Rapid climate change on China’s Qinghai-Tibet Plateau could destabilize water supplies and cause more frequent disasters, although warmer temperatures improved conditions in the short term, scientists said after an expedition to the region.
The region, which covers much of China’s remote northwest and includes the Himalayas, has been identified as one of the country’s “ecological security barriers” and is a vital “water tower” regulating flows to eastern, central and southern Asia.
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A recent report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the plateau region faces increasing flood risks and more frequent extreme heat and rain.
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Government researchers found that the increase in temperature and precipitation made the region greener, more fertile and more “beautiful”, enlarging lakes and rivers and improving habitats for gazelles, antelopes and donkeys.
“But in fact, a high price will be paid for this ‘beauty’, with significant warming and humidification exacerbating the occurrence of extreme weather and climate events,” the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) said in a summary of findings of the expedition released on Tuesday.
In the long term, warmer temperatures are likely to further destabilize weather patterns and water flows and encourage the encroachment of invasive lowland species, putting native animals under stress.
Temperatures in the region have risen 0.35 degrees Celsius per decade since 1960, double the global average. Annual precipitation has increased by 7.9 mm (0.31 inch) per decade since 1960, reaching 539.6 mm per year during the period 2016-2020, which is 12.7% more than the 1961-1990 average .
The changes have caused some lakes on the plateau to increase by 20%, and parts of the Gobi Desert have also started to recede, according to the report. The number of disasters, including mudslides, avalanches and the breaking up of glaciers, has increased over the past four decades.
It also remains to be seen whether the region “remains within the optimum temperature range for vegetation growth,” and the water resource balance is also threatened due to rapidly receding glaciers and melting permafrost.
The region’s glaciers have shrunk by 15% over the past 50 years, their total area shrinking from 53,000 km² to 45,000 km², the CMA said.