EUROPE ASIA FOUNDATION - INSIGHT
The Third Pole: How is Climate Change affecting Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau?
In the discussions around climate change, remoter areas are too often sidelined. Focus of global initiatives, as well as funding should seek to address the specific issues of these areas such as the growing emergency in the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau.
The Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range along with the Tibetan Plateau are widely known as the Third Pole. After the other two poles, this region boasts the most freshwater resources sustaining more than 10 major river systems and with them, approximately 2 billion people in Southern Asia. Most of the water in this region is in frozen form: glaciers, snow, permafrost, rivers and lake ice. This water is essential for the survival of humans, livestock and wildlife as well as agriculture and energy generation.
Even though this region harbors about one-fifth of the global population, very little attention has been paid to its changing climatic and ecological conditions till now. Fewer studies and research have been conducted on the third pole compared to the Arctic and the Antarctic. This could partly be due to the harsh climatic conditions, high altitude and the ongoing geopolitical issues.
The region has been warming up faster, almost at double the speed, than the global average. According to various studies conducted in this region, the glaciers there have shrunk at a rapid rate in the last 50 years; 82 percent of the plateau’s glaciers have retreated. Moreover, about 10 percent of the region’s permafrost has degraded.
The main perpetrator, according to researchers, is the black soot from the fires (wood, crop waste, dung etc.) burned in the lowlands. This soot travels with the winds and settles on the ice, absorbing more heat, resulting in the faster melting of ice. This black soot is responsible for about 50 percent of solar heating in air. Along with the soot, dust from the desert also darkens the ice and leads to faster absorption of sunlight and heat.
A short-term solution to this problem could be that the villagers in these regions are encouraged to use greener alternatives of fuel such as solar and hydro power. However, the dams that have been constructed by China as a part of creating a ‘hydro-hegemony’ are being used to divert the water into its own territory, leaving the Tibetan community empty-handed. In addition to building dams, China has been conducting large-scale mining operations and deforestation in the region which began in the 1960s. Since then, the region has seen rapid ecological degradation, extinction of local flora and fauna, soil erosion and glacial retreat. The pollution caused by mining in this high-altitude region is particularly harmful as the pollutants could easily be transferred to the stratosphere, which the wind could spread all over the world.
The climate shift in this region will also affect the Indian monsoon, which depends on the pressure gradient and the flow of air and moisture from the ocean. According to the experts, it will become highly unpredictable and result in either extremes – flood or drought. Formation of glacial lakes due to over-melting of ice and rainwater will cause floods. On the other hand, the glacial retreat and shrinking will cause the region to undergo severe drought. The drier regions might also see a rise in cases of wildfires and heat-related deaths.
As the region warms up, the ice has started melting earlier than usual in the summer, while the snowfall comes later in the winter. If the period of melting is longer than the period of freezing, the glaciers will not be able to rebuild at the same rate, resulting in the shrinking of the glaciers. This would lead to dwindling water supplies, especially in the areas which rely solely on the glacial water for everyday activities. Moreover, the collected meltwater could form glacial lakes, which can burst or overflow and flood those regions.
Permafrost, which is the permanently frozen layer of soil, is also melting due to temperature rises. The topmost layer, also known as the active layer, of the permafrost is thickening in size which would make building infrastructure difficult and unstable. This would also lead to frequent landslides and rock falls. The melting of permafrost could also release microbes and germs that were frozen for centuries to resurface and travel to parts of India, China and Bangladesh and possibly cause diseases, epidemics and pandemics in these heavily populated countries.
Climate change will inadvertently cause human and livestock displacement as the sources of freshwater and food dry up. These people, known as ‘climate refugees’, will likely highlight cracks and vulnerabilities in the system due to poor governance and socioeconomic conditions. Potential violent conflict [SF1] between these refugees and existing populations may lead to national security concerns. The announcement by Chinese authorities that a new set of National parks will be established in this region will act as a catalyst in the climate refugee debate. The displacement of Tibetan nomads, who have sustained the local ecosystem for over a millennia, will cause severe and irreversible ecological catastrophe.
Needless to say, the habitat and biodiversity loss in this region will have a huge impact that will be felt all over the world. Therefore, it is necessary to develop proper strategies and channels to fight this challenge united as a global community, putting aside selfish motives. Some first steps in the right direction include: reduction in carbon and greenhouse gas emission, installation of observation devices and networks, improvement of ongoing research and initiating data-sharing practices, to name a few.
Coming out of COP27, leaders globally need to look not only at adaption, but also continue to put efforts into mitigation for vulnerable, often overlooked, areas like the Himalayas. With climate change already having a tangible negative affect, the outsized impacts will be felt on Asia more widely. Bearing in mind the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, there is much more to be done in terms of a raft of measures to ensure that finance follows and that real action is taken on the ground to protect ecosystems and communities.
 Qiu, J. China: The third pole. Nature 454, 393–396 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/454393a