[Challenge:Future] degradation of tibetan pleatue's ecosystem and it's potential ramifications
An innocent shadow on global environment : The degradation of Himalayan Alpine Biome Preservation of the Himalayan Alpine Biome and thus, the humankind ! by : Avneet Singh ( at Indian Institute of Technology at Guwahati, India ) for prevention of the Introduction : The Himalayan biome is one of the least populated in terms of human settlements, largest in terms of area and the most fragile in terms of potential perturbations it can withstand. It comprises primarily of the Great Himalayan range separating the Indian Subcontinent from China towards the south and towards the north, the Tibetan pleatue in Ladakh (India), Xinjiang (China) and Tibet Autonomous Region (China). Towards the south, it lies mainly in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Pakistan with altitudes in the range of 500-1500 meters, known as the Shivalik Range . Going north, it extends into the Lesser Himalayas with an altitude in between 1500-3500 meters lying again primarily in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Bhutan. Going further north brings one into the Greater Himalayas with altitudes well over 3500 meters up to as high as 8848 meters i.e. Mount Everest. Most of the region is inaccessible for major part of the year owing to temperatures as low as -45º C and almost perpetual permafrost , such as in Dras sector along the conflicted Indo-Pakistan border in Kargil district and Changthang region in Tibet. Further up, lies the vast Tibetan pleatue with an average altitude of about 4500-5000 meters, studded with several lakes and high mountains. They have kept to themselves all of the world’s 14 highest mountains above 8000 meters, well known as ‘the 14 eight thousanders’, well sought after by mountaineers and adventurists. The geography of the region is of extreme nature and not at all subtle . Housing some of the world’s deepest gorges and most voluptuous glaciers, the Himalayas are the largest volume of ice mass outside of the geographical poles while the Tibetan pleatue being on the of the driest and most diverse. It has been reasonably speculated that the biome’s ecosystem if once damaged, is unlikely to be reversed by means of any force the mankind possesses. We shall now see how this innocuous piece of globe can bring utter devastation to the existing world. ‘ Don’t come expecting a violent retaliation from the nature, it acts more like a stealth force rather than an aggressive revolt.’ specified complication in form of a disaster.
A vision : The impact of Himalayan Alpine biome on global climate ? 1. The effect on Asian and South Asian monsoon : The importance of the Himalayas have been recognized for a long time in maintaining the seasonal monsoon cycle in south-east Asia and also in shielding the Indian sub-continent from the Arctic winds coming from the north. Furthermore, the researches conducted in 1986 2 , 1998 3 and 2003 4 have proven the immense importance of the Tibetan pleatue in defining the south-east Asian and east Asian monsoon cycle over Bay of Bengal and South China Sea respectively. Results show that the whole procedure of the outbreak of the Asian monsoon onset is composed of three consequential stages. The first is the monsoon onset over the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal in early May. It is followed by the onset of the East Asian monsoon over the South China Sea by mid May, then the onset of the South Asian monsoon over India by early June. It was shown that the onset of the Bay of Bengal monsoon is directly linked to the thermal as well as mechanical forcing of the Tibetan Plateau. It then generates a favourable environment for the South China Sea monsoon onset. Afterward, as the whole flow pattern in tropical Asia shifts westward, the onset of the South Asian monsoon occurs. 2. The effect on global oceanic currents and weather: Research dating back as early as 1990’s 5 on the impact of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayan range on global climate patterns have yielded significant results, citing data from as far as the South Pacific and Siberia. The research extrapolated the data and emphasized that the state of vegetation and snow cover on the pleatue specifically have a significant influence on its albedo, or ability to reflect the sun’s heat. This in turn determines summer temperatures over the plateau - affecting jet stream currents and monsoon winds. Anomalous snowfall in biome seems to affect not only these phenomena, but is also linked to the occurrence of the El Nino current off the west coast of South America and unseasonably cold and hot spells over Europe and North America . This in turn is related to the cause of Pacific typhoons (along with EI Nino phenomenon), which stirs up ocean water causing disruption of the marine food chains affecting the entire economy of west coastline of USA, Peru, Ecuador - while New Zealand, Africa reel under dreadful drought . All this points to the undoubted importance of Tibet and the Himalayan range, both as a sensitive ecological zone as well as an observatory of climatic observations. It is very surprising to see how this presumably insignificant piece of globe, namely the Himalayan Alpine biome, can effect a large proportion of the world’s population. A sum over the individual populations of the nations directly affected by the above mentioned phenomena i.e. China : 19.22% + India : 17.36% + Indonesia : 3.41% + Pakistan : 2.55% + Bangladesh : 2.17% + Myanmar : 0.69 % + Thailand : 0.96% + Nepal : 0.41% + Taiwan : 0.33% + Bhutan : 0.01% = 47.11 % yields a whooping 3.25 billion in number, close to almost half of the world’s population ! Clearly, it is nothing short of an apocalyptic disaster if the balance is disturbed. In fact, some things have already gone very wrong !
