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General climatic controls and topoclimatic variations in
Central and High Asia
Jürgen Böhner
Online Publication Date: 01 May 2006
To cite this Article: Böhner, Jürgen (2006) 'General climatic controls and topoclimatic
variations in Central and High Asia', Boreas, 35:2, 279 - 295
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/03009480500456073
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General climatic controls and topoclimatic variations in Central
and High Asia
JU
¨
RGEN BO
¨
HNER
BOREAS
Bo¨ hner, J. 2006 (May): General climatic controls and topoclimatic variations in Central and High Asia. Boreas,
Vol. 35, pp. 279Á/295. Oslo. ISSN 0300-9483.
Basic features of current spatial and seasonal climate variations in Central and High Asia are presented. Large-
scale circulation modes were inferred from NCAR/CDAS General Circulation Model (GCM) data and
interpreted with particular emphasis on the Asian Monsoon circulation. Using spatial high-resolution estimates
of radiation, temperature and precipitation covering Central and High Asia in a regular grid network with a grid-
cell spacing of 1 km
2
, topoclimatic variations are investigated and discussed with respect to their major barometric
and topographic controls. In general, weather patterns of Central and High Asia are determined by tropical
monsoon as well as extratropical circulation modes. Associated synoptic conditions and processes, in particular
the alternation of tropical and polar air masses, lead to distinct large-scale variations valid for all climatic
parameters in all seasons. The regional analysis and discussion of climatic gradients and environmental lapse rates
stress the significant role of Asia’s marked orography and its influence on advective processes, flow currents and
topoclimatic settings. Preliminary estimations of the annual water balance, however, are still afflicted with major
uncertainties owing to methodical limits in the spatial estimation of precipitation rates and widely lacking
evapotranspiration records, particularly in the Tibetan Plateau and adjacent high mountain systems. Given the
importance of the mountainous water resources for the affected economies, further regional investigations on the
water cycle and its components are vital future tasks for climate research.
Ju ¨ rgen Bo ¨ hner (e-mail: jboehne1@gwdg.de), Department of Geography, Georg-August-University Go ¨ ttingen,
D-37077 Go ¨ ttingen, Germany; .
Climate impact studies, whether they deal with the
reconstruction of palaeoenvironmental changes or the
prediction of possible future impacts of changing
climates, have very diverse needs on climate input
data. Most climate impact studies require local
information on present and future climates with
temporal high resolution and accuracy. Reliable spatial
extended baseline climatologies are a crucial but
essential data resource for palaeoclimatologists and
climatologists who are concerned with the study
of palaeoenvironmental changes. In complex high-
mountain environments, moreover, spatially high-reso-
lution information on the topoclimatic settings is
frequently required; these settings are seldom suffi-
ciently represented by the available meteorological
station network. This is particularly valid for Central
and High Mountain Asia, where sparsely distributed
meteorological stations are mostly situated in lower
altitudes within valleys or oases belts, not representa-
tive of the actual high mountain climates. Although
the extension of meteorological networks and the
implementation of automated screens lead to a better
overall picture on climates and climatic processes
from this climato-sensitive region, the interior areas
of the Tibetan Plateau and its bordering high moun-
tain ranges are less represented to date (Miehe et al.
2001).
Owing to this general lack and hardly representa-
tive distribution of climatic observations from Central
and High Mountain Asia, a statistical downscaling
approach for the spatial estimation of different
climate variables was developed in the context of
research projects on late-Quaternary environmental
changes in Central and High Asia. Using General
Circulation Model (GCM) outputs, Digital Terrain
Model (DTM) data and available climate records
from meteorological networks, extensive gridded cli-
mate datasets were generated to: (1) detect present
climatic controls of the natural and semi-natural
environments (e.g. glacial and periglacial environ-
ments), (2) infer climate transfer functions from proxy
records, necessary for palaeoclimatic reconstructions
and for the validation of palaeoclimate model simula-
tions, and (3) predict and assess possible future
climatic impacts on the natural and semi-natural
environments. These three application modes within
an overall framework for environmental change
modelling and model-based climate impact assess-
ments were discussed by Bo¨ hner (2004a), Bo¨ hner &
Lehmkuhl (2005) and Klinge et al. (2003). Given the
general lack of climate information in the high-
mountain environments of Asia, in this article a
compilation of selected climate layers are discussed
in order to provide a first summarizing survey on
the current spatial and seasonal climatic variations
DOI 10.1080/03009480500456073 # 2006 Taylor & Francis
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of Central and High Asia. After a brief description of
methods and material, the seasonal variations of
general atmospheric circulation patterns and synoptic
processes are discussed. Then the zonal and hypso-
metric differentiation of radiation, temperature and
precipitation is sketched with special attention given
to large-scale atmospheric and local-scale topographic
controls. Since the seasonal subdivision of the climatic
regions of Central and High Asia is highly challen-
ging, it is impossible to define seasons that would be
equally valid for all regions and climatic parameters.
In this article, I therefore discuss the spatial climate
variations on the example of selected months (Jan-
uary, April, July, October), months that are taken to
be representative of the annual climatic variability.
Study area
The study area (Fig. 1) extends from 21836?N to
53801?N at 908E and from 19854?N to 50827?N at its
eastern and western margin. The longitudinal exten-
sion varies with latitude and is from 62811?E to
117849?E at the northern margin and from 71806?E to
108854?E at the southern margin. With a total of
14 000 000 km
2
, the study area covers most of the
Central Asian mountain systems and adjacent basins
and thus spans a wide range of different climates. These
comprise the extreme dry autochthonous climates of
the basins and deserts of Central Asia as well as the
hyper-humid monsoon climates of the northern and
north-easternmost parts of the Indian subcontinent.
Figure 1 shows a schematic representation of Central
and High Asia’s physiography and identifies the
most important topographic regions and locations
mentioned in the text.
