December 22, 2016
“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried out at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunshine, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn as the round earth rolls.” –John Muir
Cloud forests (aka upper montane rainforest or montane laurel forest, among other names) are one of the ecosystems that are disappearing as the planet grows warmer, and with them, many of the plants and animals that have made these unique systems home. A cloud forest is generally located in the tropics or subtropics, and displays a montane and moist evergreen forest characterized by persistent or frequent low-level cloud cover.
Cloud forests are likely remnants of the last ice age. The trees in this area “retreated” to higher elevations as a way to survive the invasion of tropic trees as the planet warmed, and the descendants of those trees are the ones that still exist in Mexico and Central America. These cloud forests host many endemic plant and animal species and are a “living reservoir” because they capture and store so much water. In addition, the water that comes from these forests is cleaner than some other sources of water—vegetation and slow infiltration of the water that falls into streams or rivers does a lot of work to filter the water.
But these forests are disappearing. This is due to a variety of stressors, including human actions like logging and clear-cutting tropical forests to harvest tropical hardwoods and to develop coffee plantations (among other reasons). This is because tropical forests in the lower elevations helped capture and store moisture, which would create microclimates and draw moisture further inland or to higher elevations. As these areas become drier and hotter, through deforestation, that moisture doesn’t always make it to the cloud forests.
At the Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático, researchers are working with research plots to help determine which trees will grow with the changing climate, and why an oak might grow in one location but a walnut or another tree might not. The hope is that by planting a variety of native trees at various elevations, researchers will be able to begin to understand which trees will thrive at which elevations.
This type of facilitated restoration practice is not new—and research on cloud forests shows that these types of restoration efforts can help a cloud forest recover quickly. This is good, since continued ecosystem loss means not only lost ecosystem services that directly benefit people, but also the continued loss of species we may not even know exist yet (earlier this year, scientists made an announcement about three new species of micro-salamanders that were discovered in a cloud forest).
And we know that facilitated restoration does help ecosystems recover—whether it is this specific and critical research in cloud forests, or using developed best practices and plantings for your region.
If we think about this in terms of the eternal, perhaps we have to ask ourselves how we want to contribute to the eternal—to dawn still breaking over cloud forests, to the call of birds among the mist, to the continued existence of amphibians and other species we didn’t know existed. And perhaps we must also think about how our work as restoration ecologists or conservationists (or educators or regulators or any number of other careers) functions to help perpetuate certain eternal systems.
What better time to do this than at the cusp of the new year?
Check out these gorgeous cloud forest photos from Mexico! These ecosystems are also found in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caribbean.
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