The Message from the Glaciers Mountains are the water towers of the world Orville Schell It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were drawn to such desolate regions as the Tibetan Plateau, which, when finally surveyed, proved to have the planet’s fourteen highest peaks. Because these mountains encompass the largest nonpolar ice mass in the world—embracing some 46,298 glaciers covering 17 percent of the area’s land and since time immemorial have held water in frozen reserve for the people of Asia—they have come to be known as “The Third Pole.” There was a time when the immensity of such larger-than-life features of our natural world as oceans, deserts, mountains, and glaciers evoked awe and even fear. These days, however, these once seemingly eternal and invincible aspects of our planet’s architecture are on the defensive. And only belatedly are we beginning to understand how fragile and interconnected they actually are with myriad other elements of planetary life. Through new scientific data, scholarly articles, books, NGO studies, and media reports, we now know that the melting of polar ice will lead to rising ocean levels and the inundation of many heavily populated areas in vulnerable lowland countries. But we are only beginning to become acquainted with the less-well-known consequences that are starting to flow out of the majestic arc of mountains that begins in Inner Asia with the Tianshan Range in western China and then wraps itself around the western tier of the Tibetan Plateau as it becomes the Hindu Kush in northern Afghanistan. It then joins the Karakorum in northern Pakistan to become the Himalayas above Nepal, Bhutan, and India before ending with the Hengduan Range in southwest China. Scientists are now warning that there could be a 43 percent decrease in land mass covered with ice in these
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