During the 20th-century, wars were fought over oil. But during the 21st century it is more likely that wars will be fought over water, especially in Central Asia where the Tien Shan glaciers are receding at an unprecedented rate. New primary research published online Tuesday by Nature Geoscience shows that the Tien Shan glaciers in the mountains of Central Asia have lost 27% of their mass since 1961. That rate of loss is about four times greater than the average loss of glacial mass worldwide during that time period.
The Tien Shan mountain range stretches 1,500 miles across the heart of Central Asia. The melting snow and glacial waters from these mountains supply water to the dry lowlands of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, one of the largest irrigated areas in the world. The snow and glacial melt also supplies water to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region, where coal, oil and natural-gas mining are critical to China’s economic growth.
Prior to this study, information about the condition of the Tian Shan glaciers was very limited. So the scientists combined satellite data, field observations and glaciological models to reconstruct changes in the masses of the individual glaciers across the entire Tien Shan region from 1961 to 2012. They analyzed data from a satellite launched jointly by the German Aerospace Center and NASA in 2002, as well as data from another NASA satellite launched in 2003.
The scientists developed computer models of the glaciers based on the satellite data combined with their own field observations and readings taken from the glacier surfaces. This enabled them to calculate that the Tian Shan glaciers have lost an average of 5.4 billion tons of ice per year between 1961 and 2012. One of the authors of the study, Doris Duethmann a researcher at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam said “Glaciers are actually huge water stores. They can balance water between wet and dry years. Within a year, winter precipitation is stored until summer, when it gets released as meltwater.”
However, the scientist predict that because of climate change there will be higher summer temperatures in future decades along the entire Tien Shan range, which makes the glaciers even more vulnerable. An increase of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in summer temperatures from 2021-2050 would mean an additional 50% loss in glacier volume in the Tien Shan range by mid-century. The study found that by 2050, half of the remaining ice in the Tian Shan glaciers could be lost, and these shrinking glaciers would drastically reduce valuable water supplies in central Asia. That is why scientists are concerned that the loss of water from the retreating glaciers could lead to violent conflicts in the region as the different countries scramble for the water.
What is even more amazing is that the disappearance of the Tien Shan glaciers flies in the face of traditional Chinese wisdom. In the Tao Teh Ching, the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tse (601-531 BC) wrote about the endless supply of resources we have.
“How the Universe is like a bellows!
Empty, yet if gives a supply that never fails;
The more it is worked, the more it brings forth.”
Lao Tse (601-531 BC)
Lao Tse’s observation held true for two thousand years, but not anymore. The disappearance of the Tien Shan glaciers clearly shows that the water supply for vast regions of Central Asia is about to fail.
More than billion people worldwide get their drinking water from the seasonal melting of snow and glacier ice, especially in Asia and South America. But despite their crucial role as a water resource, until now the dynamics of these glaciers has been poorly understood, and the scarcity of scientific data makes detailed projections about future water supply difficult. But according to the study published by Nature Geoscience, “The situation is of particular concern in light of both the local population growth and the continued glacier shrinkage anticipated in response to climatic changes… The decline is driven primarily by summer melt and, possibly, linked to the combined effects of general climatic warming and circulation variability over the north Atlantic and north Pacific.”
In the past century water use around the world has grown twice as fast as world population. That is a recipe for disaster. In his book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization, Steven Solomon wrote, “Consider what will happen in water-distressed, nuclear-armed, terrorist-besieged, overpopulated, heavily irrigation dependent and already politically unstable Pakistan when its single water lifeline, the Indus River, loses a third of its flow from the disappearance from its glacial water source.”
Republican Presidential hopefuls, like Ted Cruz, can deny climate change all they want. But that isn’t going to save the water supply of the billion people around the world whose water supplies are disappearing as the glaciers shrink.