Bhutan’s strategic location in the young Himalayas, has made the country vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change.
Bhutan may have recorded new species over the years but if the current trend of temperature change continues, the landscape would suffer.
What does this mean?
The College of Natural Resources’ dean of research and industrial linkages, Om Katel (PhD), said at webinar series on “Bhutan as a biodiversity wonder in the Himalayas” yesterday that the recent decades saw rapid temperature rise, which among others, led to increased forest fire incidents and disturbances in water balance.
Warming in Bhutan, he said, increased from 0.8 °C in the 1910 to 1.5 °C in 1960, and 2.8 °C since the 1990s.
Experts have projected that by 2040-2069, the mean annual temperature in the country will increase by 2.1-2.4 °C while the mean total precipitation is expected to decrease.
Forest fire hazards have an increasing trend since 1999, which could have serious implications on rural livelihoods.
Between 1996 and 2017, there was significant land cover change in the country—decreasing land cover cases such as in the glaciers, rock bare land, grassland pasture land, forest, and agricultural land. For example, glacier area in 1996 was 23.8 percent, 15.0 in 2010, and 11.6 in 2017.
The annual water balance of major land use systems, Om Katel said, was in the negative, meaning more agricultural fields are without waters.
Studies revealed drier central region where most of the agricultural lands are located, said Om Katel, adding that according to projections, impacts of climate change on Bhutan and the settlements along river basins could be grave due to increased temperature.
“Changing climate would affect water balance, which in turn will affect agriculture productivity,” Om Katel said.
Areas covered by broadleaved and mixed conifer forests were found to have positive water balance while areas with chirpine forest had small or negative water balance.
Surveys on plant and animal species showed decrease in population of musk deer, barking deer, wild fox, leopard and tiger, eagle, jackal, bear, mush, jungle fowl, hornbill, pheasant, and cuckoo, among others.
In the mountains, Rhododendron spp. flowered in March which 10-20 years ago flowered in April. The alpine areas above 2,800m responded faster to climate change.
A recent study concluded that climatic changes are likely to alter ecosystem services significantly. In the mountainous region, the incidences are predicted to be higher.
Om Katel said that to preserve Bhutan’s natural habitat and enhance biodiversity conservation, there was a need to focus on species conservation.
Bhutan Himalayan Climate Studies project under the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) initiated the series.
Foreign speakers and RUB academicians shared their perspectives on climate change and biodiversity from international, regional and local levels on the importance of conserving and sustaining the biodiversity of the healthy ecosystems.