Tapping Traditional Wisdom to Cope with Climate Change

From the mountains of Tajikistan to Standing Rock in the Dakotas, scientists are collaborating with indigenous people to study climate change and predict the future.
Tapping Traditional Wisdom
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 Copyright American Institute of Physics (reprinting information)

Nala Rogers, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- This spring, the geese came early to the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota. Charles McLaughlin, a 70-year-old artist and tribal elder, spotted the first geese in February, more than a month before they normally would have appeared. By March 18, their migration was in full swing, said McLaughlin, and on that day, he gazed up at a honking ribbon 20 miles wide.

"You couldn't believe how many went over the top of me," he said. "They filled the whole sky."

Migrating geese are nothing new to McLaughlin, who has lived his whole life on the reservation that covers more than 3,500 square miles. But to see the geese so early may be a sign of change -- change that is disrupting the already beleaguered system by which people in the area get food.

Like many people in Standing Rock, McLaughlin has Type 2 diabetes, and he relies on fresh food from his garden to stay healthy. The closest store is a 25-mile journey away, and vegetables there are expensive. But last year, McLaughlin's garden gave a measly harvest, with sparse, stunted cucumbers and no squash or pumpkins at all. 

"Our gardens don't grow like they used to, because the time's all messed up," he said. "I usually don't plant my garden until around Memorial Day, because we usually get a frost, you know. But everything's changing now."

The people of Standing Rock, who have made national headlines over the past year for their fight to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, are one of many indigenous groups around the world that are feeling the effects of climate change, said Karim-Aly Kassam, a human ecologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Many indigenous people still supply a large portion of their diet through subsistence farming, hunting and gathering wild plants. From the mountains of Afghanistan to the Arctic tundra, such people are finding it harder to predict the natural rhythms that once told them when and how to obtain nutrition from the land, Kassam said.

"The irony of climate change is that the people that are at the vanguard of climate change are the people who did not contribute to it," said Kassam.

Rural and indigenous communities have little power to curb the fossil fuel emissions that are altering Earth's climate. But paradoxically, these same communities may harbor valuable tools for coping with climate change, according to Kassam. Traditional societies often accumulate a rich understanding of seasonal indicators such as melting snow and migrating birds, and they sometimes create calendar systems based more on local weather and ecology than on the paths of the sun or moon.

Kassam is leading an international effort to revitalize these "ecological calendars," asking people around the world about the cues they once used to mark the changing seasons. With colleagues from fields such as climatology and botany, Kassam plans to study these indicators using scientific tools and statistical methods, teasing apart what natural signs mean and whether they have fallen out of sync. The primary goal, said Kassam, is to provide people with tools they can use to plan everything from hunting expeditions to harvests. At the same time, traditional knowledge can corroborate scientific measurements or suggest new directions for research, potentially leading to novel discoveries about the changing climate.

Meeting with Tajik village

Karim-Aly Kassam and his colleagues work with villagers in Sary Mogul, Kyrgyzstan, marking the natural cues they describe on a circular diagram representing the turning of the seasons. 

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Tobias Kraudzun

Breaking free of Gregorian bonds

Ten years ago, climate change was the last thing Kassam wanted to study. Indigenous people in the Arctic had told him about their failing ability to forecast local conditions, and the dangers and hardships they faced as a result. Kassam was moved by their plight, but at a loss for how to help.

"I'll be honest. I find climate change fundamentally depressing," he admitted. "I wanted something lyrical. Something I could enjoy. Something hopeful."

But when he went searching for new research ideas in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan and surrounding nations starting in 2006, he once again found people struggling with a changing climate. Villagers told of shifting weather patterns that defied prediction and disrupted agriculture. This time, though, they also described something else: traditional calendar systems that had once helped them ride out environmental fluctuations.

The Pamiri calendars interpreted time as movements of the sun through the human body. For example, at the start of the spring season, people might say, "The sun is in the toe." A few days later, the sun would be in the calf, then the knee, and so on. Usually, the sun traveled up the body in the spring, then down again in the fall, landing in the heart at the spring and fall equinoxes. Rest periods separated these journeys, and in each village, one person was responsible for watching natural signs to determine when the sun resumed its travels. The calendars varied from place to place, each one customized to a particular village's landscape, elevation and ecology.

