• Chinese scientists pioneer high-altitude environmental monitoring in Himalayas

Environmental Laboratory

Chinese scientists pioneer high-altitude environmental monitoring in Himalayas

Oct 12 2023

Last year, on May 4th, 2022, a team of Chinese scientists successfully established the world's highest automatic weather station at over 8,800 meters altitude on Mount Qomolangma, known to Westerners as Mount Everest. This group of specialists from Earth Summit Mission 2022 were made instantly famous as China's state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV), allowed audiences to witness the event live. Beginning their ascent in the small hours of the morning, the 13 team-members reached the site just after noon. An hour later, the weather station was installed and the summit sported China’s national flag.  

Since 2017, China has been building up its environmental monitoring infrastructure across the Himalayas in an attempt to get a better picture of what’s happening on the Tibetan Plateau, known amongst ecologists as the Water of Tower of Asia. An indispensable pillar of the continent’s ecologies and economies, this plateau is widely recognised amongst researchers to be uniquely sensitive to climate change – but much of the finer points of its ongoing transformation, particularly the impact on water quality, remain mysterious. So, China’s aiming to fill those gaps in knowledge. For the first time, for instance, after the Everest mission, the thickness of ice and snow at the summit was measured using high-precision radar. Now, China boasts eight similar research stations on Everest, monitoring a variety of climatic parameters including temperature, humidity, wind speed and radiation changes. 

This year, Chinese scientists made history once again by establishing monitoring stations atop the world’s sixth-tallest summit, another Himalayan peak, Mount Cho Oyu, making it only the second time that a Chinese research team has ascended beyond 8,000-meters. Snow-capped and icy year-round (cho oyu means ‘turquoise goddess’ in Tibetan), the mountain offers an invaluable natural repository for climatic data, revealing the secrets of high-altitude environmental shifts over time. With ice depths reaching over 70 meters, ice cores extracted from the site offer the prospect of unravelling cryospheric mysteries going back millions of years. Even more importantly, the team installed automatic weather stations at various altitudes which will ensure comprehensive data collection. The highest of these stations, positioned at Cho Oyu's peak, successfully relayed meteorological data, revealing a chilling temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius at the summit. Powered by solar panels, these weather stations, designed to operate continuously for two years, will transmit invaluable data like temperature fluctuations, wind patterns, and solar radiation. All of which will enable scientists to conduct more comprehensive ecological assessments in an attempt to pin down humanity’s impact on the system. 

Poignantly, the Cho Oyo expedition was the first to have taken place after an historic conservation law aimed at preserving this life-saving plateau's fragile ecology came into force. Part of a series of similar statutes, including the Yangtze River Protection Law, the Yellow River Protection Law and the Black Soil Protection Law, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Act prohibits production and construction activities that may cause further soil erosion, bans sand mining and other mining activities that do not meet conservation requirements for river sources, imposes strict rules against the construction of hydropower stations on the plateau and prescribes penalties for littering. As climate change continues to exert its influence across the globe, high-altitude monitoring in the Himalayas will be part of the front-line in defending crucial ecosystems and determining our response to their deterioration. 


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