China’s plan to use solar power to melt permafrost to turn a Tibetan grassland into an artificial forest on the roof of the world
Scientists question the value and environmental impact of the expensive project, which is of special interest to the Chinese president
Nagqu, a city with a near-polar climate in the high grasslands of Tibet, is known for its stark beauty, its wildlife and its role as the former capital of the Zhangzhung kingdom. But it has a second, more dubious distinction: it is believed to be the only Chinese city without a tree.
The absence of trees ranked along with the area’s lack of oxygen, extreme cold and geographic isolation as top reasons for the mental breakdown of Chinese military personnel in this city 4,500 metres above sea level. Soldiers from Nagqu who would go to Lhasa on leave were known to leap off their buses to hug a tree, in tears, according to the People’s Liberation Army Daily.
Now China is taking the unprecedented – and expensive – step of harnessing solar power to melt permafrost to allow trees to grow in Nagqu.
The project’s aim is to make the landscape more welcoming for Han settlers and soldiers struggling to cope emotionally with the treeless setting.
But worries about the cost and the environmental impact of the undertaking – which has captured the attention of President Xi Jinping – have scientists questioning its value.
“Some official might do this to flatter the president, but most scientists have concerns about this project,” said a researcher who spoke to the South China Morning Post on condition of anonymity.
Workers have set up grassland solar panels in the area to convert sunlight to electricity for an enormous copper-wire grid buried in the ground. The generated heat melts the subsurface layer of frozen soil to save tree roots from “frostbite”, according to scientists who have visited the experimental site.
In recent months, a forest has begun to emerge. Encompassing an area equivalent to more than 30 sports stadiums, it consists of fir, cypress and pine trees, according to a report on the website of the Science and Technology Department of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
The project’s cost could run into the tens of millions of yuan. “This is not sustainable,” another scientist said. “These can be the most expensive trees in the world,” another said.
One scientist who has observed the area for years said the project would upset the Tibetan Plateau’s ecological balance. The sudden emergence of an artificial forest and solar power plants would drain the area’s water resources, ruin the natural habitat and disrupt the fragile food chain, the scientist said.
Nagqu’s seven wildlife reserves protect various animals, including bears, foxes and wolves, which prey on the region’s wildlife, including goats and donkeys. The animals have adapted to the high-altitude grassland over millions of years.
Nagqu’s elevation makes it almost as tall as Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps.
Millions of yuan have been spent over the past few decades on efforts to make trees grow in Nagdu, according to PLA Daily.
The methods used have included cultivating trees under a glass roof, feeding the trees vitamin pills, pouring warm water on the soil and covering branches with plastic membrane.
None has survived.
The current attempt seeks to use solar panels to increase the soil temperature by several degrees. That change could prevent the permafrost from halting lignification, the bio-chemical process that hardens the walls of cells to turn a plant woody, according to one of the scientists.
Machines with specially designed bore heads handled the planting – both to boost productivity and reduce human error. A sophisticated network of sensors connected to a computer running an artificial intelligence algorithm keeps watch over the young trees – sounding an alert if, say, a twig snaps in the wind.
If the strategy, which has never before been applied to create an artificial forest, proved effective this winter, trees might start appearing in Nagqu city in the years to come, a scientist said.
President Xi Jinping, who visited Nagqu while deputy party secretary of Fujian province in the late 1990s, said he vividly remembered the city as set on a plateau of permafrost in a harsh environment similar to that of polar regions.
“To people who could plant a tree and make it live, the reward [by the local government] started from the earliest amount of several thousand yuan, to 100,000 yuan (US$15,100) in the year I went,” the president was quoted by People’s Daily as saying in a meeting with more than 200 county-level Communist Party secretaries in 2015.
“But nobody was able to get the money.”
Last month, Xi was briefed by the Ministry of Science and Technology on the new forestation project. Afterward, he said he would “continue to pay attention to Nagqu’s tree plantation programme”, according to the Tibetan Science and Technology Department article.
China has spent US$10 billion annually over the last decade to create new forests across the nation.
The reforestation campaign has reversed the expansion of some of the world’s biggest deserts, almost eliminated the dust storms that frequently have hit Beijing in the spring, and turned wastelands larger than California green.
But the campaign also has prompted ecological concern as the massive plantation of non-native species reduces biodiversity and increases the risk of outbreaks of disease or pests.
The owner of a Sichuan restaurant near the Nagqu government offices said he hoped the tree experiment in the city succeeded, because the sight of green-needled, long-limbed additions could ease his homesickness.
“I miss sitting in the shade of a tree and listening to the rustling of leaves,” said the man, who was originally from Chengdu, Sichuan.
An increasing number of people shared his feeling, he said.
In 2010, native Tibetans, mostly herdsmen and women, accounted for more than 96 per cent of Nagqu’s population of 460,000, according to official statistics.
Now nearly half the population comprised Han Chinese from inland China, the restaurant owner said.
Besides trees, the new migrants also would like tap water. Owing to water’s ability to easily freeze in pipes in the permafrost, most families still depend on trucks or tractors to obtain water from rivers or wells.
“With trees and running water we can almost live as comfortable as at home,” the restaurant owner said.