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Bolivian Montane Yields Climate Change Clues

Scientists are collecting data in Bolivia hoping to answer one of the most difficult questions facing conservationists today: How will climate changes affect the planet's ecosystems, plant, and animal species?

Conservation strategies are based on predicting the probable outcome of habitat loss, poaching, deforestation, and other human impacts on flora and fauna populations. There is very little information available, however, about the long-term effects of climate change on ecosystems.

In a project spearheaded by the American Museum of Natural History, scientists are working to rectify that situation.

Animals in Bolivia are providing clues about the long-term effects of climate change.
Photograph by Joel Sartore


Impact of Climate Change on Ecosystems

Climate change is not new; the Earth has swung through warming and cooling spells for millions of years. Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use, however, are contributing to an accelerated pace of climate change.

What concerns scientists is that the changes in climate—variable temperatures and precipitation, increased storm intensity, and extended periods of drought or flooding—could occur faster than plants and animals can adapt to them.

To study the possible effects of global warming and climate change on a particular ecosystem, the museum's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) has put together a consortium of agencies that includes NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado, and Fundaciôn Amigos de la Naturaleza.

The research is focused on the remote subalpine regions known as montane in Bolivia. Bolivia is ranked 12th in the world in biodiversity and is home to 39 percent of South America's mammals and 40 percent of its birds. Yet very little is known about the country's flora and fauna.

Establishing Early Warning Systems

"Bolivia's montane regions provide a unique natural laboratory for studying the possible effects of climate change," says Eleanor Sterling, director of the CBC.

Montane regions are extreme. They exhibit some of the wettest, driest, coldest, and hottest conditions on the planet. The terrain lies below the timberline and is characterized by evergreen forests, meadows, and wetlands in rugged, usually isolated mountain regions.

Because of their tendency toward extremes, montane regions provide an opportunity to track the early signs of climate change and study it.

To establish a baseline of information on how the region stands now, scientists are collecting data on the region's flora and fauna at three different elevations. The information will be used to map the distribution and patchiness of montane ecosystem, identify pockets of habitat, and establish plant and animal inventories.

Data collection is expected to take three to five years. When that phase of the project is completed, computer models will simulate the effects of various changes in climate.

Bolivia's plant and animal communities will also be continually monitored for changes in prevalence and distribution. The resulting data will be applicable to similar regions around the world.

Conservation Begins at Home

Potential conservation strategies include extending the boundaries or core of a reserve, establishing migration corridors that would allow flora and fauna to move, making changes in land use management policies, and restoring degraded areas.

"In making conservation recommendations we need to be realistic about the needs of local populations," says Sterling. The CBC project has a large component devoted to educating local communities about sustainable use practices.

Connecting what happens to fragile montane ecosystems to everyday actions of people around the world is essential, says Sterling.

"People need to understand that this is not some distant problem that someone else needs to take care of," says Sterling.

"Each and every one of us make decisions everyday that are causing these changes. Five years ago that was not a popular thought…we've been able to convince people that this is a lasting problem. Our own decisions—everything from the size of the car we drive to how often we drive it—contribute to climate change."

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