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.
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.
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.