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Tibet shepherds live on climate frontier

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The Chinese Academy of Social Sci­ences estimates that the glacial area on the Tibetan-Qinghai plateau, the world’s largest ice sheets outside the poles, is shrinking about 7 percent each year.

It might seem that melting glaciers would bring more water in the short term. But that isn’t necessarily the case, says Michael MacCracken of the Climate Institute in Washington.

“Glaciers and snow on mountains serve as a storage mechanism for water, holding it for later,” he says. “The area of the glaciers is an indication for how well that system is working.” Think of glaciers as a
bowl, and snowfall as rice – a shrinking bowl holds less rice. Receding glaciers capture less annual snowfall.

“Without the glaciers, snow and rainfall tend to seep into the soil – usually mountain soil is quite porous – and then it later evaporates,” says Dr. MacCracken.

In nearby Minqing county, instead of walking farther for water, farmers dig deeper. Fifty years ago, wells tapped groundwater at 50 feet. Now they must drill 100 feet or more. With less snowmelt, groundwater is not fully replenished.

Glaciers stretching across the towering Tibetan-Qinghai plateau sustain all the great rivers of Asia – the Yang­­tze and Yellow Rivers in China; the Ganges, Indus, and Brahmaputra in India; the Mekong and Salween in Southeast Asia.

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