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.
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