Tibetan Plateau
青藏高原 (Qīng–Zàng Gāoyuán, Qinghai–Tibet Plateau)
The Tibetan Plateau lies between the Himalayan range to the south and the Taklamakan Desert to the north. (Composite image)
Length2,500 km (1,600 mi)
Width1,000 km (620 mi)
Area2,500,000 km2 (970,000 sq mi)
Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas above 1600 m
Location People's Republic of China (Tibet, Qinghai, Western Sichuan, Northern Yunnan, Southern Xinjiang, Western Gansu)
 India (Ladakh, Lahaul & Spiti, Northern Arunachal Pradesh, Northern Sikkim)
 Pakistan (Baltistan)
 Afghanistan (Wakhan Corridor)
 Nepal (Northern Nepal)
 Tajikistan (Eastern Tajikistan)
 Kyrgyzstan (Southern Kyrgyzstan)
Range coordinates33°N 88°E / 33°N 88°E / 33; 88

The Tibetan Plateau,[a] also known as Qinghai–Tibet Plateau[b] and Qing–Zang Plateau,[c] is a vast elevated plateau located at the intersection of Central, South, and East Asia[d] covering most of the Tibet Autonomous Region, most of Qinghai, western half of Sichuan, Southern Gansu provinces in Western China, southern Xinjiang, Bhutan, the Indian regions of Ladakh and Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh) as well as Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, northwestern Nepal, eastern Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. It stretches approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) north to south and 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) east to west. It is the world's highest and largest plateau above sea level, with an area of 2,500,000 square kilometres (970,000 sq mi) (about five times the size of Metropolitan France).[13] With an average elevation exceeding 4,500 metres (14,800 ft)[citation needed] and being surrounded by imposing mountain ranges that harbor the world's two highest summits, Mount Everest and K2, the Tibetan Plateau is often referred to as "the Roof of the World".

The Tibetan Plateau contains the headwaters of the drainage basins of most of the streams and rivers in surrounding regions. This includes the three longest rivers in Asia (the Yellow, Yangtze, and Mekong). Its tens of thousands of glaciers and other geographical and ecological features serve as a "water tower" storing water and maintaining flow. It is sometimes termed the Third Pole because its ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. The impact of climate change on the Tibetan Plateau is of ongoing scientific interest.[14][15][16][17]


The Tibetan Plateau is surrounded by the massive mountain ranges[18] of high-mountain Asia. The plateau is bordered to the south by the inner Himalayan range, to the north by the Kunlun Mountains, which separate it from the Tarim Basin, and to the northeast by the Qilian Mountains, which separate the plateau from the Hexi Corridor and Gobi Desert. To the east and southeast the plateau gives way to the forested gorge and ridge geography of the mountainous headwaters of the Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze rivers in northwest Yunnan and western Sichuan (the Hengduan Mountains). In the west, the curve of the rugged Karakoram range of northern Kashmir embraces the plateau. The Indus River originates in the western Tibetan Plateau in the vicinity of Lake Manasarovar.

The Tibetan Plateau is bounded in the north by a broad escarpment where the altitude drops from around 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) to 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) over a horizontal distance of less than 150 kilometres (93 mi). Along the escarpment is a range of mountains. In the west, the Kunlun Mountains separate the plateau from the Tarim Basin. About halfway across the Tarim the bounding range becomes the Altyn-Tagh and the Kunluns, by convention, continue somewhat to the south. In the 'V' formed by this split is the western part of the Qaidam Basin. The Altyn-Tagh ends near the Dangjin pass on the DunhuangGolmud road. To the west are short ranges called the Danghe, Yema, Shule, and Tulai Nanshans. The easternmost range is the Qilian Mountains. The line of mountains continues east of the plateau as the Qinling, which separates the Ordos Plateau from Sichuan. North of the mountains runs the Gansu or Hexi Corridor which was the main silk-road route from China proper to the West.

