The ancient silk road town of Dunghuang in North Western China, which is fed by water from glaciers. Photo: Wayne McAllister

By Matthew Carney; photography by Wayne McAllister
25 July 2016

(ABC News) – Deep in the Himalayas sits a remote research station that is tracking an alarming trend in climate change, with implications that could disrupt the lives of more than one billion people and pitch the most populated region of the world into chaos.

The station lies in the heart of a region called the Third Pole, an area that contains the largest area of frozen water outside of the North Pole and South Pole.

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.

Chinese authorities have opened up a remote research station on the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau and revealed alarming research on the pace of global warming.

Half a century of research shows the temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees in the area, more than double the global average. More than 500 glaciers have completely disappeared, and the biggest ones are retreating rapidly.

Journey to the pole

The route to the pole passes through the ancient silk road town of Dunghuang in north-western China.

It was strategically important as it was located at the junction of the northern and southern Silk Roads.

At its height in the second century, Dunghuang had a population of 76,000 and was a key supply base for caravans to load up with food and water to make the trek across the desert.

Water from the Third Pole feeds a series of jewel-like oases that sit amid the arid dunes of the Gobi desert.

Today water from the glaciers has been harnessed into an extensive irrigation system that sustains a population of 5 million in what's known as the Hexi Corridor.

It's made the desert bloom with fields of sunflowers, corn, and wheat, but the glacier melt means the desert will eventually reclaim this land.

After surviving for so long in such a fragile environment, the oasis lakes are under threat. The glaciers that feed them are drying up. [more]

Crisis on high


  1. E. C. Ayres said...

    I have lived in and traveled extensively in China including to the southeastern region of this Third Pole. You can actually see the glaciers disappearing, and the wetlands they once fed drying up and becoming desert. Yes, it is alarming--more than alarming--and even the Chinese felt helpless as to what to do about it.  


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