Materials and methods
To date, a wide range of methods has been proposed
for the derivation of spatial climate data. Starting with
geostatistical (kriging) interpolation of point source
(weather station) data, they also comprise multiple
regression models as well as various physically based
modelling approaches, and thus vary widely in com-
plexity and sophistication. For a review of methodical
alternatives, refer to Chapman & Thornes (2003) and
Bo¨ hner (2004b, 2005). The seasonal and annual
distribution patterns of radiation, temperature, preci-
pitation and evapotranspiration discussed in this
article were approximated using statistical downscaling
of GCM outputs and terrain parameterization meth-
ods. The climate model based approach was selected in
order to support environmental change modelling
applications with climate input data in a physically
consistent manner (Bo¨hner & Lehmkuhl 2005). In the
following, the methods and considered databases are
only briefly sketched. A comprehensive description of
the entire downscaling scheme and involved methods is
presented in more detail in Bo¨hner (2004b, 2005).
The empirical database at the core of method
development comprised temperature and precipitation
records from more than 400 meteorological stations,
available as monthly time series or long-term means
with a highest data density in the period 1961Á/1990.
Evapotranspiration series were only available from 64
sites of the People’s Republic of China. These were
computed according to the Penman equation
(Schro¨ dter 1985) and provided by A. Thomas (pers.
comm. 2004). Time series were checked and homo-
genized according to the measures described in Bo¨ hner
(1996). A critical assessment of data sources and data
quality is given in Miehe et al. (2001). Figure 2 is an
overview of the spatial distribution of observation sites
and reveals the sparse cover and data availability in the
interior areas of the Tibetan Plateau.
The Digital Terrain Model (DTM) was obtained
from GTOPO-30 sources (edcaac.usgs.gov/gtopo30/
gtopo30.html). The GTOPO-30 global elevation model
has a resolution of 30 arc seconds, corresponding to a
longitudinal resolution of about 926 m. The latitudinal
resolution varies with longitude between roughly 900 m
(at 208N) and 550 m (at 538N). The GTOPO-30 was
transformed into a standard cartesian DTM with a
grid cell spacing of 1 km
2
, defined for an Alberts Equal
Area Projection via ordinary kriging (Matheron 1963,
1973). GCM predictor variables were inferred from
NCAR/CDAS reanalysis series (Kalnay et al. 1996)
performed by the US National Center for Environ-
mental Prediction (NCEP) and the National Center for
Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The retroactively
modelled records contain free atmosphere variables
(e.g. geopotential height, temperature, moisture) for 13
discrete atmosphere layers in a regular grid network
with a horizontal resolution of 2.58 by 2.58 (Lat/Lon.)
as well as climate variables (e.g. cloud cover, precipita-
tion) defined on a Gaussian grid with a resolution of
approximately 1.98 by 1.98 (Lat./Lon.). The parameters
for characterization of the large-scale circulation
modes (e.g. u-wind and v-wind component, precitable
water, cf. Malberg 1994) were explored on the
multiple grid point level using continuous vertical
and horizontal approximation schemes in order to
enable a methodically consistent assimilation of
alternative GCM outputs with differing discretisations
(e.g. ECHAM-GCM palaeo-simulations; cf. Bo¨ hner &
Lehmkuhl 2005).
Temperature and precipitation layers were estimated
by statistical downscaling (Bo¨ hner 2004a,b, 2005). In
general, statistical (empirical) downscaling procedures
explore the relationship between large-scale circulation
modes (represented by GCM predictor variables) and
corresponding local variations of single weather vari-
ables (predictant variables, observed at one or a set of
meteorological stations), using multivariate statistical
280 Ju¨rgen Bo¨hner BOREAS 35 (2006)
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analyses. Because a once obtained empirical ‘down-
scaling’ function enables a simulation of regional
weather variations on the base of the physically
consistent output of a GCM, statistical downscaling
is most frequently used in case studies and climate
change impact assessments (Von Storch 1995; Gyalis-
tras & Fischlin 1996; Gyalistras et al. 1998). Assuming
spatio-temporal variations of predictant variables to be
predominantly controlled by large-scale tropospheric
processes and regional to local-scale terrain determined
(or at least terrain affected) processes and topographic
settings, in this study, terrain attributes such as relative
altitudes above drainage network, horizon screening
and complex process parameterizations (e.g. cold air
flow, pressure drag parameterization, cf. Emeis 1994)
were integrated in the downscaling scheme. Using
multivariate statistical analyses to compute spatial
prediction functions, the entire procedure yields rea-
sonable estimations of temperature distributions with
coefficients of determination of /93% for monthly
records. Instead, precipitation estimates were distinctly
less accurate, attaining an explanation in the order of
only 70%. We assume this is mainly due to the insuf-
ficient GCM resolution, which, particularly in con-
vective dominated precipitation regimes, lies beyond
the characteristic precipitation representativeness of
about 100Á/150 km (Bo¨ hner 1996). Modelled precipita-
tion and temperature estimates were subsequently
corrected by a separately interpolated residue layer,
computed via ordinary kriging (Matheron 1963, 1973).
Owing to lacking homogenous radiation records
from the study area, solar radiation was consistently
estimated using a semi-empirical modelling approach.
Based on GCM pressure and specific humidity data,
clear sky tropospheric attenuation was first approxi-
mated by an atmosphere-mass parameterization
Fig. 1. Study area (Bo¨ hner & Lehmkuhl).
BOREAS 35 (2006) Climatic variations in Asia 281
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according to Malberg (1994). Subsequently, the cloud-
induced reduction was estimated using GCM cloud
cover data. The common A
˚
ngstro¨ m approach (cf.
Deacon 1969) proved suitable for estimating overcast
sky effects. Model calibration considered map sources
covering different parts of the study area (Lydolph
1977; Rao 1981; Domro¨ s & Peng 1988). Monthly
radiation modelling was performed with an integration
frequency of 60 minutes under consideration of hor-
izon screening and sun-ray refraction (Bo¨ hner &
Po¨ rtge 1997).
Since only very few meteorological stations have
published records required for computing evapotran-
spiration rates according to more complex methods,
evapotranspiration rates were estimated according to
the ‘Wang hyperbolic equation’ (Hoffmann 1993;
Bo¨ hner 1996). The equation was recalibrated consider-
ing the evapotranspiration and climatic water balances
were subsequently inferred from precipitation
and evapotranspiration rates. Although the annual
evapotranspiration rates were estimated with sufficient
accuracy, attaining an R
2
of 87.1%, the mapped water
balance yields no more than a preliminary estimation
of this important climatic parameter due to the sparse
empirical database.
