Advancing a Multisphere Approach to Third Pole Research

Known in China as the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau or Qingzang Plateau, the Tibetan Plateau covers Qinghai Province and the Tibetan Autonomous Region (or Xizang) of China. Dubbed the third pole, the extended plateau region spans more than 5 million square kilometers, with an average elevation of around 4,000 meters above sea level.

The plateau serves as a “water tower” for more than 1.5 billion people.

The third pole has many glaciers surmounting large mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hengduan, Kunlun, and Qilian. The plateau contains the sources of the main rivers of the surrounding countries; therefore, it serves as a “water tower” for over 1.5 billion people.

The August 2016 International Workshop on Multi-Sphere Land Surface Processes of the Tibetan Plateau was held in Xining, China, the capital of Qinghai Province, and was co-chaired by Tandong Yao from the Institute Research on the Tibetan Plateau (China) and Yongkang Xue from the University of California, Los Angeles. The workshop attracted over 230 registered participants from 13 countries, including China, the United States, Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands and India. In addition, approximately 20 volunteers partially staffed the conference. The conference was designed to fill knowledge gaps and foster broad international and interdisciplinary collaborations.

The mountains and an adjacent valley in Ladakh illustrate the interactions of several spheres in the Tibetan plateau region: atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Adding to this the anthroposphere of the main photograph, one gets a complete picture of the intertwining influences on the changing landscape. Credit: Jochen Westermann, CC BY-SA 2.0

The workshop presented the first comprehensive exchange of quantitative studies within the multisphere research framework of the Tibetan Plateau, which encompasses the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, anthrosphere (a system of human- environment) and the lithosphere. The workshop presented quantitative studies on the environment and climate of the plateau and their interactions with other parts of the world. Participants from different scientific disciplines communicated recent findings on how multisphere processes on the Tibetan Plateau influence regional and global climate, environment and hydrology through dynamic, biophysical and thermal mechanisms.

The workshop focused on seven main themes on the Tibetan plateau:

  1. atmospheric and surface processes, energy and hydrological cycles, and their interactions with Asian monsoon systems and global climate
  2. in situ observations, indirect recordings and remote sensing data for quantitative analysis, model validation and understanding of the Third Pole environment
  3. surface parametrizations and their applications to regional climate prediction and climate model validation
  4. aerosol-cloud-radiation interactions and their climatic impacts
  5. dynamics of ecosystems and anthropogenic impacts
  6. change in the cryosphere and its hydrological responses
  7. the paleoenvironment on the plateau

The workshop included two plenary sessions and nine parallel sessions of oral presentations, as well as poster and summary sessions. All sessions covered current major research topics on the Tibetan Plateau environment, such as modeling of surface processes, ecosystem changes, paleoenvironment, water resources and remote sensing.

The increase in multidisciplinary studies would help researchers better respond to expected environmental challenges such as rapidly melting glaciers and accelerating water cycles.

Workshop presenters called for more multidisciplinary studies to help integrate field observations, modeling and analysis; generate practical data services for research; and accurately quantify uncertainties. The increase in multidisciplinary studies would help researchers better respond to significant environmental challenges of the Tibetan Plateau expected in the coming decades, such as rapidly melting glaciers and accelerating water cycles.

Seventeen organizations sponsored the workshop, including the American Geophysical Union and the Third Pole Environment. An international organization that facilitates research on the environment of the Tibetan plateau, the Third Pole Environment was the main local organizer of the workshop.

More information can be found on the two workshop websites.

—Samuel Shen (email: [email protected]), San Diego State University, CA; also at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, California; and Fan Zhang, Institute for Tibetan Plateau Studies, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing


Shen, S., F. Zhang (2017), Advancing a Multisphere Approach to Third Pole Research, Eos, 98, Published May 11, 2017.

Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY 3.0
Unless otherwise stated, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without the express permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.

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