How does climate change threaten the water tower in Asia?

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Known as the “Water Tower of Asia”, Tibet provides water for nearly two billion people and supports vital ecosystems high in the mountains of Asia and the Tibetan Plateau, where many of Asia’s largest river systems originate. This region is also one of the most vulnerable to the combined effects of climate change and human activities. MSU researchers identify policy changes that need to happen now to prepare for future impacts projected by climate models.

Rapid melting of glaciers and ice packs due to rising regional temperatures has led to an unprecedented decrease in water availability. This leads to cascading effects on water, food and energy security. The MSU researchers also found that warming in the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans is exacerbating these issues, threatening water security in the region and interfering with the delicate balance of water in the atmosphere and its transport.

“It’s a global phenomenon,” said Yadu Pokhrel, associate professor in MSU’s College of Engineering. “The warming that is occurring in the ocean is changing how moisture is created and flows in different parts of the world, and this will directly affect the Asian Water Tower.”

Using climate models to predict future conditions combined with a model that tracks the source, movement, and destination of moisture around the world, Pokhrel and his team found that by the end of the century, 84% to 97% of Asia’s high mountains and Tibetan plateau will experience significant water storage deficits. Increasing global warming reduces the amount of moisture in the area, which leads to a continuous decrease in water availability.

“This is important because any changes to the water in this region – whether it’s too little or too much – affects the economy and the livelihoods of millions of people in neighboring countries,” Bouquerel said. “This could have huge global implications.”

For Pokhrel and the team, now is the time to act, to prepare for the future. “We want to know what the overall impacts of climate change are, how we can better understand the impacts on local communities and how we can develop adaptation strategies for the future.”

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