Which came first the forest or the rain?

October 20th, 2010

By: Douglas Sheil
Repost from Bwindi Researchers on Wildlife Direct

During the rainy season in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, there’s an impressive storm and our water tanks overflow nearly every day. We’re in the equatorial rain forest after all: we have the location, trees and weather to prove it. But is the forest here because of the rain or is it the other way around? Being in a highland area we probably get much of our rain simply due to the terrain (mountains tend to be wet even in dry regions) and the forest vegetation takes advantage of that.

Clouds over Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Clouds are often found over forests. What causes what?

But what about in the wet lowland forests of the Congo and Amazon basins? How does so much rain get so far inland from the oceans? You might think that climate scientists know the answer. Actually they don’t. That troubles me.

I have spent some time trying to understand how so much rain gets into the interior of wet continental regions. Why do winds blow the way they do and why do they carry so much rain?

One new theory really deserves recognition. The theory suggests that forests are the reason: they attract rain. The physical principles behind this idea have been explained by two Russian physicists. Their publications are not easy to read and follow, but I have spent some time trying to share their ideas because I think they are important.

Clouds forming over the forest — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.

The basic concept relates to how water vapor, via condensation and evaporation, gives rise to differences in atmospheric pressure between areas and thus cause winds — these winds in turn control where water (i.e. rain) comes from and goes to. If the theory is true we have a whole new way to understand how climate works and a whole new reason to value forests.

Last year, Daniel Murdiyarso and I published an overview of the basic ideas that got some media coverage. You may have seen some of it: e.g. Mongabay, New Scientist and Scientific American. We even got a recent mention in to the Economist. . If you like, you can see our original article in Bioscience. So why is this news? Well, I’ll get there in a moment.

Morning time clouds — Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Would the clouds be there without the forest?

The theory received its fair share of criticism. We should not be surprised—science works through critical scrutiny and radical ideas should certainly be well scrutinized. I welcome that. But it also seems to me that some, perhaps most, of the comments are misdirected—when we look in detail the theory is not being understood in the manner intended. Misreadings and assumptions get in the way.

So to get a fair hearing we need to communicate the ideas as clearly as we can. To do so I have teamed up with the physicists themselves: Drs. Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov (you can learn more if you visit their site). We now have a new manuscript up for anyone, including you, to see. Feel free to take a look at the text here. It’s technical because climate science needs to be, but we also hope it makes good clear sense.

Will it change the world? I don’t know. But it might.

So now we wait and see what the rest of the scientific community thinks. Some may like it, others may not. If their comments are insightful I wont mind either way (well not too much). After all, that’s how science moves forward.

Iracambi – Protecting the Beauty of the Atlantic Rainforest

October 18th, 2010

A few weeks ago on Mongabay we featured an interview with Robin and Binka LeBreton, Directors of a Research Centre situated in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.  To read the full interview click news.mongabay.com/2010/0926-raybould_brazil_lebreton.html.  The following is an excerpt from the diary kept by Clare Emily Raybould, the author, who volunteered there in January 2010…

I love the way the world ticks round at Iracambi.  In the medicinal plants lab next door the Brazilians study and chat and when they aren’t studying they are lounging around in the sun or in the hammocks at ‘o centro.’ Wherever they are, you can hear their cheerful voices and music.

I am on a one-month Corporate Responsibility Placement at Iracambi Research Centre in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest. One of the first things that strikes you, the minute you lay a foot on the farm, is the sense of community here and how quickly you feel a part of it. It’s been one week into my placement, and I have already felt an array of emotions and faced a sea of challenges.

A night ago,  Jemma, the Volunteer Coordinator, sat down with me and we had a good chat about everything and nothing over a British cup of tea and a piece of cake.  We decided that I would divide my time between maintaining the Centre’s Nursery and working on the project’s Marketing Strategy and if I didn’t fancy spending all day doing one thing or the other, I could split my time between the two.

While the nursery tasks – maintaining the seedlings and their environment – are self-explanatory, the marketing tasks are a little more complex. Iracambi has this idea – Forest Futures – that they haven’t yet been able to get off the ground for one reason or another. The idea, basically, is about getting people (businesses, schools, individuals – the target markets are not yet defined) to purchase plots of land, which Iracambi will then reforest.

