Climate threats to the Hoh Xil UNESCO site

From ToxicLeaks

China’s newest UNESCO heritage site[edit | edit source]

On July 7, 2017, UNESCO – the United Nations cultural and scientific arm – announced that China’s Hoh Xil region was named to the World Heritage List. Hoh Xil is in a far northern corner of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. At more than 4,500 meters above sea level, the plateau is the highest and largest in the world. Its ecosystem is critical to protecting Hoh Xil’s unique biodiversity, including 230 species of animals and migratory routes for endangered species including the Tibetan antelope. The designation is expected to help support ongoing efforts to protect Hoh Xil, because the plateau is itself endangered.

Hoh Xil is sometimes referred to as the “third pole” of earth because of its extreme frigid climate, with its permafrost, snow-capped mountains and glaciers. The Qinghai Hoh Xil portion of the plateau covers some 3.7 million hectares, with a buffer zone of another 2.3 million hectares, and is one of the most important sources of fresh water on the planet. The headwaters of the Yangtze River are here; in a country that accounts for 19 percent of earth’s population of 7.6 billion people, one in every three of China’s people lives somewhere in the long river valley and relies on its water. That’s fed by plateau glacier melt and precipitation, but in a climate of warming temperatures and accelerated melting, the future of the river ecosystem and dozens of lakes in and near the Qinghai Hoh Xil itself are in question.

Recent climate challenges in Hoh Xil[edit | edit source]

Even as UNESCO made its Hoh Xil announcement, sweltering temperatures swept across China. New record highs were set in 31 locations, with at least two locations registering temperatures above 50°C (122°F) to the north and east of the Qinghai Hoh Xil. Areas near Turpan had exceeded 40°C for two weeks, as Chinese meteorologists expected that more than a third of the country would be affected.

At the same time, the Yangtze River was among some 60 rivers that flooded above warning stage as China saw widespread torrential rains that claimed dozens of lives and displaced more than a million. Both factors – the heat and the heavy rains – are associated with accelerating climate change, as the global community struggles to cut carbon emissions and rein in corporate interests affecting the planet. Perhaps nowhere is the failure to do so more obvious than it is in China’s regulatory environment.

Chinese scientists have warned for a decade or more that glacier melt in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, home to most of the country’s estimated 46,000 glaciers, posed a threat to human food and water supplies as well as devastation to yak, antelope and other ecosystem life. The trouble at the top of the world trickles down from Jianggudiru Glacier, which has melted across decades and threatens to swell and then slow the Yangtze River sources, and from countless sources like it in the Hoh Xil plateau.

Hoh Xil’s expanding salt lakes[edit | edit source]

New concerns have emerged over the damage to the environment and infrastructure caused by changes in the lakes, many of them salt water, that dot the Hoh Xil region. Among them is the continuous expansion of Salt Lake, which has been growing in size since 2011. The China Meteorological News reported on July 9, 2017, that the lake had expanded by 4.5 square kilometers since the previous year, based on satellite imagery provided by the Qinghai Institute of Meteorological Science. 

Thawing glaciers and increased rainfall, according to Xinhua, are causing the lakes to expand and lose their capacity to store water. That threatens the ecosystem, including the vast Hoh Xil nature reserve established 20 years ago, but also the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, communication cables and pipelines that were not designed for changes in the permafrost soils. Among the greatest concerns is that a swollen Salt Lake will reach and feed the Yangtze River, a long-term reality with forecast rises in precipitation; that concern is made real by the September 2011 overflow of Huiten Nor Lake that affected the Hoh Xil nature preserve, and cascaded into downstream lakes including the Hoh Sai, Haiding and Yan lakes.

Projected climate impacts to Hoh Xil[edit | edit source]

A 2014 study of 83 different Hoh Xil lakes found that the surface area has dramatically increased since 2000, after decades that saw them collectively recede. The primary reason for lakes that overflowed and merged, impacting the fragile Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, was because of increased precipitation. The secondary factor was glacier and permafrost melt that was directly attributed to a warming climate.

Those factors are expected to continue in the foreseeable future, and so are the consequences. Qinghai-Tibet Plateau has become warmer and more humid, according to the Qinghai Institute of Meteorological Science. In June 2017, a senior institute engineer said Qinghai Lake, the largest of the salt water bodies, had expanded by 108.2 square kilometers in what was the greatest increase in the past 17 years. In just the Hoh Xil area, salt lake surfaces have nearly quadrupled since the 1970s.

The cold, arid plateau is changing and that may create better agricultural and living conditions for some, but the negative impacts of a warming planet have the Hoh Xil firmly in their grip. The UNESCO designation was an important step in seeking to protect it, but the Chinese government must curb its world-leading carbon emissions and catastrophic environmental policies if there is to be any Hoh Xil heritage for future generations.