Monthly resolution climate layers were performed
on a regular grid network of 3500/4000 grid cells,
each grid cell covering 1 km
2
. The 1-km horizontal
resolution refers to the significant resolution of the
GTOPO-30 digital terrain data sources, but was like-
wise assumed to be a suitable compromise between
computational efficiency on the one hand and an
adequate representation of mountainous climates on
the other. In accordance with the DTM, geo-referenced
Fig. 2. Spatial distribution of climate time series (squares), long-term climate mean values (dots), NCAR/CDAS circulation data (cross) and
NCAR/CDAS climate data.
282 Ju¨rgen Bo¨hner BOREAS 35 (2006)
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climate data are defined for an Alberts Equal Area
Projection (standard parallels: 258N, 458N). All
estimated climate layers refer to the period 1961Á/1990.
Atmospheric circulation and synoptic processes
The representation of troposphere circulation and
synoptic processes is mainly based on NCEP/NCAR
free atmosphere variables of the period 1961Á/1990
(Kalnay et al. 1996) drawn from discrete troposphere
layers (1000, 925, 850, 700, 500, 200 hPa) and sea level.
Referring to the whole of Asia, Figs 3 and 4 show air
pressure distribution at sea level, the geopotential
height of the 500 hPa layer and the relative topography
of the 500Á/200 hPa layer in January and July.
January
In winter, the mid-upper tropospheric planetary frontal
zone (200Á/500 hPa) is characterized by strong pressure
gradients. Since the Tibetan Plateau acts as a cold
source and induces a quasi-permanent cut-off effect in
the upper troposphere, the flow pattern in the 200 hPa
layer is split into two discrete branches. Figure 3
expresses these only slightly due to the use of long-
term means. The stronger southerly branch follows the
Himalayan arc and reaches its southernmost position
above the Ganges lowlands. Linked to strong tempera-
ture and pressure gradients, the 200 hPa layer upper air
jets exhibit wind speeds in excess of 180 km/h (Lydolph
1977). The weaker northern branch has its northern-
most position above the Altai and Alatau and then
heads southeast, merging with the southerly branch
over the east coast of China at about 30Á/358N. During
winter, the quasi-stationary waves of the upper tropo-
sphere extratropical westerlies show a characteristic
ridge positioned to the west and southwest of the
Tibetan Plateau. This is followed by a downstream
trough in the 700Á/200 hPa layer over the Japanese
ocean. The anisobaric mass movement at the subtro-
pical ridge causes an anticyclonic cell which is parti-
cularly marked at the 500 hPa level above the Arabian
Sea, but not as distinct at sea level. In contrast, the
trough further east induces cyclonic activity and a
dynamic low whose continuation in the Aleutian Low
extends to the northern Pacific lower troposphere. The
southwestÁ/northeast pressure gradient in the 700Á/
200 hPa layer results in northwesterly winds over
East Asia that favour subsidence and autochthonous
dry climate characteristics in wide parts of the northern
and eastern study area.
The January mean sea level isobars reveal a broad
high pressure system over Mongolia and North China,
the so-called Asiatic High, with secondary divergence
axes in East China and the Tarim Basin. The core of
the Asiatic High is situated over the northwestern
Mongolian basins and is induced by the low levels of
incoming radiation in combination with enhanced
radiative cooling. This is caused by the surrounding
mountains, which prevent heat advection of western air
masses into the region. The extremely shallow Asiatic
High is already dissolved at the 850 hPa layer and
overlaid by an elongated trough above its eastern
sector. The effect of allochthonous influences on the
near-ground air pressure distribution is expressed in
the cyclonic curvature of the isobars over the western
and northwestern Tian Shan forelands, and marks the
mean January trajectories of eastward-propagating
disturbances. With a core pressure below 1000 hPa,
the Aleutian Low represents the North Pacific counter-
part of the Asiatic High. The steep pressure gradient
between these two regions results in northwesterly to
northeasterly winds and influences large areas of
Central and East Asia during winter and the transi-
tional seasons. The East Asian Winter Monsoon often
occurs through surges of dry continental polar air
which partly reach the Gulf of Bengal (Nieuwolt 1981).
The mean boundary between continental cold dry air
and tropical warm air is marked by the steep pressure
gradient of the Asiatic High divergence in South China
that occurs at about 20Á/258N. The North Indian
subcontinent is mostly unaffected by continental cold
air surges due to mountains along its borders. At air
pressures between 1015 and 1020 hPa, pressure gradi-
ents and wind speeds are low above the Indian
subcontinent. North of 258N, the continental area is
dominated by northwesterly winds. Northeasterly wind
directions (Northeast Monsoon) only occur above the
Bramaputra plains. The South Asian Winter Monsoon
results from subsiding air motion in the northern
section of the subtropical anticyclone and causes stable
stratification and enhanced aridity as part of the
Hadley circulation.
April
During spring, rising temperatures on the Tibetan
Plateau and the subsequent warming of the mid-
troposphere cause pressure gradients to decrease. The
upper troposphere Westerlies over the Himalayan arc
are weakened, while the northern branch of the
Westerlies is strengthened. The trough over East Asia
is also weakened but persists during spring. At sea
level, the divergence axis at the Tarim Basin dissolves,
causing the Asiatic High to weaken and drift north-
west. With the weakening of the Aleutian Low, the
spring months in Central and East Asia are character-
ized by reduced pressure gradients. Although the
northern and northeastern investigation areas are
more frequently affected by synoptic disturbances,
the Tian Shan forelands, the Tarim Basin and East
China are still influenced by continental air due to the
prevailing northerly winds. In southeast China, south
of about 25Á/308N, the growing influence of the Pacific
High, in April at about 158N, is revealed by easterly to
BOREAS 35 (2006) Climatic variations in Asia 283
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Fig. 3. Mean circulation pattern in January. Black dotted line/sea level pressure (hPa). Grey line/heights at 500 hPa (gpdm). White line/
thickness of 500Á/200 hPa layer (gpdm).
Fig. 4. Mean circulation pattern in July. Black dotted line/sea level pressure (hPa). Grey line/heights at 500 hPa (gpdm). White line/
thickness of 500Á/200 hPa layer (gpdm).
