Glaciers on Asia’s Tibetan plateau are important water sources for the Yangtze, Yellow and Ganges rivers, so the effects of rising temperatures on these dense ice formations could have direct impact on billions of people in China and India.

To better understand the impact of climate change on Tibetan glaciers, climatologist Shuang-Ye Wu is collaborating with colleagues at China’s Nanjing University under a $552,620 grant from the National Natural Science Foundation of China. Wu, an associate professor in the Department of Geology, is a co-investigator on the grant awarded to Nanjing University, where she is affiliated as a visiting professor.

She and her partners will use both physical and data-based research methods to determine how the region’s glaciers expanded and contracted during the past 10,000 years in response to climate change. Their results could have important implications for predicting the effects of global warming in this key region.

“People know that when it is warm, glaciers will melt,” Wu said. “But the individual glaciers’ response to climate change can be very different. For example, some glaciers are more sensitive to temperature change, some are more sensitive to precipitation change, and the topography also plays a role.”

Most glaciers on the Tibetan plateau have experienced a retreating trend with rising temperatures during the past several decades — a trend that has recently accelerated. However, glaciers covering the northwest plateau are relatively stable, with some even expanding in geographic area.

Those findings are largely based on remote-sensing data and on-site observations during past decades. Little is known about the reduction of glaciers over periods of a 1,000 years or longer.

The researchers plan to drill ice cores at the thickest locations of the plateau’s four glaciers to accurately determine the ages of the glaciers at the point where their ice meets bedrock. The team also will collect glacial debris from surrounding areas previously covered by glaciers.

Wu will then use computer modeling to simulate the region’s past climate, given the known conditions during the last 10,000 years, to see if the climate model agrees with the historical data derived from the ice cores and sediment samples.

“The results will be put into future models to see, if the temperature rises, how the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau will respond,” she said. “That is going to have big implications, because the glaciers are important sources of water for a very highly populated area. It feeds the major rivers in China and India, so it is going to have very serious water resource implications for billions of people.”

The Nanjing University team will drill and collect cores and send the data to the University of Dayton campus, where Wu will do the modeling. Wu already has some field data to work with from a previous project in the same region that served as the foundation for the team’s current collaboration.

 She credits the University of Dayton’s Global Education Seminar, which broadens faculty teaching and scholarship through international placement, for helping her forge connections with the Chinese research team. Wu visited Nanjing University in 2012 through the program and then returned in 2015 for a sabbatical year. She has since returned every summer and also hosted a Nanjing University graduate student for a semester on Dayton’s campus.


Wu has also conducted research on how climate change raises the risk of floods for Midwest states