Changing Climate a Hot Topic Among Himalayan Villagers, Study Finds

Warmer temperatures, variable monsoons, and other signs of climate change are a hot topic of conversation among many Himalayan villagers, according to scientific sampling of climate change perception among local peoples.

This area is cold and it’s often raining. Even during the non-monsoon times there is mist and fog so inevitably conversations here turn to weather,” said Kamal Bawa, biologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston (UMB), and president of Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bangalore, India. “When you stop and have a cup of tea in someone’s kitchen, the conversation invariably turns to the weather. But then they soon start talking about how the weather has been changing.”

Bawa is also a member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

Bawa didn’t set out to study Himalayan perceptions of climate change. But after hearing the same themes repeated again and again during household conversations he decided to investigate. With UMB graduate student Pahupati Chaudhary, he surveyed some 500 homes spread across 18 villages in Darjeeling Hills, West Bengal, India and Nepal’s Ilam district. The pair found some surprisingly consistent observations.

Three-fourths of the people surveyed believe that their weather is getting warmer and two-thirds believe that summer and monsoon season have begun earlier over the past ten years. Seventy percent believe that water sources are drying up while forty-six percent said that they think there is less snow on the high mountains.

Many villagers also told Chaudhary they’d noticed shifts in some species ranges and earlier flowering and budding of plants. New pests have also arrived, villagers routinely reported, to plague crops and people—including mosquitoes where none had been before.

Most of these changes were reported by much higher percentages of people living at higher altitudes than by those at lower altitudes. “We’ve shown in earlier research that people at high altitudes seem to be more sensitive to climate change, and of course it’s known that climate change is more severe at higher altitudes, so that’s not a surprise,” Bawa said.

Many Himalayan peoples live in areas where predicted and observed impacts of climate change, like species migration, are more acute. Many of them also live “close to the land,” where agricultural-based livelihoods make them especially attuned to weather patterns.

Listening to Locals Can Help Climate Science

Scientific data on climate change have been hard to come by in the region, Bawa reported. Few weather stations dot remote and high-altitude locales and where they do exist their data are often incomplete.

But where data can be found they seem to corroborate local observations, Bawa said, citing his own research on temperature and rainfall records as well as the work of other scientists listed in recent Biology Letters and Current Science reports of Bawa and Chaudhary’s research.

Governments in the region are now gearing up towards more research,” Bawa said. “But it will take time to gather this climate data.” That’s why local knowledge can be such valuable human intelligence, he added. It can be gathered quickly and widely and used to “jump start” scientific efforts.

There seems to be quite a bit of knowledge residing with local communities, in the Himalaya and elsewhere, and we can really use that knowledge to formulate scientific questions for further research and make more rapid assessments of the impacts of climate change.”

Bawa said it’s hard to determine to what extent local peoples are familiar with the global dialogue on climate change, or how much that might have influenced their perceptions. But most of those he spoke with didn’t identify a clear cause for the changes they’d observed.

We’re saying that people seem to be aware that the climate is changing, but they may not necessarily be aware of why it’s changing. I think when you come to that question people don’t have any ideas—or they may have some very different ideas.”

Bawa pointed to a recent study of this topic in Tibet, where many respondents believed that humans are causing climate change—but not by producing greenhouse gasses as most climate scientists believe. “They seem to think that the climate is changing because the Gods are not happy and perhaps the people in the younger generations are not praying enough.”

This research was supported in part by a Committee for Research and Exploration grant of the National Geographical Society.


Changing Planet

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Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.