The Third Pole

By Matthieu Ricard on May 19, 2009

Chinese climatologists have called the Himalayan glaciers and other major mountains located in the Tibetan plateau the ‟third pole” of our ailing planet. Why? There are 40,000 large and small glaciers on the Tibetan plateau and this area is melting at a rate three to four times faster than the North and South Poles. The melting is particularly accelerated in the Himalayas by the pollution that settles upon the snow and darkens the glaciers, making them more absorbent to light.

In Bhutan, recent investigations have shown that a natural moraine dam that separates two glacial lakes in the Lunana area is today only 31 meters deep, in comparison to 74 meters in 2003.  If this wall gives way, some 53 millions cubic meters of water will rush down the valley of Punakha and Wangdi, causing immense damage and loss of life. Yet, Bhutan has only one glaciologist, Mr. Kharma Thoeb, with limited funds and technology to tackle this imminent danger.

Altogether there are 400 glacial lakes in Nepal and Bhutan that may break their natural dams and flood populated areas lower in the valleys. If these floods happen, the glaciers will increasingly shrink. This will cause drought as the streams and rivers will not be fed by melting snow.

Some 47% of the population of China, India, and other countries is dependent upon the watershed that comes from the rivers of the Tibetan plateau (Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Yellow, Salween, and Mekong) for their agriculture, general water supply, and, therefore, survival. The consequences of the drying up of these great rivers will be catastrophic.

During the last six months, Nepal has not had any significant rainfall. Throughout this winter, the entire majestic Himalayan range appeared grey and only the highest peaks (above 6000 m) remained covered with snow.

Other disturbing changes are happening on the Tibetan plateau. The permafrost that determines the hydrological and nutritional status of the soil and its flora is also melting. Wetlands, which act like sponges to absorb water during summer and release it in winter thus regulating the flow of the main rivers, are shrinking. These disturbances have been aggravated by the intense deforestation of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan slopes that, except in Bhutan, have caused 40% of the forests to disappear during the last 50 years. The result has been floods, landslides, and desertification.

The fate of the local population has also been jeopardized by the relocation and settlement of Tibetan nomads imposed by the Chinese administration. In Amdo province (Qinhai), for example, more than 100,000 nomad families have been forced to move to permanent communities. Such authoritarian political interventions add to the nomads hardship caused by climate change.

But knowledge like this, however widely available and vital it might be, is useless if it is ignored by the authorities. The time to swim upstream is not at the point when we reach the edge of a precipitous waterfall. Too little, too late, seems to be the sorrowful response to this impeding tragedy. If major steps are not taken very, very soon, when this disaster does happen, it will be irreversible, and even our tears will run dry.