Stealing the Rain from a Rainforest

ALERT’s Susan Laurance, from James Cook University in Australia, is leading an ambitious, million-dollar study to understand how droughts affect tropical rainforests.  Here she tells us about this challenging project and why it is so important:

Right now, much of the world is struggling to cope with a ‘Godzilla’ El Niño drought

The drought has been merciless, causing catastrophic fires and haze across much of Southeast Asia, unprecedented droughts and wildfires in western North America, and mass starvation from crop failure in New Guinea

Fiery future?

And there’s good reason to think future droughts might even be worse. 

First, leading computer simulations suggest global warming could strengthen future El Niño events and increase the frequency of serious heat waves.

Second, apparently new climate dynamics are appearing on Earth that could threaten large areas of rainforest.  Most notable among these are the unprecedented Amazon droughts – driven by exceptionally high sea-surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean – that occurred in 2005 and again in 2010.

Finally, human land-uses are making rainforests far more vulnerable to droughts and fire.  For instance, forests that have been logged or fragmented are drier and have much heavier loads of flammable slash than do pristine forests.

And as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources.  Even ecosystems where fire was once foreign — such as the world’s deep rainforests — now burn with increasing regularity.

All this means that it’s vital to understand how droughts will affect rainforests – the world’s most biologically diverse and carbon-rich ecosystems.

Big science for a big problem

As I detail in a recent article in Australasian Science (which you can download here), my colleagues and I have recently set up some 3,000 clear plastic panels to create a ‘raincoat for a rainforest’ – inducing an artificial drought over several thousand square meters of the famous Daintree region in north Queensland, Australia.

A big advantage of our experiment – one of the few ever to study rainforest droughts in this way – is that we have a 47-meter-tall canopy crane at the site, so we can assess plant and animal responses at all vertical levels of the forest, from the ground to the tops of the most towering trees.

Our study is comparative: we want to understand how different groups of plants, such as various functional groups of trees, vines, shrubs, forbs, and epiphytes, are affected by drought.

We are looking at the survival, growth, and physiology of these plants in a variety of ways, as well as at the forest soil and microclimate.  Others are studying how insects and other fauna are affected by the drought.

Among our key goals is determining whether big trees are especially vulnerable to droughts, as suggested by recent research.   If so, then this could have profound implications – because big trees store huge amounts of carbon and provide food and shelter for an entire zoo of animal species.

We also want to learn whether certain kinds of plants have strategies – such as special water-carrying vessels in their tissues or other physiological tricks – that allow them to better survive droughts.  If so, these ‘drought winners’ could increasingly dominate forests if droughts become more intense in the future.

Not easy – but worth it

This study has not been easy – in truth it’s been a logistical nightmare to steal the rain from a rainforest.  But the study is now fully set up, and in the end we think it will be worth all the sweat and hard work. 

Rainforests are the biologically richest environments on Earth.  And if we’re going to subject them to more Godzilla-like droughts, then we need to know how they’ll respond – and whether they can sustain their stunning biodiversity into the future.

The Indonesian Inferno: A Completely Preventable Crisis

Could things be any crazier in Indonesia?

Forests engulfed in flames

Forests engulfed in flames

Scientists have been warning for many months that the Asia-Pacific region will face 'Godzilla' this year -- a fire-breathing El Niño drought of frightening severity. 

Devastating air pollution from Indonesian forest and peatland fires -- especially in Sumatra, Borneo, and New Guinea -- have become a virtually annual event.  Add a major El Niño drought to the mix -- as is happening now -- and the situation is inevitably a lot worse.

Predictably, the burning season this year has turned into an international disaster.  Among the more notable calamities:

- Because of the dense, choking smoke, schools and airports across large expanses of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have had to be repeatedly closed; Micronesia and the Philippines are also suffering.

- Hospitals in burning centers In Indonesia have reported large spikes in the number of people in respiratory distress, with medical authorities warning people not to go outside.

Heavy human toll

Heavy human toll

- Singapore has launched legal actions and arrested high-ranking employees from several forest-destroying corporations that are headquartered there, leading to a major diplomatic spat with Indonesia.

