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Mid-latitude westerlies as a driver of glacier variability in monsoonal High Asia

Abstract

Glaciers in High Asia store large amounts of water and are affected by climate change. Efforts to determine decadal-scale glacier change are therefore increasing, predicated on the concept that glaciers outside the northwest of the mountain system are controlled by the tropical monsoon. Here we show that the mass balance of Zhadang Glacier on the southern Tibetan Plateau, 2001–2011, was driven by mid-latitude climate as well, on the basis of high-altitude measurements and combined atmospheric–glacier modelling. Results reveal that precipitation conditions in May–June largely determine the annual mass-balance, but they are shaped by both the intensity of Indian summer monsoon onset and mid-latitude dynamics. In particular, large-scale westerly waves control the tropospheric flow strength over the Tibetan Plateau remotely. This strength alone explains 73% of interannual mass-balance variability of Zhadang Glacier, and affects May–June precipitation and summer air temperatures in many parts of High Asia’s zone of monsoon influence. Thus, mid-latitude climate should be considered as a possible driver of past and future glacier changes in this zone.

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Figure 1: Study site and indicators of large-scale dynamics.
Figure 2: In situ measurements and model results.
Figure 3: Mass-balance processes and monsoon onset.
Figure 4: Control of the atmospheric flow strength over the Tibetan Plateau.
Figure 5: Implications of the atmospheric flow strength over the Tibetan Plateau.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the German National Academy of Sciences (T.M.), by the German Research Foundation (DFG) Priority Programme 1372, ‘Tibetan Plateau: Formation–Climate–Ecosystems’ within the DynRG-TiP (‘Dynamic Response of Glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau to Climate Change’) project under the codes SCHE 750/4-1, SCHE 750/4-2 and SCHE 750/4-3, and by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) Programme ‘Central Asia–Monsoon Dynamics and Geo-Ecosystems’ (CAME) within the WET project ‘Variability and Trends in Water Balance Components of Benchmark Drainage Basins on the Tibetan Plateau’ under the code 03G0804A. We thank M. Buchroithner, J. Curio, N. Holzer, E. Huintjes, O. Käsmacher, J. Kropáček, T. Pieczonka, J. Richters, T. Sauter, C. Schneider, B. Schröter, M. Spieß, W. Wang and the local Tibetan people for their participation in field work. We also thank T. Yao, S. Kang, W. Yang, G. Zhang and the staff of the Nam Co monitoring station from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, for leading the glaciological measurements on Zhadang and for providing ablation stake data.

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T.M. designed the study and wrote the paper. F.M. and D.S. developed HAR and participated in field work, T.M. and F.M. conducted the numerical modelling. All authors continuously discussed the results and developed the analysis further.

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Correspondence to Thomas Mölg.

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Mölg, T., Maussion, F. & Scherer, D. Mid-latitude westerlies as a driver of glacier variability in monsoonal High Asia. Nature Clim Change 4, 68–73 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2055

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