A vision : Globally dominant threats ! 1. Variation in monsoon’s seasonal cycle : It is feared that dramatic changes in the ecology and the climate of Himalayan biome may lead to serious consequences on the seasonal monsoon cycle in Bay of Bengal as well as South China sea, according to researches 6 conducted in 1990’s and studies strengthening the hypothesis in 2003 7 . This could lead to inconsistent periods of high precipitation and unexpected droughts. 2. Glacial meltdown : The Himalayan biome is home to 12 major high volume glaciers outside of the poles acting as a source to almost all the major rivers in Asia, namely Ganges, Yamuna, Indus, Sutlej, Ravi, Chenab, Tsangpo, Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Huang Ho, Mekong and Teesta. All these rivers trace their sources back to either the Himalayas or the Tibetan pleatue. Glacial meltdown can lead to temporary increase in volume in most of these rivers before completely drying out, rendering the rivers entirely perennial. Besides, there are approximately 15,000-17,000 * other minor glaciers residing in the biome. It has been reported 8 that glaciers in Tibet are melting at a rate 4 times faster than any other ice mass. 1921 2002 Rongbuk Glacier (China) Thermo-static image of the July Asiatic monsoon precipitation density
A vision : Globally dominant threats ! 3. Adverse affect on the marine food chain in the oceans : As it has been mentioned before, dramatic changes in the biome’s environment, especially Tibet’s, are extensively linked to the El Nino and Pacific Typhoons all along the pacific west. Indirectly, this disruptive ocean current destabilization in central pacific ocean negatively impacts climatic conditions as far as eastern Australia, New Zealand and northern Antarctic coastline. It has directly led to extreme instability in the marine food chain and related economy along the west coast of USA, Peru, Ecuador, northern Chile and Argentina. 4. Irreversible steep gradient of increasing average temperature : Experts tend to believe 9 that increasing average temperature of a biome, or for that matter of the world, is always not reversible but there exists a threshold beyond which there is no coming back i.e. an event horizon of sorts. As far as the worldwide ecosystem is concerned, there is a global speculation that this threshold has already been crossed but for the subset i.e. Himalayan Alpine biome, there is still some time before such a threshold is encountered owing primarily to the resistive nature of the ecozone. But, the margin of error is too small, after which it would be impossible to reverse the adversities that are being inflicted on the biome’s ecosystem. Complex food web for eastern tropical pacific (ETP) and central north pacific (CNP)
Handling crisis : A threat to flora n ’ fauna and thus, the ecosystem ! The Himalayas Alpine Biome has a fairly diverse and an extremely fragile ecosystem. The Shivalik Range houses some globally threatened species of Brown River Turtle and Indian Rock Python amongst the reptiles, while also providing suitable environment to the threatened species of Indian Elephant , Common Langur and Rhesus Monkey. The Lesser Himalayas on the other hand house some of the most exotic and yet endangered species of Himalayan Wolf , Red Pandas , Gorals , Black Panthers, Cliff bees, the Musk Deer, Black bear and Llama . The Greater Himalayas have an even better collection of some of the world’s most wonderful animals such as, the Snow Leopard , the Snub Nosed Monkey, Himalayan Tahr, Himalayan Gazelle, and the Himalayan Monal. The Tibetan pleatue though inhabitable for the most part for the human species, is dearly held close by some of most well-adapted species such as, the Tibetan Antelope , Tibetan Yak , Brown Bear , Pika , Blue sheep , Black-necked Crane etc. and surprisingly, a few species of snakes and spiders too. Tibetan pleatue is often visited by the highest flying birds of the world, namely the Griffon Vulture and the bar-headed Geese. Besides diverse fauna, the floral diversity of lower ranges is signified by blue pine , spruce , silver fir , Junipers , conifers deodar , and Chirpine in the west, while the eastern ranges include maples , rhododendrons , alder and birch , oaks , laurels , and dwarf willows. The higher regions of Greater Himalayas and the Tibetan pleatue however, are devoid of long growing trees since very less species are adapted to sustain themselves in such harsh conditions of extreme cold and almost zero humidity, and hence, only a few wild grass species and occasional shrubs are encountered at altitudes above 4000 meters. At such high altitudes and harsh weather conditions, it becomes very difficult for the animal species to survive. They, however, had adapted themselves over centuries to fit better into the environment but the ecosystem is still very fragile and sensitive to major perturbations. Once damaged, it is highly probable that the ecosystem cannot be restored - such is the interdependence of flora and fauna in this part of the world. Overall, there are currently 81 endangered species ¹ residing in the Tibetan pleatue region alone of the biome comprising of 39 mammals, 37 birds, 4 amphibians and 1 reptile.
Handling crisis : Possible ramifications of the tilting scales : 1. Floods / droughts in India, Pakistan and China and their effects : Widespread floods in Pakistan in 2003, 2007, 2009 and India in 1998, 2005, 2008, 2009 and again in 2010 have established the impact of disturbed scales on monsoon cycles. Anomalous relentless rains caused havoc in Pakistan in 2010 killing approximately 2000 people and displacing 20 million. NASA attributed the rainfall anomaly to El Nina phenomenon. Similar anomalous rain patterns have been noticed throughout India for the past decade killing over 5000 people (while displacing at least 100 million) and reported often by the Indian Meteorological Department . China too had a series of disastrous floods in the past few decades (1954, 1998, 2011) while Thailand in October 2011 is facing one of the worst floods in it’s history having already killed hundreds and displacing millions. Severe economic, agricultural and food crisis : Besides India and Pakistan, irregular Asiatic monsoons leading to floods and droughts, adversely affect the vegetation and economy of southeastern Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hunan and Guangxi, as well as severely impacting Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. Indian alluvial plains along with the above mentioned regions of China, are world’s leading producers of rice . Quite spectacularly, same regions in China and India also lead the list of wheat production. Moreover, world’s renowned tea producing regions of India i.e. Assam and West Bengal while Yunnan, Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi in China are under severe threat from adverse monsoonal rainfall. But remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg i.e. devastated Asia . So far we haven’t counted the loss to marine and aerial life in Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and it’s affect on economy of South India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, Sri Lanka, China, Philippines and Taiwan. 2. Long term affects on the biome’s eco-balance and widespread repercussions: The Himalayan range is expected to shield the Tibetan pleatue and further north bound countries from monsoonal wind infiltration while also the protecting the Indian subcontinent from chilly arctic winds. Recent studies 15 have confirmed monsoonal infiltration into Tibetan pleatue leading to flash floods in Ladakh in 2010 killing 80 and displacing thousands while several other regions in Xinxiang and Tibet have also encountered unusually high rainfall and mud slides. Furthermore, Afghanistan has recently speculated that it is highly possible for the arctic winds to cross the Himalayas through Gobi desert and bring down average temperatures considerably. In fact, Tibetan pleatue along with the Himalayas bear a great control on the jet streams over Asian continent owing to their great altitude. These jet streams in turn are the major forces driving the worldwide weather, thus strengthening the biome’s strong control over global climate and precipitation. Small perturbations in biome’s weather pattern can significantly affect global weather via the densely connected web of intercontinental wind and ocean currents for good or for worse, given the immense influence that it bears.