- This year, carbon pollution from rampaging Indonesian peat fires alone have exceeded the carbon emissions produced by the entire United States economy.

- Politicians in Indonesian Borneo recently wore face masks to Parliament, to protest the rampant fires, and have threatened a class-action lawsuit against the Indonesian federal government.

- The respected Indonesian forest expert and ALERT member, Dr Erik Meijaard, has recently called the nation's fires the "biggest environmental crime of the twenty-first century".

Given such an environmental, social, and political crisis, the Indonesian government must be moving heaven and earth to fight the fires and set the nation on a better course, right?

Wrong. 

Rather than implementing a large-scale fire ban this year, the Joko Widodo government has vacillated, saying the fires are a "not a problem you can solve quickly" with "no easy solutions", opting instead for localized actions and belated half-measures.

In addition, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments are currently established a new Council of Palm Oil Producer Countries.  High on the Council's agenda is dropping recent 'zero-deforestation' pledges made by a number of major forest-exploiting corporations, such as those that produce oil palm and wood pulp in Indonesia.  If successful, this will only worsen future fire crises.

Remarkably, Indonesia has a crucial tool available to it -- near-real-time data on fires and deforestation produced by Global Forest Watch.  With comparable data and the will to levy fines against those burning illegally, Brazil has been able to greatly reduce the number of illegal fires in the Brazilian Amazon.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

A nation ablaze -- Indonesian fires shown by Global Forest Watch.

No nation today is destroying forest faster than Indonesia.  The Indonesian government can come up with any number of excuses -- many fires are lit by smallholders, corruption is rampant, land tenure is often uncertain. 

The bottom line, however, is that the Indonesian government has both the capacity and the authority to declare and enforce large-scale fire bans.  Huge inroads could be made, especially in drought years.

What the government has been lacking, so far, is the political will to do so.


Savanna birds show surprising vulnerability to climate change

Dr April Reside of James Cook University has just spent several years studying birds that live in Australia's tropical savannas, with an eye to assessing their potential vulnerability to climate change.  You don't have to be a bird-lover to find some of her conclusions alarming.

Cry for help... the Papuan Frogmouth is vulnerable to climate change.

Cry for help... the Papuan Frogmouth is vulnerable to climate change.

When it comes to species being vulnerable to climate change, many people think of polar bears -- or other species that are highly specialized to local conditions.

A lot of research has focused, for example, on mountain-top endemics -- species reliant on cool, misty mountains whose habitat could shrink and collapse with rising temperatures.

Fewer people are thinking about widespread, generalist, common species -- why would they be of concern?

Many birds in the Australian tropical savannas are widespread generalists.  This is probably because they are adapted to highly variable conditions, and need to continually travel about to find the next source of food –- usually flowering trees or pulses of insects after recent rains.

Vast expanses of northern Australia are dominated by tropical savannas.

Vast expanses of northern Australia are dominated by tropical savannas.

Such ephemeral food sources might become increasingly rare or thin on the ground if conditions get tougher with climate change.  So, these widespread generalist species might be more vulnerable to climate change than many have expected.

I investigated the vulnerability of 243 bird species found in Australian tropical savannas to climate change.  To do this I incorporating a range of different factors: their sensitivity to fire, their dietary breadth, their range size, and their abundance.

I also incorporated the amount of suitable climate space each species was likely to have by the year 2085, under a severe climate-change scenario.

The critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot is another big worry  (image from Karl Seddon, http://webgram.co/karlseddon).

The critically endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot is another big worry (image from Karl Seddon, http://webgram.co/karlseddon).

I found that many savanna species that are restricted to the Cape York Peninsula are particularly vulnerable to climate change.  Alarmingly, this includes endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot and the endangered Buff-breasted Buttonquail.

However, some species that occur across the northern savannas might actually benefit from climate change -- at least if rainfall changes as some projections indicate.

We will have to keep monitoring the species, particularly those that are already declining and likely to be severely impacted by climate change. 

