Climate change, overgrazing drain China’s biggest lake

China's biggest lake could disappear completely in 200 years as overgrazing and global warming take their toll, despite government efforts to stop its retreat, Xinhua news agency reported.

Lake Quinghai, in Western China, currently has an area of 4,285 sq km but is shrinking fast – 85% of its tributaries have dried up since the 1960s.

Livestock overgrazing is one of the major causes of the desertification in the area but the lake’s retreat is expected to accelerate as the climate warms and glaciers that feed rivers, lakes and wetlands in the area melt.

“Experts predict that if it continues shrinking at its present rate, the lake, which on average today is 18 metres (59 ft) deep, could completely disappear in 200 years time,” said Xinhua.

Although melting glaciers have brought abundant water to rivers, lakes and wetlands in the short-term, in the long term their disappearance will bring drought, because glaciers act as “reservoirs” accumulating water from precipitation in the form of ice and releasing it at a steady rate is lost.

“As the glacier shrinkage accelerates, the plateau’s total water storage will decrease rapidly,” said Fang Hongbin, a remote sensing expert.

The Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, the highest plateau in the world, is home to 84% of all of the world’s glaciers. The glaciers currently cover 49,873 sq km, are shrinking at a rate of 131.4 sq km a year, and have already decreased by 10% on the edges of the plateau and by 5% in the central area.

As water flowing down from the plateau supplies many rivers in East, Southeast and South Asia, the shrinking glaciers could have effects that extend well beyond lake Qinghai and China’s borders.

The Chinese government has allocated $871.4m to stop Qinghai Lake from shrinking over the next decade.

Apart from climate change, overgrazing and other land use changes, the lake’s numerous environmental problems include overfishing – catches of the scaleless naked carp have fallen tenfold over the last 40 years, for example.

Goska Romanowicz

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