Handling crisis : Agents of the crisis 1. Tourism : It was reported 10 that tourism had increased three folds in Tibet in 2008 as compared to 2007. The Himalayas themselves are facing a wild surge in number of tourists but sadly, no restrictions have been imposed on the number and there are hardly any regulations. The 14 eight-thousanders are consistently being hiked by trekkers from around the globe but their wastes are left behind in form of equipments and food wastes. 2. Industry : In March 2011, it was reported 11 that the industrial soot may in fact play a major role in driving stronger monsoons in south-east Asia and causing faster glacial meltdown. The soot gets absorbed into the snow and aids in fast melting of the ice masses. This property is characteristic of soot’s physical attributes i.e. to absorb heat. 3. Wildlife decimation : In Tibet, prior to the Chinese invasion, there existed a strict ban on the hunting of wild animals in Tibet. The Chinese have not enforced such restrictions. In fact, the trophy hunting of endangered species has been actively encouraged. Rare Tibetan animals, such as the snow leopard are hunted for their fur and sold for large sums of money in the international market. A permit 12 to hunt a rare Tibetan antelope is US$35,000 and an argali sheep US$23,000. Besides hunting, poaching aimed at using rare animal parts in medicine and for meat, is going unhindered. 4. Deforestation : The forest cover on the Tibetan pleatue has decreased 13 by 46% from 1959 to 1985 . As per unofficial estimates, the forest cover in the Himalayan belt has decreased by 22% in past 50 years while the Baltistan and northern regions of Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir have confirmed 14 deforestation of the order of 30% in last 3 decades. 5. Militarization : Owing to the tensed bilateral relations of India with Pakistan and China have led to dense militarization of the border areas in Himalayas. One such example is the Siachen Glacier on the Indo-Pakistan Line of Control at an altitude of 5753 meters. The Kargil war in 1999 witnessed battles on Siachen Glacier at an altitude of 6400 meters making it the highest battlefield in the world. On the other hand, is the heavy artillery militarization along the Line of Actual Control in Aksai Chin region of the western Tibetan pleatue between India and China, besides the already tensed out McMahon line in the eastern Himalayas again between the same two nations. The battles and militarization has led to severe damage to the local ecosystems of these regions. 6. Policies adopted by the Chinese in Tibet Autonomous region : The Chinese after their annexation of Tibet in 1959, imposed several land reforms which lead to widespread famines in Tibet. High altitude overgrazing and agricultural production has led to disabled local ecosystems. Furthermore, the population transfer programs employed by the Chinese government and several hydroelectric projects have again crippled several local ecosystems and thus, emaciating the ecozone’s stability on a whole in long term. One such example is the Yamdrok Tso project near Lhasa.
Handling crisis : Globally affected regions ! Directly affected : Geographical areas in vicinity of the biome severely affected by floods/high precipitation/droughts caused by irregular monsoons and glacial melting. Net worth of life amounts to 3 billion in human life i.e. 43.7% of world population. Moderately affected : Geographical areas moderately emaciated by variations in diffused jet streams and abnormalities in atmospheric temperatures owing to anomalous air currents. Mildly affected : Geographical regions mildly affected by secondary agents of destruction such as El Nino, El Nina and Pacific typhoons. Indirectly affected : Indirectly affected areas disturbed by unknown environmental disasters triggered by previously discussed phenomena above.