In the Atlantic Forest, unlike in the Amazon, most of the forest land is owned by local farmers, despite the fact that the land is really poor for farming. The farmers need the land for their subsistence and many of them, even if their land has become redundant, are unwilling to sell because of pride or because they intend to pass it down as inheritance to their children. A sizable portion of the farmers, however, would want to sell and under Iracambi’s ownership the land would be protected from further degradation.

Iracambi’s Director Robin Le Breton wants me to work on a marketing strategy and a new business model for Forest Futures so that this idea can achieve the financial sustainability necessary to move forward. Coming up with a plan that can work with his existing staff and make some money for the NGO is quite a challenge! However, the support provided for volunteers here is overwhelming and more than anything, it is so refreshing to spend time with such like-minded, interesting and interested people; it is an experience I have needed for a very long time!

The Brazilians are such good, happy, friendly people and everyone that I have met here has made me feel so welcome. Iracambi is also a wonderful place to spend time, with beautiful surroundings, many hours to think and new challenges to encounter daily. Even though you are working, it is as refreshing as being on holiday (just without the beach and bar!).

Working at Iracambi, as well as doing something good for the world and for you, is a real opportunity to reconnect with nature, which I think is a precious gift that we sometimes forget.  Politicians and conservation organizations may tell you about climate change and about environmental impacts and conscience, but if you were to spend just a week looking out upon the view that I look upon right now from Iracambi’s kitchen balcony, you would fall in love with nature and suddenly the reasons behind turning off that light or using one less piece of paper would all make sense.

Nature is beautiful. Every flower, every leaf, even every blade of grass and the bead of water upon it has a purpose; it is there for an explicitly important reason and everything around it relies upon it to survive.

We humans forget about our place in this natural world and we cut and we burn so that we can build just one more building that we can sell or plant just one more patch of crops that will make us even more money.  We need to get back to appreciating that we are part of nature and feel grateful, every day, for all the wonderful things it gives us.

Our natural world will live long after us humans have disappeared, if we choose to believe it or not and it will disappear and go back to how it began all those thousands of years ago before humans walked this planet and began to destroy it.  Part of me hopes that when this happens Mother Nature herself spits on our rotting graves because we will have deserved everything we, our children and their children will get, if we continue to take advantage of everything that is natural around us.

It saddens me to think that it is our own greed and selfishness that are destroying this beautiful world and I think it would sadden you too, if you were sat upon Iracambi’s kitchen balcony, looking at this view, because it is beautiful.

For more information on the Iracambi Research Centre and to learn more about how you can volunteer or offer other forms of support – visit their website http://www.iracambi.com/english/forestfutures.shtml

The First World Consumption Factor

January 4th, 2008

Uighur woman in front of her Lake Karakul yurt

In a New York Times editorial published January 2, Jared Diamond examines the large discrepancy between consumption in first world countries versus developing countries: citizens of the rich world consume an average of 32 times the resources as those in poor countries.

The estimated one billion people who live in developed countries have a relative per capita consumption rate of 32. Most of the world’s other 5.5 billion people constitute the developing world, with relative per capita consumption rates below 32, mostly down toward 1.

The population especially of the developing world is growing, and some people remain fixated on this. They note that populations of countries like Kenya are growing rapidly, and they say that’s a big problem. Yes, it is a problem for Kenya’s more than 30 million people, but it’s not a burden on the whole world, because Kenyans consume so little. (Their relative per capita rate is 1.) A real problem for the world is that each of us 300 million Americans consumes as much as 32 Kenyans. With 10 times the population, the United States consumes 320 times more resources than Kenya does.

Diamond observes that as poor countries try to catch up with the rich world, resource consumption and resulting pollution will soar.

Per capita consumption rates in China are still about 11 times below ours, but let’s suppose they rise to our level… China’s catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent.

If India as well as China were to catch up, world consumption rates would triple. If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned
to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).

What’s Your Consumption Factor?