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[BEIJING] The world's first international research centre dedicated to 'creeping environmental problems' was established last week (23 May) in the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou.

Creeping environmental problems are slow and cumulative problems, often resulting from human activities that interact with environmental factors such as climate. Examples include air pollution, acid rain, global warming, deforestation and desertification.

Scientists at the new centre will undertake studies of such long-term environmental and climatic problems, with the aim of avoiding future natural threats.

"Unlike much current research on climate change or the environment, our studies focus on the interaction between human activities, climate change and environmental transformation," says Ye Qian, the new centre's vice-president, who is a scientist based at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research.

"We are trying to reveal these creeping problems through multidisciplinary projects before they lead to natural disasters," says Ye.

More than 20 scientists and scholars from China, the United States, Germany, Russia and Uzbekistan have agreed to join projects led by the new centre. These cover meteorology, hydrology, geography, sociology and economics.

The centre has already begun its activities but due to its limited funding — so far, operating costs are being provided by the Gansu Provincial Bureau of Meteorology — activities are currently limited to primarily organising links between researchers.

However, its members will seek additional funding from overseas. "We will try to get international sponsorship and then create special grants to study creeping environmental problems," says the centre's secretary-general, Sun Guowu, a scientist at Gansu Provincial Bureau of Meteorology

Sun told SciDev.Net that the centre plans to publish annual reports to inform policymakers about creeping environmental problems affecting northwestern China and central Asia.

Sun says that these regions are undergoing some of the more obvious environmental changes linked to global warming, and that this is one reason that Lanzhou was chosen to host the new research centre.

According to Sun, in the past 20 years, the average temperature in northwestern China rose by 0.8 to 0.9 degrees Celsius. In contrast, the average national increase was only about 0.4 to 0.5 degrees.

The warming climate and increasing human activity in northwestern China have caused many lakes and rivers to dry up. Tens of thousands of residents in Gansu Province's Minquan county have had to move because of difficulties tapping underground water in the region.

Central Asian countries have similar problems. The drying-up of the Aral Sea is a typical example, says Sun.

Since the 1960s the volume of water in the lake has fallen by 75 per cent, largely because of upstream irrigation projects. The lake's shrinkage has had climatic, ecological and economic consequences. Dust storms have become more frequent, and local fisheries have collapsed.

Read more about climate change in SciDev.Net's change climate dossier.