Articles | Volume 21, issue 4
Research article
04 Apr 2017
Research article |  | 04 Apr 2017

Seasonal thermal regime and climatic trends in lakes of the Tibetan highlands

Georgiy Kirillin, Lijuan Wen, and Tom Shatwell

Abstract. The hydrology of the lake-rich Tibetan Plateau is important for the global climate, yet little is known about the thermal regime of Tibetan lakes due to scant data. We (i) investigated the characteristic seasonal temperature patterns and recent trends in the thermal and stratification regimes of lakes on the Tibetan Plateau and (ii) tested the performance of the one-dimensional lake parameterization scheme FLake for the Tibetan lake system. For this purpose, we combined 3 years of in situ lake temperature measurements, several decades of satellite observations, and the global reanalysis data. We chose the two largest freshwater Tibetan lakes, Ngoring and Gyaring, as study sites. The lake model FLake faithfully reproduced the specific features of the high-altitude lakes and was subsequently applied to reconstruct the vertically resolved heat transport in both lakes during the last 4 decades. The model suggested that Ngoring and Gyaring were ice-covered for about 6 months and stratified in summer for about 4 months per year with a short spring overturn and a longer autumn overturn. In summer the surface mixed boundary layer extended to 6–8 m of depth and was about 20 % shallower in the more turbid Gyaring. The thermal regime of the transparent Ngoring responded more strongly to atmospheric forcing than Gyaring, where the higher turbidity damped the response. According to the reanalysis data, air temperatures and humidity have increased, whereas solar radiation has decreased, since the 1970s. Surprisingly, the modeled mean lake temperatures did not change, nor did the phenology of the ice cover or stratification. Lake surface temperatures in summer increased only marginally. The reason is that the increase in air temperature was offset by the decrease in radiation, probably due to increasing humidity. This study demonstrates that air temperature trends are not directly coupled to lake temperatures and underscores the importance of shortwave radiation for the thermal regime of high-altitude lakes.

Short summary
We report a first description of the seasonal temperature, mixing, and ice regime in the two largest freshwater lakes of the Tibetan Plateau. We perform a validation of lake model FLake for the parameterization of the Tibetan lake system in regional climate models and present evidence of the absent warming trend in the Tibetan lakes despite significant atmospheric warming. The reason for this unexpected behavior is the significant decrease in solar radiation at the surface.