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Atmospheric Heating Source Over the Tibetan Plateau and Its Regional Climate Impact  

Guoxiong Wu, Anmin Duan, and Yimin Liu

With an average elevation of 4 kilometers, a combined area of more than 2.5 million square kilometers, and a variety of complicated landscapes, the Tibetan Plateau (TP) constitutes the highest and largest terrain on earth. The Tibetan and Iranian Plateau (TIP) form a dynamically coupled system that exerts a tremendous impact on the regional and global climate. The TIP’s geographic location in the subtropics of central and eastern Asia, along with its altitude, size, and steep terrain on the southern and eastern slopes, make this climate impact particularly unique. In winter, the TIP reacts to the impinging subtropical westerly flow, producing a strong negative mountain torque and forming a prominent stationary circulation dipole with a huge anticyclone circulation to its north and cyclone circulation to its south in the tropics. A specific winter climate pattern over Asia is thus formed. Due to its high elevation, the total mass of the air column over the TP is much smaller than over the neighboring regions, as the solar radiation heating in this region is more efficient. The atmospheric heating source (AHS) over the TP is negative in winter and strongly positive in summer. On this elevated terrain there is also a large number of intersecting isentropic surfaces in the lower troposphere. Along its sloping surfaces, the cooling in winter causes the near-surface air to slide downward and diverge toward its surroundings, whereas the surface heating of the slope in summer results in near-surface air ascent, causing the surrounding air to converge toward the plateau. More significantly, due to its huge size, the surface-sensible heating of the TIP produces a large-scale surface cyclonic circulation and works as an immense sensible-heat-driven air pump (SHAP), which transports abundant water vapor from ocean to land to support the Asian continental monsoon. In addition, the plateau’s heating produces a subtropical monsoonal meridional circulation and creates a large-scale air ascent background in subtropical Asia. Therefore, the Asian monsoon is the consequence of the seasonal change not only in land-sea thermal contrast but also in the thermal forcing of large-scale mountains. Since the 1980s, the near surface atmospheric warming amplitude over the TP has grown much larger than the global mean, and the changes in climate and AHS over the TP have already influenced the water resources, ecosystem services, mountain hazards, and livelihoods across and around the TP. Understanding the climate effect of the TP’s AHS is not only a key issue for climate dynamics, but can also help us to recognize the thermal forcing of other large-scale topographies, such as the Rockies and Andes Mountains, on the global climate in the framework of land-air-sea interaction. This article will introduce the effect of the TP’s AHS on the regional climate, with emphasis on the East Asian summer monsoon (EASM) and South Asian summer monsoon (SASM), in terms of the climatology, intra-seasonal oscillation, interannual variability, and decadal change. Controversies, challenges, and future perspectives on this topic will also be presented. Its informative content can be used as a professional reference for research scientists and professionals in the fields of meteorology, climate dynamics, environmental science, geography and geology, hydrology, and paleo-climatology. Most material presented here can also be helpful for non-specialists.


Elevation-Dependent Climate Change in the Tibetan Plateau  

Xiaodong Liu and Libin Yan

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.


Impacts of Aerosols on Climate and Weather in the Hindu-Kush-Himalayas-Gangetic Region  

William K. M. Lau

Situated at the southern edge of the Tibetan Plateau (TP), the Hindu-Kush-Himalayas-Gangetic (HKHG) region is under the clear and present danger of climate change. Flash-flood, landslide, and debris flow caused by extreme precipitation, as well as rapidly melting glaciers, threaten the water resources and livelihood of more than 1.2 billion people living in the region. Rapid industrialization and increased populations in recent decades have resulted in severe atmospheric and environmental pollution in the region. Because of its unique topography and dense population, the HKHG is not only a major source of pollution aerosol emissions, but also a major receptor of large quantities of natural dust aerosols transported from the deserts of West Asia and the Middle East during the premonsoon and early monsoon season (April–June). The dust aerosols, combined with local emissions of light-absorbing aerosols, that is, black carbon (BC), organic carbon (OC), and mineral dust, can (a) provide additional powerful heating to the atmosphere and (b) allow more sunlight to penetrate the snow layer by darkening the snow surface. Both effects will lead to accelerated melting of snowpack and glaciers in the HKHG region, amplifying the greenhouse warming effect. In addition, these light-absorbing aerosols can interact with monsoon winds and precipitation, affecting extreme precipitation events in the HKHG, as well as weather variability and climate change over the TP and the greater Asian monsoon region.