The Soviet government suppressed Pamiri calendars during the 20th century, and while people still remember counting time on their bodies, the traditional systems have largely fallen apart, said Kassam. Now, people want them back.  

"They said, 'You know, when we used this calendar to plan, it was far more stable, and we were able to predict and anticipate adequately. But now we don't use this calendar, and we don't know what is happening," Kassam said.

Kassam and his colleagues decided to help the Pamiri villagers reclaim their calendars, collecting what people could remember of the original systems and looking for natural cues that might prove useful in a changing climate. At the same time, the researchers sought opportunities to revitalize traditional calendars in other parts of the world. A year and a half into the project, they have interviewed people in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and the United States -- both at Standing Rock and around Oneida Lake in New York, a rural region where people mostly descended from European settlers have hunted, farmed and fished for generations. Only the Asian communities, which are all in the Pamir mountains, had elaborate traditional calendars to revive. But people everywhere used natural seasonal indicators, and many elders recalled signs that had shifted position or fallen out of use.

Installing water pump in Tajik village

Cyrus Samimi and his colleagues install a climate station to take measurements of wind, sunlight, temperature and soil moisture in the village of Sary Mogul in Kyrgystan.

Media credits

Tobias Kraudzun

Bringing in the science

People have studied the seasonal timing of biological phenomena, known as phenology, for centuries, often in an attempt to glean useful information for agriculture, horticulture and forestry. More recently, scientists have turned to phenology to understand the impacts of climate change.

"Monitoring these phenological changes is like checking the vital signs of the planet," said David Wolfe, a plant and soil ecologist at Cornell University who is part of the ecological calendar team.

No two species respond to their environments in exactly the same way, so climate change can disrupt the balance of ecosystems. For example, small insect-eating birds known as pied flycatchers use day length to decide when to migrate. But at their European breeding grounds, the caterpillars they eat emerge when the weather warms, and spring's warmth has been coming earlier. Now, the birds arrive to find much of their food already gone, according to studies in Nature and the Journal of Ornithology.

Since humans can choose which signals to pay attention to, they can identify cues that reflect useful information, and figure out what they mean in today's environment. That's where the ecological calendar project comes in. For example, another project collaborator, Cornell conservation biologist and botanic garden director Christopher Dunn, envisions using museum specimens to study whether particular plant signs used by indigenous people are showing up at different times than they did in the past. Some natural history museums have tens of thousands of preserved plant specimens collected over hundreds of years, many of which have recently been photographed and uploaded to online databases. Phenology researchers can pull up a picture, note whether the plant was flowering, and read the label to find out exactly when it was collected.

Other members of the team are focused on the climate itself. In several Pamiri villages, the researchers have installed 2-meter poles with instruments that measure temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, soil moisture, and the intensity of sunlight, said Cyrus Samimi, a physical geographer at the University of Bayreuth in Germany and one of researchers working on the project. Villagers with cameras are taking pictures of the landscape at regular intervals, documenting visible signs that can later be matched up with data from the instruments.    

In addition, Samimi and his colleagues are using historical satellite data to analyze signs such as rainfall, snowmelt and growing seasons. The villagers have paid attention to these signs for centuries, and their observations can help validate data from remote sensing instruments and climate models, said Samimi. 

"This is also a thing I always emphasize -- not to trust in all modern modeled and measured data, because it could be different on the ground on the local scale," said Samimi. "If our data will show, 'Yes, there is a shift in precipitation more to spring,' and people also notice and agree on these changes, then we have a kind of a soft calibration of the data."

But do they work?

The ecological calendar project has no shortage of admirers. Four governments support it financially, and more than a dozen scientific organizations have signed on as partners, including the American Geophysical Union, the International Society of Biometeorology and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Still, not everyone is on board.  

"To turn around and say that, 'Well, if we could just somehow update these traditional calendars, things would be fine now' is nonsense -- because they never worked," said Peter Webster, a dynamic climatologist at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "It's like saying, 'Look, we're not going to do surgery. We're going to do voodoo medicine.'"

Webster is quick to acknowledge the cultural value of ecological calendars, but not their practical applications. Meteorologists and climatologists, he said, have worked hard to develop predictive tools that offer exactly what farmers and gardeners need -- estimates of temperature and rainfall over the next few weeks. Such tools are highly effective when they are actually used, as they are across most of the U.S. and Europe. In Webster's view, the best way to help people adapt to climate change is to bring the benefits of high-tech forecasting systems to poor and developing regions, which he himself worked to do for many years in India and Bangladesh.

