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Climate Change Taking Toll on Glaciers

The rapid shrinking of No 1 Glacier on Tianshan Mountain in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region is a clear warning of the reality of climate change.

"The shrinkage is taking place at the rate of 3.5m a year on the eastern part of the glacier and 5.9m a year on the western part," Wang Feiteng said. The assistant researcher with the Tianshan Glacier Observation and Experiment Station under the Chinese Academy of Science was quoted by Xinhua.

The glacier has been in a state of retreat since the 1950s. According to Wang, the continuous shrinking split the glacier into two independent glaciers in 1993. He said that from 1958 to 2004, the average thickness of the glacier decreased by 12m and the volume of ice loss reached more than 20 million cu m.

"Our long-term observation from 1962 to 2006 showed that the glacier's area decreased by 270,000 sq m at an accelerating rate," said Li Zhongqin, researcher with the Cold and Dry Areas Environment and Engineering Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Shrinkage is not only taking place on Tianshan No 1 Glacier. All the mountainous glaciers in the Xinjiang region have been shrinking over the past 50 years, said Hu Wenkang, spokesman at the Xinjiang Ecology and Geography Institute under the Chinese Academy of Science.

Statistics show that there are 46,342 glaciers in western China, with a total area of 59,414 sq km. They account for some 0.6 percent of China's total land area, ranking fourth in the world, after Canada, Russia and the United States.

Experts described the glacier as the hard disk of nature, recording a wealth of information on the environment such as climate and water distribution.

According to experts, current glacial shrinkage is primarily due to climate warming.

The Tianshan No 1 Glacier, located at an altitude of 3,545m above sea level with an average year-round temperature of 53C below zero, is typical of glaciers in Asia's arid and semiarid regions.

"It is the world's nearest glacier to a city. It is only 118 km away from Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang region, so more exposed to temperature changes," Li said.

Environmental information shows that the rapid melting of the glacier will not only cause serious natural disasters such as floods and mud and rock slides, but also reduce glacial runoff.

This will gradually reduce freshwater resources at lower reaches.

The National Assessment Report on Climate Change issued by six ministries including the Ministry of Science and Technology and China Meteorological Administration at the end of 2006 estimated that the area of glaciers in China's northwest region might decrease another 17 percent by the year 2050, due to worldwide climate warming.

(China Daily July 17, 2007)

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