284 Ju¨rgen Bo¨hner BOREAS 35 (2006)
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southeasterly wind directions. At the convergence zone,
the Polar Front forms a marked boundary of air
masses at the 850 hPa layer, separating moist subtro-
pical and dry continental air at the so-called Mei-Yu
Front (cf. Domro¨ s & Peng 1988). Above the Indian
subcontinent the rapid warming results in a thermal
depression over the Ganges lowlands with a core
pressure below 1015 hPa. The resulting cyclostrophic
wind pattern plays an important part in the initial
phase of the Indian Summer Monsoon. Wind direc-
tions turn from northwesterly over the Indus and
Ganges lowlands to southwesterly above the Gulf of
Bengal. The heterogeneous situation of the sea level
flow pattern already points towards the large-scale
change to the Summer Monsoon circulation.
July
As shown in Fig. 4, a shallow trough forms over
Central Asia in the 200Á/500 hPa layer in July, culmi-
nating over the Mongolian Altai at about 458N/958E.
Compared to the April position, the 500 hPa anti-
cyclone of the Pacific High has shifted north by about
158, reaching its most northerly position of 308N
during the last pentad of July (Domro¨s & Peng
1988). The northern mountain regions of the study
area are affected by a zonal flow pattern, which
separates the subtropical warm and polar cold air in
the middle troposphere at the Tian Shan Front. Owing
to the enhanced warming of the Tibetan Plateau during
May and June, a shallow heat low is established in the
planetary boundary layer (400Á/500 hPa). At the same
time, a warm anticyclone is established at 500 hPa over
the southern sector of the Tibetan Plateau, the so-
called Monsoon High. Since the Monsoon High is
centred above the upper Tsangpo Depression in South
Tibet, the upper troposphere Westerlies are replaced by
an easterly jet. Two factors are commonly held
responsible for the warming of the middle and upper
troposphere: the summer plateau circulation, also
termed Summer Plateau Monsoon, transporting heat
into the upper troposphere, and the vertical transfer of
latent heat in huge convection cells above northeast
India. The latter is particularly relevant on the wind-
ward slopes of the Himalaya (Flohn 1968, 1987;
Domro¨ s & Peng 1988).
Replacement of the northern, descending branch of
the subtropical anticyclone by ascending motion causes
the lower troposphere to destabilize, which permits the
development of the Summer Monsoon Low over
Northern India and Pakistan. The northwesterly shift
of the Inner Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) and its
dissolution into huge convection clusters places the
Indian subcontinent under the influence of westerly to
southwesterly monsoonal air masses. Above the Gulf
of Bengal, the monsoon current splits into two
branches. The eastern branch determines the weather
patterns of southwest China and favours an extensive
transfer of latent heat along the Three River Gorges far
into the southeastern Tibetan Plateau. The western
branch is deflected by the Himalaya Arc into eastern
and northeastern currents. In Fig. 3, the resulting
convergence of the monsoon low is shown with a core
pressure of less than 997 hPa.
With the dissolution of the Central Asian and
Northern Pacific pressure centres during spring and
summer, the Pacific High gains significance, affecting
the surface air flow of East Asia. Its northward shift is
linked to a corresponding shift of the Mei-Yu Front, so
that eastern China is increasingly influenced by sum-
mer monsoonal southeasterly winds in May and June.
The precipitation sector of the Mei-Yu Front reaches
the Yangtse in June, and, in a weakenend form, the
lowlands on the Huang-He in July. Because of
enhanced heating in the arid areas of Central Asia,
thermal lows develop over the Tarim Basin and Inner
Mongolia, stabilizing the southeasterly winds in the
eastern part of the study area. To the west and
northwest of these convergences, northerly to north-
westerly wind directions remain dominant.
October
During mid-August and September, winter circulation
patterns first manifest themselves in the frequent
occurrence of synoptic disturbances and troughs in
the upper troposphere over the Himalaya. These
temporarily dissolve the warm anticyclone in southeast
Tibet and thus induce characteristic ‘break situations’
in the monsoonal weather pattern. These situations
only last a few days and are typically dissolved with the
renewed formation of the Monsoon High during the
‘final attack’ (Ramaswamy 1962; Miehe 1990). Stable
upper troposphere Westerlies are first established over
the Himalayan arc, when the decreasing radiation at
the Tibetan Plateau during October favours rising
meridional temperature and pressure gradients in the
middle and upper troposphere. In northern India and
Pakistan, winter monsoonal air flow and weather
patterns are not established until mid-October, whereas
in East Asia the change to winter circulation patterns
at the surface layer is already completed by late
September. The Asiatic High is completely re-estab-
lished above the northern Dsungarian Basin. With a
core pressure of more than 1024 hPa, the October
Asiatic High is more strongly developed than its April
equivalent.
Radiation
The following section considers the short-wave (solar)
radiation income, as derived from the modelling results
outlined above. All values refer to inclined surfaces and
are therefore only comparable to global radiation
amounts in plain areas. Examples of the spatial
BOREAS 35 (2006) Climatic variations in Asia 285
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Fig. 5. Mean solar radiation on inclined surfaces for January (A), July (B) and year (C).
286 Ju¨rgen Bo¨hner BOREAS 35 (2006)
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distribution of the overall solar radiation income
(annual and monthly means) are given in Fig. 5A
(January), 5B (July) and 5C (year).
Annual radiation distribution
In the study area, major features of the solar radiation
income are determined by its huge geographic extent.
Reaching from about 22 to 538N, the astronomical day
length on 21 December varies between 10.2 h and
7.7 h. The solar altitude at noon ranges between 46.58
and 13.58, which causes major lighting contrasts and
marked topographic variation in winter. During sum-
mer, the northern sun altitude of 60.58 at 538N is about
308 lower than at 208N, but this is compensated by day
lengths of up to 16 h.
Figure 5C reveals the significance of atmospheric
extinction processes in showing a marked increase of
radiation with elevation. Representing the latitudinal
radiation gradient, the lowlands receive daily mean
annual totals of about 1200Á/1300 J×/ cm
2
d
1
at their
northern limits and roughly 1800Á/1900 J×/ cm
2
d
1
at
their southern limits. Mountain areas above 5000 m
receive more than 2000 J×/ cm
2
d
1
, reaching more
than 2500 J×/ cm
2
d
1
on the southern slopes of high-
mountain crests. Topographic differentiation becomes
progressively more pronounced with rising latitude.
