Picture of a mountain range with snow.
The Third pole is the name of the region around the Tibetan plateau.
Photo: Zhangwei Ding_CreativeCommons

New report highlights risk from global warming in the Third Pole


A new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report has highlighted the importance of the Third Pole and its vulnerability to climate change. One of the authors of the report is Deliang Chen, professor at the University of Gothenburg.

The Third Pole is an area that covers over five million square kilometres and stretches from Afghanistan in the west to China in the east. It includes the Pamir-Hindu Kush, the Himalayan, the Hengduan, the Tienshan and Qilian mountain ranges.

A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole shows that the area has been warming at almost twice the global mean and has been receiving significantly increased rainfall. The impact of this is that lake levels have been increasing by 0.14 meter a year, greening of vegetation has been happening earlier and withering later and permafrost has been degrading. 

More extreme events

“It is very clear that man made global warming is causing increased climate warming in the Tibetan Plateau,” said Deliang Chen, one of the authors of the report and a professor at the University of Gothenburg, “this warming is significantly higher than the global mean.”

A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole, produced by UNEP shows that the warming and increased rainfall in the Third Pole is leading to changes in seasonal distribution and increased variability. This means seasons are less reliable and there are more extreme events such as flooding, drought and more disasters such as ice collapses.

“The disaster risk is increasing,” said Chen, “while water availability is generally increasing at the moment, due to glacial melt and increased or changed seasonality of precipitation, we are seeing that some rivers are already past their peak water, while other rivers will do so in the coming decades. In the long-term there is concern over scarcity of water.”

Portrait of Deliang Chen
Deliang Chen, professor at the University of Gothenburg.
Photo: Malin Arnesson

Most of the population of the Third Pole rely on agriculture for a living, increased variability, increased flooding and drought and increased temperatures all put their livelihoods at risk.

“The changes between years and seasons is becoming greater,” said Chen, “we will also see more flash floods and more ice collapse.”

Threatened species at risk

The report also highlights the risks man made climate change could have on the regions native species. The Third Pole is home to over 169 animals on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened species, this makes up over nine per cent of all animals in the Third Pole.

Of those animals on the IUCN Red List 16 are critically endangered, 66 endangered and 87 marked as vulnerable. These include the snow leopard, the giant panda, the Tibetan antelope and the black-necked crane.

“This is a unique region,” said Chen, “It needs to be protected.”

Link to the report:A Scientific Assessment of the Third Pole Environment | UNEP - UN Environment Programme



The Third Pole

The Third Pole is situated around the Tibetan Plateau and has around 100,000 square kilometres of glaciers, it is the highest ecosystem in the world, with the highest mountain peaks, feeds over 12,000 lakes and more than 10 river systems. It is named The Third Pole as it is the largest store of frozen water after the North and South poles. It is also known as the ‘Asian Water Tower’ as it provides water to over two billion people in Asia, 30 per cent of the world’s population