China's Yulong Glacier Melting Away

ByMark Litke

A L O N G   THE   Y U L O N G   M O U N T A I N S, China, Sept. 20, 2004, -- It is one of China's scenic wonders: the Yulong, or Jade Dragon Mountain.

Rising above the vermilion walls and tiled rooftops of picturesque Lijiang, it is said to resemble a dragon lying in the clouds. It is a dragon that just happens to be cloaked in one of China's most dramatic and accessible glaciers.

Every year, tens of thousands of tourists are carried by cable car right to the glacier's edge on a sightseeing trip that can literally take one's breath away. At 12,000 feet, many visitors carry small canisters of oxygen to avoid altitude sickness. But, what a sight it is!

A few venture gingerly onto the glacier's outer slopes, to slip and slide for souvenir snapshots. Most simply stand in awe of its towering icy cliffs and plunging crevasses.

‘Melting Very Fast’

But, if one of China's leading environmental scientists is correct, future generations will only be able to experience the Yulong glacier through their history books.

"This glacier is melting," said He Yuanqing. "And it is melting very fast."

ABC News joined He and his scientific team recently on their annual visit to the glacier to measure and analyze its height and length and depth. The team doesn't like what it sees.

According to He, the icy tongue of the glacier has shrunk by 800 feet in the past 20 years.

"At this rate," he said, "the Yulong glacier will be gone in 50 years." In fact, he predicts, thousands of other glaciers in China are on a fast track toward disappearing.

"According to our research, most of the glaciers in western China are shrinking because of global warming," he said. "The temperature [in western China] rises about 0.3 degrees Celsius each year. This is a serious problem."

Because the Yulong glacier is one of the principal sources of water in western China, He says water shortages are certain to become more severe in the region, affecting 300 million people, a third of China's population.

But there are worst-case scenarios that also concern scientists in China. Scenarios that seem to foreshadow the string of global disasters depicted in the summer Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.

That film became required viewing this summer at China's National Climate Center in Beijing.

The center's director, Dong Wenjie, says the film was an "exaggeration — of course!" But, he said, "It did have real scientific basis."

As we walked through the center's control center, where weather experts monitor a flood of weather data on banks of computer screens, Dong said the film could be useful in raising awareness among the public and among politicians.

"The climate of the world is changing," he said. "And changing climate affects all of mankind."

Dong said Chinese scientists are already concerned with the wave of severe weather problems that have swept across their country recently.

There have been record floods in the south and east, record droughts in the north and west. Desertification is worsening in arid regions.

Deserts are expanding to the edge of some major cities, including Beijing. China has even suffered a plague of locusts in recent years.

Future Hard to Predict

Back on the Yulong glacier, He said the future is hard to predict.

"The global warming cycle fluctuates," he said. "Maybe it's warmer for some years, and then colder for other years."

But he believes that glaciers are an early warning system for climactic problems on planet earth. The Yulong glacier, he believes, is sounding a very loud alarm.