Black soot is probably responsible for as much as half of the glacial melt and greenhouse gases responsible for the rest, according to research announced Tuesday by NASA and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
"During the last 20 years, the black soot concentration has increased two- to three-fold relative to its concentration in 1975," said Junji Cao, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and a coauthor of the paper.
Most soot in the region comes from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and outdoor cooking stoves. Soot absorbs incoming solar radiation and can speed glacial melting when deposited on snow in sufficient quantities.
Temperatures on the Tibetan Plateau -- sometimes called the "third pole" because it contains the largest repository of ice outside the arctic and antarctic -- have warmed 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade over the past 30 years. That's about twice the rate of global temperature increases.
"Fifty percent of the glaciers were retreating from 1950 to 1980 in the Tibetan region; that rose to 95 percent in the early 21st century," Tandong Yao, director of the Chinese Academy's Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, said in a release.
The largest glacier on Yulong Snow Mountain on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in southern China is one example. Known as Baishui No. 1, the glacier has retreated about 275 yards since 1982, according glacier expert He Yuanqing, the Los Angeles Times reports.
"At this rate, the glacier could disappear entirely over the next few decades," said He, who heads a team of scientists who have been studying Yulong Mountain since 1999 for the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute, a government-run think tank.
Melting waters from the Tibetan Plateau's glaciers feed many of Asia's longest rivers, including the Yangtze, Mekong and Ganges, which supply water to more than 1 billion people.
"People are dependent on these glaciers for water and it would have a huge impact on their lives if they disappeared," said He.
Yulong has already experienced two avalanches, one in 2004 and another last summer.
"There are so many cracks in the ice that it could become dangerous soon for us to continue our work on the mountain," said scientist Du Jiankuo, who is part of the team working at Yulong.
Yao Tandong, one of China's leading glaciologists, warned last year in the journal Nature that two-thirds of the country's glaciers could be gone by 2050, and has said that "the full-scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe."