Tibetan Citizen Science at 5000m

Meltwater flows from the shrinking glaciers on Jiangjiaduode, a holy mountain to the local Tibetan nomads. They make a holy pilgrimage around the lake at its base every year. Photo © Kyle Obermann

While polar and island geographies are commonly reported as the most immediate and sensitive regions to climate change, the Tibetan Plateau is also warming three times the global average. Glaciers – over 46,000 of them – and permafrost –  covering more than one million square kilometers – extend over the plateau, giving the Tibetan Plateau its other name: the third pole.

The third pole serves as a water source to one out of every five people on earth. As glaciers melt, water security across Asia will be threatened and permafrost could release 12,300 million tons of carbon dioxide alone in to the atmosphere.

However, because of travel restrictions in the region, the world rarely gets to witness the melting of the world’s third pole. A grassroots group of native Tibetans supported by the local government and Chinese NGOs is working to change that. They call themselves the Snowland and Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association and have recruited nearly 900 Tibetans across the plateau since 2011 to monitor climate change here in one of the world’s most remote regions.

Every summer, when nomadic members of the association bring their yaks to graze at higher pastures inaccessible at winter, they also carry out a survey of the dozens, even hundreds, of springs that surround their tents. Managed by a core group of trained local leaders, Tibetans equipped with clipboards are now climbing the 5000m peaks which roll over their homeland. 

Their mission: train nomads to be citizen scientists that collect samples and data as the glaciers and springs that feed rivers like the Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, and Irrawaddy disappear. The Snowland and Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association knows that they can’t stop climate change – their own actual emissions are a fraction of you and I’s – but they can show the world how it is changing the land upstream, and eventually, downstream as well. All their work documenting the change on the Tibetan Plateau is being stored in a building they hope will one day serve as “Asia’s Water Museum,” and be a model for indigenous citizen science and outreach around the world.

Caidanwenci a local volunteer for the Snowland and Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association collects a water sample from a spring at 4600m amidst first snows in early September.   

Photo © Kyle Obermann

A Tibetan member of the Snowland and Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association tracks the source of a spring amid the pastures where his horses roam at 4600m.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

Wensidanzhou marks the GPS coordinates, altitude and other information of a spring above his home on a standardized form provided in Tibetan language by the association. Behind him, Caidanwenci marks a water sample collected in a small, plastic vial.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

Small vials of water containing samples from all the springs in the region align the shelves of “Asia’s Water Museum.” They are marked by the spring name and elevation, and stored by which of the “Three Rivers” they flow into: the Yangtze, Mekong, or Yellow.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

The waters of the Mekong river near its source are full of sediment from summer rains. Eventually the Mekong passes through, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam on its was to the sea 2,700 miles away.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

On a summer day an entire community of Tibetans awoke to see that the stream running by their homes completely undrinkable and full of silt. Going up to 4800m to investigate the source, they found that the soil at the source had collapsed due to permafrost melt.   

Photo © Kyle Obermann

Kanzhacuo Lake, one of the seemingly countess turquoise, high alpine lakes that can be found throughout the region.   

Photo © Kyle Obermann

One of the largest cities on the Tibetan Plateau is Yushu, centered around a monastery lying at the junction of two rivers. Yushu is one of the only airports in the region.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

After work, the Snowland and Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association holds a meeting in their local headquarters to discuss funding and contributions from its members.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

Wensidanzhou and his son welcome the local organizer of the association into his home after a survey in the mountains.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

After checking the melting permafrost above his home, Caidanwenci leas his horse down the valley. Behind him, 5700m+ glaciated peaks glisten in the distance. A generation of Tibetans have grown up below these white peaks. As they see the winters get warmer and warmer, they wonder if their children’s children will grow up the same.  

Photo © Kyle Obermann

Last updated July 26, 2018

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