Sweeping vegetation changes projected in Kashmir Himalayas due to global warming

,

India Climate Dialogue, Kashmir

A team of researchers predict sweeping changes in vegetation in Kashmir Himalayas due to climate change. Kashmir is likely to lose a large chunk of its snow cover to invading shrubs, steppes and forests by the end of the century which could severely impact stream flows, agriculture productivity and biodiversity in the region.

Researchers predict sweeping vegetation changes in Kashmir Himalayas due to climate change (Image by Sandeepachetan.com)

Researchers predict sweeping vegetation changes in Kashmir Himalayas due to climate change (Image by Sandeepachetan.com)

Kashmir is likely to witness sweeping vegetation changes due to global warming, with shrubs and tundra forests replacing icy regions, and savannahs invading newer areas, scientists report. The changes could jeopardise ecosystem services and products unique to the Himalayas.

A team of researchers from the University of Kashmir, Srinagar, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, and Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Bangalore, recently estimated the impact of global warming on Kashmir Himalayas.  The Himalayas are one of 35 global biodiversity hotspots.

The team undertook three lines of analysis – they mapped the present types and distribution of plants growing in this region; examinedweather data to study changing climate signals; and attempted to predict the vegetation distribution and composition of this region for the rest of this century. Their study area spanned around 200,000 square km.

The scientists say maximum and minimum temperatures in two stations they studied, Gulmarg and Pahalgam, could show a rise of 4-7 degrees Celsius by the end of century. Rain and snow fall, however, is not expected to change much, according to their findings published July 5 in the journal Climatic Change.

Sweeping vegetation changes

But the team predicts “sweeping changes” in vegetation.“Undoubtedly our results/assessments indicate that grasslands and tropical deciduous forests in the region would be severely affected while areas presently under cold desert/rock or ice would be colonized by steppes, shrubs and at certain places by forests in the worst case scenario.  Our modelling experiment predicted that a substantial area of land, presently under the permanent snow and ice cover, would disappear by the end of the century which might severely impact stream flows, agriculture productivity and biodiversity in the region,” Irfan Rashid, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the department of earth sciences, University of Kashmir, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Temperate evergreen forests are likely to be colonized by temperate deciduous forest. Temperate evergreen broadleaf forests and mixed forests may replace open shrub lands, the report says.

Additionally savannahs could also invade the area, with widespread growth of savannahs/steppes and the reappearance of temperate evergreen coniferous forests as well as shrub lands by the end of the century.

The scientists concluded that the altered vegetation distributions may also jeopardise services and products unique to the livelihoods in this region. The carbon stocks present in the region at the moment may also undergo quite a bit of change with gradual changes in the vegetation pattern.

“People, especially tribal communities, living in the forested and alpine landscapes (more than 2,500m above sea level) directly depend on forested and pasture lands for their livelihood especially when it comes to the dependence on timber, firewood, medicinal plants, and grazing of cattle in the lush green pristine alpine pastures,” Rashid said.

“Our analysis indicated that in view of changing climate, such ecosystems could be severely impacted which will not only alter the species distribution patterns and biochemical cycling within such ecosystems but strongly pose a threat to the livelihood of such tribal communities.”

The impact on ecosystem is in line with a previous study on a “massive ecosystem shift” in the Tibetan Plateauby the Kunming Institute of Botany.

The team’s findings also assume significance given the paucity of data from the Himalayas, a startlingly steep mountain range that rise from 300 metres to over 8,000 metres, and pose severe challenges for collecting data on climate, soil and vegetation.

The team based their predictions on a computer model called “Integrated Biosphere Simulator” (IBIS), which is one in a group of highly advanced computer model-based tools to assess the impact of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems including forests. These models represent ecosystem dynamics on ground in response to environmental changes.

To map the area, they used data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA’s) high resolution radiometer. They also used observed meteorological data from 1979 to 2010 on temperatures, stream flow and precipitation for Pahalgam and Gulmarg.

They found that between 1980 and 2000, minimum temperatures in this region rose faster than maximum temperatures. There was a decrease in precipitation rates,but that was insignificant.

Plants moving up

Current and anticipated vegetation changes in the Indian Himalayas have been worrying scientists for some time. Vaneet Jishtu, a botanist at the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, which borders the Indian Kashmir region, has warned that changes were occurring at one of the most critical zones, called “high altitude transition zones” (HATZ) where one form of ecosystem gives way to another and are most vulnerable to climate change. HATZ occurs typically at 3,400-3,800 metres above sea level.

Jishtu told a workshop on climate change adaptation in July 2014 that most of the species in this critical zone are not properly documented yet, and are disappearing even before their identity was known. The workshop was co-organized by thethirdpole.net.

“We have very little benchmarking of species in the HATZ,” Sanjeeva Pandey, additional principal chief conservator of forests in Himachal Pradesh, said. “We have no data or ecological studies, or research on vegetation changes in the HATZ which has no less than eight forest types.”

Such benchmarking would be of plants, animals including insects, nesting sites of birds and small invertebrates, Pandey said. “Manifestation of climate change will be more pronounced for plants as they are locally rooted,” he added.

“Vegetation is an intricate part of the ecosystem. In ecological parlance, the green plants are the primary producers as they are the only ones which can convert solar energy into food material. So any drastic change in ecosystem will hamper the ecosystem productivity,” Pandey explained to indiaclimatedialogue.net.

“However, we need to worry more about the inter-relationships among the vegetation, and vegetation and animals including insects, lower vertebrates and so on. These inter-relationships or interdependence maintain the fragile balance in nature… Landslides, floods or cloud bursts are some of the very visible forms of disruptions that we know of,” Pandey said, citing instances of floods in Kashmir and Kedarnath in Uttarakhand.

Some of the studies on better-known Himalayan plants indicate an upward movement in their growing areas, which scientists attribute to changing climatic conditions. For example, University of Kashmir researchers have reported that the nuisance weed Parthenium hysterophorus and water fern Azolla cristata, which were not known in Kashmir’s colder weather and are more typical of warmer areas, are now seen growing widely in several areas in the state.

And scientists from the GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development (GBPHED)’s station in Himachal Pradesh have reported that the Himalayan blue pine (Pinus wallichiana) , which until a decade ago did not grow beyond 3,000 metres, are now being seen at heights of 4,000 metres.

Similarly, the treeline species – species growing at the edge of habitats beyond which vegetation cannot grow, usually due to harsh cold weather and lack of moisture – are moving up in the Himalayas, said S.S. Randhawa, senior scientific officer at the Himachal Pradesh state council on climate change, at the state council for science, technology and environment. “Pines, which were growing the lower Himalayas, are encroaching on the oak forests in the middle Himalayas.”

Not just scientists, local farmers are beginning to notice a shift in apple growing to higher mountains. “We once raised apple orchards here. But now the weather is no longer conducive and instead we now grow vegetables such as tomatoes and capsicum,” said Sewak Ram Sharma, a farmer in Himachal’s Kufri district.