Many moons ago in Tibet, the Second Buddha transformed a fierce nyen (a malevolent mountain demon) into a neri (the holiest protective warrior god) called Khawa Karpo, who took up residence in the sacred mountain bearing his name.
Khawa Karpo is the tallest of the Meili mountain range, piercing the sky at 6,740m above sea level. Local Tibetan communities believe that conquering Khawa Karpo is an act of sacrilege and would cause the deity to abandon his mountain home.
Nevertheless, there have been several failed attempts by outsiders — the best known by an international team of 17, all of whom died in an avalanche during their ascent on Jan. 3, 1991.
After much local petitioning, in 2001 Beijing passed a law banning mountaineering there.
However, Khawa Karpo continues to be affronted more insidiously. Over the past two decades, the Mingyong glacier at the foot of the mountain has dramatically receded.
Villagers blame disrespectful human behavior, including an inadequacy of prayer, greater material greed and an increase in pollution from tourism. People have started to avoid eating garlic and onions, burning meat, breaking vows or fighting for fear of unleashing the wrath of the deity.
Mingyong is one of the world’s fastest shrinking glaciers, but locals cannot believe it would die because their own existence is intertwined with it. Yet its disappearance is almost inevitable.
Khawa Karpo lies at the world’s “third pole.” This is how glaciologists refer to the Tibetan plateau, home to the vast Hindu Kush-Himalaya ice sheet, because it contains the largest amount of snow and ice after the Arctic and Antarctic — about 15 percent of the global total.
However, a quarter of its ice has been lost since 1970. This month, in a long-awaited special report on the cryosphere by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), scientists would warn that up to two-thirds of the region’s remaining glaciers are on track to disappear by the end of the century.
It is expected a third of the ice would be lost in that time even if the internationally agreed target of limiting global warming by 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is adhered to.
Whether we are Buddhists or not, our lives affect, and are affected by, these tropical glaciers that span eight countries.
This frozen “water tower of Asia” is the source of 10 of the world’s largest rivers, including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yellow, Mekong and Indus, whose flows support at least 1.6 billion people directly — in drinking water, agriculture, hydropower and livelihoods — and many more indirectly, in buying a T-shirt made from cotton grown in China, for example, or rice from India.
Joseph Shea, a glaciologist at the University of Northern British Columbia, calls the loss “depressing and fear-inducing. It changes the nature of the mountains in a very visible and profound way.”
Yet the fast-changing conditions at the third pole have not received the same attention as those at the north and south poles. The IPCC’s fourth assessment report in 2007 contained the erroneous prediction that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035.
This statement turned out to have been based on anecdote rather than scientific evidence and, perhaps out of embarrassment, the third pole has been given less attention in subsequent IPCC reports.