Xinjiang’s melting glaciers

China’s far northwest occupies a precarious position on the map of potential climate catastrophe. Josh Chin and Zachary Slobig report from Xinjiang, where water security is a key question for residents.

On a hazy afternoon in the city of Urumqi, northwest China, Song Yujiang steps into the cramped outdoor equipment shop he runs on South Youhao Road, and gently wrests control of the store’s computer from his two-year-old son. He clicks through a folder of photos from his trips leading moneyed weekend warriors into western China’s rugged mountains, and stops at a photo of several hikers standing on a field of grey mountain shale, dwarfed by dozens of eerily beautiful towers of white ice.

“This is an ice pagoda forest,” the guide explains, his face sliding from reverent to grim as he aims his finger at one of the obelisks. “These are formed when the bigger glaciers melt.”

A search for the typical Urumqi resident would not start with Song. He is too quietly thoughtful, and too hopelessly in love with nature, to fit in with the hard-bitten natives and industrialist migrants who otherwise populate the polluted capital of the Xinjiang autonomous region. But the mountain enthusiast shares at least one thing with others in the city: he stands to benefit from the region’s fast rising temperatures; even if the increased heat means his future grandchildren — or even his son — may eventually have to find somewhere else to live.

Urumqi would seem relatively safe from the more immediate threats of climate change. Located roughly halfway between Beijing and Baghdad, at the foot of the Tianshan (“Heavenly Mountain”) Range near the northern end of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the city sits at far remove from the dangers of rising seas and intensified coastal storms—farther removed than any city on earth, in fact. But if residents of this former Silk Road outpost have a hard time sympathizing with the frantic dike builders of the Netherlands’ sub-tidal Zuidplaspolder, they occupy no less precarious a position on the map of potential climate catastrophe.

The danger to Urumqi comes not from climate change alone, but from a lethal coincidence of the effects of global warming and the needs of another seemingly unstoppable force: Chinese economic development. According to government calculations, average temperatures in Xinjiang have risen by as 1.6 degrees Celsius since the 1980s, three times the average rate of warming for the northern hemisphere. As a result, the region’s glaciers have been melting with astonishing speed. For one of Asia’s most glacier-dependent cities, that is decidedly bad news. But for a perpetually parched settlement high on the government’s list of economic priorities—the locus of a multi-billion dollar “megacity” development effort featuring, among other things, golf courses and ski resorts—the sudden availability of excess glacial melt water is also good news. 

While climate change typically scares people into rethinking the wasteful old models of development, in Urumqi rising temperatures appear to be the factor that makes the old model feasible. That has experts nervous. “You can support this type of expansion in the short term,” renowned glaciologist Lonnie Thompson says of the city’s plans. “But in the long term, you will find yourself in deep trouble.”

And as we’ve discovered in general with climate change, that long term may not be quite so long as some think.

Number-one problem

The severity and scale of humanity’s glacier problem is difficult to downplay. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), melt water from glaciers and seasonal snow packs sustains one-sixth of the world population. A global survey conducted last year by the World Glacier Monitoring Service suggests mountain glaciers of the kind that feed most directly into human water supplies are retreating three times as fast as they were in the 1980s.

While hundreds of millions now face serious water disruptions as a result of climate change, however, few face the problem to the same degree as the two million in Urumqi.

Just 120 kilometres northeast of Song Yujiang’s shop, at an elevation of 3,200 metres, sits a field of four-season ice known as the No. 1 Glacier, so named because it was the first to be studied in China, and is the closest glacier to a major city in the world. According to researchers at the Tianshan Glacier Station, in five decades of record keeping, it has retreated more than 180 metres, shedding nearly a quarter of its mass.

Although there are literally rooms filled with No. 1 Glacier data, you really don’t need much of it to understand how poorly this glacier has reacted to climate change. Instead, all you need to do is travel to the glacier station, a ramshackle complex of concrete bunkers located next to a mushroom farm a half-hours’ SUV ride from the starting point of the Urumqi river, and hitch a ride up to see for yourself.

When Chinese scientists first started studying it in 1961, the No. 1 Glacier was a fulsome horseshoe, two branches of ice wrapped around a jagged ridge that met in a thick mass at the bottom. In 1993, thanks to rising temperatures, the two branches split apart. These days, climb up to the station’s viewing platform in the warmer months and you’ll see the two halves of the glacier separated by a field of exposed rock the length of half a dozen school buses. 

“It’s a big gap,” explains Dr. Li Zhongqin, a leading glaciologist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and head of the Tianshan Station research team. “Run-off from the glacier has nearly doubled since 1985.” 

A short man with an easy smile who proudly claims his glacier’s run-off is better than Evian, Li has none of the fatalistic air one would expect of someone accustomed to watching a precious resource slip through his fingers. Some of his colleagues, however, are less sanguine about what is happening in the Tianshan.

