Team aids mountain societies facing climate change

Karim-Aly Kassam on horseback
Hokimsho Zulfikarov/Provided
Karim-Aly Kassam riding to meet Kyrgyz pastoralists in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan near the border of China and Tajikistan.

An international team of scientists – led by a Cornell professor of natural resources – will help communities in Asia’s Pamir Mountains recalibrate their seasonal-indicator ecological calendars to reckon the future effects of climate change. The Belmont Forum, which funds global environmental research, will provide a $1.35 million for a three-year study.

“Indigenous societies in mountain communities around the world have used ‘ecological calendars’ as seasonal indicators for hundreds of years to sow seeds, grow crops, tend to animals, fish, hunt and harvest. Ecological calendars are systems that track time by observing seasonal changes in our habitat, such as the nascence of a flower, the appearance of an insect, the arrival of a migratory bird, the breakup of ice, last day of snow-cover,” said Karim-Aly Kassam, associate professor of environmental and indigenous studies in the Department of Natural Resources, who will lead the project.

Ecological calendars offer a way to anticipate climatic variation, as “Indigenous societies are at the vanguard of climate-change impacts – yet none of these societies contributed to its causes,” he said.

By adapting the ecological calendars, a transdisciplinary group of scientists hope to improve food and livelihood security among communities in the Pamir Mountains – some the world’s tallest peaks and surrounded by Afghanistan, China, the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan. The transdisciplinary aspect is key, as social and biophysical scientists work in tandem with indigenous groups to address highly challenging problems of this millennium.

Following the research, Kassam said, the scientists hope to provide a replicable model for similar initiatives in other mountain communities.

To establish long-term adaptation of these calendars, the scientists will strengthen partnerships between communities and regional universities by initiating community-based climatic and phenological-monitoring programs, said Kassam. The group will train undergraduates at the University of Central Asia, whose campuses are located in mountain regions, as community researchers.

For this international effort, Jianchu Xu from the Kunming Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences will research ethno-ecology, climate change adaptation and plant phenology, as another team led by Cyrus Samimi, University of Bayreuth, Germany, will investigate time-series analyses of climate data, remote-sensed imagery and local perceptions of environmental change. Antonio Trabucco, of the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change, Italy, will examine the impacts of climate on agricultural and ecosystem services.

The Belmont Forum funding builds on 2015 Academic Venture Fund money received from Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, which supported research on ecological calendars. Those ACSF faculty included Kassam as principal investigator; Art DeGaetano, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences; Christopher Dunn, director of Cornell Plantations; Amanda Rodewald, professor and director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; and David Wolfe, professor of horticulture.

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Melissa Osgood