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India's Forest Loss due to Climate Change is 'Worse than Expected'

The new study contradicts official reports that show only minor decreases in forest coverage in recent years. It warns that the rapid changes in climate observed in some regions will necessitate targeted preservation action and funding to reduce the risk to India's biodiversity.

Shivam Dwivedi
Picture depicting Deforestation
Picture depicting Deforestation

With new research revealing that climate change has caused significant recent losses, forest loss in India may become an even bigger problem than previously thought in the coming 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.

The new study, published in Global Change Biology, examined forest loss between 2001 and 2018 – a time period with limited data.

Findings of Study:

It 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 official reports that show only minor decreases in forest coverage in recent years. It warns that the rapid changes in climate observed in some regions will necessitate targeted preservation action and funding to reduce the risk to India's biodiversity.

"India has seen dramatic forest loss in recent decades, with land-use changes to accommodate crops, livestock, and a growing population cited as causes," said Alice Haughan, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Reading and lead author of the study. While the role of land-use change in forest loss has been extensively studied, little attention has been paid to the role of climate change in recent decreases.

"The rapid changes in climate we discovered suggest that India's forest loss in the coming decades may be far worse than previously thought, as deforestation is only one component of the problem. The high levels of reduction observed are also concerning for biodiversity, as India relies on connected forests to preserve wildlife."

For the first time, the authors calculated the velocity of changes to India's climate, a relatively new technique used to quantify climate change and reveal the rate at which it is affecting a country.

It also examined variability in climate change impacts across regions and seasons, revealing that the impact of climate change on forest loss varied greatly across locations and seasons.

Forest losses were far greater where and when the climate was changing the fastest. Rainfall reductions were found to have the greatest impact on increasing forest loss, with temperature reductions in some regions also having a negative impact.

"Our study of Indian tropical and subtropical regions shows that rainfall, rather than temperature, comes into play as the most important factor in forest loss, contrary to trends found in many temperate studies," Haughan said.

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

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

(Source: University of Reading)

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