A key strategy is to devise plans of how to intervene if necessary.  To do that, we might have to make tough choices in the future.  For instance, might some species have a better chance of persisting in zoos than in the wild?  Might major changes in burning, grazing, or land-clearing practices -- possibly putting us as odds with powerful agricultural interests -- become necessary?

My in-depth work on savanna birds shows me that we can't worry just about polar bears or specialized moutaintop species.  We also need to fret about lots of other wildlife in which climate change could make their battered and dwindling populations even more vulnerable to severe stresses in the future.

 

Choking on smoke: The growing curse of Indonesia's wildfires

A war of words has erupted in Southeast Asia as rampaging fires and choking smoke plumes stoke regional tensions between Indonesia and its neighbors. 

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Fires seem to increase each year in Indonesia

Dense smoke from agricultural fires in Indonesia have forced flight cancellations and school closures across the region, as diplomatic tensions heat up.

Singapore has slammed "shocking" statements from Indonesian officials who made light of the crisis.  In return, Indonesia accused Singapore of being "childish".

Dramas over choking smoke have become an annual soap opera in Southeast Asia as Indonesia continues to raze its forests.

Singapore is now taking legal action against major corporations, including the massive pulp producer Asia Pulp & Paper, that are regarded as key drivers of forest and peatland loss in nearby Sumatra, Indonesia.

In response, Indonesian president Joko Widodo said the recurring fires and smoke were a long-term problem and would require time to be solved.

Fires are used as a quick and cheap way to clear forests and peatlands, with massive forest clearing underway on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.  Native forests are being destroyed for oil palm and pulp plantations, and for slash-and-burn farming.

Since 1997, mega-fires have become a virtually annual event each dry season.  A strong El Niño drought this year -- called "Godzilla" by some -- is increasing rainfall deficits across Indonesia and elsewhere in the western Pacific region.

The fires and smoke are rapidly worsening.  In Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, air quality has hit hazardous levels, tens of thousands have suffered respiratory illnesses, numerous flights have been cancelled, and schools have been closed.

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Hard to breathe... smoke and smog in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Last week, Singapore's air pollution index hit hazardous levels, prompting officials to close all schools and distribute protective face masks.  Schools were also closed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Satellites detected more than 2,000 fire "hotspots" last week in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

As fires increase, officials in neighboring countries are growing increasingly frustrated.  Singapore has arrested seven corporate officials and suspended the business licenses of four corporations that are headquartered there.

Although many fires are started by small-scale farmers, large corporations are also responsible for burning both directly and indirectly.  By building new roads and exploiting large areas of native forest, corporations open up many areas to new human pressures.

Indonesia could and should enforce a major fire ban, but it would require a concerted effort on the part of the Widodo government.  Widespread corruption in the region is hindering efforts to enforce existing restrictions on fires and forest clearance.

Until the raging fires and smoke are brought under control, expect more hot words from Indonesia's increasingly frustrated neighbors.

 

Will 'Godzilla' mega-drought cause global crisis?

Will this year’s El Niño drought turn into an eco-catastrophe?  In an article published today, ALERT's Susan and Bill Laurance say there are lots of danger signs already:

- because of its exceptional intensity, NASA experts have already labeled this drought "Godzilla", arguing it could be the strongest El Niño in living memory

- previous mega-droughts driven by El Niño have degraded large expanses of the Amazon, with a single fire consuming over three million hectares of drought-choked rainforest, farmlands, and indigenous territories in 1997-98

- fires spurred by past mega-droughts have rampaged across Indonesia and burned huge expanses of Borneo

- in New Guinea, the frequency of wildfires has already risen dramatically in recent months, currently running at about triple the rate of previous years

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea  (Philip Shearman)

Fires are already spiking in Papua New Guinea (Philip Shearman)

- worldwide, seven of the ten hottest years on record occurred during or immediately after an El Niño year

- Australia's Daintree Drought Experiment suggests that severe droughts could potentially devastate the region's rainforests

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly  (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

Daintree Drought Experiment suggests rainforests could suffer greatly (Yoav Daniel Bar-Ness)

- rapidly expanding land-use changes, such as habitat fragmentation and logging, are making ecosystems far more vulnerable to droughts and fire

- as new roads proliferate almost everywhere, so do the number of human-caused ignition sources, greatly increasing fire risk

The article on the "Godzilla drought" -- which you can access here -- argues that we must take urgent action if we're to avoid battling a fire-breathing monster.