Land–Climate Interaction Over the Tibetan Plateau  

Yongkang Xue, Yaoming Ma, and Qian Li

The Tibetan Plateau (TP) is the largest and highest plateau on Earth. Due to its elevation, it receives much more downward shortwave radiation than other areas, which results in very strong diurnal and seasonal changes of the surface energy components and other meteorological variables, such as surface temperature and the convective atmospheric boundary layer. With such unique land process conditions on a distinct geomorphic unit, the TP has been identified as having the strongest land/atmosphere interactions in the mid-latitudes. Three major TP land/atmosphere interaction issues are presented in this article: (1) Scientists have long been aware of the role of the TP in atmospheric circulation. The view that the TP’s thermal and dynamic forcing drives the Asian monsoon has been prevalent in the literature for decades. In addition to the TP’s topographic effect, diagnostic and modeling studies have shown that the TP provides a huge, elevated heat source to the middle troposphere, and that the sensible heat pump plays a major role in the regional climate and in the formation of the Asian monsoon. Recent modeling studies, however, suggest that the south and west slopes of the Himalayas produce a strong monsoon by insulating warm and moist tropical air from the cold and dry extratropics, so the TP heat source cannot be considered as a factor for driving the Indian monsoon. The climate models’ shortcomings have been speculated to cause the discrepancies/controversies in the modeling results in this aspect. (2) The TP snow cover and Asian monsoon relationship is considered as another hot topic in TP land/atmosphere interaction studies and was proposed as early as 1884. Using ground measurements and remote sensing data available since the 1970s, a number of studies have confirmed the empirical relationship between TP snow cover and the Asian monsoon, albeit sometimes with different signs. Sensitivity studies using numerical modeling have also demonstrated the effects of snow on the monsoon but were normally tested with specified extreme snow cover conditions. There are also controversies regarding the possible mechanisms through which snow affects the monsoon. Currently, snow is no longer a factor in the statistic prediction model for the Indian monsoon prediction in the Indian Meteorological Department. These controversial issues indicate the necessity of having measurements that are more comprehensive over the TP to better understand the nature of the TP land/atmosphere interactions and evaluate the model-produced results. (3) The TP is one of the major areas in China greatly affected by land degradation due to both natural processes and anthropogenic activities. Preliminary modeling studies have been conducted to assess its possible impact on climate and regional hydrology. Assessments using global and regional models with more realistic TP land degradation data are imperative. Due to high elevation and harsh climate conditions, measurements over the TP used to be sparse. Fortunately, since the 1990s, state-of-the-art observational long-term station networks in the TP and neighboring regions have been established. Four large field experiments since 1996, among many observational activities, are presented in this article. These experiments should greatly help further research on TP land/atmosphere interactions.


