Irfan Rashid and team, IISc Bangalore, Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Hyderabad and Department of Earth Sciences, University of Kashmir, Srinagar
The Research: Studying the impact of climate change on vegetation in J&K by understanding the terrestrial changes that could be triggered by environmental factors
Many studies have indicated that the Himalayan region is extremely sensitive to climate change. Earlier, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) had done a study that mapped the vulnerability of Indian forests to climate change. This study indicates that the forests of northwestern Himalayas are particularly vulnerable.
Taking the IISc research forward, we decided to conduct a comprehensive study on the effect of climate change on the vegetation of J&K. We examined not just forests but all vegetation, and included areas under Pakistan and China as well for the study.
To extrapolate what the vegetation of J&K would be like in the future under different climatic conditions, we needed to be completely sure of our computer model and whether it reflects the present vegetation pattern accurately. We chose a numeric global vegetation model called IBIS (Integrated Biosphere Simulator) which indicates the kind of terrestrial changes that are likely to happen in response to environmental transformations.
We ran the model with inputs like temperature, precipitation, humidity, and soil nutrients from the last 200 years, after splitting the area under study into 0.5 degree grids. We assumed that the vegetation in each of these grids would be common. We also looked at long-term temperature and precipitation trends observed in these regions for which we chose Pahalgam and Gulmarg stations of the Met department.
When we were reasonably sure that an equilibrium had been reached, we compared the results with an actual map of the area using the data from Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer (AVHRR) of US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Our simulated vegetation showed an 87 per cent match with the actual vegetation on ground which was very encouraging. It meant that our model now accurately represented the vegetated landscape of Jammu and Kashmir and could be relied on for predicting the “future” vegetation affected by climate change.
We decided to look at changes by the mid and end of this century, and picked two scenarios used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its latest report, as our inputs. In the first scenario, the average rise in global temperature is 4.5 degrees and in the second, the temperature rises by 8.5 degrees, which is also the worst case scenario.
Our results show that vegetation in Jammu and Kashmir could be drastically altered by the end of the century, predominantly due to rise in temperatures in the region. The vegetation in the alpine areas (3,000 m above mean sea level) is predicted to undergo massive change in terms of species composition. There is also a very high possibility of proliferation of alien plant invasions (exotic plant species which compete with the native species) owing to the rising temperatures. Scientific studies in the region indicate that such invasive species can wreak havoc on both terrestrial as well as lake ecosystems across the Kashmir Himalayas.
Our results are consistent with fears about the impact of climate change in other parts of Himalayas. We have, for the first time, produced comprehensive empirical evidence to suggest what is likely to happen to the vegetated landscapes in the area by the end of this century.
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