Vulnerability of Mountain Societies in Central Asia

The Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: llee Wu/Flickr).

Mountain societies in low-income developing countries are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts, with global warming threatening livelihoods. A new study and conference paper from “Life in Kyrgyzstan” investigates the adaptive capacities of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains to help reduce their vulnerability to climate change and improve their coping strategies under weather extremes.

Mountain Societies in Central Asia

Mountain societies around the world differ with respect to challenges to development and ability to overcome these challenges. Dietrich Schmidt-Vogt, author of the study and director of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia, explained to GlacierHub, “Some mountain societies have been doing remarkably well, for example the Sherpas of Nepal who were successful traders even before the first ascent of Mt. Everest started the rush of tourists into their region, which continues until today.” However, this does not apply to mountain societies in general. “The main challenges to development are remoteness, harsh terrain, high risk of mountain-specific natural disasters and scarce resources,” Schmidt-Vogt said.

The vulnerability of mountain societies in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains is impacted by their often remote locations, outdated infrastructure and poor access. The need is high for these communities to develop effective strategies and adaptation measures to mitigate the severe impacts of climate change; however, this is a complex task. The new study states that it is essential to strengthen research to address climate change challenges in the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain regions to understand the vulnerability of these mountain societies and assist them in developing adaptation strategies.

Mountainous areas in Central Asia (Source: “Climate Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity of Mountain Societies in Central Asia“).

“Challenges to development in this peripheral region have been intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decline in infrastructure and services,” Schmidt-Vogt explained to GlacierHub. The difficult task of development will be further intensified by effects of climate change, including glacier retreat, which will increase frequency of landslides and rockfalls as well as increase the aridity of an already arid climate.

Glaciers, Complexities, and Adaptation

It is often a complicated task to predict climatic trends in mountainous areas because of the lack of information on water systems and the interactions between the arrangement of topography, water infrastructure and the atmosphere. The sensitivity of glaciers to climate variability, as well as to climate change, adds another level of complexity.

The Tien Shan mountains form a mountain range of about 2,800 km, making it one of the longest mountain ranges in Central Asia, mostly in Kyrgyzstan. Glaciers in the Tien Shan area like elsewhere are primarily controlled by temperature, mostly by rising summer temperatures. Increased summer temperatures cause glaciers to melt, while decreased snowfall further impacts glacier retreat. Amanda Wooden, professor of environmental politics and policy at Bucknell University, explained to GlacierHub, “The Central Asian region is glacier rather than precipitation dependent. Monitoring of glaciers in the Tien Shan mountain ranges has demonstrated considerable and steady ice mass loss since the 1970s, with variation by range location, size, and elevation.”

Glacier retreat in mountainous Central Asia may increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, leaving local populations vulnerable. The most important long-term effect of glacier retreat is on the hydrology of the larger region, including nearby lowland areas. Meltwater from glaciers is an important source of irrigation water in the dry summer months. The study suggests interventions for improving climate adaptation that include glacier monitoring through direct measurements, remote sensing, and modeling.

Tien Shan Mountains, Central Asia. (Source: Ian/Flickr).

Schmidt-Vogt told GlacierHub, “Increased melting of glaciers may in the short term increase the amount of water available for irrigation, but will in the long run lead to a decrease in the amount of available water. Increased melting of glaciers can in extreme cases lead to flooding and also contribute to the hazard of mudflows.”

The climate change processes in highland areas of Central Asia were also found to be more complex than initially anticipated. The authors explained, “Geophysical, historical and institutional factors make climatic predictions and the introduction of adaptation measures a challenging task requiring a thorough and in-depth analysis. Particularly at the local level where adaptation measures rely critically on precise information, the currently available climate prediction models are afflicted with uncertainties that often exceed the predicted magnitudes of change.”

Vulnerability and the Need for Improvement

Challenges to development remain a serious issue for the states in Central Asia after gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Long-term monitoring of glaciers was discontinued, and research infrastructure has not been maintained since then. Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist in Kyrgyzstan, explained to GlacierHub, “These countries are still in political and economic transition which is impacting decision-making process in the regional governments. Let alone intra-regional political differences between the states regarding water resources and border. This is primarily related to the Ferghana Valley triangle where three states, Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan share common challenges and complex concerns.”

Pamir Highlands, Bulunkul Village, Central Asia (Source: Ronan Shenhav/Flickr).

The study highlights several major areas where more action is needed. These areas include governance, economic, education, knowledge sharing, infrastructure caps and data gaps. Stefanos Xenarios, author of the study and a senior researcher at University Central Asia, told GlacierHub, “The adaptation strategies to improve the vulnerability status of mountain societies shall be carefully designed based on sound scientific background and policy-evidence results in close engagement with local communities.”

The study shows the importance of education and capacity building by noting that the public and some government officials are not yet fully aware of climate change, climate-related disasters, and potential adaptation measures. Therefore, there is a need for awareness programs at various levels, as well as an integration of climate change education to the national curriculum.

Beyond the areas highlighted by the study, more can also be done to cover vulnerability of mountain societies in the foreign and regional media. “In my opinion, the Central Asian media including state-controlled news organizations have to improve their record on the subject of climate change to effectively inform regional population of about 70 million,” Satke said. “Similarly, international news outlets could include more coverage of climate change impact on glaciers in Tian Shan and Pamir mountains in Central Asia.” As a start, Central Asian media outlets could cooperate with counterparts in the Himalayan region where ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) has been leading the front on climate change. Cooperation would work well for everyone, Satke suggested.

