A YIBS-funded study of oak tree growth highlights the lack of data coming from communities on the frontline of climate change.
Though every country will need to adapt to a changing climate, global warming is happening faster and is felt more acutely in some places than others. When Alexandra Todorovic-Jones was looking for a field site to study the intersection of forest ecology and climate change, she knew she wanted to focus on these areas. This led her to the forests of Northern India where she saw the importance of wooded areas to rural communities and discovered to her surprise that very little research is actually being published about the effects of climate change on these ecosystems.
“Initially, I was excited about the opportunity to study the relationship between forest resources, environmental change and livelihoods. Not only is Northern India very vulnerable to climate change but it also has a huge population that really depends on the forest. Given the area’s proximity to the Himalayas there is also a huge elevational gradient that showcases how a species might shift with temperature changes”, said Alexandra Todorovic-Jones.
Despite providing such a good background for the study of acute climate change, rural areas such as Northern India can be very under-researched. Alexandra Todorovic-Jones attributes this serious dearth of information and knowledge to the many challenges that come with performing ecological research in areas that often have no running water and electricity, and where infrastructure is very limited.
“We were examining a lot of different ecological indicators and parameters within a single species, the Banj Oak. These included indicators connected to leaf physiology, things like area, thickness, perimeter and stomata counts, as well as tree core samples. We would bore into trees with a tiny increment bore and extract a core so we could compare growth rings to climate data and see how climate affects growth. We ended up with 280 cores and over 700 leaf samples that we had to manually collect by climbing huge oak trees. So, getting good samples was incredibly challenging but then, once you have the samples, you need to analyze some of them as soon as possible. If the electricity isn’t working, you have a problem.”
Despite the challenges the team encountered they ended up with evidence that the Banj Oak is already being seriously affected by climate change. Though the tree represents just one species within a very complex ecological system, it gives clues that can guide further study of the system as a whole. The Banj is also a highly significant species in its own right.
“People love this tree,” says Todorovic-Jones. “I didn’t tell my host family in the community about my research before I arrived, but they knew I was interested in forests and told me I should be studying the Banj because it is their favorite tree and everything grows so well around it. They were very excited when I told them I was.”
The tree is economically, ecologically and spiritually significant to local people and highlights perhaps the importance of understanding single species interactions with climate as well as with broader ecological systems. People in the area use Banj Oak timber for firefood, leaves for animal fodder and acorns for food. The cows they feed with Banj provide much-needed manure and the tree takes a central place in their spiritual practices; when a community member dies, the tree is used in the burial ceremony.
“This project definitely sheds light on important effects of a climate that is getting warmer, drier and a lot more unpredictable. These effects are, as you can see, really important to the communities that are dependent on forest resources. But it also, rather unexpectedly, shows how important it is to make sure research is happening in the communities that are affected most. I was really surprised that there are almost no peer-reviewed papers about this issue, given how important it is to such a huge population.”