Modeling of Regional Climate over the Tibetan Plateau  

Yanhong Gao and Deliang Chen

The modeling of climate over the Tibetan Plateau (TP) started with the introduction of Global Climate Models (GCMs) in the 1950s. Since then, GCMs have been developed to simulate atmospheric dynamics and eventually the climate system. As the highest and widest international plateau, the strong orographic forcing caused by the TP and its impact on general circulation rather than regional climate was initially the focus. Later, with growing awareness of the incapability of GCMs to depict regional or local-scale atmospheric processes over the heterogeneous ground, coupled with the importance of this information for local decision-making, regional climate models (RCMs) were established in the 1970s. Dynamic and thermodynamic influences of the TP on the East and South Asia summer monsoon have since been widely investigated by model. Besides the heterogeneity in topography, impacts of land cover heterogeneity and change on regional climate were widely modeled through sensitivity experiments. In recent decades, the TP has experienced a greater warming than the global average and those for similar latitudes. GCMs project a global pattern where the wet gets wetter and the dry gets drier. The climate regime over the TP covers the extreme arid regions from the northwest to the semi-humid region in the southeast. The increased warming over the TP compared to the global average raises a number of questions. What are the regional dryness/wetness changes over the TP? What is the mechanism of the responses of regional changes to global warming? To answer these questions, several dynamical downscaling models (DDMs) using RCMs focusing on the TP have recently been conducted and high-resolution data sets generated. All DDM studies demonstrated that this process-based approach, despite its limitations, can improve understandings of the processes that lead to precipitation on the TP. Observation and global land data assimilation systems both present more wetting in the northwestern arid/semi-arid regions than the southeastern humid/semi-humid regions. The DDM was found to better capture the observed elevation dependent warming over the TP. In addition, the long-term high-resolution climate simulation was found to better capture the spatial pattern of precipitation and P-E (precipitation minus evapotranspiration) changes than the best available global reanalysis. This facilitates new and substantial findings regarding the role of dynamical, thermodynamics, and transient eddies in P-E changes reflected in observed changes in major river basins fed by runoff from the TP. The DDM was found to add value regarding snowfall retrieval, precipitation frequency, and orographic precipitation. Although these advantages in the DDM over the TP are evidenced, there are unavoidable facts to be aware of. Firstly, there are still many discrepancies that exist in the up-to-date models. Any uncertainty in the model’s physics or in the land information from remote sensing and the forcing could result in uncertainties in simulation results. Secondly, the question remains of what is the appropriate resolution for resolving the TP’s heterogeneity. Thirdly, it is a challenge to include human activities in the climate models, although this is deemed necessary for future earth science. All-embracing further efforts are expected to improve regional climate models over the TP.


Observed Regional Climate Change in Tibet over the Last Decades  

Kun Yang

The Tibetan Plateau (TP) is subjected to strong interactions among the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere. The Plateau exerts huge thermal forcing on the mid-troposphere over the mid-latitude of the Northern Hemisphere during spring and summer. This region also contains the headwaters of major rivers in Asia and provides a large portion of the water resources used for economic activities in adjacent regions. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the TP has undergone evident climate changes, with overall surface air warming and moistening, solar dimming, and decrease in wind speed. Surface warming, which depends on elevation and its horizontal pattern (warming in most of the TP but cooling in the westernmost TP), was consistent with glacial changes. Accompanying the warming was air moistening, with a sudden increase in precipitable water in 1998. Both triggered more deep clouds, which resulted in solar dimming. Surface wind speed declined from the 1970s and started to recover in 2002, as a result of atmospheric circulation adjustment caused by the differential surface warming between Asian high latitudes and low latitudes. The climate changes over the TP have changed energy and water cycles and has thus reshaped the local environment. Thermal forcing over the TP has weakened. The warming and decrease in wind speed lowered the Bowen ratio and has led to less surface sensible heating. Atmospheric radiative cooling has been enhanced, mainly through outgoing longwave emission from the warming planetary system and slightly enhanced solar radiation reflection. The trend in both energy terms has contributed to the weakening of thermal forcing over the Plateau. The water cycle has been significantly altered by the climate changes. The monsoon-impacted region (i.e., the southern and eastern regions of the TP) has received less precipitation, more evaporation, less soil moisture and less runoff, which has resulted in the general shrinkage of lakes and pools in this region, although glacier melt has increased. The region dominated by westerlies (i.e., central, northern and western regions of the TP) received more precipitation, more evaporation, more soil moisture and more runoff, which together with more glacier melt resulted in the general expansion of lakes in this region. The overall wetting in the TP is due to both the warmer and moister conditions at the surface, which increased convective available potential energy and may eventually depend on decadal variability of atmospheric circulations such as Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation and an intensified Siberian High. The drying process in the southern region is perhaps related to the expansion of Hadley circulation. All these processes have not been well understood.