Articles | Volume 15, issue 11
Research article
01 Jun 2015
Research article |  | 01 Jun 2015

Atmospheric brown clouds reach the Tibetan Plateau by crossing the Himalayas

Z. L. Lüthi, B. Škerlak, S.-W. Kim, A. Lauer, A. Mues, M. Rupakheti, and S. Kang

Abstract. The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau region (HTP), despite being a remote and sparsely populated area, is regularly exposed to polluted air masses with significant amounts of aerosols including black carbon. These dark, light-absorbing particles are known to exert a great melting potential on mountain cryospheric reservoirs through albedo reduction and radiative forcing. This study combines ground-based and satellite remote sensing data to identify a severe aerosol pollution episode observed simultaneously in central Tibet and on the southern side of the Himalayas during 13–19 March 2009 (pre-monsoon). Trajectory calculations based on the high-resolution numerical weather prediction model COSMO are used to locate the source regions and study the mechanisms of pollution transport in the complex topography of the HTP. We detail how polluted air masses from an atmospheric brown cloud (ABC) over South Asia reach the Tibetan Plateau within a few days. Lifting and advection of polluted air masses over the great mountain range is enabled by a combination of synoptic-scale and local meteorological processes. During the days prior to the event, winds over the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) are generally weak at lower levels, allowing for accumulation of pollutants and thus the formation of ABCs. The subsequent passing of synoptic-scale troughs leads to southwesterly flow in the middle troposphere over northern and central India, carrying the polluted air masses across the Himalayas. As the IGP is known to be a hotspot of ABCs, the cross-Himalayan transport of polluted air masses may have serious implications for the cryosphere in the HTP and impact climate on regional to global scales. Since the current study focuses on one particularly strong pollution episode, quantifying the frequency and magnitude of similar events in a climatological study is required to assess the total impact.

Short summary
The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau region (HTP) is regularly exposed to polluted air masses that might influence glaciers as well as climate on regional to global scales. We found that atmospheric brown clouds from South Asia reach the HTP by crossing the Himalayas not only through the major north--south river valleys but rather over large areas by being lifted and advected at mid-troposheric levels. The transport is enabled by a combination of synoptic and local meteorological settings.
Final-revised paper