Deep valleys and northern slopes of the Altai receive
less than 1200 J×/ cm
2
d
1
, southern slopes more than
1500 J×/ cm
2
d
1
.
Seasonal variations
Figure 4A shows a marked latitudinal gradient for the
spatial radiation distribution in January. With a day
length of approximately 10.5 h, the southernmost
plains of the study area receive 1300Á/1400 J×/
cm
2
d
1
, compared to only 300 J×/ cm
2
d
1
re-
ceived in northernmost areas such as the Mongolian
basins. With rising altitude and decreasing extinction,
the plain surfaces of the Tibetan Plateau receive 1000Á/
1500 J×/ cm
2
d
1
. A steep meridional gradient also
prevails in comparable settings. Owing to low solar
altitudes, inclined south-facing surfaces receive more
than twice as much as north-facing slopes, especially in
the northern high mountain areas. For the steep
northern slopes of the western Altai, minimum
amounts of less than 100 J×/ cm
2
d
1
are obtained,
while adret slopes at the same elevation receive up to
600 J×/ cm
2
d
1
. Topographical variation is also valid
for the Himalaya, where crests with southern aspects
may reach up to 2100 J×/ cm
2
d
1
. Owing to the
screening of horizons, the radiation partly decreases
to 1000 J×/ cm
2
d
1
in narrow valleys.
With increasing day length and sun altitudes,
spring is characterized by a marked increase in radia-
tion and less predominance of meridional contrasts.
For the northern limits, estimates for April range
between 1700 and 1900 J×/ cm
2
d
1
. Because of the
higher fraction of cloud cover in South China, radia-
tion values tend not to exceed 2100 J×/ cm
2
d
1
, while
the comparably dry conditions in North India lead to
values of more than 2500 J×/ cm
2
d
1
. For high
mountain areas above 5000 m, daily insolation
totals of 2600 to 2800 J×/ cm
2
d
1
at the Tibetan
Plateau and more than 3000 J×/ cm
2
d
1
in the Altai
mountain plateaus confirm the absence of a large-scale
meridional gradient. However, orographic differentia-
tion is still marked in steep terrains, with totals of more
than 3200 J×/ cm
2
d
1
on Himalayan south-facing
slopes.
Figure 5B reveals an almost total dispersal of large-
scale meridional radiation gradients in July. Compared
to April, the rise in total amounts is only small.
Although noon altitudes of the sun differ by 308, the
lower inclination angle of about 608 in the northern-
most latitudes is compensated by a day length exceed-
ing 16 h. Total insolation of more than 2300 J×/
cm
2
d
1
in the south Siberian steppes is only
matched by the dry plains of the Thar Desert in the
southern study areas. Owing to the higher fraction of
the convection clusters in northeast India and East
China (e.g. in the Red Basin), daily totals decrease to
about 1900Á/2000 J×/ cm
2
d
1
, even dropping below
the April values. In July, the spatial distribution of
solar radiation is determined by elevation effects and
the resulting atmospheric transmission. This is evident
in the high mountain crests of the Himalaya, the
Tibetan Plateau, the Karakoram or the Tian Shan, all
obtaining more than 3300 J×/ cm
2
d
1
and reaching
maximum values of up to 3600 J×/ cm
2
d
1
. An
orographical differentiation is only apparent in the
Altai and adjacent mountainous areas when totals of
less than 1900 J×/ cm
2
d
1
are received on steep
northern slopes or valley bottoms.
The fall is generally characterized by a marked
decrease in solar radiation, so that October mirrors
nearly January conditions. A steep meridional gradient
is revealed by radiation rates below 600 J×/ cm
2
d
1
at
the northernmost latitudes and about 1600 J×/
cm
2
d
1
in the southern plains of the study area.
Estimates for plain settings of the Tibetan Plateau
commonly range between 1600 and 1900 J×/ cm
2
d
1
.
Overall, October values range between 2500 J×/
cm
2
d
1
at southern crest slopes of the Himalaya
and less than 500 J×/ cm
2
d
1
on north-facing slopes
of the Altai.
Thermal conditions
The following establishes the basic characteristics of
spatial and seasonal temperature variations, taking
into account the annual state of atmospheric circula-
tion and associated advection as well as radiation as
the major thermal controls. Examples of long-term
BOREAS 35 (2006) Climatic variations in Asia 287
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Fig. 6. Mean temperature distribution in January (A), July (B) and year (C).
288 Ju¨rgen Bo¨hner BOREAS 35 (2006)
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estimates of annual and monthly means are given in
Fig. 6 for January (A), July (B) and the year (C).
Annual temperature distribution
As shown in Fig. 6C, the investigation area is
characterized by extreme thermal differences. In gen-
eral, the spatial distribution of temperature is predo-
minantly determined by hypsometric differentiation.
With an average lapse rate of roughly /0.006 K×/ m
1
,
large areas of the central Highlands and the northern
and northwestern mountain areas are situated in a
negative temperature scope. In the mountain-rimmed
basins of the Altai, the 08C limit reaches down to about
1500 m, compared to 4800 m in the upper Tsangpo
depression. At the Tibetan Plateau, annual means of
/108C are common for the crests north of the central
Plateau axis. In the lowlands of the study area, a
general temperature decrease from west to east can be
observed in the southern and northern margin. In the
North Indian and Pakistan plains, the high annual
temperature level of about 25Á/288C results from
enhanced heat surplus, which is particularly pro-
nounced in winter and the transitional seasons. The
comparably low values of less than 238C in southern
China mostly reflect negative winter anomalies. In the
northernmost lowlands, annual means range between
0Á/28C in northeastern China and 4Á/68C in the south-
ern Siberian steppes. With annual means between 7 and
138C in the lowlands and huge basins north and east of
the Tibetan Plateau, large areas of arid Central Asia
can be assigned to the temperate climates. However, the
term ‘temperate’ (derived from European experience) is
misleading as far as the marked seasonal variations are
concerned.
