For those who live in the shadow of the world’s highest mountain range, the snow-capped peaks have long been an indicator of the ‘health’ of their community. Now researchers are raising awareness of the value of local knowledge as a proxy for gauging environmental change.

Scientific investigations can discover and harness a host of unusual ‘proxies’ – mountains and lakes, ice and snow, clouds and dew, birds and grasses – to address sustaining the environment

Hildegard Diemberger

The everyday lives of the Porong people of southwestern Tibet are shaped by their mountain landscape. The condition of the snow-capped peaks is just as central to their age-old narratives and rituals as they are to their contemporary agricultural practices. The Tibetans consider that the ‘ancient spirits’ of these places control the weather, wildlife, fertility, resources and all that determines the wellbeing of the community; according to their songs, ‘The honour of the snow-mountains is the snow… may there not be any change, may prosperity prevail.’

Over the course of two decades of living and working in the region, Dr Hildegard Diemberger from the Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology has frequently encountered the connection between the Tibetans and their Himalayan landscape.

“I noticed that as much as people were transforming the landscape in which they were making a living, the landscape – and the increasingly unpredictable weather, drying up of springs and receding snowline – was changing the lives of the people who were experiencing it. Anticipating nature has been essential to being able to adapt to its seasonal transformations, as well as to detect longer-term abnormalities.”

Increasingly, researchers like Diemberger are raising awareness of the value of such local knowledge of the natural environment as a proxy for gauging environmental change, and as a step towards understanding the role of humans in causing that change. Recently, she contributed to a research network led by Dr David Sneath and Dr Barbara Bodenhorn (both in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology) that examined the significance of natural proxies – ranging from the snow and ice of the Arctic to the songbirds of the Tibetan plateau and the ‘bog oaks’ of the East Anglian Fenlands – in communicating cultural knowledge of environmental change.

“Climate change is a human issue and to understand it requires far more than climate science. We hope that these cross-disciplinary exchanges will produce further conversations and new approaches to action,” said Sneath.

One such approach has been the teaming up of Diemberger with meteorologist Professor Hans Graf, from the Department of Geography. Graf has been modelling the Tibetan microclimate through glaciers, meteorological phenomena and vegetation. Diemberger explained: “In a world in which the conceptual models that inform decision makers are increasingly determined by scientific investigation, politics and economics, we asked is there a space for the ancient local spirits and the Buddhist ideas enshrined in Himalayan landscape to provide insight into issues of environmental change?”

The pair discovered a remarkable degree of common ground. Graf’s scientific model showed that the clouds are significantly affected by dew, which in turn is determined by the landscape’s vegetation cover and is thus vulnerable to local land-use change, especially overgrazing.

Meanwhile, Diemberger has found that the impact of grazing animals on the pastureland is determined by the movement of herds and herders according to ancient rules – a migration that Sneath identified over a decade ago as decreasing as a result of resettlement strategies in the region, promoted in the name of a host of different reasons including environmental protection.

“These crossovers highlight the link between livelihood, landscape and weather,” said Diemberger. “We have discovered the usefulness – and the limits – of climate models and what can be gained from the records and observations of people who have been living in this environment for centuries.

“Deteriorating local features such as the loss of permanent snow fields are often at the centre of a blame game between local rural communities and state administrations on whether local practices or industrial development are responsible for what people are experiencing. Our belief is that by looking at natural phenomena in their social and cultural context, scientific investigations can discover and harness a host of unusual ‘proxies’ – mountains and lakes, ice and snow, clouds and dew, birds and grasses – to address the hugely complex issue of sustaining the environment in a changing climate.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.