for National Geographic News
They are nature's "water towers," providing billions of gallons of fresh, clean, filtered water. They are home to thousands of indigenous peoples, and storehouses of biodiversity, at least 80 percent of which has not yet been catalogued.
Yet in as little as ten years' time, biologists warn, the world's cloud forestsevergreen mountain forests that are almost permanently shrouded in mist and cloudsmay be all but gone.
They are being cleared for cattle grazing and coca plantations. Logged to provide fuel for heating and cooking. Paved over and developed to make way for transportation and telecommunications networks. They are being damaged and dried out by air pollutants and global warming.
Now, cloud forests are rising to the top of the world's scientific and conservation agenda. But will scientists learn enough about these important ecosystems to be able to convince the world to conserve them before they are gone forever?
Percy Nuñez, a research biologist in Cuzco, Peru, who studies cloud forests, estimates they are disappearing at a such a rate that the "the cloud forest will all be gone in the next ten years."
"We don't know about our resources80 to 90 percent of the cloud forests are a mystery to us all," Nuñez said.
Yet scientists have barely begun assessing the wide range of species that clod forests harbor, he noted. "We don't have biologists working in cloud forests. We are not training young scientists to do the work," he said.
Now, he added, "we are working with NASA, using satellite images to get some idea of what's there before it is gone. There aren't any field guides available."
Cloud forests are broadly defined as forests that are frequently covered in clouds or mist. They are found in tropical and subtropical mountainous regions of the world, where cooler temperatures on mountain slopes cause clouds to form.
In Central and South America, cloud forest stretches from Panama to northern Argentina. "It's the belt between the jungle and the highlands and, as such, is narrow and delicate. It is also known as the 'eyebrow of the jungle,' " Nuñez explained.
On continental landscapes, cloud forests are found at 5,000 to 10,000 feet (1,500 and 3,000 meters) above sea level. They often occur at much lower heightsas low as 1,600 feet (500 meters)on oceanic islands, such as in the Caribbean and Hawaii. The trees in cloud forests are generally 50 to 65 feet tall (15.2 to 18.3 meters) at lower elevations, much shorter and mossier at higher elevations.
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