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Climate Change Tracker: No room at the top

  • As Himalayan glaciers melt and snow cover decreases, high altitude plant and animal species adapted to snow and ice will lose their habitat

High-altitude habitats of species such as the red fox will be threatened as glaciers melt.
High-altitude habitats of species such as the red fox will be threatened as glaciers melt.

The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is a geographical zone that includes some of the world’s greatest mountain ranges. Extending through eight countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar, it covers 4.2 million sq. km and is home to four biodiversity hot spots. This week, we look at the way climate change is affecting the range of species in the HKH, and, specifically, the Himalaya.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Special Report On Ocean And The Cryosphere In A Changing Climate (SROCC) was released last month, one of the many fallouts of climate change that was highlighted was habitat loss and range contraction in the Himalaya. The report said the melting of glaciers and decline in snow cover at high altitudes would lead to changes in the range of mountain species of flora and fauna. While lower-range species will migrate up-slope as the mountains grow warmer, species at higher altitudes which have adapted to colder temperatures and an alpine environment, say the deodhar or the snow leopard, will inevitably lose out in the struggle for habitat.

Throughout the 21st century, snow depth at lower altitudes is projected to decline by 25%, with reductions of about 80% in worst-case scenarios. There will also be fluctuations in the seasonality of snow and almost 70% of Himalayan glaciers might be gone by 2050. High mountain species are already trying to adapt to other human pressures—like land use for development projects—and climate change will only multiply the stresses.

According to a Conservation International survey from 2016, two Himalayan biodiversity hot spots—the Himalaya and the Indo-Burma regions—are together home to a staggering variety of plant and animal species, many of which are endemic (Himalaya: 10,000 plants with 3,136 endemic; Indo-Burma: 13,500 with 7,000 endemic). Yet, according to a 2015 study in Conservation Biology by scientist S.M. Jantz and others, 70-80% of the habitat in the Indo-Burma hot spot has already been lost due to land-use changes and up to 87% of it would be gone by 2100.

Not surprisingly, many of the flagship mammal species of the Himalaya are either in the “endangered" or “vulnerable" and “near threatened" categories of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These include the Himalayan musk deer, the argali, the red panda, the snow leopard and the wild yak. All of these, apart from the snow leopard, show a decreasing population trend. While drastic reductions in carbon emissions are a must, the SROCC has shown that certain results of climate change, like the loss of glaciers, have already passed a tipping point. But smart conservation that includes local communities can still play a role in protecting what we have.

In next week’s column, we will look at Himalayan conservation prescriptions and other climate change effects on the Himalaya. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker

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