May 11, 2005

Global Warming, Pollution Threatening ‘Roof of the World’

BEIJING (AFP) -- Chinese scientists warn the fragile environment of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau, known as the roof of the world, is under serious threat from global warming and pollution.

Covering more than 360,000 square kilometers (140,000 square miles), the plateau is the cradle of three key Chinese rivers -- the Yangtze, Yellow and Lancang -- and home to many rare animals, plants and medicinal herbs.

But a decades-long study by the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Study Institute of the Chinese Academy of Scientists warns the area is deteriorating due to climate change, overgrazing and increasing human activity, Xinhua state news agency said Wednesday.

Researchers found the climate of the plateau, which has an average elevation of 4,461 metres (14,721 feet) and includes     Mount Everest, has warmed, rainfall has increased and glaciers have shrunk.

"From the 1980s on, the plateau has experienced a period in which the temperature has obviously been on the high side," the report said, noting that the days above freezing were increasing.

"Despite the increased rainfall, the area of glaciers is shrinking," it added. The report did not state what effect this could have, although Himalayan and Tibetan plateau glaciers feed Asia's greatest rivers.

Global conservation group WWF earlier this year warned that the plateau's wetlands have seen declining water levels and lake shrinkage and that rivers and streams have dried up.

It said melting glaciers would first cause flooding downstream in low-land Asian countries and later droughts.

The Chinese scientists had also found that global environmental disasters, particularly the burning Kuwaiti oil wells of the first     Gulf War, had also contaminated the plateau, Xinhua said.

"From 1990 to 1991, people saw dirty snow falling in the Mount Everest area which scientists determined was polluted by oil smoke floating from the Persian Gulf region," said Gao Dengyi, president of the China Association for Scientific Expedition.

The concentration of more than 10 chemical elements in ice and snow samples taken from the study area had increased by five to 15 times from 1975, he added, with iron multiplying 15 times.

"It was the westerlies that blew the soot of the burning oilfields in the Middle East to the mountain and seriously contaminated both the air and the water environment at its north scope," said Gao.

Meanwhile, overgrazing and frequent human activity had badly damaged grasslands, resulting in serious soil erosion and a drop in soil fertility.

This, said the scientist, had impacted several rare species living on the plateau, such as the Tibetan antelope and white-lipped deer and medicinal herbs such as Tibetan snow lotus.