Peru: Scientists Fear Climate Change Will Cause Species Loss in Amazon Rainforest

Wake Forest University biologists Miles Silman (left) and William Farfan Rios discuss tree migration in the Amazon basin in southern Peru. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

There are more bird species in Manu National Park in southern Peru than in the U.S. and Canada combined — 1,700. This is a highland mot-mot. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The lowlands in southern Peru are rich in biodiversity. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

After three days of hiking mostly through dense jungle, we are rewarded with a vista of the Kosnipata Valley in Manu National Park in southern Peru. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The scientists stayed at the Royal Inca Hotel, which sits just beneath centuries-old Incan ruins on the mountain above. Pisac is located in the Sacred Valley of Peru, about two hours southeast of Machu Picchu. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The Andes Group met all week in a hacienda with a cobblestone courtyard. The building now serves as a school. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Wake Forest biologist Miles Silman, one of the co-founders of the Andres Group in 2003, delivered the first lecture of the group’s annual meeting. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

This slide, on the eastern slope of the Andes in the Amazon basin, shows the 100-meter-square research plots installed by Silman and his Peruvian PhD students over the past 10 years. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

During a break in the lectures, a troupe of Peruvian dancers entertained the scientists with folk dance skits performed to blaring music. Later, the scientists joined in a kind of square dance. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Silman and Patrick Meir, a co-founder of the Andes Group and chair of ecosystem science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

About a half dozen tropical biologist flew to Lima for their first-ever meetings with Peruvian environmental officials to discuss their research from the Amazon basin. This photo shows Stanford University’s Carnegie Airborne Observatory. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Tropical biologist Ken Feeley, of Florida International University in Miami, and Silman, prepare their slides for their talks to Peruvian officials. Meir and Norma Silinas, a co-founder of the Andes Group and a Peruvian biologist, are in the background. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Yadvinder Malhi, a co-founder of the Andes Group and a professor of ecosystem science at Oxford University in England. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Sassan Saatchi is a senior researcher with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at California Institute of Technology. Saatchi’s pioneering use of satellites and aerial observations asses the viability and biomass of tropical forests around the world. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The Andres Group biologists presented their findings to staffers at Peru’s Ministry of the Environment. One official, Ernesto Raez-Lund, said afterward that the research would play an important role in shaping national conservation policies. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Ernesto Raez-Lund: “All of us know the Earth is being destroyed in many ways. One of the key issues of conservation and preservation in Peru is forest, because 60 percent of the country is in forests. It's a great asset, but it's for us to take care of." Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Motto of Peru’s Ministry of the Environment: Forests in Your Hands. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

This article accompanied part three of a five part radio series. To listen, visit WFDD's website.

The impact of global warming on the Arctic poles is well documented and easy to see. But scientists are just now beginning to understand the impact of rising temperatures on tropical forests around the equator.

In the Peruvian village of Pisac, not too far from Machu Picchu, tropical scientists from around the world met last month for the 10th annual meeting of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group. Two experts focused their talks one morning on how climate change was dramatically affecting Peru’s vast rain forests in the Amazon Basin. Patrick Meir, an ecosystem scientist from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, believes climate change is bringing the potential for loss of species:

"If they are truly constrained by warming temperatures at the lower end of their range, and their range becomes compressed because there is a lid on how far they can move upwards, then literally land area in which that species might be happy existing declines, and that’s going to result in some populations of species becoming nonviable. There is the potential for species loss. That’s the really worrying view.”

Yadvinder Mahli of Oxford University in England is one of the world’s leading tropical biologists. He says that even small changes to our tropical forests extend out to affect the entire world. 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. But tropical forests also play a critical role in international weather patterns, in rainfall and in the availability of fresh water. They do this through the process of transpiration.

“Think of transpiration as the world’s water pump," says Greg Goldsmith, an American biologist now working as a post-doc at Oxford University. "It’s what takes water that’s fallen as precipitation and landed in soil and puts it back in the atmosphere.” Goldsmith says the water that goes back into the atmosphere forms clouds. And those clouds begin as vapor rising from the leaves in tropical forests, like perspiration from your skin.

“This is a big water pump," says Goldsmith. "Millions of billions of gallons of water in the tropics is being recycled into the atmosphere. And that’s the water that we drink, that’s water that we use to grow crops, that’s the water that drives the climate that we experience on the daily basis – whether you’re going to have a thunderstorm at four in the afternoon or not.”

The process of pulling greenhouse gases from the air and producing the clouds that dictate our weather are fundamental services that tropical forests perform to support our lives on earth. In lecture after lecture, the biologists meeting in Pisac explained how global warming is threatening those services.

“I think we have to be prepared for a world that is 5 or 6 degrees warmer," says Mahli. "We should do everything we can to avoid that world, but that world is coming faster and closer than we realize.”

Because biologists work in eons and epochs, not years or decades, fast to Mahli means 50 to 100 years. If that seems like a long time, consider this: it’s the lifetime of our grandchildren. And Mahli cautions that the rate of warming is unprecedented in human history. “Many aspects of the planet we live on will change. The functioning of ecosystems, the life support systems of the planet. Some things will be resilient. Some things will be vulnerable. But it’s certainly the largest change this planet has experienced since the last Ice Ages, before there were any cities or civilizations.”

Ken Feeley, a tropical biologist from Florida International University, says there is still time to act. But the conversation on how to cope with global warming needs to broaden beyond the melting ice caps. “It’s almost ironic," he says. “We look at the huge amount of species that we have and the amount of attention we give to them and it’s rather depressing."