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Nearly two billion face irreversible decline in freshwater storage due to global warming effect on Tibetan Plateau

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(, Aug16’22) – Highly populated areas in Asia could face catastrophic declines in freshwater availability by 2060 due to significant Tibetan Plateau water loss this century caused by global warming, affecting nearly two billion people, said the AFP and other reports Aug 15, citing a study by a team of scientists at Penn State, Tsinghua University and the University of Texas at Austin.

The reservoirs of the Tibetan Plateau, which covers much of southern Chinese occupied Tibet and northern India, are fed by monsoons and currently supply most of the water demand for nearly two billion people.

The researchers, who are based in China and the United States, have used satellite-based measurements to determine the net change in water and ice mass over the past two decades.

They were stated to have added in direct measurements of glaciers, lakes and sub-surface water levels to estimate changes in the water mass, and then used a machine learning technique to predict storage changes under scenarios such as higher air temperature and reduced cloud cover.

And they were stated to have found that due to an increasingly warm and wet climate, the Tibetan Plateau had lost just over 10 billion tonnes of water a year since 2002.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, the team has projected changes in water storage across the plateau under a middle-of-the-road emissions scenario, where levels of carbon pollution stay roughly at current levels before falling gradually after 2050, said the AFP report.

They were reported to have found that two river basins were particularly vulnerable to water loss. One was the Amu Darya, central Asia’s largest river, in whose case the water loss could be equivalent to 119% of the current demand. And communities reliant on the Indus basement for water supply could see a loss equivalent to 79% of current demand, the study was stated to show.

The authors have recommended that governments begin to explore alternative water supply options, including more groundwater extraction, to make up for the anticipated shortfall.

Besides, “substantial reductions in carbon emissions over the next decade” would limit global warming and the “predicted collapse of the Tibetan Plateau water towers,” Michael Mann, director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media, has said.

“But even in a best-case scenario, further losses are likely unavoidable, which will require substantial adaptation to decreasing water resources in this vulnerable, highly populated region of the world. Just what that would look like is hard to say – we’re in unchartered waters,” Mann, a study co-author, has told the AFP.


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