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Climate warming is causing Indian forest loss that is ‘worse than expected.’


With new study demonstrating that climate change has caused considerable recent losses, forest loss in India may become an even greater concern than previously thought in the future years.

The first national-scale study of the relationship between forest loss and rainfall and temperature trends in India, led by the University of Reading, revealed that they may have contributed to large declines since the turn of the century, exacerbating the country’s already concerning deforestation, which is largely driven by agricultural expansion.

The new study contradicts government data that indicate only minor losses in forest coverage in recent years. It cautions that the fast changes in climate witnessed in certain locations would demand focused preservation effort and financing to limit the damage to India’s biodiversity.

“India has experienced tremendous forest loss in recent decades, with land use changes to accommodate crops, cattle, and a rising population mentioned as factors,” said Alice Haughan, a PhD researcher at the University of Reading and principal author of the study. While the impact of land use change in forest loss has been thoroughly examined, less emphasis has been paid to the effect of climate change in recent declines.

“Because deforestation is just one element of the issue, the fast changes in climate we observed imply that India’s forest loss in the future decades may be substantially worse than previously thought.” The significant levels of decrease seen are especially problematic for biodiversity, since India depends on linked forests to preserve species.”

The latest research, published in Global Change Biology, examined forest loss between 2001 and 2018 – a time span with little data.

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For the first time, the scientists assessed the velocity of changes to India’s climate, a relatively new approach used to quantify climate change and demonstrate the pace at which it is affecting a nation.

It also examined heterogeneity in climate change consequences across regions and seasons, indicating that the influence of climate change on forest loss varied substantially between locales and seasons.

Forest losses were much bigger where and when the climate was changing the fastest. Rainfall reductions were shown to have the greatest influence on increasing forest loss, with temperature reductions in certain locations also having a negative impact.

“Our research of Indian tropical and subtropical areas demonstrates that rainfall, rather than temperature, comes into play as the most important driver in forest loss, contrary to patterns reported in many temperate studies,” Haughan said.

The authors believe that while research has generally concentrated on yearly variations in India’s climate, more significant fluctuations in temperature and rainfall within seasons, such as the monsoon seasons, have gone unnoticed.

With tropical and subtropical forests covering more than a fifth of the nation, India is among the top ten countries in the world in terms of forest coverage.

India is also one of the most biodiverse nations, accounting for 8% of global biodiversity and home to four designated biodiversity hotspots. The nation is home to an estimated 47,000 plant species and 89,000 animal species, with more than 10% of each being listed as vulnerable. There are around 5,500 plant species that are estimated to be indigenous to India.

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