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Studying climate change in the Himalayas: the Missouri Botanical Garden's Jan Salick

The Himalayan mountain range in Asia is one of the highest places in the world, with several peaks rising above 8,000 meters. It’s also one of the most vulnerable to climate change.

Seven years ago, Missouri Botanical Garden senior curator of ethnobotany Jan Salick traveled to the Himalayas to begin a study of how climate change is affecting alpine plants—and the local people who depend on them.

St. Louis Public Radio's Véronique LaCapra sat down with Salick to talk about her research.

SALICK: We have a transect that runs 2,000 kilometers, which would be a little more than say 1,200 miles. And we have multiple mountaintops that we’re measuring for the effect of climate change on the plants.

LACAPRA: What have you seen so far in terms of impacts of climate change?

SALICK: At 10 sites we have put up permanent plots, and then counted and measured the plants, and the cover of plants, at each site, so that we can go back to those permanent plots and recensus them to find out how much change there is over time.

LACAPRA: And so you haven’t done that comparison yet.

SALICK: We’re just starting this year. We will—in Europe, they’ve already finished the comparison after seven years, and they have found—although Europe is not expected to have as much change as the Himalayas, already in Europe they have found plants moving up the mountains. The plants that are normally at lower elevations are now found at higher and higher elevations.

But in the Himalayas this year we are starting the recensus, and we will see what the results are there.

LACAPRA: Besides comparing to the European data, is there anything from the data you’ve collected in the Himalayas that is telling you what to expect as you’re going in?

SALICK: We have data from a lot of different sources. There are a lot of historical records in the area. It’s an area that botanists, the early plant explorers, concentrated on, because there’s so much biodiversity and so many fantastic alpine plants—beautiful, beautiful plants.

And we have their records, and we can see the differences from their records.

They also took these enormous old cameras, 100 years ago, into the field and took gorgeous photographs. And so we’ve gone back and retaken those same photographs, and we can see the glaciers melting, we can see the forests moving up the mountains, we can see shrublands encroaching on what used to be alpine meadows, and so on.

So we have pretty good—although non-quantitative—data on climate change in the area.

LACAPRA: And what about the people who live in these areas? Are they aware of the climate changing? Or maybe of these other changes—the plants changing, like you were talking about?

SALICK: Definitely. We’ve done extensive interviews with villagers, with religious leaders, with professionals, conservationists, and so on, in that area. And almost everyone recognizes the fact that it’s warmer now than it used to be, that the glaciers are smaller, there’s less snow on the mountains, that there’s irregular precipitation and irregular weather patterns in general.

And they complain about it in many ways, that for their agriculture, for their livelihoods, many things are changing and they’re having a hard time. They’re adapting, they try to come up with new strategies so that they can continue getting their livelihoods from these environments, but it’s hard on them.

LACAPRA: Do you think you’ll be able to, with this work, impact climate change policy, either in China or here in the U.S.?

SALICK: We’re very interested in impacting policy, and one of the things that we’re interested in is having a multitude of voices heard in the climate change debates and in the policy formation.

So normally you only get the heads of governments that come together, but it’s really traditional peoples and indigenous peoples around the world that are on the forefront of climate change. You know, they’re the ones that depend on nature, depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. And they have no protection.

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