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Global warming threatens highest railway


08:22, July 31, 2012

CHINA'S Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the world's highest rail system, is being threatened by desertification on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau as a result of global warming, experts concluded after conducting a probe.

About 443 kilometers of the 1,956-kilometer railway are in areas affected by desertification, including 103km that lie in seriously desertified areas, Wang Jinchang, a senior engineer with the Qinghai-Tibet Railway Company, said yesterday.

Wang cited research showing that the threat of soil erosion has grown very fast in recent years, mostly near rivers and wetlands from Golmud and Lhasa, and the amount of affected rail tracks almost doubled from 2003 to 2009.

Touted the "Road to Heaven," half of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway was built on areas at an elevation of about 4,000 meters, crossing mountains, ravines, the Gobi Desert, frozen earth, and other hostile environments.

An Fengjie of China's State Forestry Administration and an expert in soil erosion, said the plateau region suffered from desertification long before the railway arrived. "The railway did not cause the problem, but it gives us an opportunity to witness the severity and scale of soil erosion on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau," An said.

Sands buried rail racks and disrupted train services over 1,362 times from 1984 to 2002 on the Xining-Golmud section of the railway, in operation since 1984. The main part, the Golmud-Lhasa section, went into operation in 2006.

Since becoming fully operational, the railway has transported 52.76 million passengers, according to the railway company's estimate in July. Work has begun to expand the railway from Lhasa to Xigaze, a historical Tibetan city and home to Panchen Lamas.

Engineers set up walls or simply lay big rocks along the tracks to prevent sands from encroaching on the rail tracks.

"These emergency control measures have been effective, but we still need to address the root problems of desertification," An said.

One of the most prevalent theories blames global warming for the ecological deterioration in the plateau region.

Sun Zhizhong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said temperatures on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau rose over 2 degrees Celsius on average over the past three years, leaving large chunks of frozen earth to thaw. The moisture is soon lost, however, as water quickly evaporates under the plateau's blazing sun. The soil begins to dry up and eventually becomes desert, Sun explained.

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