Seasonal indicators of time are becoming increasingly unreliable as a result of climate change, with indigenous ecological calendars being rendered non-functional. Many communities around the world rely on environmental markers to keep track of time for purposes of farming and other interactions with nature. These markers can include the appearance of migratory animal species, or of melting snow to indicate the end of winter. These cues can be important to such societies to indicate timing for agriculture. One group of communities in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia has been particularly affected by these changes in recent years.

Villagers in this part of the world have begun to struggle to predict timing for planning agriculture and cultural activities. The Pamir region, mostly in Tajikistan but also including portions of Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan, has seen increasingly rapid snow melts and rising river levels. Precipitation which traditionally fell as snow is now rain, and this rain can be concentrated in a much shorter period of time. This has led to lake bursts and landslides at high elevations, and the flooding of agricultural land at lower elevations.

The Gregorian Calendar uses fixed celestial events to track time, but the Pamir calendars instead use environmental cues to determine timing for farming activities as well as cultural events. Karim-Aly S. Kassam of Cornell University and a team of international researchers and locals are starting work on a project to recalibrate time in the Pamir region. The project, called Ecological Calendars and Climate Adaptation in the Pamirs (ECCAP), aims to help villagers plan food production under these new environmental circumstances, and to help locals adapt to a broader range of conditions in general. Plowing and sowing now starts up to 30 days earlier than it did traditionally. On the positive side, wheat can be grown higher up in the mountains without the possibility of frost damage.

To assemble the ECCAP team, Kassam, who had been doing research in the region since 2006, collaborated with MIT’s Climate Colab and the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange to help find scientists from around the world who were right for the job, with the appropriate experience and respect for local traditions. The team includes researchers from the US., Germany, Italy, and China. Kassam points out that such projects do not aim to combat climate change, but instead to help local communities adapt to such realities. Kassam considers this work essential to humanity, noting that much of the world still depends on small farmers and herders for food production.

This type of work is likely to become even more important globally, as other indigenous communities begin to deal with similar interruptions in traditional cycles of time and agriculture.

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