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Lake changes in the Tibetan Plateau and other regions of China since 1960s

Lakes are sensitive indicators of anthropogenic climate change and also respond to direct human activities. Yet long-term lake inventories and quantitative evaluation of the factors driving observed lake changes across China have been lacking.

Dr. ZHANG Guoqing and his collaborators at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences have completed a detailed lake catalogue (area greater than 1 m2) covering the past 50 years in China. Data are divided into eight groups by decade or individual year (i.e., 1960s, 1970s, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015). The catalogue shows the change in the number of lakes and their area across different regions, using historical topographic maps and Landsat satellite images with long time series (> 3831 scenes), a semi-automatic water body extraction algorithm, plus direct visual inspection and correction. On this basis, the causes of lake change are quantified as climate or human factors.

This study shows that total lake area in China increased by 5858.06 km2 (9%) between the 1960s and 2015 and is characterized by heterogeneous spatial variation. Lake area changes in the Tibetan Plateau, Xinjiang, and Northeast Plain and mountain regions reveal significant increases of 5676.75 km2, 1417.15 km2 and 1134.87 km2 (≥15%), respectively, but the Inner-Mongolian Plateau shows an obvious decrease of 1223.76 km2 (-22%). The study also shows that 141 new lakes have appeared, predominantly in arid western China; but 333 lakes, mainly located in humid eastern China, have disappeared over the past five decades. It concludes that climate factors have played a dominant role in lake changes across China, coupled with a noticeable anthropogenic contribution of ~35% in the Eastern Plain and Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. This study has substantial implications for improving decision support regarding water-resource management strategies and land-use planning throughout China.

At present, China’s Lake data for the past 50 years can be obtained free of charge through the National Tibetan Plateau Data Center. This achievement was published in Remote Sensing of Environment, in an article entitled “Regional differences of lake evolution across China during 1960s–2015 and its natural and anthropogenic causes.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation of China and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Strategic Priority A Program, “Pan-Third Pole Environment Study for a Green Silk Road”.

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