Ancient Ecological Calendars Find Way Forward in Pamir Mts.

The recent influx of climate change induced-changes, including warmer temperatures and melting glaciers, have wreaked havoc on the reliability of timekeeping systems of communities living in the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. For centuries, the indigenous Pamiri people in Kyrgyzstan, China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have used ecological calendars to coordinate seasonal activities. The traditional form of tracking time allows them to track seasonal and environmental changes.

As environmental shifts, like migratory changes, render these ancient calendar systems unable to accurately keep time, local timekeepers are increasingly unable to rely on calendar cues for agricultural and cultural activities.

The Kassam Research Group at Cornell University, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Climate CoLab and the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) program of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), is partnering with six communities, including the Pamiri, to collaboratively find ways to reconcile and calibrate this traditional timekeeping method with today’s changing climate.

The three-year project, which received $1.35 million in funding from the Belmont Forum, began in December of 2015.

The Pamiri ecological calendar
(Photo: Kassam et al., 2011, artwork by Hakim Zavkibekov)

The ecological calendars at the center of the project link environmental cues, such as the arrival of a particular migratory bird, the last day of snow cover, the breaking of ice on a river, or the first appearance of a particular insect, with corresponding mnemonic body parts, much as many Americans and Europeans count to ten on their fingers, to keep time. Beginning with their toenail, timekeepers track the progression of the seasons by counting correlating body parts up to their head, the arrival of which signals the end of spring. With the first cue of the arrival of summer, counting resumes again. This time, timekeepers count environmental cues down their body.

Principal investigator Karim-Aly S. Kassam, a professor of environmental and indigenous studies at Cornell, told GlacierHub in a phone interview that the project is working to restore communities’ capacities to anticipate seasonal changes.

“The ability to anticipate time is a very simple concept. It’s done to establish stability, to create anticipatory stability,” Kassam said.

Pamiri farmer
A local farmer in the Pamir Mountains (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

By tracking seasonal developments, Kassam says that ecological timekeeping systems lend communities the ability to anticipate agricultural activities and cultural practices.

But climate change-induced disruptions of seasonal markers that help the Pamiri communities maintain their routines has made them uneasy, Kassam says.

“The pace at which [climate change] is moving and its intensity is creating instability and anxiety,” he explained.

Perched between 2,000 and 3,500 meters in elevation, local communities in the Pamir mountains are especially vulnerable to temperature changes, glacial melt, and subsequent water source depletion.

Pamir Mountains
The Pamir Mountains, which tower as high as 7495 meters. (Photo: Karim-Aly Kassam)

Pamiri locals have reported increasing water levels in nearby rivers and lakes, a result of the quickened pace of glacial melt, said Kassam. Changes in temperature and precipitation have forced farmers to replace no longer thriving plants and fruits with alternative crops that are better suited to their changing environment.

The project is currently developing a mechanism to retune these ancient calendar systems so that they work with ongoing ecosystem changes.

Since its start last December, the project has begun mapping out communities’ seasonal cycles by inviting locals to identify their personal ecological indicators of changes in time.

“We invite ornithologists, duck hunters, maple producers, anybody in the local community that can help us map out these discrete processes,” Kassam said.

The project’s collaborators plan to hold a day-long discussion with each of the project’s partnering communities, in which project collaborators ask the community questions and later determine what their team can contribute using its scientific and technical backgrounds. Kassam expects the project to result in climate adaptation models for each partnering community.

“Our climate models and adaptation models are not specific enough,” he said. “They are produced on a global or regional scale. Instead, we need something that meets local needs.”

Kassam notes that the project’s focus on adaptation is somewhat ironic, considering that rural and alpine communities like the Pamiri contribute little to climate change.

“The people we are working with are not the causes of anthropogenic climate change,” Kassam said. “But they are feeling the changes.”

Kassam says that the impetus for the project sprung out of fieldwork he conducted along the Pamir mountain range in 2006.

“People were describing weather events having severe impacts on their timekeeping,” he said. Pamiri locals then reached out to Kassam for help to recalibrate their traditional ecological calendars.

Kassam reflected on the importance of the community partnerships.

Pamiri local
A Pamiri local (Photo: Evgeni Zotov)

“Our method of creating anticipatory capacity emerges from the ideas of communities themselves. It values the cogeneration of ideas, and encourages work in collaboration with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and ways of knowing,” he said. “This work cannot be done without the community itself.”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.