Rising sea levels and more extreme temperatures aren’t the only problems we can anticipate as the Earth warms. Climate change is causing local extinctions of plants and animals — and in places like the Amazon basin, these plants are moving to higher or lower ground in response to changing environments.
Justin Catanoso, a Pulitzer grantee, spent July 25 to Aug. 11 in Peru with Wake Forest University tropical biologist Miles Silman. He hiked through Manu National Park with the researchers to experience the wonders of these tropical forests for himself.
While we often think of climate change impacting the poles first — with melting ice caps and dying polar bears, a study published in the journal Nature on Oct. 9 says that these tropical forests, and other tropical areas like coral reefs, will be impacted first by these changes.
Catanoso saw these changing forests firsthand while he visited the area over the summer. He saw the extreme diversity of these forests, how they literally create clouds, and how the area is rapidly transforming.
The experience of these important geographies changed his entire worldview on climate change.
“We are going to lose our coastlines. We are going to lose the ice caps,” Catanoso said. “It’s not hundreds of years off. It’s the coming generation. And the generation after that. My grandchildren are going to be living in a very different world if we don’t slow the rate of warming.”
After flying into Cuzco, a city around 10,000 feet above sea level, the team loaded up into a van at 6 a.m., for a five-hour, 3,000-foot elevation, drive to the edge of Manu National Park.
The drive from Cuzco took them through the western slope of the Andes to reach the biologists' research field. The western slopes are dry and desert like.
At the trail head, a breathtaking 13,000 feet above sea level, the team felt like they were on top of the world, Catanoso said. They started their hike above the clouds, where temperatures were frigid.
Catanoso was weighed down by a heavy pack, but the more experienced hikers had heavier packs as they followed a trail cut hundreds of years ago by Incans.
'What I encountered was a little more than I prepared for. It was really hard to breathe, I had a 40 pound pack on my back. It was really heavy after the 2nd step,' Catanoso said. 'I must have fallen over six times in the first 24 hours, like flat on the ground.'
Richard Tito, a native Peruvian and Ph.D. student, carried the most weight. Other researchers on the hike included Ken Feeley, of Florida International, and Rachel Hillyer, a PhD student from Wake Forest University.
The only other people they saw on the trail were cocoa smugglers. There are also un-contacted Peruvian tribes in the area.
These pristine tropical forests are the functional lungs of the earth. They pull greenhouse gases from the air and store that carbon in their limbs, trunks, and roots. That process of carbon storage helps slow the rate of global warming.
'Until you are in the cloud forest you don't understand it,' Catanoso said. 'There are clouds forming there. There are literally clouds forming from these trees.'
'These clouds spread out and go around the world and they create weather in North America, Asia, Europe,' Catanoso said. 'These tropical forests play a seminal role in the weather around the world.'
Not only are they a buffer against global warming, but they are being impacted by climate change as well. The environment they are living in on the side of the mountain is changing, and the plants and animals there need to adapt to survive.
Silman's team has been visiting their forest plots every year for decades to see how the plants and animals inside have been changing over time as climate changes.
The yellow tape marks off one of eight 100 square meter research plots on the side of this mountain. As you can see, cataloging all the life inside would be intense and painstaking work. They are currently tracking 38 species of tree.
The biologists also collect forest 'litter' -- leaves and seeds that fall from the trees -- using these nets.
'They know every tree and every one of those trees are marked. They are banded and tagged. They check their growth two or three times of year,' Catanoso said. The plots are 800 vertical feet apart, which stunningly means a two-degree difference in temperature. By watching them over time the team has discovered that some are adapting better to changing temperatures than others.
This plant, the Schefflera, is migrating upslope about 100 vertical feet a year. That means, every year they find new plants of this species higher up the mountain. They will likely be able to adapt to the changing climate.
To move hundreds of feet vertically, the trees must have their seeds transported up or down slope. The animals and birds do this, along with the wind and water. If they don't move far enough, they might go extinct when that area of the mountain is no longer hospitable to that species.
After three days and two nights coming 8,000 vertical feet down the mountain, the hikers stopped at a camp called San Pedro.
The ecology at lower altitudes is drastically different, and so is the temperature. 'We were in the jungle for eight days. It was winter at the top and Florida at the bottom. Everything is different,' Catanoso said.
The speed of the changing climate means the trees have decades to move to more hospitable ground, instead of millennia. If they don't move, they go extinct.
'A lot of our medicines and pharmaceuticals come from these organic products. The stewardship of the earth. You want to preserve these forests because they've been here forever and they have such biodiversity,' Catanoso said.
'The impact individuals have on climate change is kind of insignificant in the long range. It's not moving the needle much,' said Catanoso. 'The appreciation the things that have to happen to slow the warming of the Earth have to be international.'
These areas are threatened by miners who want to dig into these mountain sides for the untold riches in the ground beneath them -- the oil, iron, gold. To stop this, carbon offsets from richer, industrialized countries could help pay these poorer countries back for leaving these pristine and important forests untouched.
'It's not hundreds of years off. It's the coming generation. And the generation after that. My grandchildren are going to be living in a very different world if we don't slow the rate of warming,' Catanoso said. 'We are going to lose our coastlines. We are going to lose the ice caps.'
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