Seasonal variations
Although the temperature distribution in January
appears complex, major controls can be identified. In
line with the marked radiation gradient, Fig. 6A also
reveals distinct meridional differences. Negative tem-
perature anomalies throughout the eastern study high-
light the significance of air mass origin for thermal
conditions. The frequent cold air surges cause tem-
peratures to drop about 58C below the latitudinal
mean. The 08C isotherm is situated at about
800 m a.s.l. in the southern Qinling forelands, between
2800 and 3400 m a.s.l. along the Three River Gorges
and in the central Himalaya, and between 1600 and
2000 m a.s.l. in the western Himalaya and Karakoram.
With the exception of the western Tian Shan forelands,
which benefit from advection of latent heat by western
air masses, temperatures north of 378N remain below
08C. While frequent dry adiabats and subsiding air
motion in the subtropical anticyclone over North India
result in vertical lapse rates of up to /0.0088C×/ m
1
, a
marked decrease in the vertical differentiation, reach-
ing positive gradients at peplosphere level in the
northern sections of the study area, is apparent (Fig.
6A). In the Mongolian basins, enhanced cooling and
stagnation of air lead to the formation of cold air
domes, revealed by values of less than /258C.
Comparable values are only reached in the high
mountain areas at elevations above 5000 m a.s.l.
Thermal conditions in spring are characterized by
the dissolution of meridional temperature contrasts in
the northeastern and eastern study area. In the south-
ern Siberian plains, persisting snow cover and the
northwesterly shift of the Asiatic High are linked to
increasing meridional temperature contrasts in the
northwestern areas between 408 und 508N. In April,
the northern and western Tian Shan forelands are
therefore more often affected by continental cold
air than North and East China. With increasing
atmospheric instability, particularly in arid Central
Asia, vertical gradients reach values of about /0.005
to /0.0068C×/ m
1
. This leads to a more distinct
vertical temperature differentiation in the northern
mountain areas. Apart from the huge basins, where
temperatures can rise to 158C, the general spring
warming is most pronounced in the upper Tsangpo
Depression, with positive estimates for altitudes up to
4900 m a.s.l. Elsewhere in the mountain ranges border-
ing the Tibetan Plateau, the 08C isotherm remains
below 4500 m a.s.l.
Apart from altitude as the main control for tem-
perature distribution, there is a complete dissolution of
the meridional temperature differentiation in July.
Enhanced heat surplus in the northern basins during
summer causes temperatures to rise above 208C. A
marked maximum of 338C in the Turpan Depression is
only matched by the Thar Desert. Consistent with
frequent moist adiabatic air motions in the huge
convection cells, the hypsometric gradient in southern
monsoon-controlled regions slightly decreases to about
/0.005 K×/ m
1.
North of the Plateau axis, vertical
gradients partly exceed /0.0078C×/ m
1
. Owing to the
large radiation amounts and enhanced heat surplus,
the Tibetan Plateau acts as a large-scale elevated heat
surface during summer. In line with positive tempera-
ture anomalies in the middle to upper troposphere,
negative monthly means in July only occur along the
main adjacent ranges.
During fall, barometric conditions adapt to winter
circulation patterns. The increasing frequency of cold
air surges is apparent in a dramatic temperature drop
in the lowlands and basins. Above 3000 m a.s.l., how-
ever, an opposite tendency can be noted. In southern
Tibet, positive temperatures in the basins between the
Transhimalaya and the Tangula Shan indicate a
persistent heat surplus, a fact that is also expressed in
a strictly hypsometric increase of the meridional
gradients in October. The rise of the 08C isotherm
from 1600 m in the Altai to about 5000 m a.s.l. in the
Transhimalaya and upper Tsangpo is correspondingly
BOREAS 35 (2006) Climatic variations in Asia 289
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pronounced. This finding, which appears to contradict
the relatively low amount of radiation obtained at the
Tibetan Plateau in October, shows that radiation is
relatively efficiently transformed into sensible heat at
the surface layer, which is less weakened by ablation
than in spring. Thus, comparably low vertical lapse
rates result from the persisting temperature level
in southern Tibet, with values of approximately
/0.0058C×/ m
1
in the Himalaya and along the Three
River Gorges.
Moisture conditions
Since variation in spatial precipitation is largely con-
trolled by topographic setting, hilly terrains are char-
acterized by a huge range of precipitation. The
following outlines the overall patterns and features of
the spatio-temporal moisture variations, particularly
where they contribute to tropospheric processes. Pre-
cipitation distribution patterns are given in Fig. 7 for
January (A), July (B) and year (C).
Annual precipitation distribution
In general, the distribution of spatial precipitation is
extremely variable, ranging from less than 25 mm in the
Tarim Basin to more than 10 000 mm in the Kashi
Hills. Taking into account alternating air masses and
associated processes of precipitation genesis, the over-
all distribution of precipitation reveals some general
controls. These can roughly be classified into monsoo-
nal variation patterns, on the one hand, and large-scale
variation patterns, on the other, caused by extratropical
Westerlies and their associated fronts and disturbances.
