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We review Late Cenozoic climate and environment changes in the western interior of China with an emphasis on lacustrine records from Lake Qinghai. Widespread deposition of red clay in the marginal basins of the Tibetan Plateau indicates that the Asian monsoon system was initially established by ~8 Ma, when the plateau reached a threshold altitude. Subsequent strengthening of the winter monsoon, along with the establishment of the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets, reflects a long-term trend of global cooling. The few cores from the Tibetan Plateau that reach back a million years suggest that they record the mid-Pleistocene transition from glacial cycles dominated by 41 ka cycles to those dominated by 100 ka cycles.
During Terminations I and II, strengthening of the summer monsoon in China’s interior was delayed compared with sea level and insolation records, and it did not reach the western Tibetan Plateau and the Tarim Basin. Lacustrine carbonate δ18O records reveal no climatic anomaly during MIS3, so that high terraces interpreted as evidence for extremely high lake levels during MIS3 remain an enigma. Following the Last Glacial Maximum (LSM), several lines of evidence from Lake Qinghai and elsewhere point to an initial warming of regional climate about 14 500 cal yr BP, which was followed by a brief cold reversal, possibly corresponding to the Younger Dryas event in the North Atlantic region. Maximum warming occurred about 10 000 cal yr BP, accompanied by increased monsoon precipitation in the eastern Tibetan Plateau. Superimposed on this general pattern are small-amplitude, centennial-scale oscillations during the Holocene. Warmer than present climate conditions terminated about 4000 cal yr BP. Progressive lowering of the water level in Lake Qinghai during the last half century is mainly a result of negative precipitation–evaporation balance within the context of global warming.