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09:02 Mar 29 2010

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Climate change threatens Qinghai-Tibet Plateau
09:00, March 29, 2010  

The "roof of the world" is getting warmer, and people on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau region clearly feel the changes.

"The past few winters have been quite unusual," says Hou Fusheng, 83. "It's getting warmer every year."

Hou has lived all his life in Xining, capital of northwest China's Qinghai Province. In his younger days, he remembers, winters were bitter and even the thickest heavy coat did little to keep out the chill.

"Nowadays young urban women wear elegant overcoats without looking padded up. Even people my age don't need heavy coats most of the time," says Hou.

The past winter was the 15th warmer-than-average winter in Qinghai since 1986, and the average temperature from December to February was minus 7.4 degrees Celsius, almost 2 degrees Celsius higher than the average of the past decade, according to the provincial climate center.

Meanwhile, the average temperature in the Tibet Autonomous Region was 5.9 degrees Celsius last year, 1.5 degrees higher than normal and the highest in almost four decades, according to the regional climate center.

ASIA'S WATER TOWER IN DANGER

Ngawang Lhundrup, a lama at a centennial monastery at the foot of Qomolangma, is getting used to the increasing number of mountaineers, hikers, scientists and environmentalists who flock to the plateau.

But he loathes those who drive to the Qomolangma Base Camp. He believes the exhaust fumes will accelerate glacial melting on the plateau.

"Nobody has ever told him about the greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. He simply figured it out by himself," says Zhong Yu, who has participated in four Greenpeace expeditions to the Tibet plateau in a decade.

"He complains the winters are getting warmer, and the glaciers are shrinking," says Zhong.

While urbanites talk about disaster films like 2012 and worry about the future of humanity, Ngawang Lhundrup cares only for the future of Qomolangma, she said.

Zhong's expeditions took her to Qomolangma and the origin of China's three major rivers -- the Yangtze, the Yellow and the Lancang (which becomes the Mekong outside China) -- an area known as the Three-River headwaters and a "water tower" for Asia.

During an expedition to Qomolangma last year, Zhong says, a sand dune she saw in 1999 had grown from 2 to at least 10 meters high.

"The annual precipitation has decreased by 13.99 millimeters every 10 years," says Liu Jiyuan, research fellow of Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Except for its westernmost section, the headwaters area has been generally getting warmer and drier in recent decades, one of the main causes of the ecological deterioration.

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