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Climate Change Could Destroy Tibetan Railways

May 8, 2009

They are built on permafrost
By Tudor Vieru, Science Editor, Softpedia

6th of May 2009, 13:17 GMT

The first half of the Qingzang railway, connecting mainland China to the
Tibet Autonomous Region, was opened in 1984, when authorities
inaugurated an 815-kilometer-long section of tracks, stretching from
Xining to Golmud. The entire ?iron road? was completed in 2006, when an
additional 1142 kilometers were opened to the public, connecting Golmud
to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. With a total length of little under
2,000 kilometers (1,211 miles), the railway breaks a number of world
records, including that for highest tunnel, highest pass, and highest
train station owned. But a problem looms over the grandiose achievement,
and that's global warming.

The problem is that 550 kilometers, or about 342 miles, of the entire
length of the railways are built on permafrost, water-imbued soil that
is always frozen. However, on account of global warming and climate
change, officials fear that more than a quarter of the communication
path could be affected by environmental changes. In addition to
crumbling under the tracks and trains, and putting the passengers at
risk of death, or serious injuries, the permafrost can also kill through
methane emissions, which escape the ground when the superficial layers
of ice melt.

?In Tibet, the mercury has climbed an average of 0.32 degrees Celsius
every decade since records began in 1961. This is much higher than the
national average temperature rise of 0.05-0.08 degrees Celsius every 10
years,? the official Xinhua news agency quotes Zheng Guoguang, the head
of China's Meteorological Administration, as saying. Zheng has made the
announcement while speaking at a meeting held in the Tibetan capital,
Reuters reports. One of the main reasons why the region has been so
prone to climate influences is the fact that Tibet is located at very
high altitudes, which act like a ?magnifier,? the official has explained.

?The impact of global warming has accelerated glacial shrinkage and the
melting glaciers have swollen Tibet's lakes. If the warming continues,
millions of people in western China would face floods in the short term
and drought in the long run. In the worst case, such warming could cause
permafrost to melt and threaten the plateau railway linking Tibet with
the Qinghai province,? Zheng adds.

Over the last couple of years, China has announced on numerous occasions
that it seeks to reduce its carbon footprint on the environment, but
that it wishes to do so in a very sustainable manner, which means that
it first has to ensure that no harm comes to its outstanding economic
growth. According to estimates, if the current pace of warming continues
in Tibet, the railway and a highway connecting the region with the rest
of China could be completely destroyed within 40 years.
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