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date: 04 December 2020

Elevation-Dependent Climate Change in the Tibetan Plateaulocked

  • Xiaodong LiuXiaodong LiuInstitute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences
  •  and Libin YanLibin YanInstitute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences

Summary

As a unique and high gigantic plateau, the Tibetan Plateau (TP) is sensitive and vulnerable to global climate change, and its climate change tendencies and the corresponding impact on regional ecosystems and water resources can provide an early alarm for global and mid-latitude climate changes. Growing evidence suggests that the TP has experienced more significant warming than its surrounding areas during past decades, especially at elevations higher than 4 km. Greater warming at higher elevations than at lower elevations has been reported in several major mountainous regions on earth, and this interesting phenomenon is known as elevation-dependent climate change, or elevation-dependent warming (EDW).

At the beginning of the 21st century, Chinese scholars first noticed that the TP had experienced significant warming since the mid-1950s, especially in winter, and that the latest warming period in the TP occurred earlier than enhanced global warming since the 1970s. The Chinese also first reported that the warming rates increased with the elevation in the TP and its neighborhood, and the TP was one of the most sensitive areas to global climate change. Later, additional studies, using more and longer observations from meteorological stations and satellites, shed light on the detailed characteristics of EDW in terms of mean, minimum, and maximum temperatures and in different seasons. For example, it was found that the daily minimum temperature showed the most evident EDW in comparison to the mean and daily maximum temperatures, and EDW is more significant in winter than in other seasons. The mean daily minimum and maximum temperatures also maintained increasing trends in the context of EDW. Despite a global warming hiatus since the turn of the 21st century, the TP exhibited persistent warming from 2001 to 2012.

Although EDW has been demonstrated by more and more observations and modeling studies, the underlying mechanisms for EDW are not entirely clear owing to sparse, discontinuous, and insufficient observations of climate change processes. Based on limited observations and model simulations, several factors and their combinations have been proposed to be responsible for EDW, including the snow-albedo feedback, cloud-radiation effects, water vapor and radiative fluxes, and aerosols forcing. At present, however, various explanations of the mechanisms for EDW are mainly derived from model-based research, lacking more solid observational evidence. Therefore, to comprehensively understand the mechanisms of EDW, a more extensive and multiple-perspective climate monitoring system is urgently needed in the areas of the TP with high elevations and complex terrains.

High-elevation climate change may have resulted in a series of environmental consequences, such as vegetation changes, permafrost melting, and glacier shrinkage, in mountainous areas. In particular, the glacial retreat could alter the headwater environments on the TP and the hydrometeorological characteristics of several major rivers in Asia, threatening the water supply for the people living in the adjacent countries. Taking into account the climate-model projections that the warming trend will continue over the TP in the coming decades, this region’s climate change and the relevant environmental consequences should be of great concern to both scientists and the general public.

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