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Tagged trees in the Amazon rainforest.

Tagged trees in the Amazon rainforest help gather data on species diversity of trees.

Photograph courtesy Justin Catanoso

Justin Catanoso

for National Geographic

Published September 15, 2013

From a 13,000-foot peak of the Andes Mountains in southern Peru, gazing east over the dense rain forests of the Amazon basin, all you see is undulating green—one of the most verdant places on the planet.

It's what you can't see that matters.

The plants are on the run, trying to move to higher ground, where the air is cool enough to support their existence.

"Most of these species are not going to be able to tolerate climate change," says Ken Feeley, a tropical biologist from Florida International University in Miami, "mostly because climate change is happening so fast."

Feeley spoke as we hiked into the jungle with a small group of other scientists—through an area that contains more tree, plant, bird, and animal species than the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.

It is here that an international collective of scientists, called the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group, has mapped one of the largest field grids of its kind for a wide range of climate change studies.

According to a decade of research by Feeley and his colleagues, including tropical biologist Miles Silman of Wake Forest University, tropical species are frantically migrating upslope as they reproduce. But they may not be moving fast enough.

Tropical Andean tree species are shifting roughly 8 to 12 vertical feet (2.5 to 3.5 meters) a year on average—the arboreal equivalent of a dash. Yet for those trees to remain in equilibrium with their preferred temperatures, they need to migrate more than 20 vertical feet a year.

 

The Kosnipata valley in the Amazon basin.

Photograph courtesy Justin Catanoso

 

"We are looking at what entire populations of these species are doing in response to climate change," Silman said. "It's fairly spectacular and quick. But it might not be quick enough."

As we hike, I notice a large, bushy schefflera with umbrella-like leaves. It looks just like the one I have in a pot on my porch back home in North Carolina. Silman says it could survive the race. Of 38 species tracked in the 2010 study, schefflera is migrating the fastest, as much as a hundred vertical feet a year. But ficus, another common houseplant native to the tropics, could be doomed. It is migrating less than five vertical feet annually.

Research models by other biologists project that more than 50 percent of tropical species could die off by 2100 or sooner if average temperatures rise by 7 degrees Fahrenheit, as climate experts predict. If the planet warms even more, which is possible, extinctions could reach 90 percent.

"Particle Accelerator of Tropical Biology"

When ice caps melt, it is relatively easy for scientists to describe what is going on—and calving glaciers make for dramatic images. But the tropics are difficult to access, and are less well understood.

For the past decade, however, the Andes Group has been helping to fill the relative research vacuum. The scientists, including co-founder Silman, are from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Peru.

They use an ancient, rock-strewn Incan trail, the Troucha Union, for access to their study field. After ascending a series of switchbacks on a six-hour ride from Cuzco, the trail starts at 13,000 feet in the southernmost part of Manú National Park. It then winds and drops deep into the Amazon basin.

The research plots initially consisted of eight one-hectare squares (110 yards by 110 yards) and now number more than 20. Each of the higher plots is separated by about 800 feet of vertical elevation. Because of the changes in elevation, the temperature between plots differs by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a result, species change from plot to plot too: Between plot one at 11,320 feet and plot four at 8,860 feet, for example, there is about a 90 percent differentiation in species. There are no species in common between plot one at the top and plot eight at 5,905 feet.

The boundaries—delineated with bright plastic tape—were installed in 2003 by Silman with assistance from a group of hardy Peruvian graduate students. Each of the plots is a chaotic morass of trees covered with epiphytes and vines; some are on sheer slopes with precipitous drop-offs.

"Tropical regions are understudied because they have been mostly inaccessible to science," Greg Asner, a biologist with the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford, told me during a conference of the Andes Group in Pisac, a village in Peru's Sacred Valley not far from Machu Picchu. "On the ground, where there is only difficult terrain or rough jungle, it's famously difficult to access."

The Peruvians visit the area several times a year to gather data on the growth patterns of trees inside the taped boundaries; the statistical analyses of that data led to the tree-migration findings.

"Miles's initial vision for the plots as an open-source research tool for our field has really come to fruition," Brian Enquist, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist from the University of Arizona, told me. "Those plots are to tropical biologists what the particle accelerator has been to physicists."

