Project Summary

Climate change may increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, with the greatest effects on subsistence-oriented societies. On the Tibetan Plateau, extreme spring snowstorms are reportedly becoming more frequent and severe. The snowstorms of 1998, in which millions of livestock perished, were particularly devastating. For the first time, the Chinese government called for emergency food relief for the herders, and implemented an immediate livestock restocking effort. Reports indicated the pastoralists were threatened with large-scale starvation, a phenomenon which had never before been documented in this region. The overall goal of this project is to investigate the social and ecological implications of both the snowstorms and the state restocking programs, and more broadly, pastoralists’ changing vulnerability to climate change. This work entails three primary activities. First, we will investigate how socio-economic status, ecological range condition, and state restocking programs affect herder well-being and vulnerability to severe spring snowstorms. This will be based on pre-1998 and immediate post-storm data as well as data gathered on the current status of the coupled human-environment system. Study methods will include structured and semi-structured interviews, participant observation, ecological field observations, ecological experiments, remote sensing, and historic climate analyses. Second, we will utilize this information to modify and parameterize a coupled agent-based and ecosystem model. Third, we will make predictions of future herder well-being and vulnerability to extreme spring snowstorms under a suite of snowstorm frequency/intensities, management styles, and state policies.

Intellectual Merit

This project is unique in its combination of a novel suite of interdisciplinary research approaches and methodologies -- ethnographic field work, isotopic ecological research, experimental manipulations, and remote sensing. Our use of a process-based ecosystem model coupled to an agent-based model is also a sophisticated and innovative tool for integrating the human-environment data and for making policy-relevant predictions of what ecological and socio-political features enhance or reduce vulnerability to extreme weather events under future environmental and political change. The project will produce fine-grained social and ecological data not often found in integrated, human-environmental research. Moreover, these findings will also serve as important stand-alone contributions in their respective fields. The sociopolitical work contributes significantly to the currently minimal ethnographic data available about pastoral livelihoods in Tibetan areas of China, as well as to political ecological studies of vulnerability under global change. The ecological research addresses a timely question about livelihoods and resource management of a dryland system under global change. This understanding is relevant to at least the one-third of the Earth’s land area occupied by water limited ecosystems.

Broader Impacts

This project will provide training and funding for two US-based graduate students, several US-based undergraduate assistants, at least four Tibetan students and one Chinese graduate student. These students will obtain skills including ecological field techniques, interview techniques, laboratory skills, language training, and the suite of intangible and invaluable skills obtained from working on a multi-national, multi-linguistic, cross-disciplinary research team. Klein and Yeh will also offer a course at CSU entitled “Interdisciplinary Research in the Environmental Sciences”. Given the immediate policy relevance of this project, Klein and Yeh will communicate project findings to policy makers and development personnel working in China through two project stakeholder workshops as well as the through the delivery of written reports and the project website. Findings will also be communicated to the broader academic community. Finally, this project will certainly foster greater interaction and cooperation among Americans, Chinese and Tibetans.