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A flash flood in the Sindh district of Pakistan


An Indian gazelle, a species endemic to the Thar Desert, with her calf


Khuri dunes in the Thar

Desert, Rajasthan

‘counterintuitive’, he says; normally, there is an expectation that climate change will make wet areas wetter and dry areas drier. However, Goswami and his colleagues found that as rising greenhouse gas emissions continue to heat the planet, the Indian Ocean will warm unevenly, heating up faster in the west. It’s this imbalance, they explain, that is causing the monsoon to shift. Their research, published in the journal Earth’s Future, isn’t the first to suggest that climate change might be turning the Indian subcontinent’s northwest green. In 2017, scientists at the Center for Global Change Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that, since 2002, there has been a ‘revival’ of the Indian summer monsoon – a reversal of a 50-year dry period that brought relatively little rain to northern and central India. More rain, their study showed, was yet to come.

Historical changes to the climate, and the growing pressures of human activity, have driven desertification in the Thar Desert region for thousands of years. An area once home to the thriving Indus Valley Civilisation has suffered from increasingly erratic rainfall and overgrazing that has degraded the soil, leaving farmers struggling. In 2019, efforts began to restore depleted pastures, and native trees and grasses were planted. Goswami says that if managed properly, the increased rainfall could be a good thing for local communities. ‘Harvesting the increased rainfall has the potential for significant increase in food productivity, bringing in transformative changes in the socio-economic condition of people of the region.’

However, as in any semi-arid climate, Goswami explains, seasonal rainfall comes from a limited number of ‘short and intense rain events that lead to an increased frequency of hydrological disasters.’ In 2022, an unusually intense monsoon season saw three times the annual average rainfall across the country, displacing eight million people and causing more than US$15 billion worth of damage to homes and buildings. In Sindh, one of two provinces that lie within the border of the Thar Desert, more than 70 centimetres of rain fell in just two months.

And while increased rainfall may support the growth of vegetation in some areas, it could also lead to the expansion of invasive species and the degradation of fragile desert ecosystems in others. Despite its harsh and arid conditions, the Thar Desert supports a number of plant and animal species that have adapted to survive, such as the chinkara (or Indian gazelle), the critically endangered great Indian bustard, the Indian desert jird (a rodent with a crucial seed-dispersal role), and the endemic Thar Desert gecko. With no clear commitments to drastically cut global emissions, say researchers, the Thar Desert could one day be gone for good. l

MAY 2024 . 7

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