The Tibetan Plateau, source of the Mekong, Yangtze, Indus, Brahmaputra, and other major Asian rivers. Credit: reurinkjan, CC-BY 2.0

The vast region encompassing Earth’s highest mountain ranges, part of the great Asian mountain system, goes by many names. One is the “Roof of the World.” Another is “Asia’s Water Tower” because of the region’s characteristic high altitudes, positioned directly upriver from the world’s most densely populated countries.

Scientists racing to study its extensive, yet changing, glacial mass have dubbed the region the “Third Pole.” Largely because of the inhospitable physical landscape and geopolitical barriers, this transboundary mountain region posed a significant challenge to cooperative, multinational research. As a result, the area has remained relatively understudied within the realms of Earth and environmental science, despite its importance in the livelihood of billions of people.

Research highlights included the study of black carbon in snow and the extensive remote sensing efforts to document glacier changes in the Third Pole region.

To advance research and increase coordinated field campaigns in the region, scientists and stakeholders representing 13 countries gathered in December 2014 in Berlin, Germany, to discuss progress and future plans for the Third Pole Environment (TPE) program. Participants shared their unique and diverse portfolios of environmental research on topics including climate and cryosphere dynamics, geologic processes, geohazards, land-atmosphere interactions, lakes and rivers, and biologic and biodiversity studies. Research highlights included the study of black carbon in snow by Baiqing Xu (Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences (ITPCAS)) and the extensive remote sensing efforts to document glacier changes in the Third Pole region by Tobias Bolch (University of Zurich/Dresden University of Technology).

Given the complexities of the region, the opportunity for multidisciplinary, multinational information sharing and discussion is an invaluable component of the TPE program’s research. Common threads in the presentations were the Asian monsoon system, improving the accuracy and spatial coverage of environmental reconstructions, advancing data availability, and data-sharing platforms. Participants eagerly discussed ways to increase coordinated field campaigns, with a focus on transboundary research transects, an ongoing effort that may provide a more complete picture of the Third Pole.

Participants also emphasized how the lack of long-term data and sparse coverage in the expansive geographic area that encompasses the Third Pole have led to increased uncertainty and disagreement about past environmental events and regional future projections. Throughout the meeting, the importance of the TPE program as a platform for heightened, coordinated research efforts was stressed.

Although the TPE program has supported more than a dozen field campaigns in the past 2 years, undertaking expeditions in China, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tajikistan, participants concluded that there is an urgent need for additional research focus and funding and expanded aerial coverage of both field data and remotely sensed data. Attendees agreed that the TPE program’s newly established international research center in Kathmandu, Nepal, should serve not only as a local office and student training center but also as a base to support scientific field activities on the southern slope of the Himalayas.

The TPE program is cochaired by Lonnie Thompson (Ohio State University), Tandong Yao (ITPCAS), and Volker Mosbrugger (Senckenberg Research Center for Nature Study, Germany). More information about the TPE program can be found on the effort’s website.

—Daniel Joswiak, Meri Joswiak, and Tandong Yao, ITPCAS, Beijing, China; email:

Citation: Joswiak, D., M. Joswiak, and T. Yao (2015), Advancing multinational research in the highest mountain regions, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO028167. Published on 16 April 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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