The latter pattern is observed in the western and
northern high mountain systems and their respective
western and northwestern forelands. Precipitation
regimes in these regions are dominated by western
disturbances throughout the year. In the Hindukush,
Karakoram, Pamir and West Kunlun, disturbances
occur most frequently in winter, whereas in Tian Shan
and Bogda Shan they are most common in spring. In
the Alatau and Altai, disturbances are expressed as
quasi-stationary fronts in summer. Precipitation rates
rapidly increase from 100Á/300 mm in the northwestern
and western forelands, basins and valleys bottoms to
roughly 600Á/1000 mm on windward slopes. Totals of
more than 1500 mm are obtained in the Alatau, on
northern aspects of the Tian Shan and in the Hindu-
kush. Cyclonic activity causes estimates of up to
600 mm in the relatively dry West Kunlun, despite
being sheltered by the Pamir and Karakoram. In most
eastern and southern humid to semi-humid areas of the
investigation area, distribution of precipitation is
monsoonal. In the sphere of the East Asian Monsoon,
precipitation increases towards the east and southeast,
roughly ranging from 700 to 1500 mm. At windward
slopes of the southern Chinese Highlands and in the
mountain ranges bordering the Red Basin, 2000 mm
are frequently exceeded. North of the Qinling Shan,
precipitation totals significantly decrease to 400 mm in
the Ordos Plateau and to less than 100 mm in Inner
Mongolia. Marked contrasts also occur in the sphere
of the South Asian Monsoon. Precipitation rates
progressively increase towards the west and north
from about 100 mm in the Thar Desert to roughly
1000 mm in the foothills of the western Himalaya and
the western Ganges plains. Up to 2000 mm are
observed in the Assam plains, with marked maximum
rates of more than 4000 mm for the windward southern
slopes of the bordering mountain ranges at altitudes
below 4000 m. However, in deep valleys and mountain
rimmed basins, a dramatic reduction is observed
throughout the Himalaya. The significance of topo-
graphic setting is best illustrated by the famous Kashi
Hills, where the uplift of moist monsoonal air currents
leads to more than 10 000 mm deposited on southern
slopes and less than 2000 mm on leeward slopes. The
variation pattern encountered at the Tibetan Plateau
shows parallels to the situation described above, in
particular the general increase of totals from northwest
to southeast. Nevertheless, it can only partly be labelled
monsoonal. The comparatively high estimates of up to
more than 1000 mm in the southeast Plateau and along
the crest lines of the Three River Gorges are caused by
allochthonous monsoon currents, while the amounts of
about 400Á/1000 mm in the central and southern
Plateau area predominantly result from convection
(Flohn 1968). At the same time, increased advection
rates have to be assumed for the comparably dry
Northeast Plateau, where the northern slopes of the
mountain ranges bordering the Qaidam Depression
receive more than 400 mm. However, a dramatic
decrease to less than 50 mm in the intramontane basins
and valley bottoms reveals the low frequency of fronts
in this area. Dry conditions are also apparent in the
westernmost plateau area, which is sheltered from
western disturbances by the high mountain systems
of the Hindukush, Karakoram, Pamir and Tian Shan.
However, estimates of 50Á/400 mm mostly result from
the cyclonal activity during winter. The central high-
lands of Tibet therefore mediate between the dominant
precipitation regimes of Asia.
Seasonal variations
In January, the precipitation distribution (Fig. 7A)
mirrors the major trajectories of cyclonic activity. In
the Tian Shan, the windward slopes and western
forelands receive precipitation totals of more than
50Á/80 mm, increasing westwards from Bogda Shan
towards the Talas Alatau and exceeding 200 mm in the
western slopes of the Alai chain. In the Himalaya,
which is much affected by upper troposphere distur-
bances, the precipitation depression in the Sikkim
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Fig. 7. Mean precipitation distribution in January (A), July (B) and year (C).
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Himalayas marks the average reach of cyclonic activity.
The western Himalaya and Karakoram receive pre-
cipitation rates of approximately 30 to over 120 mm.
For the inner Himalaya and the main ridge of the
Hindukush, totals over 200 mm are estimated for
westerly to southwesterly slopes. Owing to a stable
winter monsoonal flow pattern, convective precipita-
tion rates in North India are limited. In northeast
India, 50 mm are only exceeded at southern slopes and
in the forelands of the Assam Himalaya. Although the
cloudy cold air sector of the Polar Front covers all of
South China from the coast to the Yangtse during
winter, precipitation totals of 50 mm are only exceeded
in the southeastern investigation area, which is influ-
enced by Pacific air masses.
Western disturbances and their trajectories also
influence large-scale patterns of precipitation distribu-
tion in spring. This is indicated by a general east-to-
west increase at higher altitudes in the western high
mountain areas and their forelands, extending from the
western Himalaya to the Karakoram, Hindukush,
Pamir and Tian Shan. As a result of increasingly zonal
circulation patterns in April, northwestern slopes of the
Tian Shan benefit from precipitation rates of more
than 200 mm. Comparable amounts can be calculated
for the Kashmiri Himalaya and the Karakoram, with
maximum values obtained at northern and north-
western aspects of the Hindukush. In valleys and
basins, values decrease to less than 20 mm of precipita-
tion. With increasing atmospheric destabilization in the
pre-monsoonal period, the monsoonal west-to-east
increase in precipitation highlights the growing impor-
tance of convection. While 50 mm is characteristic in
the Indus and Ganges lowlands, more than 200 mm is
received by the Bramaputra plains and bordering
ranges. Favoured by the emergence of southwesterly
winds over the Gulf of Bengal, the windward slopes of
the Khashi Hills and the foothills of the Assam
Himalaya may receive in excess of 300 mm. In the
Three River Gorges and southeast Tibet, precipitation
varies widely depending on the topographic setting,
with characteristic low values of 20Á/100 mm. Southern
and eastern China are influenced by convective pre-
cipitation and the so-called ‘plum rains’ associated with
the Mei-Yu Front. Precipitation here increases from
northwest to southeast and reaches 150Á/200 mm.
With decreasing cyclone frequencies in the western
mountainous areas, precipitation in valleys and basins
amounts to less than 10 mm during the summer
months (Fig. 7B). The eastern Tian Shan, the Bogda
Shan and the Altai benefit from the mean July position
of the Tian Shan Front as well as thermal convection
linked to intense diurnal mountain wind systems. On
northern slopes, precipitation rates exceed 80 mm.
Precipitation rates continue to increase from the east-
ern Tarim Basin across the Gobi to the Ordos Plateau,
exceeding 200 mm in the Red Basin and adjacent
mountain areas. While the warm air sector of the
Mei-Yu Front south of the Yangtse is linked to lower
amounts, converging South and East Asian monsoon
components cause precipitation rates of over 200 mm
in South China. Total amounts of more than 300 mm
on windward slopes and crests indicate an extensive
transfer of latent heat along the Three River Gorges
into southeastern Tibet caused by monsoon currents.
Even in deep valleys, however, more than 100 mm is
obtained. During the summer monsoon, variations in
precipitation across the Indian subcontinent are parti-
cularly pronounced in the plains, where precipitation
increases by a factor of 10 from the Thar Desert to the
Bramaputra plains. This is mainly due to thermal
convection and tropical depressions originating in the
Gulf of Bengal (Rao 1981). These depressions follow
the general monsoon current and take a northwesterly
path along the Himalaya, where they lead to precipita-
tion totals of more than 1000 mm on the windward
slopes of the Kashi Hills and in the eastern Himalaya.
