The massive Qinghai Lake, China's largest inland and saltwater lake, sits 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) above sea level on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in the northwest.
Over the past 100 years, the lake, which is considered sacred by Qinghai Tibetans, has been disappearing before their eyes. Since 1980 water levels have dropped almost 13 feet (4 meters) and an area half the size of Singapore has been turned into dry land, according to Chinese state media. Scientists say climate change, misuse of water, and desertification are all contributing to its decline.
Not only is habitat at risk of disappearing, but also valuable water storage. "The Chinese wetlands, like the marshes with peat soils of the Himalaya region, are not only just important for nature, but also crucial for storing massive amounts of water," says Chen Kelin, director of Wetlands International's China office.
Climate change has altered rainfall patterns in the region, reducing the flow from streams and rivers that feed the lake. And the surrounding land is transforming into desert as the grasslands are overgrazed by livestock. Three islands on the lake serve as an important migratory stop-off point for birds in central Asia, some of which, like the black-necked crane, are endangered. The lake has become a prime tourist destination, welcoming thousands of visitors every day, many of whom are unaware of its precarious status.
(See another lake in danger of drying up: "PHOTOS: Dried-up Aral Sea Aftermath.")