At the end of every summer, scientist Li Zhongqin takes his seasonal hike near the top of a glacier in the Tianshan mountains in China’s far northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Li scrambles over a frozen ridge and heads toward a lone red pole wedged in the ice. Clouds emerge from a peak above and quickly blow past. He stops to catch his breath. He’s at 14,000 ft. The snow is thick. The air is thin.
“This is called a sight rod,” he says, grasping the pole. “We come up here each month to check it, to see how fast the glacier’s melting. Each year, the glacier is 15 feet thinner.”
Li, who heads the Tianshan Mountains Glaciological Station of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, points to a valley beyond a valley of boulders below to another glacier in the distance. “Twenty years ago, when I was a young scientist, these two glaciers were connected,” he says. “But now, look: They’re completely separate. Things are changing very, very quickly.”
Xinjiang, a land of mountains, forests and deserts, is four times the size of California and is home to 20,000 glaciers – nearly half of all the glaciers in China. Since the 1950s, all of Xinjiang’s glaciers have retreated by between 21 percent to 27 percent.
In the past 50 years, says Li, the average global temperature has risen by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit). As a result, these glaciers — split from the original Tianshan No. 1 glacier into No. 1 East and No. 1 West — are retreating by around 30 ft. each year.
Li calls out to scientists hiking nearly 1,000 feet above. In their bright parkas, they look like neon-colored ants. They call back, their voices bouncing off an ice and stone amphitheater that cradles the eastern glacier.
Scientists are the only people allowed here – the government has banned tourism on the glacier and shut down factories in the town below, laying off 7,000 workers to try and lessen the impact of pollution.
But local sources of pollution account for just 30 percent of the damage to glaciers, says Li. The other 70 percent is caused by global carbon emissions that have warmed the entire planet.
The central goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change — which the Trump administration has promised to pull the U.S. out of, but to which China is still a party — is to limit the rise in global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Tianshan is one of those rare places where the impact of climate change policy can be measured and seen.
“If every country sticks to the emissions reductions in the Paris Agreement, these two glaciers will be around for another hundred years,” says Li. “If not, then temperatures will continue to rise, and the glacier we’re walking on? It’ll be gone in 50 years.”
And that, says Li, is a problem for this entire region.
These glaciers are the source of the Urumqi River, which provides water for half the city of Urumqi, the largest in the region and home to nearly 4 million people.