 

The new land-use tsunami imperiling the tropics

Oil palm, oil palm, oil palm.  For years we've heard that a tidal wave of oil palm expansion is one of the biggest and fastest-growing threats to the world's rainforests.

But there's a new peril in town: rubber.  And it's also spreading like a destructive tsunami.

Spreading like wildfire

Spreading like wildfire

Two recent papers -- by Eleanor Warren-Thomas and colleagues and by Antje Ahrends and colleagues -- have underscored just how desperate the situation is becoming, especially in Southeast Asia.

As a result of escalating demand for natural rubber, plantations are increasingly gobbling up large expanses of land in Southeast Asia and the Asian mainland, as well as tropical Africa and Latin America. 

For instance, vast expanses of native forests have been cleared for rubber plantations in southern China,  which sustains many of that nation's biologically richest ecosystems

The current global production of rubber  (from Warren-Thomas  et al.  2015)

The current global production of rubber (from Warren-Thomas et al. 2015)

Warren-Thomas et al. see a rapidly worsening situation.  To meet expected demand, they estimate that from 4.3 to 8.5 million hectares of new rubber plantations -- an area up to three times the size of Belgium -- will be needed by 2024, threatening in particular significant areas of Asian forest, including many protected areas.

Expect especially rapid increases in rubber plantations in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia, say the authors.

Ahrends and colleagues emphasize that rubber is now expanding into many areas that are ecologically marginal for rubber production.  In Southeast Asia, they estimate that 57% of the rubber plantations are currently vulnerable to droughts, erosion, frost, or wind damage.

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks  (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

Rubber is now spreading into marginal areas beset by high risks (from Ahrends et al. 2015)

In 2013, for instance, typhoons in Vietnam alone destroyed over $US250 million in rubber plantations.  And future climate change could make conditions across Southeast Asia even worse for rubber, they contend.

The worst news of all is that native forests and other habitats are often being cleared for rubber production.  For example, say Ahrends et al., between 2005 and 2010, over 250,000 hectares of natural tree cover and 61,000 square kilometers of protected areas were converted to plantations in tropical and subtropical Asia.

This is scary news for the environment, for it suggests that a 'second tsunami' of forest-destroying plantations for rubber could soon follow just on the heels of the explosive expansion of oil palm.

 

In smoke-choked Asia, fires beget more fires

Southeast Asia is accustomed to intense smoke and haze from forest burning, but in June 2013 air pollution reached the highest level ever recorded -- hitting life-threatening levels in Singapore, for instance.  This alone was scary enough, but there is an even more frightening side to the story.

Scary new fire dynamic... (photo by William Laurance)

Unlike virtually all previous mega-fire events in the region, the June 2013 fires didn't occur during a drought.  That is unprecedented

Even in a year with normal rains, fires -- especially in central Sumatra, where forests are being devastated for oil palm, pulpwood plantations, and slash-and-burn farming -- raged out of control.

New research by David Gaveau and colleagues -- which you can download free here -- has uncovered an alarming explanation for this new fire dynamic. 

Previous degradation and burning of forests is making them hyper-vulnerable to new fires, even during relatively wet conditions.

Gaveau surveyed the aftermath of the Sumatra burning and found that much of it was caused by slash-and-burn farmers.  And most of the burned land was degraded forest or peat-swamp that had already been burned once before. 

The previous burning left behind dead and dying trees, stumps, and slash that became highly flammable with just a few days of dry weather -- unlike an intact rainforest, which only becomes flammable after a prolonged and intense drought.

Gaveau calls these degraded areas "forest cemeteries" -- places where damaged, regenerating forests become prone to a final, fiery death -- and spewing out massive quantities of greenhouse gases in the process.

Central Sumatra has become a poster-child for forest devastation, and now this new research shows that its damaged forests are far more prone to killer fires -- fires that can also have a lethal impact on human populations living in the region.