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)
Dimensions
Length2,500 km (1,600 mi)
Width1,000 km (620 mi)
Area2,500,000 km2 (970,000 sq mi)
Geography
Tibet and surrounding areas topographic map.png
Tibetan Plateau and surrounding areas above 1600 m
LocationChina (Tibet, Qinghai, Western Sichuan, Northern Yunnan, Southern Xinjiang, Western Gansu)
India (Ladakh, Lahaul & Spiti), Pakistan (Gilgit Baltistan)
Nepal (Northern Nepal)
Bhutan
Tajikistan (Eastern Tajikistan)
Kyrgyzstan (Southern Kyrgyzstan)
Range coordinates 33°N88°E / 33°N 88°E / 33; 88 Coordinates: 33°N88°E / 33°N 88°E / 33; 88

The Tibetan Plateau (Tibetan : བོད་ས་མཐོ།, Wylie : bod sa mtho), also known in China 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 in Central Asia [5] [6] [7] [8] and East Asia, [9] [10] [11] [12] covering most of the Tibet Autonomous Region, Northwestern Yunnan, Western half of Sichuan, Southern Gansu and Qinghai provinces in Western China, Indian regions of Ladakh and Lahaul and Spiti (Himachal Pradesh) as well as Bhutan. 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, 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".

Contents

The Tibetan Plateau contains the headwaters of the drainage basins of most of the streams in surrounding regions. 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 given its ice fields contain the largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. The impact of global warming on the Tibetan Plateau is of intense scientific interest. [14] [15] [16] [17]

Description

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 which 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. Lake Yamdroktso.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 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.[ citation needed ]

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. [19]

Environment

Typical landscape Tibet, a walk into no where.JPG
Typical landscape

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, [20] 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). [21]

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.

Nomads on the Tibetan Plateau and in the Himalayas are the remainders of nomadic practices historically once widespread in Asia and Africa. [22] Pastoral nomads constitute about 40% of the ethnic Tibetan population. [23] 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 colonization leading to the full-time occupation of the plateau occurred much later than the previously thought 30,000 years ago.[ citation needed ][ who? ] 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. [24] 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. [25] 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. [25] 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. [26] 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.

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. [27] [28] [29] 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. [30]

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. [31]

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. [31]

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:

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. [32]

See also

Related Research Articles

Geography of China Geography of the country of China

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.

Himalayas Mountain range in Asia

The Himalayas, or Himalaya, , is a mountain range in Asia separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau. The range has many of Earth's highest peaks, including the highest, Mount Everest, at the border between Nepal and China. The Himalayas include over fifty mountains exceeding 7,200 m (23,600 ft) in elevation, including ten of the fourteen 8,000-metre peaks. By contrast, the highest peak outside Asia is 6,961 m (22,838 ft) tall.

Tian Shan system of mountain ranges located 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.

Karakoram Major mountain range spanning the borders between India, Pakistan, and China

The Karakoram is a mountain range spanning the borders of India, Pakistan and China with the northwest extremity of the range extending to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It begins in the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan) in the west and encompasses the majority of Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan) and extends into Ladakh (India) and the disputed Aksai Chin region controlled by China. 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 eight summits over 7,500 m (24,600 ft) height, with four of them 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.

Geography of Tibet geographical situation of Tibet

The geography of Tibet consists of the high mountains, lakes and rivers lying between Central, East and South Asia. Traditionally, Western sources have regarded Tibet as being in Central Asia, though today's maps show a trend toward considering all of modern China, including Tibet, to be part of East Asia. Tibet is often called "the roof of the world," comprising tablelands averaging over 4,950 metres above the sea with peaks at 6,000 to 7,500 m, including Mount Everest, on the border with Nepal.

Kunlun Mountains 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.

Qilian Mountains mountain range

The Qilian Mountains, together with the Altyn-Tagh also known as Nan Shan, as it is to the south of Hexi Corridor, is a northern outlier of the Kunlun Mountains, forming the border between Qinghai and the Gansu provinces of northern China.

Altyn-Tagh 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.

Qaidam Basin geographic region

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.

Hengduan Mountains Group of mountain ranges in southwest China

The Hengduan Mountains are a group of mountain ranges in southwest China that connect the southeast portions of the Tibetan Plateau with the Yunnan–Guizhou Plateau. The Hengduan Mountains are primarily large north-south mountain ranges that effectively separate lowlands in northern Myanmar from the lowlands of the Sichuan Basin. These ranges are characterized by significant vertical relief originating from the Indian subcontinent's collision with the Eurasian Plate, and further carved out by the major rivers draining the eastern Tibetan Plateau. These rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween, are recognized today as the Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Matthias Kuhle German geographer

Matthias Kuhle was a German geographer and professor at the University of Göttingen. He edited the book series Geography International published by Shaker Verlag.

Northeastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests Ecoregion (WWF)

The Northeastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests are a temperate coniferous forests ecoregion of the middle to upper elevations of the eastern Himalayas and southeast Tibetan Plateau. The ecoregion occurs in southeastern Tibet Autonomous Region, China, in northern and eastern Arunachal Pradesh, India, and extreme eastern Bhutan.

Altun Shan National Nature Reserve natural reserve in China

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.

High-mountain Asia geographic region that includes the Asian mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau

High-mountain Asia is a high geographic region that includes the Asian mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau. The region is the "world's largest reservoir of perennial glaciers and snow outside of the Earth's polar ice sheets". These headwaters support more than 1 billion people, and changes in the mountains affect "ecosystem services, agriculture, energy and livelihood" for the surrounding areas. NASA has a High Mountain Asia Team (HiMAT) to study the area.

Southeast Tibet shrub and meadows Ecoregion (WWF)

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. Chinese provinces covered by the Southeast Tibet shrub and meadows include the alpine parts of eastern Tibet Autonomous Region, the alpine parts of western and northern Sichuan, extreme southern and eastern Qinghai, and the montane areas of southern Gansu. Many mountain ranges support the Southeast Tibet meadows, stretching from the Nyainqêntanglha Mountains in the southwest to the Qilian Mountains in the northeast.

Kangri Garpo

Kangri Garpo is a mountain range in eastern Tibet, located primarily in Nyingchi Prefecture as well as a portion of Qamdo Prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region, China. The mountain range lies to the east of the Himalayas and to the west of the Hengduan Mountains. The mountains are geographically a southern extension of the eastern Transhimalayas.

Pamir alpine desert and tundra Ecoregion (WWF)

The Pamir alpine desert and tundra ecoregion covers the high plateau of the Pamir Mountains, at the central meeting of the great mountain ranges of Central Asia: Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Kunlun, and Tian Shan. It is a region of relatively high biodiversity due to its central location and high elevation differentials, but it also acts as a barrier between the climate and habitats of north and south Asia.

Qilian Mountains subalpine meadows Ecoregion (WWF)

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.

North Tibetan Plateau-Kunlun Mountains alpine desert Ecoregion (WWF)

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.

References

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Sources