Trees race upslope in response to climate change

November 21, 2013

Around ACA’s Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station, it was noticed that the cloud forest’s tree species were slowly creeping up the Andean mountainside, moving at an average rate of 8 to 12 vertical feet per year. Why were the trees heading uphill? As the weather heats up due to gl obal climate change, trees must migrate upslope toward cooler, more hospitable temperatures.

But while individual trees can move up, they face a barrier when they come to the tree line. In a paper published in September, authors including Dr. Dave Lutz, one of the first researchers to set foot in Wayqecha after its creation, and Dr. Miles Silman, an ACA board member, found that forests above 6,500 feet are hardly moving—barely half a foot upslope each year, nearly 100 times slower than needed to keep pace with climate change.  

Additionally, intentional grassland fires (set by local communities to create more farmland or grazing pasture for cattle) often blaze out of control and spread into the cloud forests, lowering the treeline and preventing trees at the top from further movement upslope. Unmanaged cattle, left to wander in grasslands, also eat young tree seedlings trying to establish themselves along the forest edges. 

According to a study by evolutionary ecologist Dr. Ken Feeley, we could be looking at massive tree and plant extinctions over the next 50 to 75 years. 

That’s why ACA has been focusing its efforts on helping the trees have room to move. By working with local communities, ACA aims to improve cattle management and agricultural practices while training the communities to prevent and fight forest fires, like in the photo below. 

Silman, Lutz, and Feeley are all members of a consortium called the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystems Research Group (ABERG for short). ACA has been closely collaborating with these scientists and using their research findings to improve the impact of our conservation projects in Peru. 

ABERG’s work was recently profiled in a series of articles and radio interviews entitled “Peru: Race in the Rain Forest,” written by Pulitzer Prize nominee Justin Catanoso. Check them out for more information!