The Cold Reality of China’s Vanishing Glaciers
Standing on the vast Urumqi Glacier No. 1, Wang Feiteng looked out at the exposed, rocky beaches around him with sadness. When he began visiting the site ten years ago, these beaches had been covered entirely by ice. It felt like the glacier was literally disappearing before his eyes.
“In the past two decades, this glacier has retreated by almost 100 meters,” said Wang, chief manager of the Tianshan Glacier Observation and Research Station and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In April, Wang revisited the glacier in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region as head of the China Cryosphere Expedition Team, which runs routine observation missions every spring and fall.
Urumqi Glacier No. 1 is one of 50 “reference glaciers” around the world that experts have been monitoring for decades to explore ways to slow the problem of melting. However, with global temperatures rising, Wang and other scientists recognize that the situation looks grim.
Observational data over the past 30 years shows that 36 of the reference glaciers have shrunk, with the melting rate accelerating significantly since 2000.
Urumqi Glacier No. 1, which has been under constant observation by Chinese scholars since the 1950s, is predicted to disappear within the next 50 years.
“If we protect it well, we could extend its life by an extra 40 years,” said Li Zhongqin, a researcher and educator based at Tianshan Station since the 1990s. But whatever we do, he added, this glacier and many others around the world will ultimately vanish.
Urumqi Glacier No. 1 is unique globally as it is the closest glacier to an urban center, located about 130 kilometers from Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Rising in altitude from 3,850 meters to 4,484 meters, the glacier is part of Tianshan, the largest system of mountains in Central Asia, covering 10,000 square kilometers.
It takes about two hours to drive from downtown Urumqi to the Tianshan research station, passing through Urumqi County and the former Houxia industrial area. The station is usually populated by only a handful of permanent staff members, but it comes alive before and after expeditions, when they are joined by experts from prestigious institutions and universities across China.
It takes another two hours along a winding mountain road to reach Urumqi Glacier No. 1 from the station. Part of the route can be accessed only on foot, with team members having to carry equipment on their shoulders. Reaching their destination requires tramping over barren, rocky mountains and through knee-deep snow.
When they arrive onsite, the researchers use long wooden or metal stakes — known as flower poles — and real-time kinematic (RTK) satellite positioning technology to survey the glacier’s mass balance and to test its chemical composition.
Mass balance is a critical glaciology concept that refers to how much ice a glacier’s system has gained or lost. A negative cumulative mass balance signals that a glacier is shrinking.
To gather their data, researchers drive the flower poles up to 6 meters deep at specific spots on the glacier’s surface. They will then return several months later to check for differences in the depth and density of the snow and ice. The results will be compared with previous readings to determine seasonal changes and the glacier’s melting rate for the year. This type of observation is known as the glaciological method.
In April, Zhou Ping, Lin Maowei, and Chen Hao were given the task of drilling a flower pole at an altitude of 3,900 meters — no easy task at the best of times. Normally, they would first use steam drills to break through the glacier’s thick surface, but on this occasion the equipment was not functioning due to the low temperature. “It was so cold we just couldn’t heat up the water,” said Lin. Finally, after many attempts, they were able to create a hole and plant the stake 5 meters deep.
Meanwhile, finding last year’s flower poles also posed a challenge. Wang Feiteng explained that the abnormal temperatures had led to a greater accumulation of snow this year — normally the mercury drops only to minus 10 degrees Celsius at Urumqi Glacier No. 1 in April, but this year it was much colder.
The good news was that the technology has improved. On the April expedition researchers had the use of a new tool, a smart flower pole, which they were able to install at an altitude of 3,900 meters. Li said data can be directly obtained on a regular basis using this machine, saving on time and labor.
“You can use it to set a specific time to observe the accumulation of snow and ice and the melting of the glacier,” Li said. “It’s of great significance for the research of glaciers, as well as the protection of water resources and water cycle research.”
China has 48,571 glaciers, covering a total area of 51,840.1 square kilometers, as well as about 4,494 cubic kilometers of ice reserves. Since the 1990s, the country’s glaciers have shown a comprehensive and accelerated retreat, largely caused by climate change.
Thanks to its proximity to Urumqi, a city of more than four million people, Urumqi Glacier No. 1 is a natural testing site for Chinese scientists, according to Li. “The experiments conducted here can be extended to more glaciers and applied in more field work,” he said.
The glacier’s importance is also recognized globally. Of the 50 reference glaciers selected by the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), an international group with links to the United Nations, Urumqi Glacier No. 1 is the only one in China. The others are across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, South America, and North America.
Mou Jianxin, an engineer of ecological environment resources at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the criteria for reference glaciers is extremely strict. One requirement is that a glacier’s mass balance must have been under observation for at least 30 years, with continuous monitoring over the past two years. This observation should also be based on the glaciological method.
China’s observation of Urumqi Glacier No. 1 began in 1959. A year earlier, Shi Yafeng, a national pioneer in glaciology, had set up a research expedition of 120 people across six teams to discover the number of glaciers in Qilian Mountain. The group spent more than four months covering 2,500 kilometers and visited more than 60 glaciers, estimating the region had over 940 glaciers in all.
At that time, the purpose of the research was to understand how ice and snow resources in high mountains could be utilized effectively. Wang explained that after investigating and observing these glaciers, Shi understood the importance and long-lasting value of glacier study, prompting him to establish the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Frozen Soil under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Shi also helped set up the Tianshan research station, a landmark in China’s development of glaciological research, in 1959. Urumqi Glacier No.1 today is the glacier that has been monitored the longest and produced the most systematic data for the country.
As a long-time researcher at the station, Li could not be more proud. The 61-year-old can list every honor the station has achieved, including joining the WGMS network in 1981, and becoming the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ first station to open to domestic and foreign scholars for research and communication purposes in 1988.
