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The Third Pole


What is Third Pole?

Geographical definition of Third Pole:

The Tibetan Plateau and its surrounding mountains that covered an over 5 million km2 were formally proposed by scientists as the Third Pole first time in 2008 and published in Nature (Qiu, 2008). 


Figure 1: The Third Pole of the Earth adopted from Qiu, (2008).

The area within the red circle represents the Third Pole which covers entire Hindukush Himalayan region and Tian Shan Mountain stretching from the Pamir and Hindu Kush in the west to the Hengduan Mountains in the east, from the Kunlun and Qilian mountains in the north to the Himalayas in south.


Figure 2: The geographical location of the Third Pole. The Third Pole stretches from the Pamir and Hindu Kush in the west to the Hengduan Mountains in the east, from the Kunlun and Qilian mountains in the north to the Himalayas in the south adopted from Yao et al. (2007).

Third Pole is geomorphologically the largest and highest mountain region on Earth with Average elevation over 4000 m.

Most of the peaks of the Earth over 7000 m a.s.l. are on the Third Pole, including fourteen worldly-acknowledged mountains over 8000 m a.s.l. such as the Qomolangma (8848 m a.s.l.), Nanga Parbat (8125 m a.s.l.), K2 (8611 m a.s.l.), Annapurna (8078 m a.s.l.), Xixabangma (8027 m a.s.l.), Kanchenjunga (8586 m a.s.l.), etc. (Yao et al., 2007).

Our study area the Third pole covers Tibetan plateau and surrounding mountains with an area of about 7.5 km2 with more than 100000 km2 glaciers, more than 1000 lakes and 10 big rivers.

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Figure 3. Left: The temperature map of the earth showing that the TP is a low temperature region in mid latitude Asia. Right: Topography of the Third Pole showing Tibetan Plateau, Hindukush Himalayan Region, South Asian River basins and the Indian geographical region within the Third Pole.

What is the importance of Third pole on Earth?

 Due to large area and high-altitude mountainous region, the Third Pole plays a major role in earth's climate system (Jin et al., 2005), with unique interaction among the atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and lithosphere bearing a large effect on Earth’s biodiversity, climate and water cycles which influences the social and economic development of about one fourth of the world population resides in neighbouring countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.  Figure 4 shows the services related to atmosphere cryosphere in the third pole region.

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Figure 4: The services related to atmosphere cryosphere in the third pole region.

Why third pole is a region of concern for Asia?

  Many high-altitude regions of Third Pole store water in the form of ice and/or glacier, feeding ten major rivers of Asia including Amu Darya, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Tarim, Yangtze, and Yellow which play an essential role in sustaining water availability in neighbouring countries in these river basins in Asia including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These major river systems are the sources for irrigation, power and drinking water to about 2 billion people in Asia, which is about 25% of the world’s population. The sustainability of these rivers are primarily determined by precipitation, snowmelt, glacier melt rainfall runoff, and ground water. Figure 5 shows the major river basins of Asia that originate from the Third Pole. The Glaciers in this region have shown significant retreat and mass loss in the past few decades (Bloch et al 2012). In context to global warming, considering the sensitivity of cryospheric resources, future climate change is expected to affect these rivers, water availability and consequently affects the livelihood of the people due to the change in runoff pattern. Therefore, a comprehensive knowledge about TP Cryosphere. Due to the importance of TP environment in terms of socioeconomic, water security and climate change perspective, it is very essential to understand the change cryosphere, hydrological cycle. So, robust water management is very urgent in this part the globe is a great concern.


Figure 5: The major river basin of Asia that originate from the Third Pole (Source:

What is Third Pole Environment Program?

Third Pole Environment Program is the first comprehensive assessment of environmental changes in the Third Pole that aims to present the latest knowledge on climate, freshwater bodies, ecosystems and biodiversity and human impact on the environment.

·         First Third Pole Environment (TPE) Workshop was held at Beijing in 2009. During that workshop, the Third Pole Environment (TPE) program was initially proposed and agreed upon by participants from China, India, Germany, Italy, Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, US, Canada, Tajikistan, and Switzerland.

·         The TPE program tends to focus on the development of international, interdisciplinary, and integrated studies of the Third Pole Environment by involving natural and social scientists and experts.

·         It aims is to develop the scientific knowledge, cultivate scientific talents, and suggest on adaptation strategies for sustainable development of the Third Pole confronting global environmental changes.

Third Pole Environment program has identified six key questions:

·         Environmental and ecological changes having occurred on different time scales in the past and driving mechanisms.

·         Characteristics of water and energy cycles, their main components, and relationship to the Indian monsoon and westerlies.

·         Responses of ecosystems changes to global warming, especially at high elevations

·         The glacial status of the Third Pole, and the response of glacial retreat and mass balance changes to the water and energy cycle and its components, in addition to their environmental impacts.

