Observed high-altitude warming and snow cover retreat over Tibet and the Himalayas enhanced by black carbon aerosols Academic Article uri icon


  • Abstract. Himalayan mountain glaciers and the snowpack over the Tibetan Plateau provide the headwater of several major rivers in Asia. In-situ observations of snow cover fraction since the 1960s suggest that the snow pack in the region have retreated significantly, accompanied by a surface warming of 22.5 C observed over the peak altitudes (5000 m). Using a high-resolution oceanatmosphere global climate model and an observationally constrained black carbon (BC) aerosol forcing, we attribute the observed altitude dependence of the warming trends as well as the spatial pattern of reductions in snow depths and snow cover fraction to various anthropogenic factors. At the Tibetan Plateau altitudes, the increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration exerted a warming of 1.7 C, BC 1.3 C where as cooling aerosols cause about 0.7 C cooling, bringing the net simulated warming consistent with the anomalously large observed warming. We therefore conclude that BC together with CO2 has contributed to the snow retreat trends. Especially, BC increase is the major factor in the strong elevation dependence of the observed surface warming. The atmospheric warming by BC as well as its surface darkening of snow are coupled with the positive snow albedo feedbacks to account for the disproportionately large role of BC in high-elevation regions. These findings reveal that BC impact needs to be properly accounted for in future regional climate projections, in particular on high-altitude cryosphere.

published proceedings

  • Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions

author list (cited authors)

  • Xu, Y., Ramanathan, V., & Washington, W. M.

citation count

  • 12

complete list of authors

  • Xu, Y||Ramanathan, V||Washington, WM

publication date

  • July 2015