in 2010 and spoke with a professor Li Zhongqin on the melting. He told me the same thing Greenpeace is publishing now:

“Over the past decade it has gotten a full degree warmer on average,” says professor Li Zhongqin. Li is heading international research into the shrinking Tianshan Number 1 Glacier. “Glaciers are the first phenomenon in nature that react to changes in the climate,” Li says Li. “This glacier here does that in the most average way of all glaciers on earth. That makes it the perfect example to study what all glaciers on earth have coming for them in the not too distant future.”

That future is a dark one. The melting rate of the Number One glacier has been speeding up each summer since 1977. The rain and snow fall and the below zero temperatures of winter are no longer adequate for the glacier to grow back what it loses during summer meltdowns.

Li: “Since 1986, the amount of water that flows down to the city from the melting glacier has doubled. The length of the entire glacier has shrunk to 2.5 kilometers. That's 25 per cent shorter than it was only fifty years ago.”

Ice melting from the Tianshan Number 1 Glacier in Xinjiang, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis

It was impressive to get up close to the glacier’s very edge to see and hear the ice melting into water drops, the very stream of which eventually turns into giant rivers down the road. It was sobering to hear professor Li’s warning:

“The next drought, which is inevitable, will make this region unlivable. It will leave millions of people with only one choice for survival: leave.”

Animals grazing in summertime on land that used to be covered year round by the Tianshan Number 1 Glacier in Xinjiang, China. Photo: (C) Remko Tanis