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Cascading effects of changing climate and land use on alpine ecosystems and pastoral livelihoods in central Tibet




Hopping, Kelly A., author
Klein, Julia A., advisor
Galvin, Kathleen A., committee member
Knapp, Alan K., committee member
Leisz, Stephen J., committee member

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Changing climate and land use practices are re-shaping the dynamics of social-ecological systems globally, with alpine regions and subsistence-based communities likely to be among the most vulnerable to the impacts of these changes. The Tibetan Plateau exemplifies a system in which climate warming and projected increases in snowfall, coupled with natural resource management policies that reduce livestock herd sizes and mobility, will have cascading effects not only on the livelihoods of local pastoralists, but also on other globally important ecosystem services that Tibet’s alpine meadows provide. To improve our understanding of the impacts of altered climate and grazing restrictions in central Tibet, I conducted interviews with local herders about their knowledge of environmental changes and the ways in which this knowledge is produced and transmitted within the community, performed a 5-year climate change and yak grazing experiment, and carried out observational measurements in plant communities around the landscape. I found that herders are well attuned to the changes that are the most threatening to their livelihoods, and they transfer this knowledge of environmental change within their village primarily as a means for seeking adaptive solutions, rather than for learning from others. Results from the experiment and landscape observations corroborate much of the herders’ understandings of the factors driving undesirable changes in the alpine meadows. From the experiment, I found positive feedbacks between yaks, vegetation, and nitrogen cycling, indicating that these meadows are well adapted to moderate grazing under ambient climate conditions. However, they are particularly sensitive to warming-induced reductions in soil moisture. Although decreased plant production and ecosystem CO₂ fluxes with warming were partially mitigated by additional snow before the start of the growing season, results from the landscape observations suggest that in the longer term, climate warming will likely decrease the quantity and quality of forage available to livestock and wildlife, while also reducing the carbon sink strength of alpine meadows in central Tibet. Therefore, my results indicate that instead of continuing to mandate livestock removals, which will do little to reverse undesirable ecological trends, more consideration needs to be given to climate change adaptation strategies for pastoral social-ecological systems in Tibet.


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climate change
Tibetan Plateau
local ecological knowledge
grazing ecology
alpine ecology


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