Making the next ten years count for protected areas

On the eve of the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, ALERT member James Watson tells us about a hugely important paper he and colleagues published this week in the world-leading journal Nature.

Ten years have passed since the last IUCN global conference on protected areas.  During this time we've seen tens of thousands of new protected areas established on land and in the sea. 

Unfortunately, at the same time, protected-area support has fallen off dramatically, with an estimated 80% of such sites now being ineffectively managed.

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa  (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

Needs a home: Mountain gorillas now survive in just a few protected areas in East Africa (photo (c) Liana Joseph)

It’s a massive shame.  When well administered, protected areas get results.  There is abundant evidence that protected areas, when well managed, protect threatened species and often store large quantities of carbon while delivering key ecosystem services, such as clean water and buffering against extreme weather.

Nevertheless, we show today in a paper in Nature that, while many nations talk the talk on protected-area creation, they often fail to walk the walk when it comes to ensuring these areas have adequate resources and oversight.

Poor financing of many protected areas is a core problem, but thornier challenges include the opening of parks to resource extraction and the loss of their special 'inviolate' status.  In our paper we document many cases where Ministries responsible for mining or logging issued leases on areas already designated as “protected.”

If the nations of the world continue to follow a business-as-usual approach, the broad targets set under the vital Convention on Biological Diversity won't be achieved.

A fundamental step-change is needed to align government policies so that Ministries dealing with development, resource extraction, and agriculture don't undermine those concerned with environment and conservation.

At the same time, there's an urgent need to invest in protected areas to ensure their vital goals are achieved, and to identify new protected areas critical to nature conservation -- areas that can be established and maintained with care and imagination.

Achieving these goals on our increasingly crowded planet will not be easy.  A nation's progress should be measured not merely by the amount of land it protects, but also by the ecological connectivity of its protected lands and their capacity to sustain biodiversity while producing long-term social and economic benefits.

It's a massive challenge, but failure is not an option.  We must succeed -- for the future of nature and for our future as well.

 

Habitat fragmentation disrupts forest carbon cycles

We all know that fragmenting forests is bad for biodiversity.  But it's also bad for the planet -- because it screws up carbon cycles, makes forests more likely to burn, and promotes global warming. 

Fires... not natural in rainforests  (photo by Mark Cochrane)

Fires... not natural in rainforests (photo by Mark Cochrane)

Prior studies, including those led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and ALERT member Tom Lovejoy, have shown that fragmented forests in the Amazon lose a lot of their carbon.  This is evidently because the hot, dry conditions near forest edges kill many trees.  Additional trees are snapped or toppled by wind gusts near edges.

This is bad news because the carbon stored in the trees eventually decomposes and ends up as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. 

Laurance and colleagues estimated that the fragmentation of tropical forests creates up to 150 million tons of atmospheric carbon emissions per year -- equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Great Britain.  And this 'fragmentation effect' is on top of the massive carbon emissions that result from forest destruction.

And now a new study shows that habitat fragmentation also slows down the rate of organic decomposition.  This occurs because the warm, dry conditions near forest edges inhibit wood-eating fungi, which are important decomposers.  In the new study, the rate of decomposition near forest edges was about half that in forest interiors.

This means that dead trees, limbs, leaves, and other woody material will accumulate near edges.  Why is this important?  What happens if you take a lot of fine woody material and dry it out? 

It becomes very, very easy to burn.

In the Amazon, fragmented forests are hugely vulnerable to fires.  Not only does forest fragmentation create a lot of dry, flammable material near forest edges, but cattle ranchers like to burn the pastures surrounding the fragments -- to control weeds and produce a flush of new grass for their cattle.  Many of these fires burn the forests as well.

The results can be devastating.  Satellite images show that fragmented forests in drier parts of the Amazon virtually 'implode' in the first few years after fragmentation -- the result of a withering recurrence of destructive, edge-related fires. 

The bottom line: One of the best things we can do for forests is not to fragment them. 

This isn't just about conserving a few pretty birds or butterflies.  By reducing forest fires and rampant carbon emissions, it's about keeping our planet more livable for all of us.

 

Are vines taking over the planet?

