1 A set of 316 modern surface pollen samples, sampling all the alpine vegetation types that occur on the Tibetan Plateau, has been compiled and analysed. Between 82 and 92% of the pollen present in these samples is derived from only 28 major taxa. These 28 taxa include examples of both tree (AP) and herb (NAP) pollen types. 2 Most of the modern surface pollen samples accurately reflect the composition of the modern vegetation in the sampling region. However, airborne dust-trap pollen samples do not provide a reliable assessment of the modern vegetation. Dust-trap samples contain much higher percentages of tree pollen than non-dust-trap samples, and many of the taxa present are exotic. In the extremely windy environments of the Tibetan Plateau, contamination of dust-trap samples by long-distance transport of exotic pollen is a serious problem. 3 The most characteristic vegetation types present on the Tibetan Plateau are alpine meadows, steppe and desert. Non-arboreal pollen (NAP) therefore dominates the pollen samples in most regions. Percentages of arboreal pollen (AP) are high in samples from the southern and eastern Tibetan Plateau, where alpine forests are an important component of the vegetation. The relative importance of forest and non-forest vegetation across the Plateau clearly follows climatic gradients: forests occur on the southern and eastern margins of the Plateau, supported by the penetration of moisture-bearing airmasses associated with the Indian and Pacific summer monsoons; open, treeless vegetation is dominant in the interior and northern margins of the Plateau, far from these moisture sources. 4 The different types of non-forest vegetation are characterized by different modern pollen assemblages. Thus, alpine deserts are characterized by high percentages of Chenopodiaceae and Artemisia, with Ephedra and Nitraria. Alpine meadows are characterized by high percentages of Cyperaceae and Artemisia, with Ranunculaceae and Polygonaceae. Alpine steppe is characterized by high abundances of Artemisia, with Compositae, Cruciferae and Chenopodiaceae. Although Artemisia is a common component of all non-forest vegetation types on the Tibetan Plateau, the presence of other taxa makes it possible to discriminate between the different vegetation types. 5 The good agreement between modern vegetation and modern surface pollen samples across the Tibetan Plateau provides a measure of the reliability of using pollen data to reconstruct past vegetation patterns in non-forested areas.