Tibetan Plateau

Towering at an average elevation of 4,500 feet, the Tibetan Plateau’s expansive landscape is the highest flatland in the world.

The geological marvel is often referred to as the roof of the world for its vast and sky-high countryside. The plateau is in good high-elevation company, bordered by mountain ranges that are home to Mount Everest and Mount Godwin-Austen (K2), the two highest peaks in the world.

Where to Find the Tibetan Plateau

Located to the southwest of China, the Plateau of Tibet stretches to connect the Kunlun Mountains to the north, the Himalayas to the south and the Karakoram mountain range to the southwest. The Tibetan Plateau is also a bridge to diverse ecosystems, including the deserts of the Tarim and Qaidam basins, lowlands and thickly forested valleys. Overall, the landmass is approximately half the size of the contiguous United States.

A Landscape of Glacial Importance

The Tibetan Plateau is a landscape of contrasts — from flat valleys to craggy mountains and lush forests to arid desert. The flatland is also distinct for its glaciers. Tibet’s monumental glaciers account for the largest concentration of ice outside of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. These icy giants produce waters that flow into Asia’s largest waterways, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Ganges rivers. The water that rolls from these massive glaciers sustains more than 2 billion people. 

Life on the Tibetan Plateau

Yak with blankets on its back standing in front of a lake with snow covered mountains in the background, Tibet

Such sky-high elevations have isolated the Tibetan population from surrounding communities. For centuries, many Tibetans lived as nomads, traversing the land and raising livestock such as yaks to sustain their way of life. The vast majority of Tibetan nomads follow the religious practices of Tibetan Buddhism, under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. A study of the genetic descendants of Tibetan nomads found that Tibetans living at high altitudes had a different genome than people living closer to sea level. The EPAS1 gene found in Tibetans regulates hemoglobin levels in the blood to make high-elevation life possible without sickness.

The Collision That Formed the Tibetan Plateau

The Tibetan Plateau is the result of the buckling of the Earth’s crust. Specifically, the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate made contact 50 million years ago, and compressional forces elevated the Tibetan Plateau and the surrounding mountain ranges. The Indian Continental Plate continues to push northward into the Eurasian Plate, resulting in earthquakes and changes in elevation for the Tibetan Plateau. Tectonic models developed by geologists show that the Tibetan Plateau’s elevation has risen nearly 2 miles in the past 10 million years.

Culture Clash: China Invades the Tibetan Plateau

Despite Tibet’s established independence from China in 1913, numerous clashes, military uprisings and invasions have taken place on the Tibetan Plateau. Beijing and the Chinese government continue to lay claim to the land and aspects of Tibet’s cultural government. In 1960, a report by the International Commission of Jurists accused China of crimes of genocide in Tibet and violation of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Today, as the Dalai Lama lives into his 80s, China claims to have the right to appoint the next Tibetan spiritual leader, while the Dalai Lama maintains that he will choose his Buddhist reincarnate.

The remote flatlands of the Tibetan Plateau are complicated. Beneath the plateau, the Earth’s crust quakes from colliding tectonic plates. Above ground, an invading government imposes control over the people. While roiling in conflict, the Tibetan Plateau remains one of the most geologically astounding landscapes on the planet.