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Despite their extreme elevation, glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau are losing mass in response to atmospheric warming, the pattern of which purportedly reflects regional contrasts in climate. Here we examine the evolution of glaciers along ~500 km of the Tanggula Shan, Central-Eastern Tibetan Plateau. Using remotely sensed datasets, we quantified changes in glacier mass, area and surface velocity, and compared these results to time series of meteorological observations, in order to disentangle drivers of glacier mass loss since the 1960s. Glacier mass loss has increased (from −0.21 ± 0.12 m w.e. a−1 in 1960s–2000s, to −0.52 ± 0.18 m w.e. a−1 in 2000s–2015/18) in association with pervasive positive temperature anomalies (up to 1.85°C), which are pronounced at the end of the now lengthened ablation season. However, glacier mass budget perturbations do not mirror the magnitude of temperature anomalies in sub-regions, thus additional factors have heightened glacier recession. We show how proglacial lake expansion and glacier surging have compounded glacier recession over decadal/multi-decadal time periods, and exert similar influence on glacier mass budgets as temperature changes. Our results demonstrate the importance of ice loss mechanisms not often incorporated into broad-scale glacier projections, which need to be better considered to refine future glacier runoff estimates.
Variations in glacier meltwater in the source regions of the Tibetan Plateau's (TP) largest lake (Selin Co) and China's longest river (Yangtze River) regulate the local and downstream water balance under the warming climate. However, the magnitude of their variations over the past four decades is still unknown. Here, we examine long-term changes in glacier mass balance over 1976–2017 using KH-9 and CoSSC-TanDEM-X data. We find that the mean rate of glacier mass loss (GML) has accelerated from −0.21 ± 0.11 m a–1 over 1976–2000, to −0.28 ± 0.14 m a–1 over 2000–11, and subsequently to −0.48 ± 0.10 m a–1 over 2011–17. Changes in temperature and precipitation are the major causes of GML. Over 1976–2017, the contribution of decadal GML to Tuotuohe sub-basin runoff ranges from 4.3 to 8.0%, while its contribution to increased lake volume change in Selin Co and Chibzhang Co-Dorsoidong Co ranges from 3.5 to 16.3% and 19.2 to 21.4%, respectively. The GML of source regions made relatively small contributions to river runoff and lake supply, but plays a vital role when precipitation decreases. The quantitative evaluation of the water balance for the sources of great rivers and lakes over the TP is therefore important for water resource management and hydrological cycle studies.
During the last glacial termination, a warming trend was generally interrupted by rapid millennium-scale cold reversals, such as the Greenland (Isotope) Stadial 1 (GS-1) and GS-2a events. To understand how glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau (TP) responded to these rapid climate events, this study constrained the timing and extent of three glacial events during the late-glacial period. Specifically, using a cosmogenic 10Be exposure dating method, we dated three prominent glacial moraines (PM1, PM2, PM3) back to 15,850 ± 980, 14,140 ± 880, and 12,430 ± 790 yr in the Pagele valley, southern TP, corresponding to GS-2a, Greenland Interstadial 1 (GI-1), and GS-1, respectively. By simulating glacial extents forced by different climate scenarios, the study constrained the temperature decreases relative to present to be 2.6°C–2.9°C, ~1.6°C, and 1.4°C–1.5°C during the GS-2a, GI-1, and GS-1 periods in the region, with precipitation values of 60%–80%, ~100%, and 80%–90% of present value, respectively. Considering information from oceanic and atmospheric circulation, the study suggested that on the TP, the glacial events during the last glacial termination were well connected with the millennium-scale climate events in the North Atlantic region through the westerlies, while the Indian summer monsoon played a positive role in sustaining the glaciers under the warming climate trend.
Microorganisms are the most abundant organisms on Earth, and microbial abundance records preserved in ice cores have been connected to records of environmental change. As an alternative to high resolution abundance records, which can be difficult to recover, we used culture-dependent and culture-independent methods to examine bacteria in glacier ice from the Tibetan Plateau (TP). We recovered a total of 887 bacterial isolates from ice cores of up to 164 m in depth retrieved from seven glaciers, located across the TP. These isolates were related to 53 genera in the Actinobacteria, Firmicutes, Bacteroidetes, and Proteobacteria, with 13 major genera accounting for 78% of isolates. Most of the genera were common across the geographic region covered by our sampling, but there were differences in the genera recovered from different depths in the ice, with the deepest portions of the ice cores dominated by a single genus (Sporosarcina). Because microorganisms deposited on glaciers must survive atmospheric transport under a range of temperatures, temperature tolerance should be an important survival mechanism. We tested isolate growth across a range of temperatures (0–35 °C), and found psychrotolerance to be common. Together, our results show that ice depth, and by extension age, are characterized by different types of microorganisms, providing new information about microbial records in ice.
