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Streamflow change on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and its impacts

Journal article
Authors Q. H. Tang
C. Lan
F. G. Su
X. C. Liu
H. Sun
J. Ding
L. Wang
G. Y. Leng
Y. Q. Zhang
Y. F. Sang
H. Y. Fang
S. F. Zhang
D. M. Han
X. M. Liu
L. He
X. M. Xu
Y. Tang
Deliang Chen
Published in Chinese Science Bulletin-Chinese
Volume 64
Issue 27
Pages 2807-2821
ISSN 0023-074X
Publication year 2019
Published at Department of Earth Sciences
Pages 2807-2821
Language Chinese
Keywords the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Asian Water Tower, water cycle, streamflow, climate change, yarlung zangbo river, climate-change, soil-moisture, hydrological, response, model calibration, water storage, mass-balance, glacier, runoff, satellite, Science & Technology - Other Topics
Subject categories Earth and Related Environmental Sciences, Hydrology


The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP), also often called the Third Pole, is considered the Asian Water Tower because it is the source of many major Asian rivers. The environmental change on the QTP can affect the climate system over the surrounding area, and the changes in glacier and river streamflow on the QTP will lead to cascading impacts in downstream area where billions of people live. This paper reviews the hydrological observations and streamflow changes of the major Asian rivers originating from the QTP. From the 1950s to the beginning of the 21st century, streamflow on the QTP overall shows large interannual variations but no significant trends. The monthly mean streamflows during the flooding seasons are the largest in the 1960s for the outlet stations on the QTP. Annual streamflow in the source region of the Yellow River decreased while that in the source region of the Yangtze River increased slightly. No significant trends of annual streamflow have been reported for the other river source regions. The mean streamflows during peak season are relatively large in the 2000s at the river source region (upper reaches) of most rivers on the QTP. An increasing trend of streamflow in spring has been found in the upper reaches of the Yellow River, the Lancang River, the Tuotuo River (of the Yangtze River), and the Lhasa River (of the Yarlung Zangbo River). The largest month of streamflow often appears in July for most stations, but in August at the Lhasa and Nuxia stations which are located in the Yarlung Zangbo River. Streamflow changes on the QTP could be mainly attributed to changes in snow and ice, as little influence from direct human activities were found. However, the examination of the streamflow changes largely relies on the hydrological observations. So far, due to data unavailability, we are still unclear about the long-term change in the streamflow on the QTP, especially the changes in recent years. The changes in ice and snow pack on the QTP could have significant impact on the downstream water resources and ecosystem. As more water resources have been generated from ice/snow melting, from a long-term perspective, water resources would be reduced along with shrinking and disappearing glaciers. Hydrological projections under future climate change suggest that streamflow in most river source regions would increase along with precipitation and increases in ice/snow melting, and hydrological extremes such as flooding would occur more frequently. Large uncertainties across Generic Circulation Models (GCMs) and hydrological models have been found in future projections of streamflow on the QTP. Reduction of ice/snow melting would aggravate the water stress conditions for both the ecosystem and human society on the QTP and its downstream areas. Sparse hydrometeorological observations in the past, particularly in the remote region of the QTP, are a major limiting factor to studies on streamflow change and its impacts. Further efforts are urgently needed to combine the advanced observation and modeling technologies to improve the observation and simulation capabilities of the water cycle over the QTP, and to provide scientific and technological support for coping with the accelerated ice/snow melting, increasing hydrological extremes and their impacts over the QTP.

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