Welcome to the 'Planet of the Vines'.  It's a world where proliferating vines strangle trees, suppress forests, and diminish forest carbon storage -- increasing greenhouse-gas emissions and making Earth a hotter place for us all.

Are vines running amok?  (photo by William Laurance)

Are vines running amok? (photo by William Laurance)

That's the implication of two recent studies in the leading journal Ecology

In the first, ALERT director Bill Laurance and colleagues showed that woody vines (known as 'lianas') in undisturbed forests of the Amazon have increased markedly in abundance, by about 1% per year over at least the last couple of decades.

Why?  Nobody knows for sure, but Laurance and colleagues think it might be a response to rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  This stimulates plant growth, and fast-growing species such as vines seem especially adept at taking advantage of it.

In the second study, researcher Stefan Schnitzer and colleagues experimentally removed woody vines from forests in Panama, by cutting them off of infested trees.  They found that growth rates of the trees nearly tripled, and that forest-carbon storage increased by a fifth.

This illustrates just how dramatically vines can affect forests.  Vine-infested trees grow more slowly, reproduce less, and die more often.  When they die, the carbon that's stored in their wood and leaves is released into the atmosphere, as carbon dioxide.

Some woody vines are hefty...  (photo by William Laurance)

Some woody vines are hefty... (photo by William Laurance)

This kind of scenario sends shivers up the spines of ecologists, because it can turn into a positive feedback -- a situation that can quickly snowball out of control. 

In other words: humans spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to more vines, which then kill and suppress trees, which in turn emit more carbon dioxide...  And on and on it goes...

In the 1970s a margarine commercial on TV resonated with the punchline, "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature". 

Clearly we haven't learned that lesson. 

It seems increasingly likely that Mother Nature might now be fooling around with us.

Nature worth "$145 trillion per year" to humanity

Nature isn't priceless.  In fact, economists can give it quite a specific price: about $145 trillion per year, if the net value of all ecosystem services is tallied up.

What's a nice sunset worth?   (photo by William Laurance)

What's a nice sunset worth?  (photo by William Laurance)

Yes, that's 145 trillion dollars -- as in 145 with 12 zeros behind it. 

This new finding--which you can download free here--comes from a major analysis of global ecosystem services led by economist Robert Costanza of Australian National University.

Ecosystem services include a wide array of things such as carbon storage, crop pollination, fisheries, recreational opportunities, flood mitigation, and the provisioning of clean water.

While the new result underscores the astonishingly important role that nature plays in human welfare, there's also a kicker: the annual value of ecosystem services has declined by up to $20 trillion between 2007 and 2011, according to Costanza and colleagues, principally because of habitat destruction and other land-use changes.  And that erosion in value is ongoing.

Putting a price on nature is tricky and inevitably some people will object to the idea.  For instance, how can you place a dollar value on having clean air to breathe, or a wilderness to hike in, or hearing a rare bird sing?

But doing so underscores an important point: Even in the most utilitarian sense, nature has incredible value to humanity, and that value is being eroded.  Like any valuable resource, we're nothing short of foolish if we merely squander it.

 

Every tree matters: Even a little deforestation alters climate

Thinking about knocking down a few trees in the backyard?  Think again.  Felling even a handful of trees can change the local climate, according to a new study

Think twice before cutting...

Think twice before cutting...

It's been known for some time that clearing forests can have regional-scale impacts on climate by reducing evapotranspiration (the emission of water vapor by plants, which cools the land) and changing albedo (how much solar radiation gets reflected away from the ground surface). 

But now it appears these effects happen at surprisingly small scales.  Especially in warmer parts of the world, clearing even a football field-sized area is enough to provoke significant heating of the immediate area.

That's an important insight.  Folks living in tropical and subtropical areas often complain that deforested lands are unpleasantly warm, less productive for farming, and more prone to harboring diseases

So, spread the word: Cutting down trees doesn't just have a global impact, by increasing carbon emissions; or a regional impact, by changing evapotranspiration and albedo. 

Killing trees also has a sizable local impact, meaning it directly affects the quality of life of those living nearby.  

Why we must save rainforest fragments

All rainforests are important--even tiny patches!

Read More