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China’s effort to shield melting glaciers from sun no alternative to cutting global warming pollution

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(, Jul07’23) – In a desperate effort which only offers a temporary solution, Chinese scientists were spreading thick sheets of white fabric over more than 400 sq m of the Dagu Glacier overlooking Trochu (Chinese: Heishui) County of Ngawa (Aba) Prefecture, Sichuan Province, to slow down its rapid melting under the effect of global warming, reported the Jul 7.

On the other hand, while China generates more solar energy than all other countries combined, it also burns half the planet’s coal, noted an opinion piece on Jul 6. It is therefore pretty obvious where the real, long-term solution to the alarmingly rapidly melting of the Tibetan Plateau glaciers lies.

The Dagu Glacier covering was designed to reflect the sun’s rays back into the atmosphere, effectively shielding it from the heat and hopefully preserving some of its ice, said the report.

The glacier’s meltwater provides drinking water and helps to generate hydropower, while the majestic views of the Tibetan Plateau can attract more than 200,000 tourists a year, fuelling an industry that keeps over 2,000 people employed. Now all that is under threat as the planet warms, the report said.

The glacier has already lost more than 70% of its ice over the past half century. The report cited a researcher as describing the current effort as being akin to a doctor merely trying to extend the life of a terminally ill patient by a few years.

The only real cure would be to drastically cut emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide, of which China is the world’s biggest source, the report noted.

“All the human intervention methods that we’re working on, even if they prove effective, are only going to slow down the melting,” Dr Zhu Bin, the 32-year-old Nanjing University associate professor leading the expedition to cover the glacier, has said.

“If the Earth keeps getting warmer, in the end there is no way to protect the glaciers forever.”

While covering glaciers with sheets of reflective material isn’t a new idea and has been in use at European ski resorts, Dr Zhu’s team was stated to be testing out a new material that their research suggested had the potential to reflect more than 93% of sunlight and help Dagu actively lose heat.

Laying out the sheet at the ablation area of Dagu Glacier. (Photo courtesy: Tencent)

“It’s a very good solution to locally combat the effect of climate change,” Dr Matthias Huss, a professor of glaciology at ETH Zurich, has said, especially when there are specific economic benefits. However, the real answer is “very clear,” he has said: “It’s to save the climate.”

Besides, covering large glacial areas may also have huge and unexpected consequences. Not only is the infrastructure needed to place the sheets on a large glacier impractical, dirt would likely accumulate over time, darkening the surface and reducing their ability to reflect sunlight, Dr Johannes Oerlemans, a climatologist at Utrecht University, has said.

“For small glaciers that are kind of dying and don’t move, you can cover them easily,” he has said. “But as soon as the glacier moves, the cover is destroyed.”

While there’s economic incentive for saving Dagu, everyone involved repeats the same message: The most important thing is to cut carbon emissions that are causing it to melt in the first place, the report said.

The vast majority of glaciers around the world are retreating rapidly, leading to rising sea levels and deadly floods. Covering parts of them with sunlight-reflecting blankets is like placing a plaster on a gushing wound, the report added.

And China, which is the biggest contributor to global warming, is not about to change things in a meaningful way any time soon.

“Scratching through the big numbers, two issues deserve the world’s deeper understanding. The first is that China’s successful clean technology campaign has more to do with its economic strategy than its climate commitments. The second is that, alongside its impressive achievements in renewable energy, China is also one of the world’s biggest polluters. Neither is likely to change imminently,” said piece by Li Shuo, who is senior policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia.


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