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The Effects Of Rapid Climate Change On The Tibetan Plateau

Bwog’s Saturday Daily Editor, Lauren Kahme, attends a roundtable discussion on the rapid climate change occurring on the Tibetan Plateau, a massive region of land in Central and East Asia categorized by its high elevation.

You say farewell to your warm, winter, rural home in exchange for the city. You want your children to have the opportunity to acquire an education, so you move in with your extended family in the nearest town. You come back to your winter home to trade in the city lifestyle for the pastoral way of life the following year only to discover that your pasture and home’s foundation are saturated with lake water. This is increasingly becoming a reality for many pastoralists in the Tibetan Plateau.

The phrase “climate change” resonates with almost everyone participating in modern society because of its interconnected global impacts, and instances of climate change in the news are ubiquitous, as are the controversies that ensue regarding attempts at solving or, at least, remedying the various problems. But no region in the world is experiencing climate change quite as quickly or drastically as the Tibetan Plateau.

This event brought together researchers and professionals from several disciplines, including human geography, sociology, anthropology, and climatology. The speakers included Yonten Nyima, Visiting Research Scholar at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Brendan Buckley, Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, Tsering Bum, Ph.D. candidate from the Department of Anthropology at Emory University, and Chenxi Xu, Associate Professor at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (IGGCAS). Eveline Washul, Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program, moderated.

Chenxi Xu began the discussion by introducing the concerns surrounding the current weakening of the region’s summer monsoons. During the summer in this region, the land is typically warmer than the surrounding waters. The air over the land then rises, leaving space for oceanic air to blow in and fill the void. The rising air from the land forms clouds and eventually precipitates. The land-sea temperature contrast is the driving force for the entire monsoon system. But the land has been increasing in temperature much more slowly than the surrounding oceans. When the Indian Ocean heats up faster than the adjacent land, the temperature differences between the land and ocean decrease, which weakens the monsoon. The issue lies within human activity; the South Asian Summer Monsoon weakens because of aerosols that cool the land. Despite increases in solar activity and carbon dioxide which warm land, the cooling effects of aerosols outweigh those heating mechanisms. Xu discovered that monsoons have been weakening since about 1820 due to evidence from tree rings. There is an oxygen isotope present in tree rings (δ18OTR) that can act as a proxy for rainfall. In this way, Xu constructed a history of rainfall on the Plateau, seeing a decrease due to the weakening South Asian Summer Monsoon.

Then, Bryan Buckley easily segued into the social applications of that tree ring research. Showing the audience graphs constructed in modern times on historically major droughts, Buckley explained the Monsoon Asian Drought Atlas (MADA). The MADA uses the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a method typically used to describe agricultural drought, to delineate drought intensity in Asia throughout history (we’re talking the Ming Dynasty and further!) Buckley clarifies Xu’s presentation when he points out that the tree ring isotopes have a negative relationship with heavy rainfall. Buckley also honed in on his team’s new advancement: they have developed MADA v2 which produces these drought graphs at a much higher spatial resolution (with much more precision) than MADA v1. The final aspect of Buckley’s portion of the presentation was about the teleconnections that exist between, essentially, all regions of the earth. El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a natural phenomenon that basically reverses some of the globes’ typical wind and temperature patterns. I’m simplifying the meaning, but in reality, this climatological event has signals spanning from Southeast Asia to the Southwestern United States. Buckley related ENSO effects on the Tibetan Plateau to increased climate change, since ENSO becomes more extreme with the imbalances of climate change.

Yonten Nyima presents next with his findings on Lake Serling, located in Central Tibet. Climate Change causes lakes to expand due to melting permafrost and glaciers. Nyima sets his research site at an administrative village located 10 km from the lake. The expansion of Lake Serling not only forces pastoral residents to relocate, but it means its saline wind radius grows. Nyima explains that when the salty wind blows off the lake, livestock will not drink water or graze vegetation that has been affected by the salt. Nyima spoke to the local residents about their experience living with/witnessing climate change physically happening. Some of their responses included reporting seeing the lake expand even within a day, and others say that they notice more snow melting from the caps of mountains.

Finally, Tsering Bum explored the effects of wildlife conservation, climate change, and livelihood transformations among pastoral Tibetan communities. Bum interviewed residents, asking them which animals they thought were deserving of legal protection. The animals most desired to be protected include the black neck cranes, Himalayan vultures, snow leopards, and golden eagles, most of which have some spiritual importance. But one animal was the most hated amongst the local Tibetan residents: the brown bear. Because of phenological mismatch, the brown bear and its prey, the marmot, awake from their hibernation at increasingly distant times. Because the globe is warming, brown bears go into hibernation later and wake up sooner, while the marmot’s hibernation patterns are not as impacted. The brown bears will ransack pastoral homes to steal food, which harms the infrastructure of the home (broken doors and windows) and damages the pastoralist food supply. In the Qinghai Province, pastoralists have to answer to monastic conservationists, township governments, and the wildlife itself. These sometimes conflicting pressures force pastoralists to make do with the lot they’re given. For example, if people lose their pastures because of climatological factors (lake expansion, soil degradation, etc.),  the surrounding pastoralists will share their land. The way these people deal with loss is by collectively using what’s left, and one day, if those who lost their land are ever compensated, the community will split the monetary reparations. Bum highlighted that his research centered on holistic practices toward understanding social and ecological issues on the Tibetan Plateau; he combines many perspectives (sociological, legal, political, economic, and climatological) to study this region’s current challenges.

Overall, the various issues discussed at the panel involve many fields of research and thus, if we seek improvement for the dire Tibetan Plateau environmental crisis, we must attempt to collaborate across subjects and implement interdisciplinary solutions.

image via Bwog Staff

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