Forest loss caused by climate change in India ‘worse’ than estimates

The annual forest loss in India reached a peak of 2,503 sq km in 2017, according to a study

March 27, 2022 by Sandipan Talukdar
India forest loss

Climate change has caused a significant loss of forests in India and can become an even bigger problem beating earlier predictions. According to a new national-scale research conducted by the University of Reading, UK, and recently published in the journal Global Change Biology, climate change caused a huge decline in forests in the last two decades.

The study, which observed the relationship between rainfall and temperature with forest loss, also suggests that the actual loss could be much higher than mentioned in official reports.

Alice Haughan, a PhD student at Reading University, said, “India has seen dramatic forest loss in recent decades with land-use changes to accommodate crops, livestock and a growing population cited as causes. While the contribution of land-use change to forest loss has been studied extensively, little attention has been given to the role of climate change in recent decreases.”

Haughan added that the “rapid changes to the climate we identified suggest India’s forest loss in the coming decades could be far worse than feared as deforestation is only one part of the problem. The high levels of reduction seen are also concerning for biodiversity as India relies on connected forests for wildlife preservation.”

The researchers, who analyzed the loss of forests during 2001-2018 when the availability of data was scarce, attempted to calculate the velocity of changes to the climatic condition of India. This is a relatively new technique of quantifying climate change and determining the rate at which it impacts a country.

According to the results, annual forest loss increased from 47 sq km to a peak of 2,503 sq km in 2017. However, there was a marginal decline in the year 2018 of around 1,900 sq km. The staggering loss of forest was a total of 20,472 sq km, which accounted for 7.34% of the forest cover. Importantly, the forest loss in the Northeast was four times more compared to other regions.

The study also undertook the analysis of variability of the impact of climate change in different regions and seasons. Climate change manifested its impact variedly in different regions and seasons, especially in terms of forest loss. Greater forest loss was observed in places where climate change was faster. A decrease in rainfall was found to have the strongest impact on forest loss. At the same time, some places had a negative impact with a decrease in temperature.

Haughan explained the findings emphasizing on the alteration of rainfall pattern. “Our study of Indian tropical and subtropical regions shows that rainfall rather than temperature comes into play as the biggest factor in forest loss in contrast to trends found in many temperate studies.”

As most of the research until now has been focused on annual changes in the Indian climate, the researchers did not consider the scenario of more dramatic changes in temperature and rainfall during particular seasons—for example, the rainfall pattern during monsoons.

India is known for its wide biodiversity and also green cover. Notably, India is among the top 10 countries of the world known for forest coverage where tropical and subtropical forest cover is nearly one-fifth of the country. Moreover, the country also contains 8% of the world’s biodiversity with four recognized biodiversity hotspots.

According to estimates, India roughly has more than 47,000 plant species, including 5,000-plus endemic plants, and 89,000 animal species. However, more than 10% of its flora and fauna are listed as threatened.