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Workshop Focuses on Sustaining the Asian Water Tower


Forty world-renowned scientists gathered in Beijing from July 11-12 to find ways to sustain the Asian Water Tower, the high-altitude region centered on the Tibetan Plateau whose numerous glaciers are the source of over 10 major Asian rivers. Environmental changes in the area will threaten water supplies for over 2 billion people.

Workshop Moments

After reviewing observation, modeling and impact studies, the scientists agreed that the Asian Water Tower is experiencing severe solid water loss due to global warming. Added with varying atmospheric circulations, local precipitation,lake area and river discharge have been altered,with often disastrous consequences for ecosystems and human livelihood.

The attendees later broke into separate groups to discuss plans for future research.

The observation group, which was led by Tobias BolchMountain Cryosphere Research Group), a remote sensing expert from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, proposed to intensify observation work, with particular emphasis on three areas that represent the three distinctive circulation modes across the region. The areas are: the Qilian Mountain range to the Heihe river basin in the north, which is characterized by a westerly dominated circulation; the Himalayan Boqu area in the south, which is monsoon-dominated; and the middle area, including Nam Co, Seiling Co and nearby Tangula Mountain, the latter of which is the source of the Yangtze River.

“These areas are typical of the three modes and are crucial to understanding changes in the Asian Water Tower,” said Tandong Yao, a research scientist from the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who first identified these three circulation modes. Yao is also chair of Third Pole Environment (TPE), the decade-old international science program that initiated the workshop.

The modeling group, which was led by Walter Immerzeel (Mountain Hydrology), a modeling scientist from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, proposed to bridge the scale gap between local studies so that the Asian Water Tower can be studied as a whole. “We have already made significant progress with downscaling in this region,” said Deliang Chen, professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “While the global model can only reach 50-200 kilometers in resolution, our model has improved the resolution to 2-10 kilometers”.

The impact group, which was led by Volker Mosbrugger, a professor at the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research in Frankfurt, proposed focusing on the effect of the Asian Water Tower on four aspects: infrastructure and settlements; land use; water quality; and water use/extraction. Mosbrugger noted that the biodiversity assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) presents a unique opportunity to collaboratively study biodiversity and ecosystem services across the Asian Water Tower. As co-chair of TPE, Mosbrugger said this effort could be linked to ongoing research by Pan-TPE, a TPE research project devoted to gathering scientific facts to inform policymaking in the region.

The attendees agreed to coordinate their observation, modeling and impact-related research on the Asian Water Tower to achieve the best results.