36: The Third Pole

You may have heard of North Pole (yay Arctic), you may have heard of the South Pole (go Antarctic!), but have you ever heard of the Third Pole? This week we will be stepping out of the Arctic and exploring the nature and science of a somewhat similar place, the third pole, which is found is the area covering the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya-Hindu Kush Mountain range. We will be looking at their similarities, differences, the lives and the wildlife in the third pole, and why a changing climate could have a potentially much more dramatic impact here than in either of the other two poles in relation to human life. To find out more about this amazing region, read on!


The Hindu Kush Himalayan region, also known as the Third Pole along with the downstream river basins connected to it. Picture: ICIMOD

Similarities to the other poles

The high Asian Mountain region including the Tibetan Plateau and Himalayas is huge, spanning Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The reason for its designation as the Third Pole is because it holds the largest amount of snow and ice anywhere in the world after the Arctic and Antarctic. This is because the area is full of really high mountains, in fact containing most of the world’s highest peaks including the famous winner Mt. Everest.

In high mountainous areas, the atmosphere is thinner so less heat is stored, making it cooler and allowing snow to form and stay, which is why this region is so snowy. In this way it has a similar climate to the other two poles, but it also has its differences. Whilst the entire Arctic is home to around 4 million people, this mountainous region is home to 220 million, with a huge variety of cultures, languages and dialects. The Arctic is spread out over a few continents, so differences in cultures make sense. However, the heights of the mountains in the Third Pole can often separate and isolate communities quite drastically allowing different cultures to evolve there too.

This is a very mountainous region but despite its difficult topography it is also home to millions of people

Wildlife and Geography

The animals in the area are similar but different from other pole animals too. As it is cold, much of the wildlife is cold adapted. For example yaks have thick multi-layered fur similar to muskox in the Arctic to help keep them warm. Plants also tend to be shorter in these region as it means they can huddle in the snow during especially harsh and cold periods, with the snow acting as an insulator for them, similar to many Arctic plants. Some animals hibernate to deal with the coldest harshest periods, whilst others migrate away, a pattern seen in the other poles too.

However, the Third Pole has its own unique conditions to contend with too. As it is so mountainous and so has thinner air up there, animals have had to adapt to get enough oxygen to function well. Yaks for example have larger lungs and hearts relative to their body size compared to many other creatures, meaning they can take in more air to get enough oxygen particles out of it. Some rodents have adapted to this by simply breathing faster to get more air in, whilst many of the humans who have lived in the area for generations have biologically adapted to use and transport the air they get in each breath around their body more efficiently.

As for what kinds of species we find in the Himalayan regions? For large mammals it is more diverse than the other two poles, with Yaks, Ibex, wolves, snow leopards, Himalayan brown bears and water buffalo to name but a few. Getting smaller there are rodents like the pika, and birds like various species of duck and vultures. Then you also have aquatic life, various fish like trout and mahseer that live in the rivers.

Various mountain adapted ungulates like the markhor here make their home in the Third Pole. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Climate Issues

In most icy places the impacts of climate change are concerning for reasons such as melting glaciers causing sea level rise, or less sea ice presence affecting the lives of animals who rely on it, or all this melting freshwater changing the temperature and composition (saltiness) of the oceans. As the Third Pole isn’t surrounded by water, the impacts of a warming climate are a little different here, though as far as humans are concerned they are perhaps even more impactful in the short term.

The ice in the mountains of the Third Pole tends to stay or grow each winter, and melt each summer. The melt water flows downhill, accumulating until it becomes streams and rivers. This area holds the largest reserve of freshwater after the other two poles, and this melt water is the source of 10 huge and important river systems that are relied on by 1.3 billion people in Asia. So almost 20% of the planet’s population relies on this melt water for drinking water, irrigation, power and much more. There are already issues as certain countries upstream damming these rivers is causing water scarcity for people downstream. As the climate gets warmer, the glaciers will continue to melt, but may not be able to replenish during winter, meaning over time there will be less melt water and so less water in these rivers systems.

This reduction in an essential resource for almost a 5th of the planet’s population, coupled with a continuing growth in population in that area and a continuing speeding up in the warming of the planet, are a recipe for disaster. Already ¼ of the ice sheet in the Third Pole has been lost since the 1970s, so it’s an imminent issue.

Much of the rest of the world also relies on these affected regions to grow certain foods, so just because the other 80% don’t live there it doesn’t mean they won’t be affected too. This doesn’t even cover the mass movements of people who will likely try to move to other parts of the world where they can get sufficient food and resources for their families to survive, and you only need to glance at the world’s current politics to see the complexity of that kind of situation.

1.3 billion people rely on the meltwater from the Third Pole to provide drinking water, energy, and water for irrigation of crops like rice

The Third Pole is a beautiful part of the world. It is dramatic, icy and full of life with a diversity of animals and human cultures. It is also a hugely important region allowing many large cultures and nations to thrive downstream in various parts of Asia, it’s rivers truly being much of Asia’s lifeblood. However, this also means that a lot of people depend heavily on it being healthy, and as the state of those glaciers starts to shift and melt, we will start to feel the negative impacts of that more strongly. When researching and trying to mitigate climate change then, we need to not only look at the fragile North and South Poles of the planet, but remember this important Third Pole too.

For more info:

A scientific article about the Third Pole:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211464512000760

Lots of interesting maps and info on conservation in the Third Pole region:

http://www.thirdpolegeolab.org/

Music: kongano.com

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