Broad trends in global climatic patterns including a rise in mean temperatures and changes in the level of precipitation are clear. The mountains of Asia are likely to be subject to more extreme and more variable weather as a result of a changing climate according to the assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007). In mountain areas, increased intensity and frequency of severe or extreme weather events are also among the expected consequences (ICIMOD 2009). In general, precipitation in snow leopard landscapes appears to have become less predictable – whether floods or droughts.
Reported, possible and future consequences of climate change in the greater Himalayan region, and on the glaciers, permafrost, and the implications for water resources and ecosystems, were reported by Xu et al. (2007). Glaciers in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region have been mapped using satellite imagery and digital elevation models (Bajracharya & Shrestha 2011) so that changes in extent can be tracked.
However, the lack of basic data and potential interactions between many factors mean that the fine-scale effects of climate change at specific sites and on individual species are less easy to predict with accuracy. In fact, lack of information is the biggest current challenge in understanding the effects of climate change in mountain areas (e.g. ICIMOD 2009 for the Eastern Himalaya; Zoi Environmental Network 2009 for Central Asia).
Computer models provide a valuable resource, but are unlikely to predict future conditions adequately. Therefore, climate change planning for snow leopards should include a range of plausible future scenarios in a flexible adaptive management framework. Potential landscape scale effects of warmer increased temperatures and precipitation include melting permafrost, longer growing seasons, upward shifts in tree lines and other ecological zones, while lower precipitation is expected to lead to aridification and retreat of glaciers.
Increases in precipitation may be restricted to certain seasons; e.g. winter precipitation is very likely to increase on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (IPCC AR4 2007). Research suggests a transition towards a warm-wet regime in north-west China as temperatures rise, as opposed to a warm dry one, given the increased rates of evaporation with rising temperatures and increasing size of closed basin lakes as they refill with glacial meltwater (Shi et al. 2002, 2007; Zhang and Chu, 2009; Zhu et al. 2009). Avalanches and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) are existing hazards in higher mountain habitats and climate change-related storms are likely to exacerbate these events as well as landslides, debris flow and flash floods (Rai & Gurung 2005; Bajracharya et al. 2007; Nyaupane & Chhetri 2009).
Climate and socioeconomic change are already affecting the livelihoods of mountain communities and some these are developing a set of response strategies (Macchi et al. 2011). Climate change will have a direct impact on patterns of livestock grazing and human land use, thus indirectly influencing snow leopards and their prey, but again, the effects are currently difficult to assess. If changing conditions result in greater pasture productivity, stocking densities can be expected to increase, while lower precipitation leading to reduced productivity and/or availability of fresh water may result in fewer livestock or abandonment of some mountain pastures. Earlier onset of spring as a result of climate change, along with increased summer precipitation, especially in arid regions like the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, might benefit herders by increasing green biomass productivity. However, such potential may be countered by periodic years of extreme summer droughts or prolonged winter snowfall (Batima et al. 2005; Marin 2010).
On the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, increasing rainfall may be contributing to decreasing pasture productivity, possibly due to increasing cloud cover and soil saturation, flooding of high productivity lakeshore pastures, and increased erosion due to higher intensity of rainfall. A further effect of higher temperatures is degradation of permafrost and falling groundwater levels that in turn negatively impact pasture productivity through conversion of meadows to steppe-type grasslands, often regardless of rainfall increases (e.g. Wang et al. 2006; Zhao and Li 2009).
A recent preliminary study assessing the vulnerability of snow leopard habitat in the Himalayas estimated a 30% reduction in its habitat in the higher Himalayas due to an upward shift in tree line and consequent shrinkage of the alpine zone over the next century (Forrest et al. 2012). However, advances in tree growth may be slowed or prevented by browsing livestock and cutting by local people to maintain their pastures.
A recent review of existing studies across China since 2008 shows both complex direct and indirect impacts of climate change on snow leopard populations (Riordan et al. 2012). Livestock grazing pressure has tended to increase in its intensity and spatial extent in response to land opportunities and expansion of optimal sowing season due to climate change. This pattern appears now to be altering in response to policy interventions, though not uniformly. Snow leopard natural prey populations, principally blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) in this study, responded negatively to environmental degradation from increased livestock grazing pressure. This in turns appears to negatively affect snow leopard populations (Riordan et al. 2012). However, in parts of Qinghai at least, some people have shifted their main source of livelihood from livestock to Cordyceps collection for the time being, presumably reducing the grazing pressures (J. Farrington, unpub. data). The vulnerability of ecosystems and communities to climate change across the high mountains of Asia has been recently assessed by Smith (2013).
According to the ICPP report, global warming raises the threat of extinction for 20-30% of species. As the top predator of the central Asia’s high mountains, the snow leopard may be an indicator of climate change. Given the extreme difficulty and expense of snow leopard research, it is urgent that long-term studies get underway to monitor the snow leopard as an indicator of the rate and scope of climate change. Studies are needed that correlate seasonal changes with snow leopard movement, home range changes, migration, and deviations from established life history parameters.
Maintaining habitat connectivity is a key strategy for addressing climate change and for ensuring viable populations of snow leopard and their high-altitude prey – especially as protected area boundaries cannot be easily shifted as regional climates change under global warming. Besides, natural ecosystem processes extend well beyond PA boundaries, so that strategies of adaptive ecosystem management are needed to facilitate range shifts driven by the forces of climate change. Governments and national research institutions need to take this leads in promoting such studies, drawing upon both empirical field studies and office-driven GIS modeling exercises. Ensuring corridors in fact meet basic functional requirements will mean placing greater emphasis on delineating genetically effective population units, and in turn on implementing a framework for systematically sampling genetic makers across snow leopard range that allows for the identification of management units (Palsbøll 2006).
In extreme cases, it may become necessary to relocate individual snow leopards or their prey to the nearest, less threatened meta-population, but such operations would be extremely expensive, logistically challenging and fraught with risks.
A growing literature addressing climate change in Asia’s high mountains is emerging (e.g. ICIMOD has published widely on climate change impacts and adaptation in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region). It is important that governments, NGOs and other institutions act to address threats locally, nationally, internationally and globally, which fall into two major categories:
- Strengthen climate change policies nationally and internationally, including capacity building; regional watershed management and collaboration; and disaster risk management.
- Work with local communities in snow leopard range to assess climate change vulnerability and adaptive capacity
- Share specific actions that local communities could take to adapt to climate change, ranging from community education (including drawing on traditional knowledge); natural resource and rangeland management and restoration to erosion control, desertification and water-resources conservation, etc.
Further specific recommendations relevant to snow leopards and their high mountain ecosystems will be posted on the SLN website as these become available.
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