Conclusion/Solution : It’s nothing new ! The discussions so far has been inspired by various researches conducted in the past half-century and there are certain - in fact very definitive - conclusions that one can draw. We have seen the impact of disturbances in the Himalayan Alpine biome projecting themselves almost on every single Asian and Oceanic ecosystem and ecozone. While some are directly severe, other operate indirectly via destructive ocean currents such as El Nina, El Nino and Pacific typhoons. In any case, damage to Himalayan Alpine biome may as well be equivalent to tipping a small rock off a mountain which harnesses energy and ends up reincarnating into a full fledged avalanche laden with floods, droughts, glacial meltdowns, wild fires, food chain disruptions and what not ! This is nothing short of a major apocalypse . It doesn’t require a certified expert to predict how destructive the process could be, if once initiated. The earth’s ecosystem is a delicate yet very resistive one - it resists changes as long as it can, initiating measures to keep in check the destructive forces of dynamism. But one perturbation or other may be too large for it to handle leading to potential breakdown of the systemic forces. In fact, the earth follows the Le Chatelier's principle as in chemical kinetics which ideally states that – ‘ If a chemical system at equilibrium experiences a change in one of the defining parameters, then the equilibrium shifts to counteract the imposed change and a new equilibrium is established’. It is in fact similar in principle to Lenz’s law in electromagnetic theory and Homeostasis in evolutionary biology. In nutshell the idea is – ‘ Any change in status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system ’. Our mother earth’s dynamics are governed by the same principle but there exists a threshold in each of these cases which parallel themselves in our case i.e. some changes are too big to handle and a new equilibrium is impossible to achieve. The destruction of Himalayan Alpine biome is one such change which isn’t speculative at all but in fact, supported by airtight theories and convincing examples from the parchments of the big book called history. If such a threshold is crossed, there is only one way it could possibly go i.e. towards the end of almost everything known to humankind – when the system in itself shuts down, when the fuel for change is exploited completely – an ice age or probably even worse – something beyond imagination. There are no farfetched solutions to this issue either. The problem in itself isn’t fly-off-the-handle sort but a very basic understanding of world order and environmental balance. Similar to the problem itself, is the solution – simple and straight forward – ‘Preserve the biome’. But there are a few citations in order : 1. Follow Bhutan : Bhutan’s Department of Tourism has adopted a unique policy since 1974: ‘Low volume, high value’. It is sufficient to say that this indeed is the way to go in order to curb the rising tide of unabated and unregulated tourists in the Himalayan mountains and the Tibetan pleatue. The ideology of Bhutan – preserving the heritage first – is indeed the call of the hour.
Bibliography and resources : [1, 8, 10, 12, 13, 15] : Official Central Tibetan Administration archives – www.tibet.net  : ‘Some aspects of effects of sensible heating on the development of summer weather systems over the Tibetan pleatue’ by Dr. Elmar R Reiter : Department of Atmospheric Sciences at University of Colorado.  : ‘ Tibetan Plateau Forcing and the Timing of the Monsoon Onset over South Asia and the South China Sea’ by Guoxiong Wu and Yongsheng Zhang : State Key Laboratory of Atmospheric Sciences and Geophysical Fluid Dynamics, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China [4,7] : ‘ Relationship between the Tibetan Plateau heating and East Asian summer monsoon rainfall ’ by Huang-Hsiung Hsu and Xin Liu : Department of Atmospheric Sciences, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan. [5,6] : Research on ‘Tibetan climate patterns’ by Dr. Elmar R Reiter at University of Colorado in 1993.  : ‘ Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions’ by Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti and Peirre Firedlinstein.  : Article in Earth Times on March 6, 2011 by Colin Ricketts.  : ‘Deforestation in Himalayas’ in Mountain Research and Development Journal Vol 24 by Jawad Ali and Tor A Benjaminsen dated Nov. 2004. 2. Reforms in the policies adopted by the Chinese in Tibet: The Chinese government’s policies in Tibet need to be immediately reformed. The unchecked poaching of Snow Leopard and the Tibetan Antelope must be demolished. Ideally, the preaching of Buddhism that the traditional Tibetan society follows i.e. ‘ the nature is the mother of all and must be respected and taken care of ’ should be encouraged. The population transfer programs must be abolished, agricultural reforms revisited and overgrazing must be take care of as soon as possible. But a higher order concern is the demilitarization of the biome. The Sino-India border and Indo-Pakistan border has long been on the verge of dissimilation ever since India’s independence. The issues need to be resolved through bilateral peaceful talks rather than assault. Last but not the least, the Chinese have been reported to use Tibet as dumping ground for nuclear and atomic wastes besides industrial remains. It becomes the job of international environmentalist organizations to look into the matter and bring an end to this abuse on the ‘roof of the world’. As it should be clear to all concerned, apparently there exists only a prevention but no cure . Since, no preparation can save one, ignorance must be forfeited at once if there is to remain some hope.