Zhang Xuelong, a researcher at an observation center in the Qilian Mountains, removed an underground measuring pipe and marked down the number.
"The depth of the seasonally frozen ground has decreased by 27 centimeters in the past 16 years," he said.
The recession of frozen soil indicates the impacts of global warming - a climate change phenomenon caused by human activity and industrial development, which is affecting the Qilian Mountains hinterland, in northwestern China.
Photos taken by Xinhua reporters recorded the striking recession of glaciers. Scientific data backed up what can be seen the pictures. Over the past 50 years, the Qilian Mountains have lost 509 glaciers.
The once endless prairie, wetlands and flowing rivers have become parched land and dry riverbeds after decades of over-exploitation.
OFFICIALS TURNING A BLIND EYE PUNISHED
The Qilian Mountains stand on the border of Gansu and Qinghai provinces. The nature reserve was designated a national protected site in 1988, but hundreds of mines in the area, and many kinds of construction projects, have continued to take a toll on the environment.
The Qilian Mountains basin contains over 150 hydropower stations, 42 of which are located within the reserve, leading to severe disruption of the local ecosystem. Many of the projects have violated regulations in the processes of gaining approval and construction.
The problems exist far beyond that.
An inspection team from the central government has found various irregularities in the area, including over-exploitation of mineral resources, illegal construction and operation of hydropower facilities, excessive emissions by local enterprises, as well as the failure of local officials to rectify existing environmental issues, according to a document jointly released by the general offices of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council Thursday.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection and the State Forestry Administration have requested Gansu's forestry department as well as the local government rectify the irregularities, but that work has been slow.
"The violations were fundamentally a result of a lack of environmental awareness by local officials and their failure to implement environmental protection policies," Thursday's document said.
Therefore, in the document, the central government decided that officials, including Yang Zixing, vice governor of Gansu Province, will be held accountable for their failure to prevent and look into the environmental issues. They have also been urged to learn a lesson from the incident.
DITCH OUTDATED MINDSET
Scores of coal mines have been shut down over the past weeks after the document was handed to local officials early June.
Xinhua reporters paid a visit to the Qilian Mountains last month and found all mining and tourism development projects had been suspended or closed, and a round-the-clock surveillance system was monitoring the water flow of hydropower projects to protect the lower reaches of rivers.
Bearing the major responsibility for mine exploitation, the provincial department of land and resources said all illegal mining activities within the reserve will be banned, and no new projects will be approved.
The Gansu environmental protection bureau also said they will launch a pilot monitoring network that combines new technologies such as satellite remote-sensing and drones, with enhanced in-situ inspections to implement real-time supervision of local ecological protection.
Cities along the Qilian Mountain belt are also working hard to get rid of outdated, unsustainable development modes, while embracing a greener economic pattern.
"We plan to spend three years returning farmland to forests or grassland and reducing the city's reliance on mining and overgrazing," said Yang Weijun, CPC chief in the city of Zhangye.