The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is expected to witness significant changes in its lakes by the end of this century.

Predictions indicate that the surface area of some lakes could expand by more than 50%.

Water volume is set to increase by over 600 billion tonnes due to rising rainfall and glacier melt, both consequences of climate warming.

This alteration could result in substantial economic repercussions for China, potentially costing billions.

Research suggests a notable rise in the surface area and water levels of endorheic lakes on the plateau. These lakes, which don’t have external drainage outlets, are forecasted to see a fourfold growth in water storage by 2100 compared to the past 50 years.

If these predictions hold, over 1,000 kilometers of roads, roughly 500 settlements, and about 10,000 square kilometers of ecological areas, including grasslands and wetlands, could be underwater.

The plateau, often called the “Water Tower of Asia,” holds over 1,000 lakes containing vast amounts of water in both liquid and ice forms.

It’s highly susceptible to climate change, acting as an early indicator for the broader impacts of global warming.

While lakes in many global regions face water depletion due to rising temperatures and human activity, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau’s lakes have been growing due to warmer and wetter conditions.

This is primarily driven by increased net precipitation, although glacier melt also plays a role, albeit to a lesser extent since the remaining glaciers have limited storage.

The study incorporated climate drivers, field surveys, and remote sensing to create a model for 2021 to 2100, factoring in various socioeconomic scenarios to project the future impact of increased water storage on the plateau’s lakes.

The northern Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is projected to see the largest growth in lake area, with a potential twofold increase.

Other regions such as the southeast, northwest, and central parts of the plateau will also experience substantial expansion.

Despite previously shrinking, lakes in the southern plateau began to grow again starting in 2021.

Selin Co, the largest lake in the Tibet autonomous region, is projected to increase by approximately 66 billion tonnes in water volume, translating to an 800 square kilometer growth in lake area.

The northeastern part of the plateau, which has more human activities and infrastructure, is expected to be particularly vulnerable to flooding, despite the northern plateau having the largest water storage increase.

The estimated economic losses due to inundated roads range between 20 billion to 50 billion yuan (US$2.7 billion to US$6.9 billion) by the century’s end.

Villages and livestock pens near the lakes could also face severe impacts, with 615 human settlements at risk of being submerged.

Over 500,000 livestock could be affected, leading to disruptions in livestock production and adversely impacting the livelihoods of local pastoralists, which could worsen poverty levels.

A notable incident occurred in 2011 when a lake in the Hoh Xil Nature Reserve burst, blocking the migration route for Tibetan antelope and highlighting the potential risks.

Losses in cropland due to lake expansion could also jeopardize food production, affecting both local food security and the regional agricultural economy.

As lakes expand, some are expected to merge, thus posing additional threats to infrastructure and the surrounding ecology.

There’s growing concern about the potential increase in greenhouse gas emissions, like carbon dioxide and methane, from these expanded lakes.

This could lead to a feedback loop, where increased emissions cause further warming and consequent lake expansion.

Addressing these challenges will require effective adaptation and sustainable management strategies, as the expanding lakes present significant threats to infrastructure and communities.

This calls for urgent action to mitigate the socioeconomic impacts.

The study offers valuable insights and serves as a scientific guide for future planning to prevent the serious consequences that may arise from this impending lake expansion.

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