The plateau is a high-altitude arid steppe interspersed with mountain ranges and large brackish lakes. Annual precipitation ranges from 100 to 300 millimetres (3.9 to 11.8 in) and falls mainly as hail. The southern and eastern edges of the steppe have grasslands that can sustainably support populations of nomadic herdsmen, although frost occurs for six months of the year. Permafrost occurs over extensive parts of the plateau. Proceeding to the north and northwest, the plateau becomes progressively higher, colder, and drier, until reaching the remote Changtang region in the northwestern part of the plateau. Here the average altitude exceeds 5,000 metres (16,000 ft) and winter temperatures can drop to −40 °C (−40 °F). As a result of this extremely inhospitable environment, the Changtang region (together with the adjoining Kekexili region) is the least populous region in Asia and the third least populous area in the world after Antarctica and northern Greenland.

Geology and geological history

Yamdrok Lake is one of the four largest lakes in Tibet. All four lakes are considered sacred pilgrimage sites in the local tradition.[19]
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (January 2011)

Main article: Geology of the Himalayas

The geological history of the Tibetan Plateau is closely related to that of the Himalayas. The Himalayas belong to the Alpine Orogeny and are therefore among the younger mountain ranges on the planet, consisting mostly of uplifted sedimentary and metamorphic rock. Their formation is a result of a continental collision or orogeny along the convergent boundary between the Indo-Australian Plate and the Eurasian Plate.

The collision began in the Upper Cretaceous period about 70 million years ago, when the north-moving Indo-Australian Plate, moving at about 15 cm (6 in) per year, collided with the Eurasian Plate. About 50 million years ago, this fast-moving Indo-Australian plate had completely closed the Tethys Ocean, the existence of which has been determined by sedimentary rocks settled on the ocean floor, and the volcanoes that fringed its edges. Since these sediments were light, they crumpled into mountain ranges rather than sinking to the floor. During this early stage of its formation in the Late Palaeogene, Tibet consisted of a deep palaeovalley bounded by multiple mountain ranges rather than the more topographically uniform elevated flatland that it is today.[20] The Tibetan Plateau's mean elevation continued to vary since its initial uplift in the Eocene; isotopic records show the plateau's altitude was around 3,000 metres above sea level around the Oligocene-Miocene boundary and that it fell by 900 metres between 25.5 and 21.6 million years ago, attributable to tectonic unroofing from east–west extension or to erosion from climatic weathering. The plateau subsequently rose by 500 to 1,000 metres between 21.6 and 20.4 million years ago.[21]

Natural-colour satellite image of the Tibetan Plateau.

Palaeobotanical evidence indicates that the Nujiang Suture Zone and the Yarlung-Zangpo Suture Zone remained tropical or subtropical lowlands until the latest Oligocene or Early Miocene, enabling biotic interchange across Tibet.[22] The age of east–west grabens in the Lhasa and Himalaya terranes suggests that the plateau's elevation was close to its modern altitude by around 14 to 8 million years ago.[23] Erosion rates in Tibet decreased significantly around 10 million years ago.[24] The Indo-Australian plate continues to be driven horizontally below the Tibetan Plateau, which forces the plateau to move upwards; the plateau is still rising at a rate of approximately 5 mm (0.2 in) per year (although erosion reduces the actual increase in height).[25]

Much of the Tibetan Plateau is of relatively low relief. The cause of this is debated among geologists. Some argue that the Tibetan Plateau is an uplifted peneplain formed at low altitude, while others argue that the low relief stems from erosion and infill of topographic depressions that occurred at already high elevations.[26] The current tectonics of the plateau are also debated. The best-regarded explanations are provided by the block model and the alternative continuum model. According to the former, the crust of the plateau is formed of several blocks with little internal deformation separated by major strike-slip faults. In the latter, the plateau is affected by distributed deformation resulting from flow within the crust.[27]


