Scientists Look to Locals for Climate Change Study

Villagers in Pinchollo, Peru, displaying shovels used in irrigation maintenance rituals (source: A. Stensrud)
Quechua villagers in Pinchollo, Peru, displaying shovels used in irrigation maintenance (source: A. Stensrud)

Climate change data is usually collected by scientific instruments and satellites, but a recent study in Nature Climate Change reveals the importance of collecting observations made by local communities. The observations of subsistence-oriented communities indicate that climate change is threatening local food security by impacting animals and plants integral to the continued survival of these communities.

For the research paper, titled “Observations of climate change among subsistence-oriented communities around the world,” author Valentina Savo and five co-authors compared 10,660 observations from 2,230 localities in 137 countries with historical model simulations of climate change. The researchers analyzed local literature dating between 1994 and 2013 to explore relationships between climate and the perceptions of local peoples. Such observations from local communities are sometimes labeled Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), which is defined as knowledge that is passed down for generations about the community’s environment and cultural interactions with that setting.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia, with Punta Grande in the background. Source: Phil Whitehouse/Wikimedia Commons

Even though satellite data and global climate models can accurately observe and predict climate change effects like drought and vegetation depletion, scientists have little reliable data on secondary climate change impacts. This includes information about the effects of drought on local animals, and how local animal population loss impacts rural communities. The authors state that methods such as theirs which document the  impacts that climate change is having on local ecosystems can provide material for predictions of fine-scale climate change impacts. Furthermore, effective strategies can be created to help adapt to climate changes.

This study focused on subsistence-oriented communities, which are defined as communities that “include indigenous and non-indigenous people who depend on natural resources for their livelihood and cultural identity.” The communities where observations were made were spread across the globe, but the Pacific Islands, central Africa and the North American Arctic accounted for the largest percentages of observations. Many cases were also drawn from the Himalayas and the Andes, where communities are reporting multiple changes in plant and animal species attributed to drier weather and warmer temperatures and retreat of glaciers.

Figure 1: Geographical distribution of data. Source: Observations of climate change among subsistence-oriented communities around the world/Nature Climate Changerr

The researchers collected information on changes in weather, changes in physical landscape, and changes in ecosystems. This includes climatic conditions, resource abundance, and weather patterns. Some of the best examples of climate change impacts can be seen in the coldest climates. For example, increasing temperature combined with decreasing snowfall are the most common observations among communities in Arctic and sub-Arctic northern locations. In Sweden, changes in temperature, weather, and ice formation have led traditional Sami herders to abandon some of their herding practices. In Alaska, the coast is eroding at an increased rate due to reduced sea ice and more storms. Snowfall, permafrost, glaciers, and sea ice are all singled out in Figure 1 as being in decline.

Furthermore, increased temperatures are impacting the oceans, changing fish and marine mammal migration on which the communities rely. Alaskan fisheries have seen an alarming number of sharks, jellyfish and other species that are typical of warmer waters. While migrating ocean wildlife is continuing to shift to deeper or higher-latitude waters, land plants and animals are following the same pattern, shifting either north or to higher elevations to escape the increasingly warmer latitudes or altitudes.

Previous research has noted broad consistency in observations made by local subsistence-oriented communities and local instrumental data. This reinforces the value of local observational data, which fills gaps left by sparse instrumental data.

Changpa nomadic people of the Himalayas. Changtang, Tibet. Source: Pseudois

It is important that science recognizes the observations made by subsistence-oriented communities. Models and satellites cannot tell you how winds and ice conditions link together to inform animal behavior, but the community that lives with these conditions can. By collecting and comparing information from local communities, we can not only better grasp fine-scale climate change impacts but also create specific strategies for at-risk communities to better adapt to climate change.