Many biological and climate studies are under way here. Yadvinder Malhi of Oxford University and Patrick Meir of the University of Edinburgh use the plots to study how carbon is absorbed and converted into plant tissue in the process of photosynthesis. Asner uses infrared lasers to examine the area from a high-tech plane called the Carnegie Airborne Observatory. Other scientists are studying the soil, the insects, the ferns, and the frogs, which are dying off. The San Diego Zoo has been invited to join the Andes Group to study animals in the area.

Small Changes, Big Implications

In two weeks of interviews with biologists—while hiking through the Andes or meeting between lectures in Pisac—I heard dire concerns not only about biodiversity, but also about impacts on natural systems that regulate temperature and weather patterns around the world.

"Small changes in the tropics can have huge ramifications for the entire Earth system," Malhi of Oxford told me. "Changes in rainfall in the Amazon, for example, feed forward to changes in rainfall in North America and Europe and in central Asia."

It's the sheer size and intensity of what happens in the tropics that makes the impact so alarming. Greenhouse gases are absorbed and stored as biomass in the trunks, limbs, and roots of tropical trees. Water pulled from the oceans cycles through the trees and then exits as moisture that turns into the clouds that help cool the Earth or deliver rain.

It's easy to see how degraded or reduced tropical forests could mean less greenhouse gas being absorbed and fewer clouds being produced. Under that scenario, global warming could accelerate, the scientists fear, and less rainfall could make raising crops more difficult where populations are growing the fastest.

The Conservation Challenge

What can be done? Many of the tropical biologists I interviewed in Peru argue that the United States and China, which account for more than 40 percent of greenhouse gases, must implement sweeping policies to reduce those emissions significantly. Plus, the scientists say, poorer countries rich in tropical forests like Peru, Ecuador, and Indonesia will need lucrative financial incentives from wealthy countries to preserve and protect those forests, instead of mining or drilling for the natural resources beneath them.

"If you have so many billion tons of carbon stored in your forests, that becomes an asset like Saudi Arabia's oil money," said Sassan Saatchi, a senior scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

The idea of carbon offsets, promoted by the United Nations since 2009, is promising. But it's been slow to catch on. Ecuador, for example, recently requested $3.6 billion from developed countries to set aside 4,000 square miles of rain forest. Virtually no investors stepped forward. The president of Ecuador pledged to drill for Amazonian oil instead.

Justin Catanoso is a journalist in North Carolina. His climate change coverage is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C.

39 comments
Julio Borges Borges
Julio Borges Borges

Now we need change soon this situation, because forests have a delicate balance!

Maxime Robinson
Maxime Robinson

La fin de la bonne vie sur terre approche de plus en plus vite, mais que fond les industrie qui pollue énormément?  Le profit est plus important que la survie de l espèce ?

Zack Willison
Zack Willison

one lesson to be learned from this....BE GREEN!

Rajesh Bhaskaran
Rajesh Bhaskaran

trees teaches the lesson "survival" let us take this as a warning sign about global warming, let us do our best to make the planet EARTH a greener and a pollution free place for the future generations.

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

What the human race is doing about global warming can be compared to someone standing on railroad tracks watching a train approach at high speed discovering that it is too late to get off the tracks. Next time you see a tree, give it a hug because it is helping you stay alive.

Katherine Richards
Katherine Richards

I work in a reserve in Ecuador, called Maquipucuna (maqui.org) I am currently doing a fundraiser to help save this 16,000 acre pristine rainforest from being taken for it's resources. The reserve gives jobs to the people from the local communities and  has worked with farmers in the surrounding areas of 30,00 acres to protect their forest understand positive benefits that come from keeping it intact and using sustainable ways of getting income so they do not continue to deforest their land. The founders of Maquipucuna have given their lives to help protect the biodiversity of the rainforest, and now I am helping them! If you are interested in helping with my fundraiser, please let me know. My email is katherine@maquipucuna.org and my twitter account is @MaquiReserve        Gracias!

Jay Barrett
Jay Barrett

Antes de Cambiar el Mundo, da Tres Vueltas por TU CASA!!!

Lillian Raker
Lillian Raker

After all the protests and pleas to save the rain forest, it seems man may have already condemned it

Wesley Johnson
Wesley Johnson

My experiences in the Peruvian rainforest with Miles & Ken will be treasured, life long memories that I will share with my kids. I hope the forests will still be there to share as well.

Daniel Genet
Daniel Genet

If/when all these plants die... there's gonna be a lot less oxygen, too, right? :(

Sadie D.
Sadie D.

I don't understand why there are thousands of comments on CNNs news articles; when most of the things we should be focusing on is on this website.

