Melting glacier in China draws tourists, climate worries
Chen Yanjun operated a GPS device. A loud crack rang out from the fog above the Baishui No. 1 Glacier. The noise came as a stone shard careened down the ice.
More projectiles were tumbling down the hulk of ice. Scientists say it is one of the world's fastest melting glaciers.
"We should go," said the 30-year-old geologist. "The first rule is safety."
Yanjun hiked away and onto a barren landscape. It was once buried beneath the glacier. Now there is exposed rock littered with oxygen tanks. They were discarded by tourists visiting the 15,000-foot-high blanket of ice. It is in southern China.
Millions of people each year are drawn to Baishui's frosty beauty. It is on the southeastern edge of the Third Pole. That's a region in Central Asia. It has the world's third-largest store of ice after Antarctica and Greenland. It's roughly the size of Texas and New Mexico combined.
Third Pole glaciers are vital to billions of people from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Asia's 10 largest rivers are fed by seasonal melting. These rivers include the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong. It also includes the Ganges.
"You're talking about one of the world's largest freshwater sources," said Ashley Johnson. She is energy program manager at the National Bureau of Asian Research. It is an American think tank.
"Depending on how it melts, a lot of the freshwater will be leaving the region for the ocean. It will have severe impacts on water and food security."
Earth is today 1 degree Centigrade hotter than pre-industrial levels because of climate change. The change is enough to melt 28 to 44 percent of glaciers worldwide. That's according to a new report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Temperatures are expected to keep rising.
Baishui is about as close to the equator as Tampa, Florida. And the impacts of climate change already are dramatic.
The glacier has lost 60 percent of its mass and shrunk 820 feet since 1982. That's according to a 2018 report in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
Scientists found in 2015 that 82 percent of glaciers surveyed in China had retreated. They warned that the effects of glacier melting on water resources are gradually becoming "increasingly serious" for China.
"China has always had a freshwater supply problem. It has 20 percent of the world's population but only 7 percent of its freshwater," said Jonna Nyman. She is an energy security lecturer at the University of Sheffield. "That's heightened by the impact of climate change."
For years, scientists have observed global warming change Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the Chinese province of Yunnan.
One research team has tracked Baishui's retreat of about 30 yards per year over the past decade. Flowers have rooted in exposed earth, says glaciologist Wang Shijin. He is also director of the Yulong Snow Mountain Glacial and Environmental Observation Research Station. It is part of a network run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The station is home to Wang and his team. It is nestled into a suburb of Lijiang and has a population 1.2 million. The team consists of geologist and drone operator Yanjun and postgraduate glaciology student Zhou Lanyue. It also includes electrical engineer Zhang Xing.
After breakfast, the team heads off by van for the day's mission. A cable car carries them up to a majestic view of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
The team shuffles past a line of tourists before descending to replace a broken meteorological station.
The team operates remote sensors that collect data. These collect data on temperature, and wind speed. It also collects data on rainfall and humidity. Other sensors measure water flow in streams fed by melted ice. Many things can break the equipment. These factors include the cold, downpours and, rock slides. It also includes gales and glacier movement.
"It is not easy to encounter good weather here," Wang said.
This weather will ensure Yunnan has plenty of freshwater while other glacier loss poses serious risk of drought across the Third Pole, he said.
The next day, the team wore crampons while repairing more sensors. The sensors were scattered across the glacier's crags.
"Where we're at right now was back in 2008 all covered with ice," Wang said. "From here to there at the side, the glacier shrank about 20 to 30 meters. The shrinking is very remarkable."
The team forded streams and jumped crevasses. They were in search of long iron bars they previously embedded in the ice. GPS tells them how much the bars, and thus the glacier, have moved. They also measure how much height the glacier has lost during the summer.
Back on the viewing platform, Yanjun launched a buzzing camera drone over the white expanse. The photographs help tell a story of staggering loss. A quarter of its ice has vanished since 1957 along with four of its 19 glaciers, researchers have found.
Changes to the Baishui provide the opportunity to educate visitors about global warming, Wang said.
Last year, 2.6 million tourists visited the mountain, according to Yulong Snow Mountain park officials.
On blustery day recently, hundreds of tourists climbed wooden stairs through grey fog to snap selfies in front of the glacier.
Hou Yugang said he wasn't too bothered over climate change and Baishui's melting. "I don't think about it now because it still has a long way to go," he said.
To protect the glacier, authorities have limited the number of visitors to 10,000 a day. They have banned hiking on the ice. They plan to manufacture snow and to dam streams to increase humidity that slows melting.
Security guard Yang Shaofeng has witnessed a warming world melting this mountain, which his local Naxi minority community considers sacred.
Yang remembers being able to see the glacier's lowest edge from his home village.
"Only when we climb up can we see it," he said sadly, as tourists lined up to have their names engraved on medallions bearing the glacier's image.
The etching is already outdated.