SAN FRANCISCO, US, 9 August 2016
“Tibet is burning!” The slogan we used in the year 2012 during the 10th March protest in the San Francisco Bay Area is the most fitting expression to start with. Tibet undergoes the most critical period and deserves global attention — not just on the political and cultural fronts, but also on the wide range of environmental issues it faces, with global implications that require urgent fixes.
Rising mercury (Hg) concentration in Tibet’s glaciers, soil, and lakes is one such issue. Mercury is an environmental pollutant and major toxin due to its effects on the nervous, digestive, and immune systems. Tibet is considered the “Roof of the World” with its high altitude of 4,000 meters, and the “Third Pole” with its large glaciers. Mercury contamination has a huge impact on the fragile ecosystem and species due to its reported toxicity in the air, water, and soil. As a source of major rivers in Asia, supplying water to two billion of the world’s population, it also is called the “Water Tower of Asia”.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been a long-time champion of the global environment for decades, including Tibet’s fragile ecosystem; even before the global scientific community realized the rate at which global warming and environmental destruction is happening and its unforeseen repercussion that we are facing today. There has been large-scale industrialization, including building dams and diverting Tibet’s major rivers, mining, and exploitation of various natural recourses in Tibet by the so-called People’s Republic of China (PRC) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). His Holiness warned of ramifications of this environmental exploitation to feed absurd and never-ending human greed.
However, the PRC has paid lip-service to environmental issues (which is nothing to be surprised of) and has never addressed the issues that need to be dealt with. Instead, they continue to exploit Tibet’s environment and mineral resources, threatening Tibet’s fragile ecosystem to fill their deep pockets and make hard cash at the cost of our nation, its people, and its habitats.
Mercury deposition in the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan region is due to long-range atmospheric transport of mercury, emitted to the atmosphere from human activities, caused by photochemical oxidation and mercury particulate matter deposition mainly during non-monsoon seasons. The high altitude and extremely cold temperature in Tibetan plateau and Himalayan ranges causes a “Hg sink” to form leading to a “cold trap” of mercury. The total mercury, and atmospheric inflow and deposition of mercury, was higher at higher altitudes in the northwestern more than southeastern area glaciers of the Tibetan plateau.
The data from various studies is a wake-up call given the sharp increase in human-caused mercury accumulation over the years in the Tibet and Himalayan region, especially the drastic increase in recent years. Although human-caused particulate transport from global industrialization is a vital contributor, Tibet is impacted by local contributors as well. There are senseless environmental degradation practices by PRC with large scale factory, mining, building of railway lines, … the list will go on and on. Related health issues and major rivers in south east Asia originating from Tibet make it an even more pressing issue. The high altitude, arid environment, and delicate ecology should be a source of concern globally with global warming and its high mercury concentration and deposition. It was also established its altitude effect and low post-depositional process such as photo reduction and reemission is
low as compared to the Arctic.
With global warming affecting Tibet at twice the global average rate, Tibet could act as major source of mercury toxicity in future, endangering its fragile ecology and health of humans and other species in Tibet, South or South East Asia, and globally. It is time the global community addresses the issue, and makes China act before it’s too late, especially for the south east Asian nations at the receiving end of major rivers originating out of the Tibetan plateau.
With scarce research done on the Tibetan plateau due to its high altitude and remoteness, more research is needed given high mercury concentration and deposition in recent studies and its fragile environment and geological significance of water resources. There is an equal need of more research to tackle the issue with concrete results in coming up with solutions in preventing or controlling mercury contamination of soil, lakes, and glaciers in Tibetan plateau.
One can only hope that the PRC, South Asian countries, and global community act before it is too late, and handle Tibet with care!!
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About the author
Tenzin Tsedup is a graduate in biochemistry from San Francisco State University. He is a former president of Tibetan Association of Northern California, and currently serves as board VP in Tibet Oral History Project and on the advisory board of Bay Area Friends of Tibet.