Changing niche: climatic changes recorded in Sikkim Himalaya

Sep 19th, 2011 | By | Category: Adaptation, Advocacy, Agriculture, Biodiversity, CLIMATE SCIENCE, Climatic Changes in Himalayas, Development and Climate Change, Ecosystem Functions, Food, Glaciers, Global Warming, Guest Speak, India, Land, Lessons, Livelihood, M-20 CAMPAIGN, Opinion, Rainfall, Research, Weather

Vimal Khawas: With the impacts of global warming becoming more apparent, Sikkim Himalaya is perhaps most in tune to the signs of change brought about by climate warming. The people across the towns and villages of Sikkim narrate revealing insights on how global warming is affecting their lives and livelihood.

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Meteorogical Department records reveal that between 1958-2005, there had been a slight change in the climate of Gangtok. According to Dr K Seetharam, Director of the Meteorology Centre, Gangtok[1], maximum temperature has been rising by 0.2o C per decade and minimum temperature has been falling by 0.3o C per decade. The annual rainfall has been increasing by 49.6mm per decade.

Further, officials at the Gangtok Meteorological office inform that for the past three years, the temperature in the state capital – located at an altitude of 5,480 ft – have always been on a higher side with the nights becoming warmer with each passing winter. The impact of global warming on the hill town is, further, evident from the temperature recordings of 30 years – from 1957 – 97. The average minimum temperature for January was 4 degrees Celsius for this period while the maximum temperature was 12 degrees Celsius. From 1997 onwards, the maximum temperature for January has been up by three degrees and the minimum by four.[2]

The state has also been witnessing prolonged periods of dry spell during winters often triggering rampant bush fires. In 2006-2007, forest fires were witnessed all over the state from January to March, resulting in an extensive loss of flora and fauna[3]. Even the higher altitudes of Lachung and Lachen (both above 8,000 ft) in North Sikkim were not spared by the bush fires and the army had to be called in. In short, less moisture is entering Sikkim during winter but there has been a lot of evaporation. Sikkim experienced its longest ever recorded, seven month long, dry and warm winter during 2008-09. The physical effects of it included record breaking forest fires incidents, failure of winter crops and forced changes in the timing of subsequent crops[4].

Some of the important observations made by the people on field with regard to the impact of climate change in the Sikkim Himalaya may be highlighted below[5].

‘Geying Cherry, an imported variety of Cherry tree, flowered in the mid-February this year [2009]. The tree’s actual flowering season is mid-April’, ST Lachungpa, PCCF cum Secretary, Department of Forest, Wildlife and Environment, Government of Sikkim.

‘House crows, a low altitude species of bird are now as high up as in Lachung [9,600ft] in North Sikkim. The crows are found destroying apples in the orchards of Lachung’, Usha Lachungpa, Sr Research Officer, Department of Forest, Wildlife and Environment, Government of Sikkim.

‘I had never seen rats eating ginger,’ a 75 year old farmer of Barbing, Ranka, East Sikkim, when he saw rat eating Ginger in the winter of 2008-09.

‘It has become hotter, so our vegetables don’t grow well. The leaves dry up. In the last 2-3 years, my yield has fallen by half’, Dawa Bhutia, Khamtang village, West Sikkim.

‘Earlier, the summer temperature in Gangtok (the capital city) would be 15°C. Now, in spring (2008), it’s already 18°C’, Dipankar Ghose, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Sikkim.

‘Around 20 years ago, we used to get at least one foot of snow. But for the last three years, there has been no snow. You can only see it in the higher slopes. Snow acts as manure for the soil. It melts slowly in the soil and makes it fertile. Now, we get more wind and heavy rain, which erodes the soil’, Sanchabir Subba, Khamtang village.

‘Earlier, the rain was gentle. Now, it is very heavy, like buckets are being emptied from the skies. And, the heat is very strong. Both destroy the crops’, Pinchu Lepcha, Ramgethang village.

‘Sowing seasons are changing. Earlier, we used to sow maize in February. But now, we sow earlier in January. Normally, it would snow in February, but now, it doesn’t snow anymore’, Tempa Lepcha, Ramgethang village.

