China's glaciers are melting at 'shocking' pace

This is the Laohugou No. 12 glacier. Spanning over 7.7 square miles, it's the largest glacier in the Qilian mountain range of northern China. But rising temperatures are causing it to shrink at a record pace. Qin Xiang is the director at the local monitoring station.

{QIN XIANG} "When I first came here in 2005 the glacier was around that point there where the river curves around. But now, after around 15 years, the whole glacier has shrunk by more than 150 meters. The speed that this glacier has been shrinking has shocked me. It has been so rapid." And it's not just the Laohuguo glacier that's retreating. The outlook is grim for all of the 2,684 glaciers in the Qilian mountain range. Average temperatures have risen about 35 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s.

Snowfall has increased too, but it has not been nearly enough to compensate for the loss to the glaciers caused by global warming, according to Qin.

The 47-year-old scientist has been monitoring the Qilian snow sheets over the past 15 years. He describes the glacier as "an old friend." {QIN XIANG} "This glacier began shrinking at a faster rate in the mid 1980s. By the end of the 1990s it started shrinking at an even faster rate. Then after we entered this new century, the twenty first century, after the year 2000, our glacier's continued to shrink at quite a rapid rate. Initial monitoring results suggest that (since the year 2000) the glacier has been shrinking at a rate of about 10 or so metres per year. For the glacier this is, in fact, not a very healthy sign, because the rate that it is shrinking just keeps getting faster." At present however, glacial melt is a temporary bonus for the water supply in the region.

In the stream near the Laohugou No.12, runoff is around double what it was 60 years ago, according to Qin.

In a dry and arid region like northwestern China, water is a lifeline for local farmers. But this bounty of extra melting water won't go on forever.

Qin and his colleagues predict the glaciers might disappear by 2050, leading to a future water crisis.

{QIN XIANG} "It does worry us. But now the climate across the entire world is warming and we cannot stop this warming process. The only thing we can do now is to minimize the impact of global warming on the glaciers."