Plants of the Himalayas are as unique as the region itself. But how are plants affected by global warming and the linked changes in climate patterns? We posed these questions to Dr. Mayank Kohli who studies plant systems. He explained that plant growth is very tightly linked to climatic conditions. As temperature, rainfall and snowfall patterns change, they jointly affect the growing conditions of the plants in complex ways. For example, increasing temperature dries out the soil which reduces plant growth, affecting some kinds of plants more than others.
Overall, we expect a decline in plant cover and production under warm conditions. However, in some years like this one, there are large rain events in summer which can increase plant growth, and the landscape can seem greener than usual. However, the timing and amount of winter snow and summer rainfall are extremely important in determining how much plants can benefit from it. These complex responses are still not understood fully. That is why we have set up enclosures across the Western Himalaya in a grand experiment to understand the effect of climate on plants under different climatic conditions.
Such experiments are also being set up in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh.
We also asked about the rise in plantation drives observed in higher altitude areas and what he felt about them.
He says that one must ask why are such plantation drives are carried out and whether they meet their envisioned outcomes. Does it make any sense to plant trees without an understanding of whether these trees can survive in the landscape?
Most often tree planting is done as an exercise to meet some national or regional goals without much thought of the local ecological context: for example, there is no data to show that planting trees in high-altitude grasslands can lead to any substantial carbon benefits; in fact, on the contrary, research suggests that natural grasslands might have stronger carbon benefits because their carbon reserves are largely below ground and so, more stable. Yet tree plantation drives are done in the name of carbon offsets. When trees are planted in areas where they can't survive easily on their own, such as these cold and arid high-altitude regions they need to be watered and protected from animals, all at a substantial human and economic cost and all that for uncertain and probably largely insignificant outcomes.
We conclude this edition on that sobering note hoping that we can all continue to enjoy the diversity of plant life of the Himalayas. And yes, you can now find us on YouTube. Follow our channel @HimKatha for more local stories.