Measuring global climate from the roof of the world
By Tao Xing  ·  2022-08-01  ·   Source: NO.31 AUGUST 4, 2022
Qiao Wei (second right) and his colleagues observe data using a theodolite at the Tuotuohe Weather Station on August 19, 2021 (JIN QUANCAI)



"Three, two, one, go!"

This exchange occurs twice per day at the Tuotuohe Weather Station, located high on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Immediately following the conversation, the station's crew release a weather balloon that measures atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind speed using a small expendable measuring device called a radiosonde.

Usually working in groups of three, the crew take turns releasing each balloon. Nights on the plateau dip well below freezing, so those on morning duty need to dress warmly in the pre-dawn hours as they inflate the balloon, debug the radar and radiosonde and release the balloon at 7:15 a.m. The station collects data from the balloon until it bursts at an altitude of around 30,000 meters, before the whole process begins again at 7:15 p.m.

Challenging the 'forbidden zone' 

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, with an average altitude of 2,800-4,000 meters, is the highest plateau in the world, but it is the station's location that presents unique challenges for the crew. It is situated in Tanggula Town, Golmud in Qinghai Province, on the northern slope of the Tanggula Mountains.

Tanggula means "mountain that eagles cannot fly over" in the Mongolian language, and the name was given not just for the mountain's height, but for its harsh weather. The oxygen content of the air is less than 60 percent of that at sea level, the annual average temperature is 4.2 degrees Celsius below zero with a winter average of minus 25 degrees Celsius and extremes as low as minus 45.2 degrees Celsius. In addition, the annual average number of days with strong winds is 168, and the average number of days with sandstorms is 11.

At an altitude of 4,539 meters, the station is the highest of its kind in the world applying radiosonde. Established in 1956, it was first located in another part of the Tanggula at an altitude of 5,051 meters, but was later moved to its current position as it is more suitable for observing and collecting data.

"Because of the low amount of oxygen in the air at the site, all 11 workers at the station are young adults in good physical condition," Qiao Wei, second in charge at the station, told Beijing Review. "The oldest is 33."

Thirty-year-old Qiao has worked on the plateau for nine years. Until 2017, he was part of the Wudaoliang Weather Station, which is 146 km away from Tuotuohe at an altitude of 4,614 meters. Automation of Wudaoliang in January 2018 led to its staff being relocated.

Meng Lijun, 23, is the youngest member of the team. Her father is now at another station in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, which is also at a high altitude. Her grandfather was also a meteorological worker.

"Their experiences have inspired me in some ways," Meng told Beijing Review. She graduated from the electronic science and technology program at Southwest Forestry University in Kunming, Yunnan Province, last year and was taken on by the Golmud Meteorological Bureau. Like many other government agencies, the bureau requires new staff to work at grassroots posts for two to three years. Meng's service at Tuotuohe started last August.

"When I knew that I had been assigned here, I was actually afraid as I heard that the weather here is bad," Meng said. Many of her friends are surprised to find out she is living at Tuotuohe.

However, except for the first few weeks, when she found it hard to adjust to the weather and suffered from high altitude nosebleeds, Meng has been accustomed to the extreme living conditions. "The infrastructure here is better than expected," she said.

According to Qiao, in the past, many daily necessities were in short supply. However, where once they collected water directly from the winter ice, the station is now equipped with a water purifier and drinking water is also brought in from outside. "The municipal, provincial and national meteorological agencies also try their best to provide us with the supplies we need," Qiao said.

With the exception of the radiosonde, the station's general data collection has been automated since 2014. It also has a device for releasing balloons automatically; however, highly variable wind conditions make staff an indispensable part of the process. Qiao and Meng said they need to pay attention to the path of the balloon at the time they release it to ensure it flies within the desired range and sends back accurate data.

Qiao Wei releases a weather balloon in strong wind at the Tuotuohe Weather Station in Qinghai Province on June 28 (MENG LIJUN)

Commitments to climate 

At the general debate of the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2020, President

Xi Jinping announced that China would peak its carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. The commitment demonstrates China's determination to pursue green and low-carbon development and its sense of responsibility as a major country to actively tackle climate change and safeguard a bright future for humanity.

From the national strategy to very small personal actions, China and Chinese people are doing what they can to address climate change.

According to the China Meteorological News Press, China now has 120 meteorological stations applying radiosonde, of which 89 are open for global data exchange. The data they share accounts for 10 percent of the global total.

Climate data collected from high-altitude areas, for example, in Tuotuohe, is of particular importance to monitoring changes to glaciers and accumulated snow cover, as well as global climate change.

"The data we collect is sent to higher-level agencies for further analysis and sharing," Qiao said.

Due to its special geographical location, the data obtained in Tuotuohe is essential for studying the climate of the entire Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.

Additionally, the data not only assists the operation of railways on the plateau and flights over the region, but also protects the safety of local herders. "If meteorologists can predict extreme weather through the data we collect and tell local people, then they can prepare in advance to reduce their losses," Qiao explained. "These facts help me appreciate the importance of the work I do," he added.

Between the establishment of the station on May 1, 1956 and the end of 2021, more than 47,000 balloons were released from Tuotuohe, providing hundreds of millions of pieces of data.

Qiao said his primary role is ensuring the accuracy of the data collected rather than analyzing it, so he doesn't have solid evidence for climate change in hand. However, he has noticed that while there were few insects at the station in the early years, mosquitoes and spiders have now made the facility home. "I think it's necessary to continue observing weather data to look for trends and hopefully find solutions," he noted.

"If you interview us again in a few months, I won't be the youngest one anymore. A number of people who were born in the 2000s will join us this year," Meng said.

"The constant stream of fresh colleagues gives us the energy to continue undertaking our responsibilities," Qiao concluded.

(Printed Edition Title: The Balloon Also Rises) 

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson 

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