Yangbajain valley to the north of Lhasa

The Tibetan Plateau supports a variety of ecosystems, most of them classified as montane grasslands. While parts of the plateau feature an alpine tundra-like environment, other areas feature monsoon-influenced shrublands and forests. Species diversity is generally reduced on the plateau due to the elevation and low precipitation. The Tibetan Plateau hosts the Tibetan wolf,[28] and species of snow leopard, wild yak, wild ass, cranes, vultures, hawks, geese, snakes, and water buffalo. One notable animal is the high-altitude jumping spider, that can live at elevations of over 6,500 metres (21,300 ft).[29]

Ecoregions found on the Tibetan Plateau, as defined by the World Wide Fund for Nature, are as follows:

Pastoral nomads camping near Namtso.

Human history

Tibetan Buddhist stupa and houses outside the town of Ngawa, on the Tibetan Plateau.

Main article: History of Tibet

Nomads on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas are the remainders of nomadic practices historically once widespread in Asia and Africa.[30] Pastoral nomads constitute about 40% of the ethnic Tibetan population.[31] The presence of nomadic peoples on the plateau is predicated on their adaptation to survival on the world's grassland by raising livestock rather than crops, which are unsuitable to the terrain. Archaeological evidence suggests that the earliest human occupation of the plateau occurred between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago.[32] Since colonization of the Tibetan Plateau, Tibetan culture has adapted and flourished in the western, southern, and eastern regions of the plateau. The northern portion, the Changtang, is generally too high and cold to support permanent population.[33] One of the most notable civilizations to have developed on the Tibetan Plateau is the Tibetan Empire from the 7th century to the 9th century AD.

Impact on other regions

NASA satellite image of the south-eastern area of Tibetan Plateau. Brahmaputra River is in the lower right.

Role in monsoons

Main article: Monsoon

Monsoons are caused by the different amplitudes of surface temperature seasonal cycles between land and oceans. This differential warming occurs because heating rates differ between land and water. Ocean heating is distributed vertically through a "mixed layer" that may be 50 meters deep through the action of wind and buoyancy-generated turbulence, whereas the land surface conducts heat slowly, with the seasonal signal penetrating only a meter or so. Additionally, the specific heat capacity of liquid water is significantly greater than that of most materials that make up land. Together, these factors mean that the heat capacity of the layer participating in the seasonal cycle is much larger over the oceans than over land, with the consequence that the land warms and cools faster than the ocean. In turn, air over the land warms faster and reaches a higher temperature than does air over the ocean.[34] The warmer air over land tends to rise, creating an area of low pressure. The pressure anomaly then causes a steady wind to blow toward the land, which brings the moist air over the ocean surface with it. Rainfall is then increased by the presence of the moist ocean air. The rainfall is stimulated by a variety of mechanisms, such as low-level air being lifted upwards by mountains, surface heating, convergence at the surface, divergence aloft, or from storm-produced outflows near the surface. When such lifting occurs, the air cools due to expansion in lower pressure, which in turn produces condensation and precipitation.

The Himalayas as seen from space looking south from over the Tibetan Plateau.

In winter, the land cools off quickly, but the ocean maintains the heat longer. The hot air over the ocean rises, creating a low-pressure area and a breeze from land to ocean while a large area of drying high pressure is formed over the land, increased by wintertime cooling.[34] Monsoons are similar to sea and land breezes, a term usually referring to the localized, diurnal cycle of circulation near coastlines everywhere, but they are much larger in scale, stronger and seasonal.[35] The seasonal monsoon wind shift and weather associated with the heating and cooling of the Tibetan plateau is the strongest such monsoon on Earth.