“Ten years ago, there was snow everywhere, but now there’s practically none,” Mr. Chen, one of the Li’s longest-tenured employees, said one day last spring, chewing bitterly on a meal of boiled mutton as he gestured to a dusting of white on the mountaintops outside the station cafeteria’s windows. “There was a storm four days ago. Otherwise you wouldn’t see any now.”

While it may sound pedestrian, the point about the snow is key in the debate about how concerned Urumqi should be about its glaciers. Most climate models predict rising temperatures will produce an increase in precipitation at certain northern latitudes, including the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. It’s a phenomenon that could conceivably compensate for the loss of glaciers to a certain degree, perhaps even slow the glaciers’ retreat.

According to a study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xinjiang has indeed enjoyed significantly more rain and snow in recent years. But as Li points out, that rise in precipitation (22% more between 1987 and 2002) has lately been matched with even more significant rise in temperature (almost a full degree Celsius since 1997), causing the new snow to melt before it has a chance to stick. “The new precipitation doesn’t add to the glacier’s mass anymore,” the glaciologist says. “The temperatures are just too high.”  

With 155 different glaciers feeding into the Urumqi River Basin and modeling work still to be done on the No. 1 Glacier, Li is hesitant to offer a detailed prediction for how warming will ultimately effect Urumqi’s water supplies. He is certain, though, that as the glacier continues to lose mass, the current glut of glacial melt flowing down into the city will eventually reverse itself, “probably within 40 years.”

“Come to Xinjiang!”

“No beauty, no style, no dignity,” is how English missionary Mildred Cable described Uruqmi after passing through the city in the 1930s. It’s a tad uncharitable as portraits go, but few in the intervening decades have successfully argued the opposite. Among the remotest of the world’s major cities, Urumqi has always existed as a dusty sprawl, notable for its lively bazaars thick with the pungent smoke of roasted mutton, but otherwise unremarkable. For the first time in a long while, city leaders now have the means to change that.

As the capital of Xinjiang, Urumqi represents the urban terminus of China’s “Go West” campaign, a gargantuan initiative launched in 2000 largely with the aim of opening up access to western China’s vast stores of untapped natural resources. As the campaign continues its westward march, Xinjiang has benefited from a stunning volume of government largesse, helping the region’s GDP to achieve 17 percent growth for the past three years straight.

The investment, it seems, has paid off. State media recently reported that Xinjiang had replaced Heilongjiang in the far northeast as the country’s top oil and gas producer. According to the reports, the region produced close to 50 tonnes of oil-equivalent (a unit of energy equal to the output of one tonne of oil) last year—worth roughly US$25 billion based on 2007 oil prices.

In other words, regardless of what happens with the No. 1 Glacier, development in Urumqi is not likely to be put on hold. Indeed, government planners have already begun referring to a future municipality known as “U-Chang,” which would combine Urumqi with the nearby suburb of Changji to form a high-tech industrial desert metropolis of five million people.

"Accelerate the Building of an Ecological Park City,” reads a banner hung from a highway overpass in the northern part of the city. If for no other reason than that it has come late to China’s growth game, Urumqi is in a better position than other Chinese cities to realize this nice-sounding goal. Scholars at the University of Heidelberg recognized as much in a report entitled “Mega City Task Force,” presented to the International Geographical Union in 2006, where they described U-Chang as potentially “an archetype for future [sustainability-oriented] megacity development in other dryland areas.” There are even some indications local leaders may be serious about sustainable growth. Provincial hydrologist Yan Shun, for example, says the city government has implemented plans to use treated wastewater for all the city’s landscaping.

But if the wastewater plans and highway slogans suggest Urumqi could be a model for sustainable growth, the reality of its development so far says otherwise. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tourism industry, which, according to the city’s five-year plan, is expected attract over 12 million visitors and bring the city US$1.5 billion in revenues by 2010.

While Urumqi has become increasingly popular in recent years as a jumping-off point for adventure trips of the kind Song Yujiang helps arrange, the bulk of the city’s tourism development efforts are directed instead at the luxury market. A case in point is the new Snow Lotus Mountain Golf Club, a 9,000-acre (around 36 square kilometres) complex, named for an endangered native flowers, sprawling over a series of hills just six kilometres from downtown Urumqi. "From the design of the golf course,” reads the brochure, “you can feel the vigor of the Tianshan Mountains and the vast territory and abundant resources of Xinjiang."

Liu Dapeng, a private sector engineer helping revamp Urumqi’s wastewater facilities, calculates the daily water required to maintain Snow Lotus Mountain would fill seven Olympic-sized pools. "That’s just crazy," he says, shaking his head.

Even more mind-boggling is the region’s efforts to develop its “snow and ice economy.” In Urumqi, this part of the economy revolves around a half-dozen small but expanding ski resorts spread through the mountains south of the city. “The winters are so warm in Xinjiang,” the city’s vice-mayor, He Yeming, told attendees at a tourism conference in Singapore in 2005, “that some male skiers go topless.”