On the Tibetan Plateau, totals range between less than
50 mm in the western and northernmost areas and
more than 300 mm in the southeastern areas. With
cumuliform clouds covering more than 80% of central
Tibet, precipitation mainly results from convection. As
described above, northern and northeastern Tibet
benefits from the trough position above the Mongolian
Altai. Here, cyclonal activity is confirmed by the
proportion of stratiform clouds, which increases from
less than 20% in the Tangula Shan to over 40% in the
Kunlun and Qilian Shan. Comparable estimates
(e.g. exceeding 100 mm on the northern slopes of the
Qilian Shan in the northwestern Plateau area) mainly
result from advective processes (Flohn 1968, 1987;
Dronia 1987).
In October, the precipitation distribution of western
High Asia begins to point towards the large-scale
cyclonal source. While precipitation totals in the
northern Tian Shan forelands generally exceed the
January values, precipitation elsewhere remains below
the January levels. Amounts of roughly 20 mm in the
intramontane basins and valleys and over 200 mm in
favoured topographical settings are characteristic of
the whole of western High Asia. The contrast between
pre- and post-monsoon period is revealed by precipita-
tion rates of about 100Á/300 mm in the Ganges low-
lands, which far exceeds the April totals. Here,
precipitation mainly results from tropical depressions,
which often reach storm strength during October
and November (tropical cyclones), and are linked to
high precipitation (Rao 1981). The monsoonal, strictly
west to east increase of precipitation thus remains
characteristic of the post-monsoon period as well. A
comparable high level of precipitation is also apparent
in the Three River Gorges and southeastern Tibet.
Here, precipitation rates of about 50Á/300 mm clearly
exceed the pre-monsoon level obtained in April. In
eastern China, the large-scale Pacific orientation also
prevails during October. With the exception of the
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topographically favoured mountain margins of the
Red Basin, where amounts of 200 mm are fre-
quently exceeded, precipitation increases eastwards
and southeastwards, ranging from about 20 to 50 mm
the Ordos Plateau to more than 200 mm in the south
Chinese Highlands.
Climatic water balance
Climatic variation is best summarized by looking at the
spatial distribution of the mean annual water balance,
a factor which comprises most climatic essentials.
Consistent with the huge spatial variability of major
climatic parameters, Fig. 8 reveals marked spatial
variation and a wide range of conditions ranging
from the extremely moist to the extremely dry. In the
Thar desert, precipitation deficits reach /2000 mm,
which results from low precipitation totals and
enhanced heat surplus throughout the year. Other
large parts of the study area are also characterized
by marked deficits. Annual totals of /1000 to nearly
/2000 mm are obtained for the mountain-sheltered
basins of Central Asia (Tarim, Quaidam, Dsungarian,
Uufs-Noor Basin) and indicate an autochthonous
climate with precipitation totals of less than 100 mm
and extreme seasonal temperature variations. The
annual range of monthly means (more than 358C
with a maximum of about 458C in the Uufs-Noor
Basin) results from the summer heat surplus followed
by enhanced radiational cooling in winter. In eastern
and southern areas in contrast, the water balance
progressively increases, almost reaching positive values
in the area of the East Asian and South Asian Summer
Monsoon. Enormous precipitation amounts in the
Assam plains and adjacent windward slopes of the
Himalaya and Kashi Hills cause the water balance to
Fig. 8. Mean annual water balance.
BOREAS 35 (2006) Climatic variations in Asia 293
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reach maximum values of more than 5000 mm. Never-
theless, the winter season remains arid. With an annual
temperature range of roughly 10 to 208C, seasonal
temperature variations are less pronounced. Some
positive water balances can be found in the northern
mountainous regions of the study area. Up to 300 mm
is achieved in the Altai, which benefits from low
radiation income and low temperatures. Comparable
values in the western high mountain areas indicate
higher precipitation levels due to the frequent occur-
rence of western disturbances. The latter aspect, in
particular the advection of latent heat in winter, is also
responsible for the comparably moderate annual tem-
perature variation, which characteristically ranges
between 20 and 258C. The water balance in the Tibetan
plateau varies widely between about /900 mm in the
westernmost valleys and basins and 800 mm at the
southeastern high mountain crests. However, these
values are calculated on the basis of annual evapo-
transpiration estimates of about 400 to 1000 mm. In
view of the high transpiration velocity in these levels of
the troposphere, they are likely to underestimate the
real values.
Conclusions
The study is a survey of the current spatial and
seasonal climate variations in Central and High Asia
using extensive gridded climate estimates at 1 km
2
resolution consistently approximated by means of
statistical downscaling of GCM data and DTM based
terrain parameterization methods. Despite a sparse and
hardly representative distribution of available observa-
tions from meteorological stations, seasonal differen-
tiated analyses reveal the main characteristics of the
spatial climate variations, its driving atmospheric
forces, and topographic controls on a regional scale.
However, methodical limits in the estimation of
precipitation rates and widely missing evapotranspira-
tion records, completely lacking over large domains
of the interior Tibetan Plateau and adjacent High
mountain ranges, only enable an uncertain calculation
of the annual climatic water balance. Thus, there is
an obvious necessity of additional data assembly
from regular network sources and the inclusion of
measurement campaigns. Moreover, a combination
of diagnostic data analyses, regional climate model-
ling approaches, and remote-sensing techniques is
encouraged to provide more reliable estimates of
the climatic water balance and its components at
commensurate scales. Given the number of countries
affected by the mountainous water resources of High
Asia, the assessment and modelling of the water
resources is generally recommended as an urgent task
for future climate related research in this climato-
sensitive region.
Acknowledgements. Á/ I thank the German Ministry for Education
and Research (BMBF) and the German Research Society (DFG)
for financial support. This work was part of a BMBF Project
on ‘Terrestrial Palaeoclimates’ from 1998 to 2001 (J. Bo¨ hner &
F. Lehmkuhl FKZ: 01LA9838). I am grateful to two anonymous
reviewers, Lewis Owen, Jim Teller and Jan A. Piotrowski for helpful
suggestions and valuable comments on the scientific content. In
addition, I thank Kira Gee for smoothing the English. This is a
contribution to IGCP 415 (Glaciation and Reorganization of Asia’s
Network of Drainage), co-edited by Professor Jim Teller.
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