Tibet temperatures hit record high in 2009

BEIJING (Reuters) - Temperatures in Tibet rose last year to the highest level since records began for the remote Himalayan region, which scientists say is particularly vulnerable to global warming, state media reported on Friday.

The average temperature in Tibet in 2009 was 5.9 degrees Celsius (42.6 degrees Fahrenheit), 1.5 degrees higher than “normal,” the official China Daily newspaper reported, citing latest figures from the regional climate center. It did not detail how the “normal” level was set.

“Average temperatures recorded at 29 observatories reached record highs,” Zhang Hezhen, a specialist at the regional weather bureau was quoted saying, adding temperature rises occurred in both summer and winter.

Temperature records for Tibet started in 1961, the paper said.

Tibet, with an average altitude of over 4,000 meters, is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, scientists say. Warming is already melting glaciers that feed rivers providing hundreds of millions of people with water.

The area acts as a “magnifier” for global warming, Zheng Guoguang, head of China Meteorological Administration, said at a meeting in Lhasa last spring.

“The impact of global warming has accelerated glacial shrinkage and the melting glaciers have swollen Tibet’s lakes... If the warming continues, millions of people in western China would face floods in the short term and drought in the long run.”

There are also concerns climate change may melt the permafrost on which the regional railway, linking Tibet with neighboring Qinghai province, is built.

Some parts of Tibet were as much as 2.3 degrees Celsius warmer than normal last year, said weather specialist Zhang.

In Shigatse city, the maximum daytime temperature hit 32.5 degrees Celsius, 0.5 degrees above the previous record, while in Lhasa temperatures were also 0.5 degrees above a previous record set in 1971.

The warm weather also brought drought to parts of Tibet, with rainfall down at least 20 percent, Zhang said.

“Tibet received an average precipitation of 363 mm last year, a record low in 39 years,” she said.

Nearly 30,000 hectares of cropland, one eighth of Tibet’s total arable land, were affected by a sustained drought over the summer and autumn of 2009, state media said. Water shortages were so bad people in some areas had to buy bottled water to drink.

Reporting by Huang Yan, editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sanjeev Miglani