‘Since it has become hotter, now oranges and bananas are growing here (1,800 m). They were unheard of earlier’, Pemchong Lama, Chojo village, West Sikkim.

Higher temperatures have brought new crops to the mountains. Most of the seasonal flowers which were supposed to bloom between March end and early April are already blooming before February end.  There are marked evidences of various birds, animals and insects changing their habitation. Amazingly, they are adapting to their new habitations and becoming habitual in the high altitude regions. Moreover, not only are the animals, birds and insects are changing their habits and habitats, the tree line is also displaying signs of global warming by shifting upward.

There are copious evidences of the low altitude tree species that are gradually shifting towards high altitude zone as the climate there are becoming salubrious enough for them to survive. Uttis, a hot climate species, is now abundantly found in places above Gangtok. If the low altitude species are replacing the high altitude species, naturally the latter will reach the state of extinction. Further, the low altitude trees are being replaced by shrubs like banmara and others kinds of weeds known to destroy the forests.

It has also been found that Glaciers in Sikkim Himalaya are not behaving normally in recent years. For instance, the Jemu Glacier [located in North Sikkim] retreated by around 20 meters per year during 1975-1990 (Bahadur 2004: 53). Small streams that feed the large rivers are drying up more recently in and around the major watersheds of the region. This has not only affected the volume of the major rivers but also impacted the delicate relationship of flora & fauna and human habitation, particularly the livelihood of the poor rural hill folks.

Keeping in mind the world wide debate on global warming and its likely impact on the glaciology and other natural resource base of the state, the Government of Sikkim recently appointed a high level national expert Group/Commission headed by glaciologist Prof Syed Iqbal Hasnain. The Commission is expected to examine and report all the significant issues related to glaciers in and around Sikkim Himalaya.

‘Sikkim is a mini theatre which in a way displays how climate change triggered by non-natural forces at the global level could bring disastrous natural calamities. We are worried in Sikkim as we have seen warm winters, increased flooding, landslides and rock avalanches from destabilised slopes. The torrential rains and unusually prolonged monsoon in 2007 caused extensive damage due to landslides. This was definitely not the case when I was young’, Chief Minister of Sikkim, Dr. Pawan Kumar Chamling, while inaugurating the Commission’s first meeting in January 2008.

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About author: Dr Vimal Khawas has written this article for Climate Himalaya’s Guest Speakers Column. Dr. Khawas is Associate Fellow at the School of Policy Planning and Studies, Sikkim University,  Gangtok, Sikkim, 6th Mile, Samdur, Tadong- 737102, Sikkim, India Tel: 91-3592-251004; Cell: 9474583726  Email: vimalkhawas@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Climate Himalaya Initiative’s team.


[1] Reported by Dionne Bunsha, Frontline, July 5 – 18, 2008

[2] Reported by The Telegraph Wednesday , January 9 , 2008

[3] Reported by The Telegraph Wednesday , January 9 , 2008

[4] Reported by Rai subash and Parvinder Kaur, ‘Get Rational about Climate Change not just Fashionable’, Now, April 12, 2009

[5] Compiled from various sources

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One Comment to “Changing niche: climatic changes recorded in Sikkim Himalaya”

  1. Gajendra Mohan Bahuguna says:

    The article on climate change in Sikkim Himalayas by Dr Vimal khawas is indeed informative and comprehensively treats the subject of climate change seen and reflected in the behavior of birds, butterflies and plants. The alarmingly fast rate at which these changes are taking place should force all stakeholders to think fast at mitigating strategies. If the changes which used to occur in centuries start occurring in decades it is certain that a grave situation is awaiting us. Places like Sikkim are already suffering from Natural disaster( Earth quake) , if man-made disasters also strike there the life would become hell. it is high time for policy maker and all conscious populace to give a clarion call for course correction and implement practical solutions to counteract the dangerous trend. It is a good news that Bhutan is also taking many corrective and defensive steps in this direction.
    Congratulations and many Thanks to Dr Vimal Khawas and climate Himalaya, for the article. http://chimalaya.org/members/bahugunag/

    G.M Bahuguna, Dehra Dun

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