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Different glacier status with atmospheric circulations in Tibetan Plateau and surroundings

Abstract

The Tibetan Plateau and surroundings contain the largest number of glaciers outside the polar regions1. These glaciers are at the headwaters of many prominent Asian rivers and are largely experiencing shrinkage2, which affects the water discharge of large rivers such as the Indus3,4. The resulting potential geohazards5,6 merit a comprehensive study of glacier status in the Tibetan Plateau and surroundings. Here we report on the glacier status over the past 30 years by investigating the glacial retreat of 82 glaciers, area reduction of 7,090 glaciers and mass-balance change of 15 glaciers. Systematic differences in glacier status are apparent from region to region, with the most intensive shrinkage in the Himalayas (excluding the Karakorum) characterized by the greatest reduction in glacial length and area and the most negative mass balance. The shrinkage generally decreases from the Himalayas to the continental interior and is the least in the eastern Pamir, characterized by the least glacial retreat, area reduction and positive mass balance. In addition to rising temperature, decreased precipitation in the Himalayas and increasing precipitation in the eastern Pamir accompanied by different atmospheric circulation patterns is probably driving these systematic differences.

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Figure 1: Distribution of glaciers and ELAs in and around the TBP11, which are mainly under the dominance of the Indian monsoon and westerlies, with limited influence from the East Asian monsoon.
Figure 2: Spatial and temporal patterns of glacier status in the TBP and surroundings.
Figure 3: Case studies of glacial retreat.
Figure 4: Precipitation patterns in the Himalayas and eastern Pamir regions.

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Acknowledgements

This work is supported by the NSFC (41190081, 40810019001), the CAS (External Cooperation Program GJHZ0960 and SAFEA International Partnership Program for Creative Research Teams) and the MOST (2005CB422004). We thank Q. Ye for help preparing Fig. 3.

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Correspondence to Tandong Yao.

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Yao, T., Thompson, L., Yang, W. et al. Different glacier status with atmospheric circulations in Tibetan Plateau and surroundings. Nature Clim Change 2, 663–667 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1580

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