2023-2024: Cryosphere: Tandong Yao

Tandong Yao
Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences


Prof. Tandong Yao is a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the laureate of the 2017 Vega Medal award by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography (SSAG), the fellow of American Geophysical Union (AGU), Co-chair of Third Pole Environment (TPE) Program, chief scientist of the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research (STEP) program, and chairman of the China Society on Tibetan Plateau (CSTP). 

Prof. Tandong Yao is mainly engaged in the research how Third Pole environment changes under global warming and how the land-atmosphere multi-sphere interacts affect the functioning of the Asian Water Towers. His focus is largely on alpine glacier mass balances and ice core records in the Tibetan Plateau (TP). Since the mid-1980s, he has spearheaded numerous international collaborative ice drilling experiments to obtain ice cores in TP under world’s harshest climate conditions in order to understand the climate change experienced in the TP region. His research has revealed that TP is experiencing the warmest climate over the last 2000 years. Since the late-1980s, he has initiated a network of monitoring glacier mass balance changes and stable isotopes in precipitation over TP. His study revealed the north-south contrast pattern of glacier fluctuations in the Third Pole under the influence of different modes between the westerly and Indian monsoon interaction. He found that the largest retreat of glaciers in the monsoon mode dominated southern TP, moderate retreat in the transition mode dominated central TP, and the least retreat, or even slight advance in the westerlies mode dominated northwestern TP. He further found that the Asian Water Tower, which is the head water of the large Asian rivers and provides fresh water for more than two billion people in the region, is undergoing warming and wetting climate process which has caused an imbalanced Asian Water Tower and risky environmental consequences, such as ice collapse, glacier-lake expansion, glacial lake outburst flood. This means that human society has to adapt to the multi-changes rapidly and properly. He has published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers in international journals, including Nature, Science, Nature Climate Change, Nature Geoscience, Nature Communication, Nature Review Earth &Environment, PNAS, Review of Geophysics, Bulletin of American Meteorological Society, etc. He has an H-index of 90 and his publications have been cited around 30,000 times according to latest ISI Web of Science statistics. The highest one-paper citation is around 2,000. Nature (Volume 454, 2008) acknowledged Prof. Yao as “among the few researchers persevering in difficult field conditions to gather data on the plateau’s past climate history”. Science (Volume 334, 2011) highly appraised his research as “best example of activities which address questions of environmental change at high elevations”. His field work with his colleagues on ice core drilling over the Guliya ice cap, western Tibetan Plateau was reported by Science as a feature story (Vol 351, 2016): “hold insights into past and future conditions on the Tibetan Plateau". His work with his colleagues on process and mechanism of Aru glacier collapse was also reported by Science as a feature story (Vol 358, 2017). His road to becoming an internationally recognized glaciologist was the feature story in Nature (Volume 472, 2011) and Nature Forecastpod (https://forecastpod.org/2018/12/26/ episode-75-yao-tandong/).

As a member of transition team, Prof. Tandong Yao participated in the launching the Future Earth program in 2011-2012. He has been leading the Third Pole Environment program with his international co-partners since 2009, which became the flagship program of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011. He promoted the establishment of five TPE centers in Beijing, China, Kathmandu Nepal, Columbus, USA, Gothenburg, Sweden, and Frankfurt, Germany. He has cooperated with the UNEP and published the Third Pole Environment Assessment (2022). He is closely cooperating with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on the interaction among climate, cryosphere and water (2019). 

Abstract: The Asian Water Tower Under Global Warming

The Tibetan Plateau (TP), known as the Third Pole of the World, covers a total area of 5 million km2 with an average elevation greater than 4,500 m above sea level. Widely acknowledged as the Asian Water Tower, it is home to a vast number of glaciers, lakes, and the origin of over ten major rivers in Asia. The Asian Water Tower is undergoing dramatic changes due to global warming, with temperatures increasing twice as fast as the global average. Warming-induced changes in glaciers, lakes, and runoff are leading to water imbalances in the Asian Water Tower, causing unprecedented ice-related risks, such as glacier collapses and glacial lake outburst floods. These changes limit socio-economic development and threaten the livelihood of over 2 billion people in the surrounding region. In this lecture, I will overview some facts about the Asian Water Tower and how a warming climate is affecting the water tower as well as its impacts on the surrounding regions based on scientific findings obtained through several major international research programs conducted in the region. Additionally, I will outline the scientific challenges to understanding the various processes and mechanisms of environmental changes and describe international collaborative research opportunities to find green solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, ensuring the sustainability of the Asian Water Tower for future generations.