Monday, May 2, 2011

Qinghai, Blue Lake of the Tibetan Plateau

The city of Xining is the home of the Qinghai Salt Lake Institute and gateway to China's largest lake—Qinghai.  Professor Fafu Li welcomed us to the Institute and we met with several scientists and graduate students interested in hearing about Mono Lake.
Janet and Professor Li at Cormorant Island, Quinghai Lake
            Fafu led us on a 2 day visit to Qinghai, which is on the northeast corner of the Tibetian Plateau, 10,000 feet above sea level.  Its water is less salty than the ocean, at 14 g/l, but is alkaline with a pH of 9.2 (Mono Lake is pH 10).  Chloride, sodium and sulphates are the dominant ions.  Qinghai is a huge inland sea, 5 times bigger than Mono at about 40 x 60 miles (4,437 square kilometers).  The lake supports plankton, diatoms, algae and one kind of fish—the endemic Scale-less Carp.  The water tastes slightly bitter, and we were pleased to see familiar suds forming along the shore.  Seven tributary streams feed Qinghai Lake.
            The main tourist destination is Bird Island, on the west shore, where Bar-headed Geese nest in the spring, after crossing the Himalaya from India at elevations over 33,000 feet.  The Chinese have built an impressive bird blind, burrowing underground for 200 yards to a viewing area whose glassed windows put us just a few yards away from nesting geese.  The birds were unaware of being watched.  Common Cormorants and black-headed gulls also nest nearby on offshore rocks and cliffs.
            We also visited the north shore of Qinghai.  The largest town in the area is Kangtsa, north of the lake (37°20'N).  There had been a grand plan for lake cruises at the national park near there.  Docks and infrastructure were built, but the government decided that the boat engines were too polluting and stopped the project.  In fact, no boats of any kind are allowed on Qinghai and a fishing moratorium is in place. The government has been “saving Qinghai Lake” with a number of protective measures since 2008.  The lake level has been rising in recent years, partly due to the climate, but also by reducing the acreage of irrigated farmland (mostly rapeseed, the canola oil plant).
            Grazing animals abounded in the high grasslands around the lake, and we got our first close look at yaks.  Thousands and thousands of yaks and sheep.  Livestock numbers are being reduced by allotting individual grazing land to the traditionally nomadic people and encouraging them to settle in one place with subsidized housing (they still roam in the summer).  New electric lines were everywhere and the railroad to Lhasa passed though. The high plateau must have looked very different just 20 years ago. 
Chaka Lake
            Crossing a 12,500 foot highway pass into a separate basin, we visited hypersaline Chaka Lake.  Fafu explained that Chaka could provide enough domestic salt for the entire world for 500 years!  Only bacteria live in its concentrated brine.
            As we traveled back to Xining, a sand storm blew in.  These spring events are fairly common and the Asian dust sometimes travels on high-altitude jet streams all the way to the Mono Basin. Visiting Qinghai Lake took us south of the 38th parallel, but it was a must-see location for us to visit the largest, saline lake in that is now successfully recovering from human impacts.  

No comments:

Post a Comment