At the top of the world lies a region containing the largest area of frozen water outside of the North and South Pole. Known by scientists as Earth’s Third Pole, there is a climate disaster unfolding that will impact the lives of more than 1 billion people.
Despite its relative anonymity, the Third Pole is vitally important; it is the source of Asia’s 10 largest rivers including the Yellow, the Yangzi, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Ganges — and their fertile deltas.
Flows from the glaciers that give the pole its name support roughly 1.3 billion people in China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — and the glaciers are melting fast.
The rate of melting has almost doubled in the past decade. In the last 48 years, 226 glaciers in the Tiger Valley have lost 27 square kilometres of ice, and in the wider area of the Qilian mountains — where there are a total of 2,684 glaciers — the damage has been even more devastating. 509 smaller glaciers have vanished in the past 50 years and many more will go by 2050.
The reason for the great melt is that the temperature has been increasing at a much faster rate up in the Tibetan Plateau because, in the high altitude areas, the temperature is more sensitive to the effects of global warming.
But scientists are discovering another factor that is causing the big melt: pollution from vehicle exhaust and coal burners. Black carbon particles and dust land on the glaciers and absorb the sun and heat, unlike the white ice that reflects it.
The bigger worry is the melt will set off a chain of climate disasters like the recent epic floods in Pakistan and China, or unprecedented heatwaves in India, or increasing desertification across the region.
And the deeper concern is that while scientists know the changes in the Third Pole will affect global weather patterns such as monsoons and the El Nino, they don’t know by how much.
And in a region where tension between countries over shared water resources is becoming increasingly common, the environmental threat is likely to spark a political one.