Tibetan Plateau Woman & Children
A Tibetan woman carries her daughter on her back as she holds her son's hands near Lake Namtso. A new study finds that glacial melting in Tibet has created many more lakes in the region. Reuters

Tibet is facing a double-whammy of disasters. China's western so-called autonomous region is getting warmer and wetter, just as rampant population growth is creating pollution problems. The combination threatens to destroy fragile ecosystems and disrupt life for billions of people across Asia, according to a new environmental assessment by Chinese and Tibetan researchers.

“It’s an environmental menace,” Kang Shichang, a glaciologist at the Chinese Academy of Scientists, said in a statement, Nature magazine reported.

Tibetan Plateau Map
Tibetan Plateau Map: The 15,000-foot table feeds Asia's biggest rivers, meaning the region's climate problems affect billions of people downstream. Google Earth

The assessment, released earlier this month, supplies new data about the extent of climate change effects and pollution in Tibet. Researchers found that around the 15,000-foot-high Tibetan Plateau, average temperatures have soared by 0.4 degrees Celsius (.72 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade (twice the average of the warming globe), while precipitation has risen by 12 percent since 1960.

All of this is causing a massive glacier stock. The plateau and its surrounding mountains, the highest in the world, contain the largest pile of ice outside of the Arctic and Antarctica, giving it the nickname "the Third Pole." Because glaciers are melting and the permafrost is thawing, the region now has a stunning 14 percent more lakes than it did in 1970, and more than 80 percent of existing lakes have expanded, flooding surrounding pastures and rural communities, according to researchers.

The plateau also feeds Asia’s biggest rivers, which flow to Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia and China, meaning the extra water could affect billions of people downstream, Nature noted.

Amidst the changing climate, Tibet’s population is booming. The plateau is now home to roughly 9 million people – three times the population in 1951, when the Communist Chinese took over. The urban boom is generating more human and industrial waste than the region’s facilities can handle. “You see a lot of rubbish lying around the plateau, including headwater regions,” Shichang said. Livestock is also twice as numerous, putting a greater strain on grasslands.

Tibet’s biggest pollution challenge, however, comes from unchecked and poorly regulated mining operations. The assessment found that Tibetan open-pit mines produced 100 million metric tons of wastewater in 2007 and nearly 20 million metric tons of solid waste in 2009. As a result, “air, water and soil pollution is particularly serious,” according to the report.

The Chinese and Tibetan research team hopes its report can influence government policy on conservation and environmental protection, Nature noted. The findings can help direct “policies for mitigating climate change and striking a balance between development and conservation,” said Meng Deli, vice-chairman of Tibet’s regional government.