The city’s most popular hill at the moment is the Silk Road International Ski Resort, situated at the foot of a minor mountain in the Nanshan area, 70 kilometres south of downtown. Featuring two ski lifts serving a single run, with a tropics-themed “ecological” restaurant nestled inside a two-story glass-fronted greenhouse base lodge, it’s hardly the international-caliber playground it claims to be. But that hardly seems to matter. Manager Ali Jiang says the resort attracted 8,000 visitors at its peak during Spring Festival last year. According to Jiang, the resort ran ten snow blowers for 24 hours straight—using enough water to fill 16 swimming pools—to keep the run packed with enough snow to satisfy the holiday hordes.

Partly because of this success, and partly because of increased competition, he says, Silk Road plans to add a karaoke bar and a golf course, and hopes to extend their one run an additional kilometer up hill over the next couple years.

How much water, really?

If the climate change water glut hasn’t actually inspired this hydro-heavy development, it at least seems to have put people’s minds at ease. “Everybody knows we’ve got more water,” Song Yujiang says as he makes his way to the city’s bustling bazaar area for dinner. “You read about it. You see the rain falling. No one really worries too much about it.”

While he decries wanton golf course and resort development as wasteful, Yan Shun, the hydrologist, notes that the increased precipitation caused by rising temperatures has helped regional agriculture keep pace with the city’s growing population. He says the city’s water tables hit a low point in 1987, at the end of a long dry spell, but have since held stable.

Even with additional rain and snow, however, it isn’t certain Urumqi has enough water for the next decade of development, much less the needs of a future megacity. While the city’s own water table has stayed level in recent years, according to Dr. Li at the glacier station, it has already overtaxed groundwater piped in from Bodega, a distant arm of the Tianshan range fed by glaciers larger than No. 1 and its ilk. “They’ve used twice as much water [from Bodega] as we recommended,” he says. “So even though we haven’t studied the area, you can see they’re having problems.”

And that’s only in the short term.

Once the Tianshan glaciers melt completely away, an event Chinese glaciologists consider all but inevitable, the city will be in serious trouble. This is because, in addition to storing up winter precipitation for use in summer, glaciers are also nature’s rainy-day fund in times of drought. “You’re tapping a bank account that has built over thousands of years,” Lonnie Thompson explains. “But that bank account is being rapidly diminished. Eventually you cross the threshold and get a major drop in resources, especially in the dry season.”

Li is even more direct. Once the glaciers are gone, he says, the first major drought will make the city unlivable. “The people who insist on staying? They will die.”

A solution?

With a number of other cities in the region, and throughout the northern latitudes, facing similar problems down the road, how Urumqi does (or does not) handle this crisis is likely to have significance far beyond China’s borders.

So what should the city do?

The most immediate solution is to further improve the city’s wastewater treatment system. But Liu Dapeng, the engineer consulting with the city on its current upgrades, doubts that will work. According to Liu, the city only produces 750,000 cubic metres of wastewater per day. Even if engineers found a way around the industrial pollution and could treat every drop to agricultural standards, that volume would be barely enough to meet the city’s non-drinking water needs. “There’s no way it would sustain them through a drought.”

Most glaciologists believe the best way to deal with the loss of a glacier is to find a way to store water the glaciers are now releasing for future use. In other words, build reservoirs.

So far, Urumqi has kept quiet about this possibility, but one scientist with close ties to the government says plans exist to build a man-made lake for storage of glacier water north of the city near Dongdao Haizi, once the site of a natural lake.

But this approach, too, has its problems. While such a reservoir might be able to capture at least some of the glacial melt, Thompson says, evaporation from rising temperatures means much of the melt will be lost regardless.

The best option, both Thompson and Li think, is for the city to find a way to build underground reservoirs. Such reservoirs involve either pumping water into porous rock formations or damming ground water by means of a subterranean wall. Thompson says Tucson, Arizona is already using the former method, and according to Dr. Li, a study is underway to determine if it is possible to use the latter strategy in the Tarim River Basin on the other side of the Tianshan Range.

“It’s by far the best option, if we can do it,” Li says of the underground reservoir idea. “But even if conditions turn out to work in the Tarim, that doesn’t mean we’ll find the same conditions on this side of the mountains.”

Urumqi’s water planners will have to wait five years to hear from Tarim, and another several years after that for their own study. If either turns out to be a failure, the race will be on for another solution, and time is running out. According to Li’s most conservative estimates, the No. 1 Glacier will be gone within a hundred years. “And that’s only if temperatures stay where they are now.”

Josh Chin is a freelance reporter and travel writer, working mostly in Asia. He has a master’s degree in journalism and Asian Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Zachary Slobig is a graduate of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Homepage photo by Sheila via Flickr