Global warming could begin melting China’s costly rail, oil lines in Tibet in 2020

Qinghai-Tibet Railway
Qinghai-Tibet Railway

(, Jan18’16) – Some of China’s huge infrastructure projects in Tibet built at massive costs due to their economic, political and strategic considerations after brushing aside warnings of environmental dangers could begin claiming catastrophic tolls as early as 2020 due to global warming, reported Jan 17, citing a study by a group of Chinese scientists. The study was carried out by a team led by Professor Guo Donglin at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing and their paper published by the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science.

The report said the researchers looked at a narrow strip of land more than 1,000km long between Qinghai province and the Tibetan plateau known as the Qinghai-Tibet engineering corridor where most of the soil is below freezing point the whole year round.

The corridor contains the five largest and most costly infrastructure projects on the world’s highest plateau, including the Qinghai-Tibet national highway, the oil pipeline from Golmud to Lhasa, an optical fibre cable from Lanzhou to Lhasa, the region’s largest high-voltage power line and the Qinghai-Tibet railway line.

Some of the projects such as the national highway were built in the 1950s before there was any perception that global warming might thaw the soil and pose a threat to their stability. However, in the case of the more recent projects, such as the rail link, some scientists did raise the alert. However, their voices were drowned out by supporters arguing for the economic, political and military benefits they would bring, the report noted.

Researchers were simply asked to come up with methods to prolong the projects’ life spans. And some previous studies found they could stand thawing to depths of about 30 cm and the most optimistic estimates said the projects could last until the end of this century.

However, Guo and his team have found that if global temperatures increase by one degree Celsius by the middle of this century, which is the best-case scenario if all nations commit seriously to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, more than a third of the area in the engineering corridor would face catastrophic thawing. And if temperatures rise two degrees, existing infrastructures in more than 60 per cent of the region would collapse as the ground would become too soft to support their weight.

The report was further cited as saying some areas with the heaviest human activity might begin to thaw as early as 2020.

Guo’s team was reported to have found that the existing methods could delay massive damage by no more than 17 years. But in some areas the effectiveness of the costly remedies would last only six years, the researchers have said.


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