I hope people comment more, and show more concern for our earth... National geographic is one of the few sources that publicizes these important issues.............

Paul M.
Paul M.

FACT:

The consenting climate scientists for 28 years now have only agreed it COULD be a crisis while YOU believers and news editors and politicians all believe it WILL be a crisis.

Science never committed any "hoax", YOU did!

Jay Cwanek
Jay Cwanek

How does this square with the Eocene being the time of the greatest tropical forest and jungle biodiversity in Earth's history, when it was fully 20 degrees F. hotter?

Mickey Keith
Mickey Keith

Its not a race against global warming.  Its a race against logging/chainsaws & man made fire to clear farmland.  We lose 36 football fields of rainforest every minute.

Marcus Stone
Marcus Stone

"Save the Planet??!! We can't save ourselves and we are talking about saving the planet"  George Carlin (RIP)

Real Factchecker
Real Factchecker

"The plants are on the run, trying to move to higher ground, where the air is cool enough to support their existence."

Who knew?

I had heard of catfish that can walk, but plants that can run?

Are they going to ski back down when it gets too cold now that the Earth is cooling?

SIYABULELA MBELEKI
SIYABULELA MBELEKI

Our human diversity is the some as the plant diversity. Plants interact with one another regardless of the physical differences, some applies to us as humans, we interact and co-operate with one another with one goal, that of protecting the things ( diversity) that we love most. But, not only for us as current generation but also for the next generation.

SIYABULELA MBELEKI
SIYABULELA MBELEKI

It is the greatest thing and the most aspiring thing to preserve and conserve our plants. We humans, our lives reflects plants. So in order for us to know our selves, we definetly need to take care of our mirrors, i.e Plants.

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

The fight against global warming should save our planet. Instead, it is speeding up the destruction of our nature and biodiversity.

Climate Crimes takes you behind the scenes of destructive energy policies disguised as green solutions to climate change.

Ulrich Eichelmann and his team visit the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq, the rainforests of the Amazon and in Indonesia, Turkey´s Southeast, as well as protected sites in Germany. All of them could be destroyed within the next decades due to so-called green energy projects as hydro power plants, palm oil plantations and maize fields used to produced biofuel and biogas.

Yet Climate Crimes is a story of unique landscapes, rare species and of humans living in harmony with nature. It is a film about beauty and threats. 

www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/12156/Climate-Crimes

Joshua Sch
Joshua Sch

@Daniel Genet The answer to your question us yes, there will be less oxygen, but the trees make only 10-20 percent of it.  The other 80 percent of the oxygen is made through algae.

Debbie Rupert
Debbie Rupert

This is a grave concern. What is there for basic life? Food, air, water ? Plants & trees help us have food and oxygen in our air

Daniel Genet
Daniel Genet

@Daniel Hart 

personally, I think the human race is pretty much screwed unless we develop interstellar flight relatively soon :(

georg mann
georg mann

@Paul M. How ignorant you sound. The evidence of what is going on is all around us. Its a shame that so many ignorant people like you are the ones making the decisions. That's a fact.

Ashley Lang
Ashley Lang

@Jay Cwanek it's not necessarily that, following an increase in earth's average temperature, biodiversity will be lost--eventually, new species will of course move into the tropics and (over time) adapt to the new conditions. The difference here (as compared to the Eocene) is that warming is occurring at a rate too high for most species to adapt. This may mean that we experience massive die-offs during the lag time between warming and adaptation to warming.

Daniel Genet
Daniel Genet

@Marcus Stone 

notice how like "shell shock" became "combat fatigue," "global warming" becomes "climate change?" Terms are very funny things.

Joe Thompson
Joe Thompson

@Ron Bockman Except the plant migration study was performed independently from the models you refer to.

Justin Catanoso
Justin Catanoso

@Real Factchecker Tree and plant migration has actually occurred throughout time, as scientists have established by studying pollen records. The big difference is that during the last ice age, species had thousands of years to adapt and migrate in response to climate change. Today, with temperature rising far faster, species have just decades to adapt and migrate. It appears that many will not survive.

Joe Thompson
Joe Thompson

@Real Factchecker Their seeds are germinating farther upslope than they were able to, back when conditions were cooler. Likewise, trees at lower elevations are not being replaced as they die off.  I suppose that hundreds of thousands of years from now, when the earth really does begin to cool, the descendants of these trees will once more populate the lower elevations, provided they are not extinct.

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