The Big Melt: Jonas Bendiksen

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The Big Melt: Jonas Bendiksen

The snow and glacial ice of the Tibetan Plateau supply fresh water to nearly a third of the world’s populace and give birth to Asia’s largest and most legendary rivers-waterways that have nurtured civilizations, inspired religions, and sustained ecosystems.

But a crisis is brewing on "the roof of the world." The lofty plateau is highly vulnerable to climate change, and over the past century has heated up twice as fast as the global average of 1.3°F. That means nearly all of its glaciers are shedding more ice than they are adding. In many places grasslands and wetlands are deteriorating, lakes are drying up, and sand dunes are encroaching on the highlands. By contrast, other parts of the plateau now have too much water. In these places the glacial melt has swollen rivers, eroded topsoil, and caused flooding and landslides.

Scientists say that the worst may be yet to come. If current trends hold, some estimate that 40 percent of the Tibetan Plateau’s glaciers could vanish by 2050. Along with acute water and electricity shortages, that could mean a plunge in food production, widespread migration, and dire conflict among Asia’s powers. If there is an answer to this looming crisis, it will lie in regional conservation and cooperation.