Climate Change Is Making Calendars Run Amok

People in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia are recalibrating their system of time to adapt to a changing ecosystem.

In the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, time has stopped working.

Communities in the region traditionally kept time by pegging it to environmental markers, such as melting snow or the first appearance of a migratory bird. But these “ecological calendars” have ceased to function properly due to the effects of climate change.

An array of environmental shifts in the region, such as unusual weather events, untimely glacial melts, lake bursts, and changes in animal and bird migration patterns, have thrown the calendars so far off kilter that most villagers no longer use them, and they struggle to reliably predict cues for planning agricultural and cultural activities.

“What's happening, is it is creating instability at many levels—insecurity within local contexts, uncertainty with respect to anticipatory capacity, risk with respect to hazards that are turning into disasters—so imagine the level of anxiety,” says Karim-Aly S. Kassam of Cornell University.

This year, Kassam and an international team of researchers and local residents are starting work on a massive, multipart project to recalibrate time in the region. If successful, the Ecological Calendars and Climate Adaptation in the Pamirs (ECCAP) project will allow villagers to better plan their food production and adapt to future changes.

The team is tackling a problem that is being seen in many communities, says applied anthropologist Julie Maldonado of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who is not involved with the project. Seasonal indicators are becoming unreliable across the globe, and long-standing traditional knowledge is at risk.

Anthony Aveni, an anthropologist and astronomer at Colgate University, agrees, adding that ecological events are in many ways more fundamental and universal measures of time.

“Time is a living entity; time is the environment,” he says. “I think we lose track of it when we take it out of context and say ‘1492’ or ‘April 10’ or ‘two o'clock.’ Those are abstract measures of what time really is.”

But for the communities that use ecological timekeeping, disruptions can affect their very survival, Aveni says.

“I want to know how to adapt to the weather tomorrow. If there's going to be a storm, I'll take my umbrella. But imagine having to adapt your behavior if your life depended on it. That can be a frightening experience.”

Ankle O’Clock

The Pamir region primarily lies in Tajikistan but also straddles Afghanistan, China, and Kyrgyzstan. Kassam was there in 2006 working with local communities to understand how they had been affected by global traumatic events, such as war, food shortages, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Villagers described to Kassam how their daily survival was deeply connected to their agricultural habitats, and he discovered that they were distressed not only by world events but also by ongoing environmental upheaval. To Kassam, it was clear that the villagers were recounting the impacts of climate change.

The region has been seeing increasingly rapid snow and glacial melt, as well as rising river levels. In addition, the character and intensity of precipitation has been changing. What once fell as snow now falls as rain, and rather than being spread out over 30 days, the rain may arrive all at once.

Major landslides and lake bursts have happened at high elevations. Lower down, agricultural land is being flooded, and changing temperatures are affecting the fruit harvests.

Listening to people in the Pamirs talk about these changes is what first led Kassam to notice their ties to ecological calendars. Along with colleagues Umed Bulbulshoev and Morgan Ruelle, he went on to identify 17 calendars once widely used in the Pamir region.

Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which uses celestial events to count days in a fixed manner, the Pamir calendars tracked time through environmental cues that were then pegged to the human body. Traditionally, a hisobdon, one who calculates time, kept track of the cues, and farmers used them to initiate activities such as sowing seeds, plowing, harvesting, and cultural events.

In most systems, counting begins in early spring. It starts at the sole or the toenail and moves upward. Many calendars use the ankle, shin, knee, thigh, and penis to mark milestones, and time’s arrival at the heart often coincides with the vernal equinox.

Counting then passes through the chest and throat to the head. Here it stops for a chilla, a period of time marked by less agricultural activity. When seasonal cues are once more observed, counting resumes in reverse, moving back down through the body.

This system of timekeeping is deeply connected to the way these communities experience and describe the world. The sun is in the intestines, so when villagers see avalanches or changes in precipitation patterns, they say it is “like the churning in the stomach.” When the sun is in the “smiling mouth,” apricot trees are supposed to blossom.

Keeping the Calendar

With the calendars in turmoil, people in the Pamir Mountains are experimenting with ways to cope. Plowing and sowing now begins 15 to 30 days earlier than it did two decades ago, and it has become possible to grow wheat further up in the mountains without the risk of frost damage.

“They are already showing human agency, because they have figured out that they can now grow wheat at higher elevations. People are developing strategies on their own,” Kassam says.

However, this adaption has restrictions. Arable land is limited at higher altitudes, so the villagers will ultimately need a combination of approaches to ensure that their communities can predict the best times for vital events.

“They need to be able to anticipate what size their herd should be, what will be the nature of the pastures, when should they be seeding, when should they be plowing, when should they be harvesting,” says Kassam.

To address the problem, Kassam partnered with the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange and MIT's Climate CoLab. They worked together to develop the ECCAP project, identify scientists with experience and respect for local knowledge, and crowdsource ideas.

The resulting multidisciplinary team brings together researchers from the U.S., Italy, Germany, and China. One team will update the calendars with current ecological data and recalibrate them so that people can once again make seasonal predictions.

Another team will link climate science to the calendars to prepare for changes related to water and drought, and the third will carry out a detailed study of biodiversity, drawing on the calendars as well as contemporary and historical knowledge.

Earlier this year, ECCAP was awarded 1.2 million euros from the Belmont Forum, and the teams have already began work in their respective institutions. In July, they will meet in China's Kongur Shan to establish local community partnerships.

Farm Locally, Eat Globally

Raj Pandya, program director at Thriving Earth Exchange, says that the project pioneers an approach to preparing for climate change that combines traditional practices, local knowledge, and cutting-edge science.

“It will help villagers improve their lives and livelihoods, even in the face of climate change,” he says. “Using science, they’ll be able to match their traditional practices in agriculture and grazing to a rapidly changing climate and thrive in the places that they have lived for generations.”

According to Kassam, partnership projects such as ECCAP will not combat the effects of climate change, but they will help communities adapt to it.

“This is how we will secure our food systems and livelihoods,” he says. “In the third millennium, globally, humanity continues to depend largely on the small farmer and herder just to eat.”

Follow Karen Emslie on Twitter.

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