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Lateline is given rare access to a remote region on the Tibetan Plateau which reveals the potential for a climate disaster -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: From the top of the world, there's troubling new data about the pace of climate change and the potential for a disaster that could affect more than a billion people. Chinese authorities have granted rare access to a remote research station on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It's in the heart of a region known as the Third Pole because it contains the largest body of frozen water outside the North and South poles. Temperatures there have increased by 1.5 degrees - more than double the global average. More than 500 small glaciers have disappeared altogether and the biggest ones are shrinking rapidly. Scientists fear the massive melt could set off a chain of extreme weather events from floods to heatwaves. China correspondent Matthew Carney has our exclusive report.

MATTHEW CARNEY, REPORTER: For centuries, the ancient Silk Road was the link between East and West, the conduit of trade, ideas and culture. Its existence was totally dependent on oasis towns like Dunhuang on the edge of the Gobi Desert. But after surviving for so long, this fragile environment is now facing the ultimate threat. The water that comes trickling down from the glaciers is drying up.

For the first time, Chinese authorities have allowed a foreign film crew to travel to the northern side of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to see the extent of the damage. Professor Qin Xiang, one of China's leading glaciologists, will be taking us there.

QIN XIANG, GLACIOLOGIST (subtitle translation): We've already done lots of work on what happened in the past, but for future predictions, due to the uncertainty of climate change, we have a lot to do.

MATTHEW CARNEY: On the way, Professor Qin shows us how water from the glaciers has been harnessed into an extensive irrigation system that sustains a population of five million in what's known as the Hexi Corridor. But the glacier melt means the desert will eventually reclaim this land.

QIN XIANG (subtitle translation): The volume of water will increase in the short term, but with the shrinking of the glaciers in the next 30 years, it will decrease and drastically affect agriculture and life here.

MATTHEW CARNEY: At about 4,000 metres, we're on the edge of the plateau. Temperatures have plummeted and oxygen is sparser as we head further into the Chilean mountains.

So we're almost at Tiger Valley. There's 44 glaciers there and it's part of the Third Pole. Now the Third Pole is the source of Asia's 10 biggest rivers and it supports 1.5 billion people and it's seriously under threat.

Then, at Sherbuy village (phonetic spelling), the last before we hit the plateau, evidence of the devastation of climate change - extreme weather. In 2012, raging torrents of water, rocks and mud swept down from the mountains and destroyed much of the village.

LOCAL MAN (subtitle translation): At the beginning, the flood was huge, houses collapsed and then were washed away.

MATTHEW CARNEY: Most of the residents have been relocated, perhaps the first of many more climate change refugees to come. The research undertaken at this remote station is one of the best indicators of the current status of the Third Pole. It was also the first to open in China in 1958, so it has a long history of data.

Professor Qin takes us to the biggest glacier in the valley: number 12, or Monkher (phonetic spelling). And the big melt is on.

For the past decade, Professor Qin has been documenting the glacier's retreat and it's been unprecedented. Since 2005, the rate at which it is melting has almost doubled.

QIN XIANG (subtitle translation): Based on the figures from 1960 to 2005, on that 45 years, it only retreated by 260 metres, but in the recent 10 years it retreated by 140 metres - almost double the previous period.

MATTHEW CARNEY: So the news is not good. The research they've compiled found that 509 smaller glaciers have disappeared from the Chilean mountains in the last 50 years. Now they fear some of the bigger glaciers will dramatically shrink or vanish in the next 50 years and the results of that will be catastrophic.

The reason: the temperature has been increasing at a much faster rate up at the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau.

QIN XIANG (subtitle translation): From the data we had over 50 years, it showed a temperature increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is much higher than the national temperature increase. It is because in the high altitude areas, the temperature is sensitive to global warming.

MATTHEW CARNEY: And they're confirming the extent of the glacier melt by checking the speed and depth of water flow at the same positions for 50 years.

QIN XIANG (subtitle translation): Compared with the river discharge of 1959, we found the volume melting from the glacier was nearly doubled, compared to 50 years ago. It means since global warming, it's caused the glacier to melt more than before.

MATTHEW CARNEY: But the scientists are discovering another factor that's causing the big melt. Pollution from car exhausts and coal burners is now making its way up here. The black carbon particles, along with dust, land on the glaciers and absorb the sun and heat, unlike the white ice that reflects it.

GLACIOLOGIST (subtitle translation): We did the calculation for a year. It was between 2013 and 2014. It was in the summer when the melting was the strongest. We calculate the dust and the black carbon - two of them could cause 50 per cent of the melting.

MATTHEW CARNEY: The Third Pole is one of the first indicators of the scale of climate change to come. And up here, it's happening at double the size and speed than the rest of the world.

The real worry is that the meltdown will set off a chain of climate disasters like the epic floods in Pakistan or the unprecedented heatwaves in India. And the deeper concern is that scientists know that changes here will affect global weather patterns like monsoons and El Nino. They just don't know by how much.

QIN XIANG (subtitle translation): For the time being, the entire world hasn't done enough. If they had, then global warming wouldn't be getting worse. If people make great efforts now, we might still be able to control it, otherwise it's going to become harder and harder.

MATTHEW CARNEY: On the way down, we find Mongolian nomads herding sheep. They come here in the summer months and pack up when the winter hits. But when the grasslands turn to deserts, their distinct way of life will also be lost.