The degree of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity to climate change determines the degree of vulnerability of a community. The study is intended to draw attention to a region that is little understood in terms of climate change and its effects on mountain societies. “The current study is aspired to designate the major research field areas where climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity initiatives should concentrate for the livelihoods improvement of mountain societies in Central Asia,” the authors note.

Glacial Change in China’s Central Asia

A grassland flanked by China’s Central Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Though I lived in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for almost two years, it was only when I was in the heart of the Tian Shan mountains, my motorcycle meandering its way around fallen rock, sheep herds and horses, that I felt truly at home. Just a few hours outside of the city of Shihezi, inspiring peaks soared over 4000 meters. Though I had no scientific data to support my feeling that these stunning vistas were impermanent, over the course of my stay there were fewer and fewer clear days to see the cresting glacier-capped peaks from my apartment window. The haze even began to influence my weekend trips deep into the mountains, sometimes choking off the views far outside of the city. There is too much pollution in these mountains, not like when I was a child— a common refrain that echoed among many Kazakh and Mongol herders who made their home there.

Kazakh Chinese men bring their Golden Eagle home (Source: William Julian).

In a recent article in the journal of Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, Baojuan Huai and a team of Chinese researchers use remote sensing to put scientific data in the place of the herders’ and my own perceptions. The glaciers of the Tian Shan— the impressive mountain range that historically has divided the region’s agrarian oasis-states to the south and nomadic communities to the north— are in danger of disappearing. The authors demonstrate that in the Chinese Tian Shan, the total area of the glaciers studied has decreased by 22 percent over a fifty year period. The data also shows that glacier retreat is a variable within different regions of the Tian Shan— the result of a convergence of factors both human-caused and natural.

The picturesque Narat Grassland (Source: William Julian).

China is home to a baffling 46,377 glaciers. The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region contains 18,311 of them. The Tian Shan, which cuts across Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, boasts the largest number of glaciers in northwest China. These glaciers provide invaluable solid reservoirs to agriculture, animal husbandry, and industry in the region. When considering the Tian Shan range alone, the glacial loss will continue to have a severe impact on the livelihoods and ecology of Xinjiang, according to Weijun Sun, one of the paper’s authors. “Warming temperatures are causing a real reduction to glaciers across China, and ablation is occurring constantly, negatively impacting regional ecology,” he said in an interview with GlacierHub.

The two sections of the No. 1 Glacier were once joined together (Source: Josh Summers/Far West China).

To acquire data for so many glaciers, the team utilized remote sensing technology, which relies on satellites to monitor different sites, using automated glacier mapping technology to distinguish glaciers from other features. Remote sensing alleviates many of the difficulties typically faced in conducting research on glaciers, which are often remote and difficult to access, according to Sun. “Remote sensing is a fantastic tool, expanding the scope of what we are capable of measuring. With this technology we can now measure things like the amount of reflectance coming from under the surface, or the temperature at the base,” he stated.

Inside a yurt, an elderly Kazakh woman rolls a cigarette (Source: William Julian).

For the study, the team selected glaciers that covered a range of variables: glaciers large and small, debris-covered and debris-free, and at high and low elevations were all represented. The research shows that over the period studied, 182 Tian Shan glaciers disappeared, and several large glaciers divided into multiple small glaciers. The percentage of area reduction tended to be higher in small glaciers than in large glaciers, with small glaciers more likely to shrink significantly or disappear entirely.

Glaciers across the Tian Shan experienced a real loss over the period studied, but the rate of change between regions within the mountain range showed significant variability. While glacier loss in one region was as low as 12 percent, total glacier area loss reached 42 percent in another. This variability is caused by a constellation of factors, according to Sun. “Regional variation is primarily caused by differing historical climatic factors, such as temperature, precipitation, and radiation,” he said.

A snack in the foothills of the Tian Shan (Source: William Julian).

Over the period under consideration, the annual temperature increase in Xinjiang was 0.29 degree Celsius per decade, almost double the global average. Additionally, annual precipitation increased at a rate of 10.6mm per decade, which increased the sensitivity of glaciers at lower elevations to rising temperatures. However, the extent of these increases were not constant throughout the region.

When considering the causes of intensified areal loss in certain parts of the Tian Shan, looking at the specific topography of individual glaciers is critical, according to Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich. “The glaciers in Central Tian Shan receive more accumulation during the summer while glaciers in the outer rages receive more accumulation during winter. These summer-accumulation type glaciers are more sensitive to climate change. In addition, the Central Tian Shan is higher than the outer ranges; hence, the glaciers in the Central Tian Shan can have larger accumulation areas,” he stated in an interview with GlacierHub.

The glacier-covered Tian Shan is an increasingly popular tourist destination (Source: William Julian).

In the decades considered in the study, the mean equilibrium line altitude (ELA)— the point on the glacier at which annual ablation and accumulation are equal— increased in altitude. The increases ranged from only 5 meters for one glacier, to as many as 151 meters in another. The increases in mean glacier elevation indicate that glaciers are unable to survive at the lower elevations they once thrived in. Glaciers have been retreating before the eyes of pastoralists for decades; that Chinese researchers have put data in the place of their inaudible perceptions is cause for celebration, if not another motorcycle trip.