The Third Pole.

Source – World Economic Forum

What is the third pole?

The region encompassing the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau in Central Asia is referred as the ‘Third Pole’ because it has the largest ice storehouse after north and south poles. Although much smaller than north and south poles, it is still enormous, covering 100,000 square kilometres with some 46,000 glaciers.

The importance of the third pole.

  • The impact on climate – The Earth’s north and south extremities are crucial for regulating the climate, and at the same time are particularly sensitive to global warming. The Third Pole, because it is high above sea level, is also sensitive to changes in temperatures and thus can have a substantial impact on the climate.
  • Water and irrigation – It is estimated that the water that flows from the Third Pole supports 120 million people directly through irrigation systems, and a total of 1.3 billion indirectly through river basins in China, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. That’s nearly one fifth of the world’s population.
  • Source of largest Asian rivers – 10 of Asia’s largest rivers begin at the Third pole, including the Yellow river and Yangtze river in China, the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar, the Ganges, which flows through India and Bangladesh, and the trans-boundary Mekong river.

The extent of climate change

The rate at which the glaciers are melting at the third pole has almost doubled since 2005. Research reveals that over 509 small glaciers disappeared in the past 50 years and even the biggest ones are shrinking rapidly. 226 glaciers in China’s Tiger Valley region have lost 27 sq km of ice in the past 48 years. In the wider area of the Qilian Mountains—home to 2,684 glaciers—the impact has been catastrophic. The melting of glacier is happening much faster than anticipated and the rate of melting has nearly doubled in the last 50 years.

Main reasons:

  • Global warming – Temperatures in the third pole have increased by 1.5 degrees – more than double the global average.
  • Dust and pollution – Dust and pollution from car exhausts and coal burners are also triggering climate change impact. Black carbon particles and dust settle on the glaciers, causing it to absorb the sun and heat, unlike the white ice that reflects them away.

Primary concerns:

  • Availability of freshwater – Melting of glaciers at a rapid rate does threaten water security. While initially, more water is expected to flow into river basins, causing floods, eventually, those rivers will dry up, resulting in drought and desertification. It could be devastating for 1.3 billion people who depend on its water.
  • Erratic weather patterns – While glacial melt can lead to a string of climate disasters like the recent floods in China, or increasing desertification, a deeper concern is the impact of the changes in the Third Pole on global weather patterns such as monsoons and the El Nino. 
  • Possible political conflict – As a number of countries depend upon the waters from rivers in the third pole, any adverse effect on such rivers may lead to a political conflict among countries.

Way ahead:

  • Reduction in greenhouse gases and black soot emissions.
  • There should be more coordination between scientists around the region.
  • Mapping of potential risks is should be taken up as a priority as that could serve as a planning tool for researchers working on the Third Pole.

Sources: World Economic Forum and Down to Earth