Tibet and the 1997-98 El Niño

March 12, 2001
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael Glantz

A particularly severe winter in 1997-98 caused the greatest natural disaster to hit Tibet in recent years. Consistently low temperatures of -40°C and abnormally large amounts of snow affected over a million herdsmen in the Naqu regions of Tibet and Yushu region of Qinghai who were moving between pastures when the freeze hit. It is estimated that 20% of all livestock was wiped out – the road up to Largen-la to Man-tso was littered with yak carcasses in 1998. The disaster went largely unnoticed in the West, though medical agencies, such as Medicins Sans Frontières, joined in bringing relief to the more accessible regions.

from The Lonely Planet, 1999, p. 31

The Tibetan plateau has played a major role in scientific research activities on long-range forecasting. Around 1900, it was used as an indicator to see if the Indian monsoon would fail and drought and famine would occur.

Many atmospheric research modelers today use the Tibetan Plateau snow cover, for example, in their modeling activities to improve their understanding of climate variability from one year to the next. But there are other climate and climate-related reasons to focus attention on the Tibetan Plateau.

If the global atmosphere warms up, its impacts will likely show up in the margins first. By margins, I mean the dry margins along desert edges, the cold margins in the high latitudes (polar regions, for example) and the high margins with regard to mountainous areas. Scientists speculate that a 1°C warming in the middle latitudes would mean a 4°C warming in the polar areas. As a warming occurs, temperature increases would occur in the high margins vertically up the slope.

Therefore, the Tibetan Plateau might be a good place to look for the first signs of global warming. It is also the location of the headwaters of many of Asia's major rivers that serve many nations and half of the world's population, about 3 billion people.

Any changes in the hydrological cycle (with either more or less water in the Tibetan Plateau), as well as changes in land and water use in this region, would mean less water flowing downstream in these rivers (Brahmaputra, Ganges, Irawadi, Mekong, Yangtze, Yellow, etc.).

This could create major problems for the downstream populations as well as for those inhabiting the Tibetan Plateau. Maybe it is time to consider developing an all-inclusive highlands project on climate and socio-economic impacts in the Tibetan Plateau region, along with other parts of the globe in a similar situation: West Africa's Fouta Djallon, Central Asia, the western United States, and the Ethiopian and East African highlands.

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