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Uttarakhand forest fire: five biggest impacts on the environment

Catch Team | Updated on: 3 May 2016, 21:42 IST

The Uttarakhand fire tragedy has burnt down at least 1,900 hectares of forest. The area is equivalent to 3,000 football fields, except with a further thousandfold ecological impact.

The fire is raging across Himalayan terrain and dense forests of various types, which are home to animals like bears and tigers, thousands of butterflies and insects, and, of course, hundreds of human communities.

The fires affect each differently, and the system as a whole. Here are the five biggest impacts the fires have.

01
Insects

The impact of forest fires is felt most by insects, who cannot withstand the high temperatures. They are unable to escape fires. The loss of insects of all kinds has a significant impact on the forest ecosystem.

Most importantly, the process of pollination is hampered, which will eventually affect the growth of plants and crops in the region.

A study conducted in Sal forests of Uttarakhand, and published in early 2016, found a decline in insect population for all four seasons following a fire.

This was not just because all the insects and their eggs had been destroyed, but because their home, the soil, had changed.

02
Soil health

A forest fire causes several changes in soil. It reduces moisture, increases acidity, and reduces humus, the nutrient-rich top layer of soil. Because of the loss of insects, the soil is not porous enough.

Fires also burn away the thick layer of litter on the forest floor, which helps retain humidity and moisture in the soil, essential for sustaining life.

Because of all these changes, the kind of organisms living in the soil changes, compounding the changes in the soil properties.

03
On local communities

Forest fires deplete the non-timber produce that locals take from forests for various purposes, including fodder for cattle, roots, fruits, etc.

"These annual flows amount to, in my estimate, Rs 2,000-3,000 crore each year. This is the commercial loss from the fires, and doesn't even include timber," says Ravi Chopra, director of People's Science Institute, Dehradun.

This adds to the long-term loss to agriculture and horticulture, because there are fewer insects doing pollination.

Chopra says this loss increases the alienation of the people from their surrounding forests, encouraging migration.

The state should encourage joint management of the forests, and of preventing future fires, to bring back their sense of ownership, he adds.

04
Wildlife

Large mammals, like bears, are able to escape the fires, but their homes get destroyed, says Manoj Matwal of Harela Society, which is active in Uttarakhand's Pithoragarh region. Birds, too, are able to escape the flames, but their nests and eggs do not.

Because animals' habitats are destroyed, it affects raising the young until the forest is rejuvenated.

The loss of insects, trees and the lack of pollination affects the entire food chain in the forest, eventually affecting all animals.

Matwal estimates three to four years for the forest ecology to return to normal, assuming there is enough rain in the monsoon.

05
Glaciers

There is some speculation about glaciers melting, although no scientific study has been carried out in this regard.

The idea is that soot from the fires can deposit on the glaciers, increasing their capacity to absorb heat. This would make glaciers melt faster.

Understandably, the water from the melting glaciers (eventually flowing into major north Indian rivers) will be polluted in a high quantity.

The warmer climate due to the fire will also cause additional melting. Besides, because the soil has lost its moisture, the monsoon rainfall will cause higher soil erosion, and higher water run-off, also raising water levels in streams and rivers.

First published: 3 May 2016, 21:42 IST
 
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