The high-elevation region that includes the Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountain ranges has been dubbed the “Third Pole.” This region encompasses approximately 5 million square kilometers of unforgiving terrain, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, and it straddles tense geopolitical borders. The Third Pole includes an estimated 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers.
Cumulatively, this region holds the planet’s largest concentrated stock of ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic. The annual variability of snow extent affects global atmospheric circulation patterns, monsoon variability, and, more important, drinking and irrigation water that sustains roughly 1.5 billion people in downstream countries, including India, Nepal, China, and Bangladesh.
Scientists from around the globe gathered last May at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State University to address climate issues facing the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding mountain ranges. This Third Pole Environment (TPE) Workshop, the sixth in the series since TPE workshops began in 2009, drew more than 70 attendees from 14 different countries. The meeting coincided with the opening of the TPE program’s Center for Tibetan Plateau Research at the Byrd Center.
Climate records from low and middle latitudes are crucial to understanding Earth’s changing climate. “It has to do with water resources,” said the TPE program’s cochair Lonnie Thompson, a renowned glaciologist and senior researcher at Ohio State, as he addressed the workshop delegates. He added, “It has to do with the atmospheric processes that drive the monsoon system in that part of the world.”
Thompson is also one of the founding members of the Beijing-based Third Pole Environment program. He and cochairs Yao Tandong and Volker Mosbrugger organized the workshop to expand international, interdisciplinary cooperation so that scientists will be better able to understand change in environmental systems and what the implications are for loss of biodiversity.
The workshop included sessions on glacial fluctuations, the Asian monsoon, hydrology, geohazards, and climate change in the Third Pole. Participants also focused on research related to the Third Pole biosphere and anthroposphere. One workshop session was devoted to ecosystem studies, and another was devoted to human impacts on and interactions with the Third Pole. Through “salvage missions,” TPE program scientists are racing to gather data and document the rapidly changing environment of the expansive, high-elevation Third Pole.
The TPE program and its workshops provide an invaluable opportunity for data, resource, and methods sharing. In light of the recent international success of the TPE program, there are plans to expand the program’s geographical coverage farther to the west and to the south to more accurately define the extent of the Third Pole’s influence. The expanded program will be called PAN-TPE to reflect the inclusion of the tropics, the subtropics, and other regions.
As the first TPE program office outside the Third Pole region, the new Center for Tibetan Plateau Research aims to serve as a hub for strengthening global cooperation, for example, by assisting with young scientist training programs. In addition to this new center, the TPE program opened its Kathmandu center in 2013 and is planning to open a European center in the near future.
TPE program workshops are supported in part by the National Science Foundation; the German Research Foundation; the United Nations Environment Programme; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
—Meri Joswiak (email: [email protected]), Daniel Joswiak, and Tandong Yao, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chaoyang District, Beijing, China