·         The impact of anthropogenic activities.

·         The more appropriate way to adapt to global change and more efficient way to sustain future environment sustainability in the Third Pole region.

Distribution of atmospheric in Third Pole?
  • Due to its unique topography and cold environment, the TP is sparsely populated and has little local anthropogenic activity and is considered as a background of regional atmospheric conditions. However, expanding urbanization and agricultural intensification across neighbouring South Asia and East Asia have substantially threatened atmospheric condition over the Third Pole (TP) during the past few decades.

  • The environmental conditions over the TP are under the influence of different atmospheric circulations. So atmospheric pollutants from neighbouring Asian regions can be transported to the TP via the prevailing monsoon system and the westerlies, which modify the atmospheric composition over the TP and they are eventually deposited on remote alpine glaciers.

  • Air pollution in TP is on the rise and regional air quality has worsened in the past two decades, with the adjacent Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP) and Yellow and Yangtze River valley having become the most polluted regions in the world.

  • Anthropogenic signals over the high-altitude TT regions is already reported in many studies (Yao et al., 2012; Li et al., 2016; Sierra-Hernandez et al., 2018; Kang et al., 2019; Qiu, 2013).

Impact of pollution in Third Pole?
  • The temperature increased at a rate more than double the global average, making TP one of the highest risks from environmental, economic and social consequences.

  • Winter fog and haze have increased across the Indo-Gangetic Plains (IGP), leading to reduced visibility and elevated air pollution in southern slop of TP and affecting air quality as well as thermal forcing.

  • The TP very is sensitive to climate change—air pollutants originating within and near by the TP region amplify the effects of greenhouse gases and accelerate the melting of the cryosphere through the deposition of black carbon and dustthat influences the availability of water resources in downstream regions, the circulation of the monsoon, and the distribution of rainfall over Asia.

Important studies on Third pole Environment?

The Third Pole climate evolution study

Studies show that the uplift of the Third Pole has intensified the Indian monsoon (Kearey et al., 2009).So far, various proxies have been used to infer the uplift history and process of the Third Pole. Studies with the composition of oxygen isotopes in rocks and lake sediments show that various areas of the Tibetan Plateau were at elevations of over 4000 m about 11–35 million years ago (DeCelles et al., 2007; Garzione et al., 2000; Rowley and Currie, 2006). The shape and size of fossil leaves also help to shed light on the uplift history of the Tibetan Plateau that, about 15 million years ago the elevation of southern plateau was more than 4600 m (Spicer et al., 2003).

The elevated topography of the Third Pole not only acts as a barrier to the mid-latitude westerlies, but also triggers strong dynamical and thermo-dynamical impacts, thus contributing greatly to global circulation as well as regional and hemispherical environmental changes (Bothe et al., 2011). The Third Pole also plays a prominent role in the evolution of the Asian monsoon system, which is critical for the moisture fluxes and precipitation patterns in the region (An et al., 2001).

Third Pole affect the atmospheric circulation patterns in Eurasia and thus significantly influence the climate system in the northern hemisphere. The winter Eurasian snow cover south of 52N was found to show a significant correlation with the following Indian summer monsoon by Hahn and Manabe (1975). Further study showed that heavysnowfall over the Tibetan Plateau can both weaken and prolong the duration of the summer monsoon system in the region (Liu et al., 2004).

  • Cryosphere study under global warming

The Third Pole shows a large-scale warming trend that began in the mid-1950s. The temperature rise of up to 0.3 C per decade has been going on for last fifty years, which is approximately three times the global warming rate (Qiu, 2008). The air temperature increases more significantly in the central, eastern, and northwestern parts of the TP (Liu and Chen, 2000). The warming trend in the cold season is greater than that in the warm season. The cause of increases in temperature in TP is due to increase in greenhouse gas emissions, changes in cloud cover, and snow-albedo feedback, the Asian brown clouds and land use changes can be found in various studies (Duan et al., 2006; Frauenfeld et al., 2005; Liu et al., 2006; Qiu, 2008).

  • Glacier study

The Third Pole contains glaciers with a total area of 100,000 km2. Since the 1990s, most of the glaciers in the region have undergone considerable retreat though the extent in retreat varies geographically (Kang et al., 2010). The central part of the Third Pole exhibits the least extent of glacial retreat, while the southeast part under the influence of a maritime climate has the greatest extent in retreat (Pu et al., 2004). The glaciers retreat information can be found in various studies (Menon et al., 2009; Kang et al., 2007)

  • Snow cover and Permafrost degradation: snow cover and permafrost degradation will likely cause a drier ground surface (Cheng and Wu, 2007) and significantly affect soil properties (Wang et al., 2006).

