Articles | Volume 17, issue 10
Research article
21 Oct 2013
Research article |  | 21 Oct 2013

Geometric dependency of Tibetan lakes on glacial runoff

V. H. Phan, R. C. Lindenbergh, and M. Menenti

Abstract. The Tibetan Plateau is an essential source of water for Southeast Asia. The runoff from its ~34 000 glaciers, which occupy an area of ~50 000 km2, feeds Tibetan lakes and major Asian rivers like the Indus and Brahmaputra. Reported glacial shrinkage likely has an impact on the runoff. Unfortunately, accurate quantification of glacial changes is difficult over the high-relief Tibetan Plateau. However, it has recently been shown that it is possible to directly assess water level changes of a significant number of the ~900 Tibetan lakes with an area over 1 km2. This paper exploits different remote sensing products to create drainage links between Tibetan glaciers, lakes and rivers. The results allow us to differentiate between lakes with and without outlet. In addition, we introduce the notion of geometric dependency of a lake on glacial runoff, defined as the ratio between the total area of glaciers draining into a lake and the total area of the lake catchment. We determined these dependencies for all ~900 sufficiently large Tibetan lakes. To do so, we combined three remote sensing products: the CAREERI glacier mask product, a lake mask product based on the MODIS MOD44W water product and the HydroSHEDS river network product derived from Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) elevation data. Using a drainage network analysis, we determined all drainage links between glaciers and lakes. The results show that 25.3% of the total glacier area directly drains into one of 244 Tibetan lakes. The results also give the geometric dependency of each lake on glacial runoff. For example, there are ten lakes with direct glacial runoff from at least 240 km2 of glacier. Three case studies, including one of the well-studied Nam Tso Lake, demonstrate how the geometric dependency of a lake on glacial runoff can be directly linked to hydrological processes.