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On April 19, 2017, the Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography (SSAG) awarded the 2017 Vega Medal to Yao Tandong for his contributions to research on glaciers and the environment on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Yao serves as director of the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research and an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). He is the first Asian scientist to win the award.
Founded in 1881, the Vega Medal first focused on research in the Arctic, and was expanded to the Antarctic before gradually covering more diverse fields of earth science. Yao’s research concentrated on the “third pole,” an area spanning over 5 million square kilometers centered on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau at an average altitude of 4,000 meters.
In 1974, Yao was admitted to the Department of Glaciers and Frozen Tundra at Lanzhou University. The glaciers in the textbook looked cold and remote, so Yao thought glaciered areas might be barren and deserted.
A field trip, however, helped Yao fall in love with glaciers at first sight. “In 1975, we did field work at the source of the Yangtze River,” recalls Yao. “It was summer, and the grass was lush green under the blue sky over the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. When I climbed onto the main peak of the Qilian Mountains, I was shocked by the grand glacier. At that very moment, I knew the mysterious and great glacier would consume my research for the rest of my life. I was very excited.”
Four decades have passed, but 63-year-old Yao Tandong’s enthusiasm for glaciers has hardly waned. Yao still visits the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau seven or eight times a year. The places he frequents are mostly located in altitudes ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 meters, featuring temperatures as low as 30 to 40 degrees Celsius below zero, less than a third of normal oxygen levels, strong ultraviolet rays and risks including storms, ice cracks and snow slides.
Most would balk at such situations, but Yao hardly sweats. “Every job has its hardship,” he shrugs. “Chemists do dangerous lab experiments. Mathematicians easily get stuck and bored. The most important thing is that you maintain your passion and interest. I love the plateau and glacier research, so nothing can stop my work. I would feel incomplete without visiting the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau several times a year.”
Yao even jokes that trips to the plateau keep him looking so young. “That environment really stimulates the vitality of my cells.”
Yao’s optimism is further fueled by seeing the conditions change over the years. “Things actually look better now,” he notes. “When I was an intern, it took 20 days to get from Lanzhou to Tibet, and a month if setting out from Beijing. But now I can get to Lhasa in only four and a half hours by plane from Beijing. Our working efficiency has improved by leaps and bounds.”