  • Land use land cover (LULC) change:  Grassland occupies an area of about 1.5 million km2 (Cui and Graf, 2009). Significantly decrease in grasslands approximately 14–16% of total grassland area is reported on the plateau region of TP by Wang et al. (2006).  Study shows that the main reasons for degrading in grassland are warmer temperature, changes in combination of temperature and precipitation, decreasing glaciers, melting frozen soil, overgrazing and rat damages (Shang and Long, 2007). Due to unsustainable logging practices, agricultural use and urbanization, deforestation on the Third Pole began in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1960s (Houghton and Hackler, 2003; Liu et al., 2005; Studley, 1999), which may impair forest functions of safeguarding watersheds and river flow (Houghton and Hackler, 2003).

More information on TP
Data availability
  • Tran, H., Nguyen, P., Ombadi, M., Hsu, K.L., Sorooshian, S. and Qing, X., 2019. A cloud-free MODIS snow cover dataset for the contiguous United States from 2000 to 2017. Scientific data, 6(1), pp.1-13.

  • Wester, P., Mishra, A., Mukherji, A. and Shrestha, A.B., 2019. The Hindu Kush Himalaya assessment: mountains, climate change, sustainability and people (p. 627). Springer Nature.

  • Yao, T., Thompson, L.G., Mosbrugger, V., Zhang, F., Ma, Y., Luo, T., Xu, B., Yang, X., Joswiak, D.R., Wang, W. and Joswiak, M.E., 2012. Third pole environment (TPE). Environmental Development, 3, pp.52-64.

  • Cui, X. and Graf, H.F., 2009. Recent land cover changes on the Tibetan Plateau: a review. Climatic Change, 94(1), pp.47-61.

  • Gao, D. and Li, S., 2022. Spatiotemporal impact of railway network in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau on accessibility and economic linkages during 1984–2030. Journal of Transport Geography, 100, p.103332.

  • Yao, T., Xue, Y., Chen, D., Chen, F., Thompson, L., Cui, P., Koike, T., Lau, W.K.M., Lettenmaier, D., Mosbrugger, V. and Zhang, R., 2019. Recent third pole’s rapid warming accompanies cryospheric melt and water cycle intensification and interactions between monsoon and environment: Multidisciplinary approach with observations, modeling, and analysis. Bulletin of the American Meteorological society, 100(3), pp.423-444.

  • Yang, K., Ye, B., Zhou, D., Wu, B., Foken, T., Qin, J. and Zhou, Z., 2011. Response of hydrological cycle to recent climate changes in the Tibetan Plateau. Climatic change, 109(3), pp.517-534.

  • Immerzeel, W.W., Droogers, P., De Jong, S.M. and Bierkens, M.F.P., 2009. Large-scale monitoring of snow cover and runoff simulation in Himalayan River basins using remote sensing. Remote sensing of Environment, 113(1), pp.40-49.

  • Immerzeel, W.W., Van Beek, L.P. and Bierkens, M.F., 2010. Climate change will affect the Asian water towers. science, 328(5984), pp.1382-1385.

  • Bolch, T., Kulkarni, A., Kääb, A., Huggel, C., Paul, F., Cogley, J.G., Frey, H., Kargel, J.S., Fujita, K., Scheel, M. and Bajracharya, S., 2012. The state and fate of Himalayan glaciers. Science, 336(6079), pp.310-314.

  • Qiu, J. China: The third pole. Nature 454, 393–396 (2008).

  • Shang, Z. and Long, R., 2007. Formation causes and recovery of the “Black Soil Type” degraded alpine grassland in Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Frontiers of Agriculture in China, 1(2), pp.197-202.

  • Wang, G., Li, Y., Wu, Q. and Wang, Y., 2006. Impacts of permafrost changes on alpine ecosystem in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Science in China Series D: Earth Sciences, 49(11), pp.1156-1169.

  • Cheng, G. and Wu, T., 2007. Responses of permafrost to climate change and their environmental significance, Qinghai‐Tibet Plateau. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 112(F2).

  • Menon, S., Koch, D., Beig, G., Sahu, S., Fasullo, J. and Orlikowski, D., 2010. Black carbon aerosols and the third polar ice cap. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 10(10), pp.4559-4571.

  • Kang, S., Qin, D., Ren, J., Zhang, Y., Kaspari, S., Mayewski, P.A. and Hou, S., 2007. Annual accumulation in the Mt. Nyainqentanglha ice core, southern Tibetan Plateau, China: relationships to atmospheric circulation over Asia. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, 39(4), pp.663-670.[KANG]2.0.CO;2.

  • Kang, S., Xu, Y., You, Q., Flügel, W.A., Pepin, N. and Yao, T., 2010. Review of climate and cryospheric change in the Tibetan Plateau. Environmental research letters, 5(1), p.015101.

  • Liu, X. and Chen, B., 2000. Climatic warming in the Tibetan Plateau during recent decades. International Journal of Climatology: A Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 20(14), pp.1729-1742.;2-Y.

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