Tibetan Plateau

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Tibetan Plateau
青藏高原 (Qīng–Zàng Gāoyuán, Qinghai–Tibet Plateau)
Himalaya composite.jpg
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)
Tibet and surrounding areas topographic map.png
Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas above 1600 m
LocationFlag of the People's Republic of China.svg  People's Republic of China (Tibet, Qinghai, Western Sichuan, Northern Yunnan, Southern Xinjiang, Western Gansu)
Flag of India.svg  India (Ladakh, Lahaul & Spiti, Northern Arunachal Pradesh, Northern Sikkim)
Flag of Pakistan.svg  Pakistan (Chitral, Gilgit, Baltistan)
Flag of the Taliban.svg  Afghanistan (Wakhan Corridor)
Flag of Nepal.svg    Nepal (Northern Nepal)
Flag of Bhutan.svg  Bhutan
Flag of Tajikistan.svg  Tajikistan (Eastern Tajikistan)
Flag of Kyrgyzstan.svg  Kyrgyzstan (Southern Kyrgyzstan)
Range coordinates 33°N88°E / 33°N 88°E / 33; 88 Coordinates: 33°N88°E / 33°N 88°E / 33; 88
Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau (Tibetan : བོད་ས་མཐོ།, Wylie : bod sa mtho), also known as the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau [1] or the Qing–Zang Plateau [2] (Chinese :青藏高原; pinyin :Qīng–Zàng Gāoyuán) or as the Himalayan Plateau in India, [3] [4] is a vast elevated plateau located at the intersection of Central, South and East Asia [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] 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) 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.

Tibetan Buddhist stupa and houses outside the town of Ngawa, on the Tibetan Plateau. Aba County Aba Prefecture Sichuan China.jpg
Tibetan Buddhist stupa and houses outside the town of Ngawa, on the Tibetan Plateau.

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 Changthang 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.

NASA satellite image of the south-eastern area of Tibetan Plateau. Brahmaputra River is in the lower right. TibetplateauA2002144.0440.500m.jpg
NASA satellite image of the south-eastern area of Tibetan Plateau. Brahmaputra River is in the lower right.

Geology and geological history

Yamdrok Lake is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. Yamdrok Lake, Tibet 2.jpg
Yamdrok Lake is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet.

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. 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 to 20.4 million years ago. [19] 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. [20] 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. [21] 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). [22]

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. [23]

The current tectonics of the plateau is much debated. The two end-member models are the block model, in which the crust of the plateau is formed of several blocks with little internal deformation separated by major strike-slip faults. In the alternative continuum model, the plateau is affected by distributed deformation resulting from flow within the crust. [24]


Yangbajain valley to the north of Lhasa YangpachenValley.jpg
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, [25] and species of snow leopard, wild yak, wild donkey, 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). [26]

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

Human history

Pastoral nomads camping near Namtso. Nomads near Namtso.jpg
Pastoral nomads camping near Namtso.
The old town of Gyantse and surrounding fields. Gyantse.jpg
The old town of Gyantse and surrounding fields.

Nomads on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas are the remainders of nomadic practices historically once widespread in Asia and Africa. [27] Pastoral nomads constitute about 40% of the ethnic Tibetan population. [28] 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. [29] 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. [30] 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

Role in monsoons

Natural-colour satellite image of the Tibetan Plateau Jewel-Toned Lakes of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau.jpg
Natural-colour satellite image of the Tibetan Plateau

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. [31] 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.

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. [31] 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. [32] 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

The Himalayas as seen from space looking south from over the Tibetan Plateau. Himalayas.jpg
The Himalayas as seen from space looking south from over the Tibetan Plateau.
Midui Glacier in Nyingchi Tibet Midui Glacier,Autumn colour.jpg
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. [33] [34] [35] 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. [36]

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. [37]

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. [37]

Effects of climate change

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, though this opinion is now over a decade old:

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. [38]

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. [39]

See also

Related Research Articles

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China has great physical diversity. The eastern plains and southern coasts of the country consist of fertile lowlands and foothills. They are the location of most of China's agricultural output and human population. The southern areas of the country consist of hilly and mountainous terrain. The west and north of the country are dominated by sunken basins, rolling plateaus, and towering massifs. It contains part of the highest tableland on earth, the Tibetan Plateau, and has much lower agricultural potential and population.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Himalayas</span> Mountain range in Asia

The Himalayas, or Himalaya, is a mountain range separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. The range has some of the planet's highest peaks, including the very highest, Mount Everest which lies on the border of China and Nepal. Over 100 peaks exceeding 7,200 m (23,600 ft) in elevation lie in the Himalayas. By contrast, the highest peak outside Asia is 6,961 m (22,838 ft) tall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tian Shan</span> System of mountain ranges in Central Asia