The mass-balance of Muztag Ata No. 15 (MZ15) glacier in the eastern Pamir is reconstructed between 1980 and 2012 using an energy-based mass-balance model. The results show that this glacier has been characterized by obvious interannual mass-balance changes during 1980–2012 with a slightly positive mass balance during 1998–2012. Precipitation in the ablation season is a primary driver of these mass-balance fluctuations. Distinct changes in the mass-balance of MZ15 glacier between 1980–1997 and 1998–2012 are thought to be associated with changes in the regionally averaged meridional wind speed and corresponding precipitation in the ablation season. The negative and positive mass-balance phases during 1980–1997 and 1998–2012, respectively, were associated with northerly and southerly wind anomalies in the eastern Pamir and their corresponding decreasing and increasing precipitation. These changes in circulation appear to be linked to the mid-latitude climate. Finally, contrary to the variation of most glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau, glaciers in the Karakoram-western Kunlun-eastern Pamir appear to have retreated more slowly over the past 10 years than during the 1970s-2000. This contrasting trend may be caused by different changes in snowfall and different topography factors in different regions under warming and increased precipitation.
Knowledge of debris-free and debris-covered glaciers is important for understanding the varying response of glaciers to climate change. Measurements at the debris-free Parlung No. 4 Glacier and the debris-covered 24 K Glacier in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau were carried out to compare the meteorology and surface energy fluxes and to understand the factors controlling the melting process. The meteorological comparisons displayed temporally synchronous fluctuations in air temperature, relative humidity and incoming longwave radiation (Lin), but notable differences in precipitation, incoming shortwave radiation (Sin) and wind speed. Under the prevailing regional precipitation and debris conditions, more Lin (42 W m−2) was supplied from warmer and more humid air and more Sin (58 W m−2) was absorbed at the 24 K Glacier. The relatively high energy supply led mainly to an increased energy output via turbulent heat fluxes and outgoing longwave radiation, rather than glacier melting beneath the thick debris. The sensitivity experiment showed that melt rates were sensitive to energy supply at debris thicknesses <~10 cm. In contrast, energy supply to the Parlung No. 4 Glacier mainly resulted in snow/ice melting, the magnitude of which was significantly influenced by energy supplied by Sin and the sensible heat flux.
Using in-situ measured data from Qiyi Glacier, in combination with meteorological and run-off data from stations, a distributed degree-day model was developed for 631 investigated glaciers in the Beida River catchment to explore glacier mass change and its effect on streamflow. The results showed that the average mass balance was −272 ± 67 mm w.e. a−1, with an ice loss of 3.99 Gt during 1957–2013. Assuming a continuous linear trend, equilibrium line altitude rose by 242 m. Compared with morpho-topographic variables, climatic control is a more important factor affecting glacier change. Mass-balance sensitivity to air temperature was −239 mm w.e.°C−1 a−1, while to precipitation it was +1.1 mm w.e. mm−1 a−1. That is, a 210 mm increase in precipitation would be needed to compensate for the net mass loss induced by an air temperature increase of 1°C. Average annual glacier meltwater runoff was 1.51 × 108 m3 from 1957 to 2013, accounting for 15.2% of surface runoff. The time series of meltwater runoff changed abruptly in 2000, and its contribution to surface runoff increased from 13.9 to 20.4%.
Temperature signals in ice-core δ18O on the Tibetan Plateau (TP), particularly in the central and southern parts, continue to be debated because of the large scale of atmospheric circulation. This study presents ten ice-core δ18O records at an annual resolution, with four (Malan, Muztagata, Guliya, and Dunde) in the northern, three (Puruogangri, Geladaindong, Tanggula) in the central and three (Noijin Kangsang, Dasuopu, East Rongbuk) in the southern TP. Integration shows commonly increasing trends in δ18O in the past century, featuring the largest one in the northern, a moderate one in the central and the smallest one in the southern TP, which are all consistent with ground-based measurements of temperature. The influence of atmospheric circulation on isotopic signals in the past century was discussed through the analysis of El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and of possible connections between sea surface temperature (SST) and the different increasing trends in both ice-core δ18O and temperature. Particularly, El Niño and the corresponding warm Bay of Bengal (BOB) SST enhance the TP ice-core isotopic enrichment, while La Niña, or corresponding cold BOB SST, causes depletion. This thus suggests a potential for reconstructing the ENSO history from the TP ice-core δ18O.
