Glacier's Melting Threatens Chinese Village's Future The Mingyong glacier is melting as temperatures rise on the Tibetan plateau, an area scientists say is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of China. Climate shifts are changing the lives of the villagers there and threatening their futures.
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Glacier's Melting Threatens Chinese Village's Future

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Glacier's Melting Threatens Chinese Village's Future

Glacier's Melting Threatens Chinese Village's Future

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And now, another in our series Climates Connections with National Geographic, examining how we are changing the climate and how the climate is changing us.

Yesterday, we heard how one glacier on the Tibetan plateau is shrinking ever faster, retreating around 150 feet a year. Scientists say the Tibetan plateau is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of China.

Today, NPR's Louisa Lim reports that the quickening pace of climate change is changing villagers' lives and threatening their future.

(Soundbite of chanting)

LOUISA LIM: In this part of the world, the gods are all important. The ethnic Tibetan residents of this small village at the foot of the snowcapped Kawakarpo peak are Buddhist. Nowadays, they may listen to morning prayers on CDs rather than visiting the temple, but belief is still strong. And Kawakarpo - or Meilixueshan as it is known in Chinese - where the Mingyong glacier lies, is one of the holiest peaks of all.

Village chief Da Zhaxi explains the mountain's significance.

Mr. DA ZHAXI (Chief, Mingyong Village): (Through translator) Kawakarpo is an important god in this Tibetan region. Our forefathers said if this god doesn't exist, we can't survive. If it wasn't for this snow mountain, we'd never have achieved this level of economic development.

(Soundbite of traffic sounds)

Unidentified Woman: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: That's certainly true. Fifty thousand tourists visited this village last year, many of them riding ponies up the steep, rocky trail to snap photos of the glacier. The locals are cashing in: Their incomes have increased 15-fold in recent years.

Eighteen-year-old Tibu Zhuoma works as a guide, but given the glacier's dramatic retreat, she fears for her future.

Ms. TIBU ZHUOMA (Tourist Guide): (Through translator) (Unintelligible), I'm very worried. If the glacier continues to melt like this, the number of visitors will shrink dramatically, and that will affect our incomes, and maybe we'll be poor again.

(Singing in Chinese)

LIM: At night, her family provides traditional entertainment. Here, she sings how visitors should be offered barley wine. But some of the village's older residents blame the outsiders for the glacier's retreat.

That's one explanation offered by 80-something Anni Zhilei. Squinting in the sunlight and surrounded by his grandchildren, the old man says the glacier's retreat is foretold in legend. He relates the story of how a visiting foreigner made a model of Kawakarpo, then melted it, thus disrespecting the mountain god.

Anni Zhilei has other ideas. He voices a popular village superstition.

Mr. ANNI ZHILEI: (Through translation) In the past, there was no electricity. Now we use electricity, which destroys the glacier. Electricity is hot and the glacier is cold, so the two can't coexist.

(Soundbite of chiming cowbells)

LIM: The cowbells of livestock still kept on the ground floor of sturdy wooden houses ring through the village. But the older residents say their lives have been transformed, and climate change has played a part.

The river rarely freezes over anymore. They can collect two harvests a year instead of just one. But warming temperatures have brought pests that ravage their crops - pests never before seen at this altitude. They've also seen more extreme weather patterns, and many, like Kanjug, believe it's a message from above.

KANJUG: (Through translator) The gods are unhappy. We've had floods, storms and mudslides and all sorts of disasters that never happened before. Our crops don't grow well. It's a disaster for farmers.

LIM: This view is shared by the area's highest-ranking religious figure, the 14th reincarnation of the Zhaba Buddha, who also sits on a number of government advisory bodies.

Mr. DAINZIN GYAMCO (14th Reincarnation of the Zhaba Buddha): (Through translator) People should respect this holy mountain. But many people shout and laugh upon seeing it, which disrespects the sacred mountain. So there's a problem.

(Soundbite of bells)

LIM: With the influx of tourists, age-old practices are being neglected. Traditionally, certain areas of the mountain were off limits to everyone, and the glacier could not be touched.

So strong was this belief, the villagers tried to prevent a Sino-Japanese expedition from climbing the mountain in 1991. They failed, and an avalanche buried the climbers, killing 17 people. The locals believe that this was the revenge of the gods.

Designating no-go areas on the mountainside also had benefits for biodiversity and conservation, too. But now, as the glacier shrinks, the sacred mountain's power to protect the villagers is waning.

Ma Jianzhong, a Tibetan working for The Nature Conservancy, says the locals think they are partially responsible.

Mr. MA JIANZHONG (Employee, The Nature Conservancy): One of the reasons, they think, is the, you know, the so-rapid change of the culture, the so-rapid change of the social structure, the so-rapid change of their belief system, especially the young generation.

KANJUG: (Singing in Chinese)

LIM: Villager Kanjug sings a traditional Tibetan song to the mountain. This small, picturesque village is at the nexus of change, with global warming and economic development transforming the rhythms of life. The glacier's shrinkage could cause ecological catastrophe downstream.

But here, it threatens the villagers' economic survival and endangers the area's distinctive culture. Kanjug may well wonder whether her children's children will still be singing these songs of praise to the sacred glacier.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Mingyong Glacier, Northwestern Yunnan.

YDSTIE: And you can hear the first installment of this report from the Tibetan plateau at

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