In addition to the continuous observation of Urumqi Glacier No. 1, the station has also cultivated many stellar glaciology scholars, such as Xie Zichu, Qin Dahe, and Yao Tandong. However, Chinese glaciology researchers are still rare.
Every year, in spring and fall, students will accompany expedition teams to gain field experience. High school student Xi Yunyun knew little about glaciers before joining the observation mission in April. She said that, even after learning more during the trip, she still was uncertain about choosing glaciology as a major at university.
Li has brought more than 100 students along on expeditions, but only about 30 of them are now engaged in the study of glaciers or related jobs. “There are even fewer students majoring in glaciology than there are in archaeology,” added Wang. “Most students don’t even know that the major exists. Nowadays, I guess there are fewer than 50 people doing glacier research in China, including university students.”
The tough research conditions associated with glaciology make it hard to retain talents, Wang said, adding that people choose to stay involved only when they discover its true beauty.
Beating the retreat
On the evening of April 28, Mou and his students were studying RTK positioning in the courtyard of the Tianshan research station. The technology combines global satellite navigation with data communication, and it can provide real-time 3D positioning data from measuring stations at specific coordinates. Mou’s task on the mission was to have his students look for any changes at the edge of the glacier.
The next day, the group moved the RTK positioning equipment to a high, rocky slope between the east and west branches of Urumqi Glacier No. 1. It took almost half an hour to set up due to the uneven surface and howling winds. The next step was to look for markers and to record the distances to the end of the glacier. “Last time we used the stone markers from 2018 and 2014. If the markers are from too long ago, the readings could be inaccurate,” Mou said.
That day, Mou found a large stone that was suitable as a new marker, so he wrote onto it the direction of the surveying equipment and the year, for future reference. When the team returns in August, it will use the stone to take another measurement in the same direction and compare the results to determine the amount of melt at the edge of the glacier.
Studies have shown that the area comprising glaciers in the Urumqi River Basin has shrunk by 19% in the past 50 years. From 2012 to 2018, Urumqi Glacier No.1 alone decreased by 70,000 square meters.
This trend is consistent with that of the global reference glaciers. Analysis shows that from 1980 to 2000, the reference glaciers’ total mass was in a state of decline, although there was little interdecadal mass balance change and a slow melting rate. However, after 2000, the melting rate increased significantly.
Since the end of the 20th century, most of the world’s mountain glaciers have been in varying degrees of retreat, and scientists have seen an acceleration in this trend in the past two decades influenced by global warming and changes to precipitation.
Authoritative data show that, in 2020, the global average temperature was 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than the pre-industrial level, with 2011-2020 the warmest decade since meteorological records began. Oceans also are warming and sea levels have reached new heights.
In response to climate change, 197 countries adopted the Paris Agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris on Dec. 12, 2015. The accord aimed to significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius in this century while seeking measures to further restrict the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
China signed the Paris Agreement in 2016 and, four years later, proposed to adopt more efficient policies and measures to peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.
However, for Li Zhongqin, the battle to save our glaciers may already be lost. He expressed his concerns in a thesis, warning that retreats will continue in China’s high-altitude mountain glaciers even if climate conditions do not worsen. He estimates the number of glaciers could be reduced by more than 70% by the end of the 21st century.
Li has witnessed the melting of the glacier first hand. In 2004, when Wang was admitted to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he became one of Li’s students. The following summer, Wang arrived in Urumqi from his native Shandong province in eastern China and Li took him to visit the foot of Urumqi Glacier No.1. He experienced the high mountains, the deep valleys, and the “four seasons in one day.” It is an experience he can still remember vividly.
“This is glacial meltwater. The meltwater will increase in the summer, flowing here and there. As you can see, glaciers are melting all the time. Years ago, you could go up the glacier from there,” he said, pointing to flowing water not far away. “It’s like a patient with cancer. Although we have tried many methods to halt it, the glacier’s melting can only be slowed.”
In 1962, Urumqi Glacier No.1 covered an area of 1.95 square kilometers. In 2009, it was 1.65 square kilometers, a decrease of 15.4%. From 1986 to 2009, the glacier retreated by an average of 8,600 square meters a year, 38.7% faster than between 1962 and 2009. Its average thickness was 55.1 meters in 1981, 51.5 meters in 2001, and 48.4 meters in 2006.
Historical data show that from the 1960s to the mid-1980s, the mass balance of Urumqi Glacier No. 1 fluctuated between positive and negative, but the change was relatively stable. After the mid-1990s, the melting rate quickened. Since 1996, the mass balance of the glacier has been in the negative, and it’s dropping at a rate of five to seven meters a year.
Across China, glaciers have retreated by an average of 18% since the 1970s. In the past five or six years, 8,310 of the country’s glaciers have disappeared.
“The data is really worrying. Ten glaciers have disappeared in the Urumqi River Basin alone,” Wang said. He stressed that two billion people around the world are affected by glacial changes, with the biggest problem being water scarcity.
The question of how to protect our glaciers is one that haunts Wang. In 2020, he began to explore a method that involved covering glaciers with insulating blankets and tarp. This so-called cover-up experiment did prove to have some effect: Over a period of two months, using this method, the pace of retreat of some glaciers was slowed by more than a meter.
Chinese scientists are also using artificial snow in some areas. However, with more than 48,000 glaciers nationwide, critics say this method is inefficient.
“I haven’t thought of a better way yet,” Wang said. “I can’t see a way to stop the melting. We really need governments around the world to work together on this.”
Reported by Xue Shasha, Zhu Xuan, and Xu Hui.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is published here with permission.
Translator: Wu Yichen; editors: Craig McIntosh and Xue Ni.
(Header image: Urumqi Glacier No. 1, April 2023. The Paper)