A review of Holocene climatic variations in different parts of China shows that they were asynchronous. Proxy data from ice cores, pollen, loess, lacustrine sediments, and changes of sea and lake levels demonstrate that many warm and cold oscillations have occurred in China during the Holocene, including a most important climatic event known as the “Holocene optimum,” a milder and wetter period, and that the duration and amplitude of the optimum period, as well as its start and end times, differed in different parts of China. Uplift of the Tibetan plateau over the past millions of years led to the development of the monsoon climate and to complex atmospheric circulation over continental China during the Holocene. As a result, the Holocene optimum began and terminated earlier in high-altitude regions of western China than at lower elevations in eastern China, and the amplitude of the variations was lower in the east. This suggests that the western higher-altitude areas were more sensitive to climatic change than were the eastern lower-altitude areas. Holocene climatic records in the Dunde and Guliya ice cores do not correspond. Inverse δ18O variations between the two cores indicate that the effects of climate and atmospheric processes on the stable isotopes at the two sites differed. The correlation between the isotopic composition of carbonates in lake deposits in western China and climatic variations is similar to that in the ice cores. The climatic resolution in ice cores and lake sediments is higher than that in other media. The lack of precise correspondence of climatic records constructed on the basis of proxy data from different parts of China is a result of the different locations and elevations of the sampling sites, the different resolutions of the source material, and the varied climatic conditions within China. Further work is needed to confirm both the conclusions and the inferences presented here.
Tibetan glaciers experience spatially heterogeneous changes, which call for further investigation of the mechanisms responsible from an energy and mass perspective. In this study, 2 year parallel observations (August 2010–July 2012) at 5665 m a.s.l. on Zhadang glacier (a subcontinental glacier) and 5202 m a.s.l. on Parlung No. 4 glacier (a maritime glacier) were used to reveal the drivers of surface energy and mass balance at these sites. Glacio-meteorological data show that air temperature and specific humidity were 1.7°C and 0.5 g kg−1 lower on Zhadang glacier than on Parlung No. 4 glacier. The mass accumulation occurred primarily before the Indian summer monsoon onset on Parlung No. 4 glacier and after its onset on Zhadang glacier. Point net mass loss was 2.5 times larger on Parlung No. 4 glacier than on Zhadang glacier, mainly due to the difference in melt energy. Overall, the physical mechanisms controlling the mass and energy difference can be attributed to both the feedback role of surface albedo through different snow accumulation characteristics and longwave radiation emission of the atmosphere due to different meteorological backgrounds. Finally, a review of the few studies dealing with energy balance on the Tibetan glaciers describes the possible spatial characteristics requiring further investigation in the future on larger spatial and temporal scales.
δ18O measurements based on systematic sampling and isotopic modeling have been adopted to study the controls of stable isotopes in lake water in two lake basins (lakes Yamdrok-tso and Puma Yum-tso) at two different elevations on the southern Tibetan Plateau. Temporally, δ18O values in precipitation and lake water display a seasonal fluctuation in both lakes. Spatially, δ18O values in the two lake basins increase by 10% from the termini of glaciers to the lake shores, by ∽1% from the lake shores to the lake center and by 0.4% from the water surface to depth in these lakes. The clear annual δ18O variations indicate that lake water mixes sufficiently in a short time. Model results show that glacial meltwater and surface lake-water temperature are not the dominant factors in the balance process of stable isotopes in lake water. Equilibrium δ18O values decrease by 0.8% for Yamdrok-tso lake and 0.6% for Puma Yum-tso lake when glacial meltwater contributions to these lakes shrink by 60%. δ18O ratios increase rapidly during the initial stages and take a longer time to approach the equilibrium value.
Numerous studies have confirmed the rapid retreat of Tibetan Plateau glaciers in recent decades, and resulting reductions in glacier volume. However, high-resolution determinations of the changes in glacier thickness remain sparse. This paper presents results based on differential GPS measurements to accurately measure glacier thickness change over the past few years. Measurements from the lower part of Gurenhekou glacier show an average thickness change of –3.82 m over a 4 year period. On the lower part of Kangwure glacier we measured an average thickness change of –2.70 m over 3 years. On the upper part of Naimona’Nyi glacier (northern branch), western Himalaya, thickness changed by –1.34 m on average between 2008 and 2010, and –0.87 m between 2010 and 2013. Large temporal changes in thinning rates were found on Naimona’Nyi glacier, due to variations in local precipitation. Our measurements also show variable changes in glacier thickness over different parts of each glacier, with little dependence on elevation. The limited data also show glacier thinning in the accumulation zone.