Glaciology: the Ice Age and at present

Midui Glacier in Nyingchi

Today, Tibet is an important heating surface of the atmosphere. However, during the Last Glacial Maximum, an approximately 2,400,000 square kilometres (930,000 sq mi) ice sheet covered the plateau.[36][37][38] Due to its great extent, this glaciation in the subtropics was an important element of radiative forcing. With a much lower latitude, the ice in Tibet reflected at least four times more radiation energy per unit area into space than ice at higher latitudes. Thus, while the modern plateau heats the overlying atmosphere, during the Last Ice Age it helped to cool it.[39]

This cooling had multiple effects on regional climate. Without the thermal low pressure caused by the heating, there was no monsoon over the Indian subcontinent. This lack of monsoon caused extensive rainfall over the Sahara, expansion of the Thar Desert, more dust deposited into the Arabian Sea, and a lowering of the biotic life zones on the Indian subcontinent. Animals responded to this shift in climate, with the Javan rusa migrating into India.[40]

In addition, the glaciers in Tibet created meltwater lakes in the Qaidam Basin, the Tarim Basin, and the Gobi Desert, despite the strong evaporation caused by the low latitude. Silt and clay from the glaciers accumulated in these lakes; when the lakes dried at the end of the ice age, the silt and clay were blown by the downslope wind off the Plateau. These airborne fine grains produced the enormous amount of loess in the Chinese lowlands.[40]

Frozen biological samples

The location where ice core was taken, and the age of the dead microorganisms found at different depths.

Ice of the plateau provides a valuable window to the past. In 2015, researchers studying the Plateau reached the top of the Guliya glacier, with ice thickness of 310 m (1,020 ft), and drilled to a depth of 50 m (160 ft) in order to recover ice core samples. Due to the extremely low biomass in those 15,000-year-old samples, it had taken around 5 years of research to extract 33 viruses, of which 28 were new to science. None had survived the extraction process. Phylogenetic analysis suggests those viruses infected plants or other microorganisms.[41][42]

Climate change

See also: Effects of climate change and Retreat of glaciers since 1850

The Tibetan Plateau contains the world's third-largest store of ice. Qin Dahe, the former head of the China Meteorological Administration, issued the following assessment in 2009:

Temperatures are rising four times faster than elsewhere in China, and the Tibetan glaciers are retreating at a higher speed than in any other part of the world. In the short term, this will cause lakes to expand and bring floods and mudflows. In the long run, the glaciers are vital lifelines for Asian rivers, including the Indus and the Ganges. Once they vanish, water supplies in those regions will be in peril.[43]

The Tibetan Plateau contains the largest area of low-latitude glaciers and is particularly vulnerable to global warming. Over the past five decades, 80% of the glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau have retreated, losing 4.5% of their combined areal coverage.[44]

This region is also liable to suffer damages from permafrost thaw caused by climate change.

Detailed map of Qinghai–Tibet Plateau infrastructure at risk from permafrost thaw under the SSP2-4.5 scenario.
Outside of the Arctic, Qinghai–Tibet Plateau (sometimes known as "the Third Pole"), also has an extensive permafrost area. It is warming at twice the global average rate, and 40% of it is already considered "warm" permafrost, making it particularly unstable. Qinghai–Tibet Plateau has a population of over 10 million people – double the population of permafrost regions in the Arctic – and over 1 million m2 of buildings are located in its permafrost area, as well as 2,631 km of power lines, and 580 km of railways.[45] There are also 9,389 km of roads, and around 30% are already sustaining damage from permafrost thaw.[46] Estimates suggest that under the scenario most similar to today, SSP2-4.5, around 60% of the current infrastructure would be at high risk by 2090 and simply maintaining it would cost $6.31 billion, with adaptation reducing these costs by 20.9% at most. Holding the global warming to 2 °C (3.6 °F) would reduce these costs to $5.65 billion, and fulfilling the optimistic Paris Agreement target of 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) would save a further $1.32 billion. In particular, fewer than 20% of railways would be at high risk by 2100 under 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), yet this increases to 60% at 2 °C (3.6 °F), while under SSP5-8.5, this level of risk is met by mid-century.[45]

See also

The old town of Gyantse and surrounding fields.


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