Review of climate and cryospheric change in the Tibetan Plateau

S. Kang, Q. You, W. Flugel, Nick Pepin, Y. Yan, Y. Xu, J. Huang

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    The Tibetan Plateau (TP), with an average elevation of over 4000 m asl and an area of approximately 2.5 × 106 km2, is the highest and most extensive highland in the world and has been called the `Third Pole'. The TP exerts a huge influence on regional and global climate through thermal and mechanical forcing mechanisms. Because the TP has the largest cryospheric extent outside the polar region and is the source region of all the large rivers in Asia, it is widely recognized to be the driving force for both regional environmental change and amplification of environmental changes on a global scale. Within China it is recognized as the `Asian water tower'. In this letter, we summarize the recent changes observed in climate elements and cryospheric indicators on the plateau before discussing current unresolved issues concerning climate change in the TP, including the temporal and spatial components of this change, and the consistency of change as represented by different data sources. Based on meteorological station data, reanalyses and remote sensing, the TP has shown significant warming during the last decades and will continue to warm in the future. While the warming is predominantly caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions, changes in cloud amount, snow-albedo feedback, the Asian brown clouds and land use changes also partly contribute. The cryosphere in the TP is undergoing rapid change, including glacier retreat, inconsistent snow cover change, increasing permafrost temperatures and degradation, and thickening of the active layer. Hydrological processes impacted by glacial retreat have received much attention in recent years. Future attention should be paid to additional perspectives on climate change in the TP, such as the variations of climate extremes, the reliability of reanalyses and more detailed comparisons of reanalyses with surface observations. Spatial issues include the identification of whether an elevational dependency and weekend effect exist, and the identification of spatial contrasts in temperature change, along with their causes. These issues are uncertain because of a lack of reliable data above 5000 m asl.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2010


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