The Tibetan Plateau is Getting a High-Tech Array of Weather Sensors

The massive research effort will help predict the increasingly unpredictable Indian monsoons as the climate changes

Tibetan plateau
A herd of wild ass runs across the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai Xi Zhinong/Minden Pictures/Corbis

The Tibetan Plateau is enormous. It reaches an average height of more than 14,800 feet above sea level for its 970,000 square miles. It spreads, The Economic Times notes, over "slightly more land area than Alaska, Texas and California combined," and, reports Jane Qiu for Nature News, it sticks up into the middle of the troposphere—the atmospheric layer where weather events are born. 

The land up there also receives more sunlight and gets hotter than land at sea level, like "a giant heating plate," says Qiu. That heating effect can intensify rainfall at the beginning and end of the Indian monsoon. The physical barrier of the plateau impacts weather, too, by halting cold dry air from the north and keeping the warm, moisture-laded winds from the ocean over the Indian subcontinent.

This is just a broad sketch, though, and China is about to spend $49 million to deploy drones, weather balloons and towers that will top 100 feet tall to figure out exactly how the plateau affects climate events. There are still details to untangle, according to the Nature News. 

The plateau’s remoteness, altitude and harsh conditions — it is often called the third pole because it hosts the world’s third-largest stock of ice — mean that even basic weather stations are few. Satellite data are also plagued by large errors owing to lack of calibration from ground observations.

“Climate models have the greatest uncertainties in Tibet and the Himalayas, and are especially weak at simulating monsoons,” says Xu Xiangde, an atmospheric scientist at the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences in Beijing and investigator on the project. This dearth of information about the plateau, acknowledged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, affects scientists’ ability to predict how the climate is changing, and the consequences for people living in vulnerable regions.

The Indian monsoon is already more unpredictable and powerful than it has been, thanks to climate change. In the wake of devastating floods brought by the monsoon to Pakistan and India, any more knowledge about how the plateau affects climate will be welcome.

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