High-altitude inland-drainage lakes on the Tibetan Plateau (TP), the earth’s third pole, are very sensitive to climate change. Tibetan lakes are important natural resources with important religious, historical, and cultural significance. However, the spatial patterns and processes controlling the impacts of climate and associated changes on Tibetan lakes are largely unknown. This study used long time series and multi-temporal Landsat imagery to map the patterns of Tibetan lakes and glaciers in 1977, 1990, 2000, and 2014, and further to assess the spatiotemporal changes of lakes and glaciers in 17 TP watersheds between 1977 and 2014. Spatially variable changes in lake and glacier area as well as climatic factors were analyzed. We identified four modes of lake change in response to climate and associated changes. Lake expansion was predominantly attributed to increased precipitation and glacier melting, whereas lake shrinkage was a main consequence of a drier climate or permafrost degradation. These findings shed new light on the impacts of recent environmental changes on Tibetan lakes. They suggest that protecting these high-altitude lakes in the face of further environmental change will require spatially variable policies and management measures.
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