The Tian Shan, also known as the Tengri Tagh or Tengir-Too, meaning the Mountains of Heaven or the Heavenly Mountain, is a large system of mountain ranges located in Central Asia. The highest peak in the Tian Shan is Jengish Chokusu, at 7,439 metres (24,406 ft) high. Its lowest point is the Turpan Depression, which is 154 m (505 ft) below sea level.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Karakoram</span> Major mountain range spanning the borders between Pakistan and China

The Karakoram is a mountain range in Kashmir region spanning the borders of Pakistan, China, and India, with the northwest extremity of the range extending to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Most of the Karakoram mountain range falls under the jurisdiction of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is controlled by Pakistan. Its highest peak, K2, is located in Gilgit-Baltistan. It begins in the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan) in the west, encompasses the majority of Gilgit-Baltistan, and extends into Ladakh and Aksai Chin. It is the second-highest mountain range in the world and part of the complex of ranges including the Pamir Mountains, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayan Mountains. The Karakoram has eighteen summits over 7,500 m (24,600 ft) in height, with four exceeding 8,000 m (26,000 ft): K2, the second-highest peak in the world at 8,611 m (28,251 ft), Gasherbrum I, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geography of Tibet</span> Geographical aspects of historical Tibet

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kunlun Mountains</span> Mountain range in China

The Kunlun Mountains constitute one of the longest mountain chains in Asia, extending for more than 3,000 kilometres (1,900 mi). In the broadest sense, the chain forms the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau south of the Tarim Basin.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Altyn-Tagh</span> Mountain range

Altyn-Tagh is a mountain range in Northwestern China that separates the Eastern Tarim Basin from the Tibetan Plateau. The western third is in Xinjiang while the eastern part forms the border between Qinghai to the south and Xinjiang and Gansu to the north.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Qaidam Basin</span> Ecoregion in Qinghai, China

The Qaidam, Tsaidam, or Chaidamu Basin is a hyperarid basin that occupies a large part of Haixi Prefecture in Qinghai Province, China. The basin covers an area of approximately 120,000 km2 (46,000 sq mi), one-fourth of which is covered by saline lakes and playas. Around one third of the basin, about 35,000 km2 (14,000 sq mi), is desert.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eastern Himalayas</span> Eastern half of the Himalayas mountain range

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Matthias Kuhle</span>

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Altun Shan National Nature Reserve is a large, arid area in the southeast of Xinjiang Autonomous Region, on the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau and the southern edge of the Tarim Basin in northwest China. It surrounds the Kumkol Basin, an endorheic basin in the western third of the Altyn-Tagh mountains. The reserve is sometimes referred to as the "Arjin Mountains Nature Reserve", or "Aerjinshan". The reserve covers the southern portions of Qiemo County and Ruoqiang County of Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">High-mountain Asia</span>

High-Mountain Asia (HMA) is a high-elevation geographic region in Asia that includes numerous cordillera and highland systems around the Tibetan Plateau, encompassing regions of East, Southeast, Central and South Asia. The region was orogenically formed by the continental collision of the Indian Plate into the Eurasian Plate.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Southeast Tibet shrub and meadows</span> Ecoregion in the Tibetan Plateau

The Southeast Tibet shrub and meadows are a montane grassland ecoregion that cover the southeast and eastern parts of the Tibetan Plateau in China. The meadows in this region of Tibet are in the path of the monsoon rains and are wetter than the other upland areas of the Tibetan Plateau. The "high cold" alpine terrain is one of high species diversity, due to the relatively high levels of precipitation for the region. Precipitation is lower in the northwest, and hence the vegetation thins from shrub to meadow or even desert.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lake Heihai</span> Body of water

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paleogeography of the India–Asia collision system</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Central Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe</span> Ecoregion in the Tibetan Plateau

The Central Tibetan Plateau alpine steppe ecoregion covers the high alpine plateau that stretches over 1,600 kilometres (1,000 mi) across the Tibetan Plateau to Qinghai Lake in China. Because of the high altitude—much it over 5,000 metres (16,000 ft)—the region is a cold, arid desert that is only 20% covered with steppe and meadow vegetation. The area has been relatively free from human development due to the hostile climate and unsuitability for agriculture. The ecosystem is relatively intact, and supports herds of wild antelope, sheep, deer, and gazelles.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Qilian Mountains subalpine meadows</span> Ecoregion in China

The Qilian Mountains subalpine meadows ecoregion covers the high meadows and shrubland of the Qilian Mountains, on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in central China. These mountains form a divide between the dry regions of the Gobi Desert to the north, and the Qaidam Basin and the Tibetan Plateau to the south. While the habitat supports populations of marmots, grouse and some rare mammal species, the grasslands of the region are under pressure from over-grazing by domestic livestock.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">North Tibetan Plateau–Kunlun Mountains alpine desert</span> Ecoregion in the Tibetan Plateau

The North Tibetan Plateau-Kunlun Mountains alpine desert ecoregion covers a long stretch of mostly treeless alpine terrain across the northern edge of the Tibet Plateau. A variety of cold, dry habitats are found, including alpine meadows, steppe, desert, and cushion plant floral areas.



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