Qomolangma Expedition: How is Rongbuk Glacier doing amid global warming?

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, also known as “Asia’s Water Tower”, is the source of over 10 major rivers in Asia . China has conducted scientific expeditions to the region since 1973, and on April 28, 2022, a scientific expedition to Mount Qomolangma, comprising 16 teams and more than 270 members, began.

Their objective is to find a model of climate change and to study the variation in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the region of Mount Qomolangma. One of their research sites is the Rongbuk Glacier. Located at the foot of Mount Qomolangma at an altitude of 5,300 to 6,300 meters, the glacier has faced the threat of climate change for years.

A surveying team member is seen in front of Mount Qomolangma North Pass Camp on the China-Nepal border on April 28, 2022. /China Media Group

A surveying team member is seen in front of Mount Qomolangma North Pass Camp on the China-Nepal border on April 28, 2022. /China Media Group

Kang Shichang, a researcher at the Northwest Institute of Eco-environment and Resources (NIEER) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a member of the expedition team and explained the situation based on the data collected.

“We have made statistics that the total number of glaciers is 87 in the Rongbuk River Basin on the northern slope of Mount Qomolangma. But this number is very interesting,” Kang said.

“Compared to the existence of 68 glaciers 20 years ago, the number has increased, but the current situation is that the glacier area is shrinking. The cause of the increasing number of glaciers is the melting of a large glacier in several small, so the number has increased. We also saw the disappearance of a small glacier. The glacial area of ​​the Rongbuk River basin is 115 square kilometers, which is 20% less than in the 1970s.”

A view of the glacial lake located at the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier. /VCG

A view of the glacial lake located at the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier. /VCG

The melting of glaciers has also caught the attention of other researchers who study glaciers. Ding Minghu, a research associate at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, and Wang Feiteng, from the Northwestern Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, are two of them.

According to Ding, the increase in the total number of glaciers indicates the shrinking and melting of glaciers. Meanwhile, Wang said the phenomenon is a bad sign amid global warming because newly formed small glaciers could be easier to melt.

The Rongbuk glacier against the starry sky. /VCG

The Rongbuk glacier against the starry sky. /VCG

The consequences of the massive melting of glaciers are serious. It can cause frequent flooding in all tributaries that originate from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and sea level rise, which has the potential to overwhelm some island countries. Scientists are currently working to control the rate of melting by adding cover above the glacier ice.

(Cover image via CFP)

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Teresa H. Sadler