The State of Kerala is located between the Arabian Sea on the West and mountain ranges on its Eastern border. This distinct configuration wherein relief changes drastically from low-lying land at the sea level to the high-land westward, added to the state’s position in the tropics creates some of the most impressive ecosystems. Kerala receives ample sunlight and rain (benefitting heavily from the monsoons). This results in the emergence of rich vegetation and biodiversity. The hills on the west also act as a physical barrier which slows down the passing monsoon and increases the rainfall it receives as the winds carrying rainclouds pass.  The physical attributes of Kerala’s landscape and the geographical position it is located in turn make it one of the most impressive sites for nature enthusiasts; where vegetation is dense and life is teeming. Based on elevation the landscape of Kerala can be broadly categorized into the highlands, the midlands (which also include Palakkad plains) and the low-lying coastal zone. 

The Mountains and Montane forests of the Western Ghats

Map of Western Ghats

The Western ghats, a chain of mountains, is arguably the most well known of Kerala’s geographic forms. This mountain range, which has been understood to be older than the Himalayas has been recognized by conservationists as one of high geographic, ecological and cultural value. The hills allow Kerala to reap the benefits of seasonal rains better, provide fresh water, are home to rich biodiversity and hold highly medicinal plants. This region has been designated as a ‘world heritage site’ by UNESCO being one of the most bustling biodiversity hotspots on Earth. The Western Ghats is home to dense mountainous forests and impressive wildlife such as elephants and tigers. The ascend into the mountains is abrupt and elevation changes drastically, as a result of this it is home to plant and animal varieties not found elsewhere in the state. Numerous of these lives depend on the distinct ecosystems the topographic qualities of the Western Ghats provide, there are more than 300 known species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals threatened with extinction in this region. 

The Midlands: Between the Foothills and the Coast 

Mid-land Kerala is one of the most productive agricultural regions where crops ranging from areca, cassava, cashew and jackfruit are grown abundantly. Sunlight throughout the year, access to fresh water (from perennial tributaries and aquifers) and climate conditions that remain largely invariable allow farmers to grow food throughout the year. This region is also home to freshwater wetlands. The low-lying valleys of the Western Ghats are home to Myristica swamps. Some members of the Myristica genus have specialized knot-like roots and are capable of growing effortlessly where water-logging is constant. These plants develop into a specific type of Evergreen forest that is found rarely anywhere else in India. These evergreen forests that emerge in water rich environments hold a rich diversity of wildlife. It plays a crucial role in the life cycles of amphibians, freshwater crabs and snakes, many of which are endemic. Any alterations to the physical terrain and its vegetation would have a devastating impact on all the life forms that reside in it. Moving further towards the coast from the foothills of the Western ghats towards the ocean, the terrain is rugged. However the hills are relatively small, therefore it provides little obstruction to the winds and rains brought in by the monsoons. As a result, this region is able to retain moisture throughout the year and hold evergreen tree cover.                                              

The Palakkad Plains

The Physiography of Palakkad Plains

The Palakkad plains are situated at the lowest pass of the western ghats in Kerala. This region of expansive flat lands possesses its own microclimate owing to the physical barriers (hill ranges) at its outer edges. The plains are positioned at a ‘gap’ of the western ghats allowing rivulets originating from the range to pass through further into Kerala. The gap allows the monsoon winds to pass westward; without which rainfall in many parts of South India would be weakened. Dry winds from Tamil Nadu are also carried into the plains through the gap. This specific geographical characteristic plays an important role in providing consistent wind (which is harvested for energy) and acquiring cyclonic summer rains that originate west of India. The Palakkad plains have historically acted as a ‘corridor’ for travellers to move between western south India eastward and vice versa. 

The low-lying Coastline

Kerala is home to around 10% of India’s coastline. This expansive coastline has kept the state connected to civilizations around the world for more than a  millennia. Natural harbours, riverine inlets and sailable waters have allowed traders from different parts of the globe to access the rich agricultural and artisanal products produced in the state. The expansive coastline also implies the landscape is dispersed with numerous picturesque beaches. Vegetation on beaches are usually sparse and restricted to clusters of coconuts, beach pines etc. Further inland, for species that evolved to tolerate the water logging and high salt content, this region is abundant in nutrients. Minerals washed in from the ocean and waste from aquatic life forms provide an abundant source of nutrition. Specialized plant forms such as mangroves use the available nutrition in the water to establish dense forest ecosystems. These forests then become home to its own ecosystem of birds, insects, fish, amphibians and reptiles. The low-lying land receives high rainfall and takes the full impact of storms generated out at sea. The lowlands near the ocean also create a distinct ecosystem characterized by ‘brack water’, water with salt content less than the oceans. The water attains the quality as the result of fresh water flowing from inland mixing with sea water. A distinct variety of species (found neither at sea or fresh water) emerge here. The low-lying region is also where the rivers originating in the mountains drain into the sea. Freshwater in areas not directly adjoining the ocean is abundant, making it highly habitable and apt for agriculture. This also plays a crucial role in the migratory routes of birds from different parts of the continent.