Warming Climate May Endanger Asia’s Water Tower

Climate models predict that melting glaciers and snowpacks in High Mountain Asia will make one of the largest freshwater reserves unsustainable, threatening water security for Asia’s rapidly growing population.

AsianScientist (May. 04, 2023) – The meltwater from glaciers and seasonal snowpacks in High Mountain Asia (HMA)—a vast expanse of mountain ranges encircling the Tibetan Plateau—forms one of the world’s largest freshwater reserves and sustains over 2 billion people. A team of researchers from the United States has warned that this critical water resource is on an alarming path of becoming unsustainable due to rising temperatures and climate change, putting downstream communities and biodiversity at serious risk. Their findings were published in Nature.

HMA harbors the largest store of glaciers and snowpacks outside of the polar regions. These mountains are recognized as ‘Asia’s water tower’ for funneling a continuous supply of freshwater into the continent’s major river basins. Over the past few decades, the accelerated loss of glaciers under a warming climate and changing weather patterns have caused an unprecedented decline in water availability in many Asian countries. Despite various reports indicating changes in the water systems of HMA, the underlying atmospheric mechanisms behind these fluctuations have remained poorly understood.

A research team led by Yadu Pokhrel, assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, reported that these changes in the water availability could be linked to the warming of the Northern Atlantic and the Indian Ocean—the primary water sources of the region.

“It’s a global phenomenon,” said Pokhrel. “The warming happening in the ocean changes how moisture originates and flows in different parts of the world, and that will directly impact the Asian water tower.”

Using a particle dispersion model to track the source, movement and destination of moisture around the globe alongside climate models of two different emission scenarios supported by satellite observations, Pokhrel and his team reported that a staggering 84% and 97% of the Tibetan Plateau would experience extensive water storage deficits by the end of the century.

Furthermore, the researchers also discovered that the water storage deficits had been spreading northward since 2009. They theorized that the diminishing snow and glaciers caused by warming temperatures and decreased moisture may have weakened the blocking effects of the high-altitude ranges in HMA that once prevented the depletion of water reserves in the central region of the Tibetan Plateau.

“This is important because any changes to the water in this region —whether it is too little or too much water—impacts the economy and livelihood of millions of people in nearby countries,” Pokhrel said. “This can have huge global implications.”

As the cascading impacts of climate change unfold, it is also increasingly important to understand the complex dynamics of this unique region and manage water resources for ensuring the well-being of Asia’s rapidly growing population. Pokhrel and his team are trying to identify the immediate policy changes that will be necessary to brace for the future impacts indicated by these climate models.

“We want to know what the overarching impacts of climate change are, how we can better understand the impacts on local communities and how we can develop adaptation strategies for the future.”

Source: Michigan State University ; Image: Shutterstock

The article can be found at Oceanic climate changes threaten the sustainability of Asia’s water tower.

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.





Nishat is a science journalist. She graduated with an MSc in Biomedical Science from Monash University where she worked with a cellular model of Parkinson’s Disease. Nishat loves lending her voice to bring science closer to society.

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