Environment

New research examines how air pollution is melting Earth’s Third Pole

Mount Everest in the Himalayas, part of the Third Pole region of ice and snow
Mount Everest in the Himalayas, part of the Third Pole region of ice and snow
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The Indus River, one of the many waterways fed by melt water from the Third Pole
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The Indus River, one of the many waterways fed by melt water from the Third Pole
Mount Everest in the Himalayas, part of the Third Pole region of ice and snow
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Mount Everest in the Himalayas, part of the Third Pole region of ice and snow
Map showing the sources of black carbon around the Third Pole
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Map showing the sources of black carbon around the Third Pole

The third-largest region of ice on the planet is located on the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountains, also known as the Third Pole. As the polar regions, the glaciers in this third region are shrinking. The difference is that the Third Pole is especially vulnerable to pollution due to its close proximity to densely populated and industrialized regions. New research is shedding light on these effects and potential ways to mitigate the disappearance of glacial ice.

In Western China alone, which consists of 48,571 glaciers with an area of 51,840 sq km (20,015 sq miles), there has been an 18 percent decrease in its glaciers over the last 30-50 years according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. This shrinkage is especially concerning since over a billion people in the region rely, some indirectly, on the melt water that feeds the region's waterways, such as the Indus River.

Map showing the sources of black carbon around the Third Pole
Map showing the sources of black carbon around the Third Pole

In the new study funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and other institutions, researchers used a special chemical process to fingerprint the source and details of the air pollution, which can be differentiated between South Asia and East Asia. Samples of black carbon (soot) were collected throughout the Third Pole, in the air and on the ground, to determine the type of burning that produced them and where they came from.

Because black carbon is the most heavily light-absorbing component of particulate matter, it can cause temporary warming in the region by absorbing sunlight. In addition, when found atop snow and ice it can darken surfaces, which leads to the absorption of sunlight (and heat), and thus faster melting.

For the Himalayas region, the researchers found evidence of the burning of both fossil fuels and biomass, which includes plants and animal dung, coming from northern India's Indo-Gangetic Plain. Black carbon from the northern Tibetan Plateau came mostly from fossil fuel burned in China. But the researchers discovered that black carbon in the central Tibetan Plateau came primarily from biomass; meaning the daily routine of burning yak dung for cooking and home heating contributed significantly to the region's air pollution.

The information is important for creating and adjusting policies that could cut pollution sources that directly affect melting ice. In the case of the Tibetan Plateau, substituting efficient stoves and clean energy sources for yak dung could slow the rate of glacial ice melt. Policies such as China's three-year moratorium on new coal mine approvals could also help reduce black carbon air pollution.

Source: Nature Communications

3 comments
MD
If yak dung is causing the loss of "ice-pack", that means that humanity itself is unsustainable. Population, not emissions is the biggest problem, and that is impossible to address in the short term without population and economic collapse. It is hard to see a more subsistence type of lifestyle than herding yaks and living off everything that comes from the animal. Everything. [no-one can say that even 100% renewables will have less impact than burning yak dung] - ?? how to make petrochemicals 100% renewably (oxymoron), how to smelt steel without burning something (likewise), even firing pottery, liberating metals and making cement with renewable energy has significant emissions The only way forward is to go backward, and who wants to return to the stone age. Even that isn't sustainable. The earth's carrying capacity was exceeded the moment(s) we turned to (of necessity) fossil reserves of energy, due to the lack of sustainable biomass in every place we "civilised". lol...
otto17
Does anyone remember that a little volcanic soot (and maybe some leaf burning in the fall) would help lower the global temp again? When growing up in the 50s we were warned that an ice age was coming and something had to be done about the air pollution blocking the sun's rays. Good luck controlling the skies.
Lumen
MD, nonsense. With permaculture, aquaponics, and proper leverage of the renewable, plentious, and efficient energy resources available for our stewardship, the earth can easily sustain hundreds of billions of people with no problem. Why do the population control alarmists so often ignore the innovation variable? Isn't that what New Atlas (formerly Gizmag) is all about? How long have you been a reader? Think about it, over thirty billion people alone can stand next to each other, and the area required would be smaller than the city of Melbourne. And how big is the earth in comparison, with its plenteous land masses, energy resources, arable abilities, water resources, the brains God gave us, and that shining nuclear ball helping us out called the Sun? Even after all this, the research shared in the article by its own admission is speculative and non-conclusive. Nevertheless, if the earth can handle continent-affecting volcanic eruptions of ash around the world that completely dwarf the effects of burning some yak dung, then humanity is a negligible contributor to Himalayan third pole melting, and populations several times larger than the Asian region and the earth as a whole can engage in sustainable solutions.
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