Breathless Work in the High Himalayas For the latest NPR/National Geographic Radio Expedition report, Elizabeth Arnold begins a journey to China's eastern Himalayas, near the border with Tibet, to profile a team of scientists studying the link between global warming and disappearing plant life high in the mountains.
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Breathless Work in the High Himalayas

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Breathless Work in the High Himalayas

Breathless Work in the High Himalayas

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Much of the focus on climate change has been on the world's glaciers and oceans. Now an international network of botanists is trying to broaden the view to tops of mountains. The Vienna based Global Observation Research Initiative, or GLORIA, is examining how climate may be changing vegetation in extreme Alpine environments, where plants exist on some of the world's highest peaks. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, Elizabeth Arnold joins a team in Yunnan province of China's Eastern Himalayas.


Jongdien, China. Elevation 9,800 feet. You can get a hit of oxygen here for the price of a beer. But the base of our climb near the Tibetan border is in even thinner air, more than a day's bone-jarring drive still higher. We bump and wind up and around for miles on a road that hasn't quite been built yet, passing children stoically, chipping gravel from limestone boulders, and old women in faded green Mao caps, swatting at yaks and tending charcoal fires.

The real climb begins in a wet blinding mix of fog and snow. The only visible marker, a wind whipped string of faded Tibetan prayer flags. We layer on clothes, shoulder our packs, and begin an apprehensive march single file into the mist.

(Soundbite of walking)

Oxygen depleted, some of us begin to stagger like drunks within the first hundred yards.

It's Wednesday. We're heading up to 16,000 feet. I'm not sure where we are now, but it feels like it. We'd better catch up with these guys, if we can.

The team of Tibetan and Chinese scientists is led by an American, Jan Salick, an ethnobotanist from the Missouri Botanical Garden. She spent a lifetime studying plants and how they're used by different cultures. She too is out of breath.

Ms. JAN SALICK (Ethnobotonist): I come to the Alpine environment late in life, and only because we found that the diversity was so high in the Alpine areas, and so many of the Tibetan medicines came from the Alpine areas, that I realized that this was an area I had to concentrate on. Whoo! I have learned to climb. Okay, before we get left behind.

ARNOLD: Salick, with close-cropped hair and an easy smile, is quietly capable of shrugging off the language barrier and harsh conditions. The team is tired. The last trip of their field season is unusually cold. There's no real trail, just loose shale on a knife-edge ridge. Thankfully we're shrouded in fog, which masks the drop on either side. Chinese botanist Hu Habim(ph) wipes the snow off his GPS and frowns.

Mr. HU HABIM (Botanist): A long way.

ARNOLD: A long way still.

Mr. HABIM: There's supposed to be another summit.

ARNOLD: Is it possible that we choose another summit?

Mr. HABIM: (speaks French)

ARNOLD: We trudge on and up towards a predetermined summit somewhere in the clouds. There the aim is to record the diversity of plant life to monitor the effects of climate change. Reaching another peak, the Tibetans on the team start to sing for no apparent reason, testimony to their resilience.

(Soundbite of singing)

Ms. SALICK: This is typical of Tibetans. They sing at a moment's notice. They get to the top of a peak and they let loose. I had one of my colleagues that came up here and he decided he was going to do the same thing. And so he got up to the top of the peak and he started singing from Sound of Music, and he let loose in this baritone, and he keeled over from lack of oxygen. I thought we were going to have to carry the guy down. He weighed about 200 pounds and I thought how in the world. He came to.

ARNOLD: After several more hours of hiking, we reached the right peak and the real work begins. At once the team strings out measuring tape staking out square plots on each aspect of the summit. Plants you might see in your own backyard, lilacs, hydrangea and rhododendron, grow here in the wild, higher than anywhere else in the world. But there are no pink blossoms today. The team hunkers down, brushing away snow to identify and record the vegetation, as Jan directs those marking out more plots.

Ms. SALICK: Could you tell him that he missed the 10 meter mark over on that far side?

ARNOLD: The researchers, Chinese, Tibetan and American, barely understand one another. But they do share the common language of botany, Latin. And that's how the plants are recorded.

They crouch for hours. The snow soaks through their white cotton gloves as each plot is examined plant by plant.

(Soundbite of people talking in foreign language)

Then Salick and Fang Zhengon, a taxonomist, begin a more general census of the entire summit.

Mr. FANG ZHENGON (Taxonomist): The tender one is rhododendron (ph) (unintelligible).

Ms. JAN SALICK: Variety? (Unintelligible)

Mr. ZHENGON: (Unintelligible)

Ms. SALICK: Do you know what species it is?

Mr. ZHENGON: This one is, I'm not sure.

Ms. SALICK: Okay, we'll call it Species One.

Ms. ARNOLD: This work, though seemingly arcane, is the heart and soul of the GLORIA project. Teams are documenting vegetation on peaks like this one all over the world, building a baseline to study the effects of climate change.

Ten years from now, researchers will come back and resample this same plot.

Ms. SALICK: The theory is that we will see the most drastic climate change in alpine areas. Because we know from the fossil record that plants move up and down mountains with changes in temperature. So we're taking these mountain tops and we're saying we're going to watch the flora change, we're going to watch the flora as it moves up the mountain with the warming.

Some of the highest mountain plants will be then pushed right off the mountain. And the idea is that these plants could be threatened by global warming. Threatened to the point of extinction.

Ms. ARNOLD: This is the first time this work has been done in the Himalayas and in China, where medicinal plants play a significant role in the culture and economy.

Is it too early for you to tell as an ethnobotanist whether you should be worried about what's going on up here?

Ms. SALICK: At this point it's probably a little early to know the answer. I mean that's why we're asking the question. But we know enough to be concerned. And so that's why we're out here in the snow.

There's little doubt in my mind that things are changing pretty drastically. What effect that has on the plants and what effect the change in the plants has on the people, that's all part of this research. So you know, I won't anticipate the results until we get them, but we're pretty certain that something's going on.

Ms. ARNOLD: The team willingly faces four more hours of work on this peak. A long, cold climb back down, and still more work pressing plant specimens through the night.

For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.


See an ice flower and views of the survey team at work on the mountain tops of Yunnan Province at Tomorrow, the role of medicinal plants in Tibetan and Chinese culture, and the growing threat of the international market.

Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR and the National Geographic Society.

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