Lake level changes in the Tibetan Plateau from Cryosat-2, SARAL, ICESat, and Jason-2 altimeters

  • Four altimeters detect lake level trends in Tibet linked to climatic variation
  • Water levels of some large lakes start to decline in 2015 after decade of rise
  • A flood-induced lake outburst is detected by altimeters and probed by imagery
Abstract

Lake level change in the Tibetan Plateau is an important indicator for regional and global climate changes. We use altimeter data from Cryosat-2, SARAL, ICESat and Jason-2to detect lake level changes at different spatial and temporal resolutions over 2003–2017 (Jason-3 data in 2017 for validation). Cryosat-2’s SARIn mode provides precise water level time series over 59 lakes. SARAL’s waveforms are retracked to generate near monthly, high-quality measurements at 31 lakes. Jason-2 provides a reference for removing inter-altimeter biases, enabling coherent records over lakes with Jason-2 passes. After a decade of rise since the ICESat record of 2003, the lake levels of Nam Co, Selin Co, Ngangzi Co and Chibuzhang Co became flat in 2014-16 and started to fluctuate or decline after 2016. Such positive-flat-negative trends are consistent with the trend variations of mass change from Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE). SARAL detected persistent lake level declines over 2013-16 in southern Tibet that may signify the onset of decadal reduced flows of the Yarlung Tsangpo and Brahmaputra River that could affect the water supply for their downstream regions in India and Bangladesh. Cryosat-2 and Jason-2 detected sudden lake level rises and falls around Zhuonai, Kusai and Salt Lake associated with a 2011 lake outburst, which is confirmed by lake volume changes from two Landsat-7 images. With a careful processing and calibration, multiple altimeters allow for determining and cross-validating long-term and episodic lake level changes unachievable by a single altimeter.

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