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.


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.

 

The scariest things about climate change are what we don't know

Some argue that, when it comes to climate change, we should play down our uncertainties -- because climate-change deniers will just seize on those unknowns as an excuse for inaction.

Clinging to survival

Clinging to survival

But in a brief, highly topical essay just published today, TESS director Bill Laurance argues that scientists have to be entirely frank about uncertainty -- and that many of the scariest things about climate change are in fact the things we don't know.

Read the essay here

In just three minutes you can get a sense of what we we know, what we don't know -- and what we don't know we don't know about climate change.

 

Australia’s ‘Ecological Axis of Evil’ triggers native mammal collapse

Dr Mark Ziembicki of James Cook University in Australia has spent much of the last several years chasing an environmental mystery -- the cause of the dramatic collapse of mammal populations in northern Australia.  Here he gives us an update on an emerging biodiversity crisis:

Across the world, biodiversity is being battered by familiar foes.  Habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive species, and impacts of human development are leading us to what many believe may be the sixth great extinction.

A northern quoll.  This native marsupial 'cat' is suffering greatly in northern Australia.

A northern quoll.  This native marsupial 'cat' is suffering greatly in northern Australia.

In contrast to the environmental pressures on other continents, large parts of Australia have undergone only limited modification, and are sparsely settled and remote.  Many areas have substantial nature reserves.

Yet, nonetheless, Australia has the world’s worst record for contemporary mammal extinctions.  One in ten species have disappeared in the last 200 years -- and of those that persist, over a third are now threatened or near threatened.  What’s more, recent analyses suggest the problem is even worse than previously thought.

Greater recent recognition of Australia’s ‘extinction calamity’ and its spread to the tropical north (see here, here and here) has provoked intense interest and stimulated a series of research and management initiatives to study the declines, their causes, and what can be done to halt them.

A new paper I published with a team of coauthors summarizes the research efforts, and assesses the effectiveness of recent conservation-management interventions.

In our view, the loss of Australia’s mammals has been driven primarily by what has been dubbed Australia’s Ecological Axis of Evil -- an unholy trinity comprising the feral cat, altered fire regimes, and grazing impacts.

Just ask George... a conceptual model for an 'Ecological Axis of Evil'

Just ask George... a conceptual model for an 'Ecological Axis of Evil'

Alone, these threats do not explain the declines but there is now some compelling evidence that, when operating in concert, predation by feral cats exacerbated by frequent, intense fires, reduced ground cover from overgrazing, and, in some areas, the control of dingoes are driving the declines.

So what’s to be done?  The demonstration of interacting factors gives conservation managers some options for reducing their impacts.  There are now some examples of rapid recovery of species following threat management.

Priority actions include intensively managing fires, reducing feral livestock in conservation reserves, establishing exclosures to keep feral predators out, enhancing biosecurity for important islands where rare species still persist, and acquiring grazing lands in important mammal areas for conservation purposes.

Despite some progress, we still have much to learn and even more to do, to stop and reverse the devastating declines. 

Equally worrying is that Australia's federal and state governments are planning an ambitious expansion of agriculture, grazing, roads, energy, and irrigation projects in northern Australia.  These developments are likely to intensify threats that have so far been limited in the region, but that have caused much biodiversity loss in other parts of the world.

This is a dangerous time for Australia's biodiversity.  Without effective planning and management actions, a significant component of northern Australia’s mammal fauna could collapse -- contributing further to the continent’s already-woeful record for mammal extinctions.

Dramatic erosion of world's last intact forests

Since 2000, more than 100 million hectares of the world's surviving intact forests have been seriously degraded -- by logging, road building, fragmentation, and other disturbances. 

That's an area three times the size of Germany.

Forests under assault...  (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault... (photo by William Laurance)

These are the conclusions of a new analysis and report by the Greenpeace GIS Laboratory, University of Maryland, and Transparent World, with help from the World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia.

The report focuses on "Intact Forest Landscapes" -- large expanses of remaining forest land that survive in pristine or near-pristine condition.  Key findings include:

• Since 2000, over 8% of the world's intact forests have been degraded

• Almost 95% of remaining intact forests are in tropical and boreal regions

• The largest areas of degradation were in the northern boreal forests of Canada, Russia, and Alaska, and in tropical regions such as the Amazon and Congo

• Canada, Russia, and Brazil contain nearly two-thirds of the world’s remaining Intact Forest Landscapes, and accounted for over half of all forest degradation

Road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, was a key driver of forest degradation, with fires and forest clearing for agriculture having big impacts in some regions

The new maps on which these analyses are based can be analyzed using tools on the cutting-edge Global Forest Watch platform.  This is a dynamic, online forest monitoring and alert system that can detect changes in near real time.

You can read more about the main findings in this press release

Kudos to the groups that produced this report for a vital and timely analysis.

 

Fire alert: Could 2014 be 'the year from hell'?

When it comes to wildfires, 2014 might be a doozy.

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

Where there's smoke...  forest burning in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

ALERT member Tom Struhsaker has passed along a recent news report about the intense smoke now blanketing much of Southeast Asia, thanks in large part to rampant forest burning in Sumatra.  This is doubly frightening given that rainfall in Sumatra has been normal in recent months.

In Sumatra, over 50,000 people have had to be treated for respiratory distress.  And so far more than 200 Malaysian schools have had to be closed because of the acrid smoke.

But things could get a lot worse.  Climate scientists have been agog at recent temperature readings in the Pacific Ocean, which have been 6 degrees Celsius higher than normal

Such high temperatures are a harbinger of El Niño events--and such high readings suggest we might be heading for a mega-Niño.  

That's a big worry, because El Niños can cause major droughts and monsoon failure in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as parts of the Amazon. 

Climatologists say we could suffer a severe drought like that in 1997-98, when wildfires razed large expanses of Borneo and Sumatra and the Amazon.  

Forewarned is forearmed.  Governments in the Asia-Pacific region and Amazon need to be ready to impose and enforce burning bans across vulnerable areas. 

Without such bans, 2014 might be the year from hell--both for people and forests.

 

Top ecologist: New park only solution to Victoria forest 'disaster'

Renowned Australian ecologist David Lindenmayer is among those leading calls for a Great Forest National Park in Victoria, following what is widely considered a disastrous legacy of forest mismanagement by the Victorian State Government.

Last refuge for really really big trees... (photo by Angela Wylie)

Last refuge for really really big trees... (photo by Angela Wylie)

In a new video, Lindenmayer decries a government forest plan that has seen old-growth Mountain Ash forests--which harbor the world's tallest flowering plants--shrink to just 1.2% of their original range. 

Over-logging and forest fires have been the main culprits.  Lindenmayer estimates that timber supplies from Mountain Ash forests, used mostly for paper pulp, will be exhausted in 12 years or less.

The Mountain Ash forests are also home to the Leadbeater's Possum, an endemic marsupial that relies on old-growth forests and is critically endangered.  The possum is the official faunal symbol of Victoria.

The plan for the new park is being endorsed by the Royal Society of Victoria, the state's pre-eminent scientific organisation.  Park advocates say the proposal has strong public support and would be a major attraction for tourism.