Irreversible declines in freshwater storage projected in parts of Asia by 2060
THE Tibetan Plateau, known as the “water tower” of Asia, supplies freshwater for nearly 2 billion people who live downstream. New research led by scientists at Penn State, Tsinghua University and the University of Texas at Austin projects that climate change, under a scenario of weak climate policy, will cause irreversible declines in freshwater storage in the region, constituting a total collapse of the water supply for central Asia and Afghanistan and a near-total collapse for Northern India, Kashmir and Pakistan by the middle of the century.
“The prognosis is not good,” said Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. “In a ‘business as usual’ scenario, where we fail to meaningfully curtail fossil fuel burning in the decades ahead, we can expect a near collapse — that is, nearly 100% loss — of water availability to downstream regions of the Tibetan Plateau. I was surprised at just how large the predicted decrease is even under a scenario of modest climate policy.”
According to the researchers, despite its importance, the impacts of climate change on past and future terrestrial water storage (TWS) — which includes all the above- and below-ground water — in the Tibetan Plateau have largely been underexplored.
“The Tibetan Plateau supplies a substantial portion of the water demand for almost 2 billion people,” said Di Long, associate professor of hydrologic engineering at Tsinghua University. “Terrestrial water storage across this region is crucial in determining water availability, and it is highly sensitive to climate change.”