But while plants may not replace high-tech forecasting, they can serve as sophisticated scientific instruments with user-friendly interfaces, said Wolfe. It would take months' worth of environmental measurements to learn "what you get when you just look at a plant blooming," he said.

village of Savnob

The village of Savnob in Tajikistan occupies a small slice of arable land in the Pamir Mountains. Traditional calendars in this region vary from valley to valley, customized to each site's unique microclimate and environmental conditions.

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Cyrus Samimi

Moreover, Morgan Ruelle, a human ecologist at Cornell University and part of the Ecological Calendar team, said that most climate models only work at relatively coarse scales, while ecological signs provide information at the level of a single valley or village. For example, Kassam remembers two villages in the Pamirs that were right next to each other, but separated by 1,000 meters of elevation. The villages had dramatically different calendars, with the lower one incorporating fruit trees that couldn't grow higher up. Similarly, people at Standing Rock objected when Ruelle said he planned to combine the information from two communities twenty miles apart. The two environments, they insisted, were completely different. 

Ruelle and his colleagues view ecological signs and high-tech forecasts as complementary, each contributing valuable information. Webster disagrees, fearing what will happen when ecological signs conflict with more reliable methods.

"I don't think the two are compatible to use together," he said.

But indigenous people may already have practice balancing diverse and conflicting sources of information. When Ruelle first went to Standing Rock, he was always looking for the perfect cues to guide particular actions. The Standing Rock elders described a few such pairings -- when the prairie rose blooms, it's time to plant your garden, for instance. But in reality, they wouldn't base decisions on a single cue, said Ruelle. People like Standing Rock elder Charles McLaughlin know that plants can't tell the future, having watched their own fruit trees bloom early during warm spells and then shrivel in the frost.

"I think people are even hesitant to tell you about these little cues, because they don't want them to be overstated," said Ruelle.

In Standing Rock, spring is heralded by a diverse suite of signs, including the sound of thunder, the greening of grass, the song of the meadowlark, and the emergence of snakes, said Ruelle. The signs mean little in isolation, but together, they add up to something meaningful.

Indigenous insights

It may be too soon to tell whether the researchers will succeed in helping indigenous people. But either way, science is likely to benefit from the contributions of people like McLaughlin, who described his struggling garden as part of a web of changing signs in the Standing Rock environment. Indigenous people's knowledge has led to significant findings before, such as the discovery that Earth is encircled by two narrow bands of unstable weather.

That study, published by Betsy Weatherhead and her colleagues in 2010, was sparked by Inuit people's reports that weather was growing chaotic and unpredictable. At first, climate scientists couldn't find any such pattern in the data, said Weatherhead, who is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and is not involved in the ecological calendar project. The breakthrough came when Weatherhead teamed up with an anthropologist named Shari Gearheard, who was able to describe in detail what Inuit people were seeing: springtime conditions that fluctuated rapidly, rather than holding steady for days at a time.

"What they were talking about was strong and clear, once we knew what to look for," said Weatherhead.

Weatherhead found that it wasn't just one site. All along that latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres, springtime weather was growing more erratic, while in most of the rest of the world, it was growing more stable. The mechanism remains mysterious, although Weatherhead suspects it has something to do with atmospheric circulation patterns.

The discovery illustrates the kind of insights researchers stand to gain from efforts like the ecological calendar project, said Weatherhead. To understand what's happening to our planet, researchers need data from instruments like thermometers and barometers. But sometimes, they also need human beings -- indigenous people whose history and experience grants them an intimate knowledge of the Earth.

"They can help tell us more traditional scientists the critical things to focus on," said Weatherhead. "[They] can talk to us and tell us: This is what's changing." 

Author Bio & Story Archive

Nala Rogers is a staff writer and editor at Inside Science, where she covers the Earth and Creature beats. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah and a graduate certificate in science communication from U.C. Santa Cruz. Before joining Inside Science, she wrote for diverse outlets including Science, Nature, the San Jose Mercury News, and Scientific American. In her spare time she likes to explore wilderness.