Climate variables that control the annual cycle of the surface energy and mass balance on Zhadang glacier in the central Tibetan Plateau were examined over a 2 year period using a physically based energy-balance model forced by routine meteorological data. The modelled results agree with measured values of albedo, incoming longwave radiation, surface temperature and surface level of the glacier. For the whole observation period, the radiation component dominated (82%) the total surface energy heat fluxes. This was followed by turbulent sensible (10%) and latent heat (6%) fluxes. Subsurface heat flux represented a very minor proportion (2%) of the total heat flux. The sensitivity of specific mass balance was examined by perturbations of temperature (±1 K), relative humidity (±20%) and precipitation (±20%). The results indicate that the specific mass balance is more sensitive to changes in precipitation than to other variables. The main seasonal variations in the energy balance were in the two radiation components (net shortwave radiation and net longwave radiation) and these controlled whether surface melting occurred. A dramatic difference in summer mass balance between 2010 and 2011 indicates that the glacier surface mass balance was closely related to precipitation seasonality and form (proportion of snowfall and rainfall).
Stable isotopes are a primary tool for inferring past temperature changes and atmospheric moisture variability from ice cores. A 33 m ice core representing the period 1850–2004 was retrieved from the Tanggula Mountains, central Tibetan Plateau (5743 m a.s.l.), in August 2005. Annual average stable isotope (δ18O, δD) values generally increase during the period, while the second-order parameter of deuterium excess (d-excess) generally decreases. High annual average d-excess values (18.2‰) throughout the ice core suggest a significant contribution of continental recycled moisture. d-excess values shift from relatively higher values during 1850–1940 to lower values since the 1940s. Annual isotope values and reconstructed accumulation are compared with climate indices, local station temperature records and northern India monsoon precipitation. Significant correlation is observed between δ18O and the Southern Oscillation, NINO3.4 and Dipole Mode indices. Annual average d-excess values revealed a significant negative correlation with the Dipole Mode index. Results suggest a relatively greater contribution of westerly-dominated continental moisture prior to the 1940s and an increase in the contribution of moisture evaporated under more humid conditions since the 1940s.
Levoglucosan is a unique marker for biomass burning that can be transported in the atmosphere and preserved in archives such as ice cores. A new method to determine the concentrations of levoglucosan in Tibetan ice-core samples using high-performance liquid chromatography with electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (HPLC-ESI/MS) was developed. Levoglucosan was separated from coeluting water-soluble organic compounds using a C18 column with a gradient program from 50% to 90% methanol in ultrapure water. An external standard calibration curve (R2 = 0.9958) was established by plotting the ion m/z 163 [M+H]+ peak area versus the amount of analyte. The repeatability ranges between 11% and 2% at a concentration around 10 and 150 ng mL−1. The limit of detection was 10 ng mL−1 and the limit of quantification was 40 ng mL−1. Levoglucosan concentrations ranged from 10 to 718 ng mL−1 in the Muztagh Ata ice core and from 10 to 93 ng mL−1 in the Tanggula ice core. These concentrations, up to 1000 times higher than those measured in samples from Antarctic and Greenland, showed the higher vulnerability of the Tibetan Plateau glaciers to biomass burning events.
Remote-sensing and GIS techniques in conjunction with field investigations show how glacier mass loss has led to the rapid growth of Linggo Co, a glacier-fed lake on the central Tibetan Plateau, which has expanded by 21.3% in area between 1974 and 2010, with a lake-level rise of ˜11.2m. The lake volume of Linggo Co increased at a rate of 0.02 × 106, 42.67 × 106 and 65.8 × I06m3a-1 during the periods 1974-92, 1992-99 and 1999-2010, respectively. Other nonglacier-fed lakes in the vicinity (i.e. Longwei Co, Amur Co and Darngo Co Ngion) shrank considerably from the early 1970s to 1992 and then expanded from 1992 to 2010. Despite being in the same climate region, Linggo Co and the non-glacier-fed lakes have differed in response to climate change. The glaciers in the catchment of Linggo Co retreated by 2.4% in area between 1974 and 2007, and their mean thickness decreased by 6.19 ± 1.91 m between 1974 and 2000, with an associated glacier meltwater runoff of (7.52 ± 2.32) × 108 m3. The results indicate that glacier mass loss had a significant impact on the growth of Linggo Co over the past 40 years.
Catastrophic floods originating from glacial lake outbursts have recently become one of the primary natural hazards in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau. Here we report observations of glacial lake expansions and glacier recessions in the Boshula mountain range, southeast Tibet, derived from multitemporal remote-sensing images and digital elevation models during the period from the 1970s to 2009. The area of glacial lakes has expanded from 10.96 ± 0.1 km2 in the 1970s to 10.96±0.1km2 in 2009. Specifically, the area of moraine-dammed lakes has increased by 26.8%. From the 1970s to 2009, the glacierized area in the Boshula mountain range shrank by 12.7% (21.2 km2). Increasing mean summer air temperature was the main cause for the glacier recession and lake expansion from the 1970s to 2001, while the combination of increased summer temperature and decreased summer precipitation led to accelerated glacier recession after 2001. Climate warming and ongoing deglaciation play important roles in the expansion of moraine-dammed lakes, calling for intensified monitoring to properly address the hazard potential in the study area.