Under the watchful gaze of Indian researchers, six one-hectare plots, earmarked deep inside the undisturbed forests of Uttarakhand in the western Himalayas, have set the ball rolling for long-term monitoring of the Himalayan forest ecosystem and its sensitivity to climate change.
These geo-tagged permanent research plots spread across an elevation of 1000 to 3800 metres in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand are being surveilled for climate change impacts to churn out long-term datasets that will aid conservation.
Long Term Ecological Monitoring (LTEM) would help predict changes and map impacts about the environmental assets in the Indian Himalayas Region (IHR), said Vikram S. Negi of G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development, Uttarakhand.
“For landscapes such as the Himalayas, long-term data sets are gold. Long-term data sets and documentation of ongoing consequences of environmental changes and ecosystem processes are scanty for IHR which makes conservation efforts difficult,” Negi said referring to the study documenting LTEM in Uttarakhand.
This exercise comes under the ‘Forest Resources and Plant Biodiversity’ theme of India’s National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem (NMSHE) that is tasked to develop a robust database of flora and long-term monitoring in forest ecosystem of the IHR.
“Potential response of Himalayan forests is still less explored and to know the likely changes in future due to climate change impacts we need to build baseline data and add on to it,” Negi told Mongabay-India.
The need for long-term ecological research (LTER) has been recognised and promoted globally by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem (IPBES). Moreover, the Convention on Biological Diversity also considers LTER essential for ensuring long-term ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation.
LTER data collection has also fostered networks across countries. For example, theInternational Long-Term Ecological Research (ILTER) network has 20 countries under its umbrella.
Research sites demonstrate long-term ecological monitoring protocol in action
To track changes, the research team crafted a protocol for uniform monitoring of plant biodiversity in Himalayan forests and their responses to climate change.
“Having a protocol for the Himalayas ensures harmonisation of measurements and helps to link up different initiatives working towards generating long-term data,” said institute’s director Ranbeer Rawal.
So the designated plots essentially demonstrate the LTEM in action.
“The plots were demarcated in 2015 and range from sub-tropical to sub-alpine habitat. We have collected baseline data in 2015 and every five years we will examine the plots for changes and map and analyse the data and compare,” explained Rawal.
The tree community structure (herb, shrub and trees) of all LTEM plots was recorded to compare with the long-term data to be collected in successive years. The baseline information on major soil nutrients indicates maximum nutrients at higher elevations (3800 metres).
“As part of the protocol, we identified 15 criteria or parameters and indicators (for monitoring) taking into account forest, soil and socio-economic factors suited to the Himalayan forests,” said Negi.
These parameters span forest, soil and socio-economic components and were chosen because they are influenced by a change in climate.
For example, phenology, endemicity of plant species, biomass and carbon sequestration are considered under the forest component, soil nutrients and moisture among parameters for monitoring soil and the amount of biomass removed (tree lopping, cut stumps) as criteria for the socio-economic component.
The long-term research sites were identified based on plant biodiversity, minimum human-activity associated disturbances (harvesting of fuelwood, leaf-fodder and grazing is minimal) and elevation range to capture ecological responses of species to environmental changes along an elevation gradient.
“We have to ensure the sites remain untouched from human disturbances and we have to maintain it so that data can be collected properly,” said Negi.
Global best practices for Himalayan landscape data collection
Researchers took a leaf out of international interdisciplinary LTEM efforts and frameworks to flesh out a protocol for local application.
“We reviewed international guidelines to see how we can carry out long-term research in the Himalayan setting. Prominent among them was the interdisciplinary implementation framework developed by ICIMOD,” said Negi.
ICIMOD’s Nakul Chettri, one of the authors of the framework ‘Long-Term Environmental and Socio-ecological Monitoring in Transboundary Landscapes’ (LTESM) pointed out that putting such long-term mechanism in place also boosts science-based decisionmaking in conservation.
“The framework includes both biophysical science and socio-economic aspects. It looks at drivers, pressures, impact and then designing the response mechanism. We also considered best practices of ILTER. Long-term data also helps to strengthen our contribution to international bodies such as IPCC,” Chettri told Mongabay-India. Having a standardised format enables comparison of different monitoring mechanisms.
However, there are challenges to sustaining a protracted effort.
“Continuity of resources in terms of funding, in terms of institutional mandate and in terms of integrated approach… these kind of challenges are always there. Assessing the socio-economic aspect is also very challenging,” Chettri said.
“So far we have had long-term data collection in bits and pieces, in project mode or on an anecdotal basis. So a common framework and protocol can stitch things up for the landscape perspective. LTEM is the need of the hour,” added Chettri.