02:00 AM

New research program at Ohio State to focus on climate change in the Tibetan Plateau

COLUMBUS—A new research program office at The Ohio State University will focus on studying Earth’s largest repository of ice outside of the North and South Poles: The Tibetan Plateau.

Glaciologists have dubbed the plateau and the adjoining Himalaya Mountains “the Third Pole.” It holds thousands of glaciers whose meltwater is critical to the survival of people in the surrounding regions of China, India, Nepal, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bhutan.

Lonnie Thompson

That’s why Lonnie Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and research scientist at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC) at Ohio State, joined with two colleagues—a glaciologist in China and an ecologist in Germany—to co-create the Third Pole Environment (TPE) Program, which currently has offices in Nepal and Beijing. When Ohio State’s TPE office opens on May 16, it will be the only one in the Western Hemisphere.

The program’s sponsors will include the National Science Foundation; the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The program research works toward understanding coupled physical, chemical, biological and social systems in and around the Third Pole.

“Evidence is accumulating that the environmental conditions on the Third Pole have changed significantly over the last 50 years, and in many areas the rate of change is accelerating,” Thompson said. “To achieve the long-term development of the TPE program, it is essential to cultivate young scientists, policy makers and the public to work for the promotion of regional and global sustainability—and for the preservation of social well-being in this politically sensitive region.”

Ellen Mosley-Thompson

Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in Geography and director of BPCRC, said the TPE program will provide a critical boost to the number of researchers with expertise in the Tibetan Plateau and further strengthen Ohio State’s connections to its counterparts in Asia.

“A big motivator is simply to build human capacity,” she said. “A certain percentage of the funds are allocated to educating scholars in the countries that occupy or surround the plateau.”

While Ohio State students in Columbus have been able to study paleoclimatology with Lonnie Thompson for decades, students at the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are now able to attend his classes via live videoconference. Students from Tajikistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries will receive similar opportunities from the TPE program offices.

“These countries may have political discord, but science is a wonderful bridge for getting people to work together across borders,” Mosley-Thompson said.

Opening of the TPE office corresponds with the sixth annual TPE Workshop, hosted this year by Ohio State. Scholars from more than a dozen countries will gather here May 16-18 to share the results of ongoing fieldwork on the plateau.

The idea of the workshop, Mosley-Thompson explained, is to enable researchers to discuss their findings without waiting for the lengthy peer-review process that is required to publish in academic journals.

As climate change melts ice on the plateau, time is of the essence, she said, and the workshop allows far-flung research groups to share plans for upcoming expeditions and combine resources.

Other sponsors of the TPE program and the workshop include the BPCRC and the offices of Research and Academic Affairs at Ohio State.