A Carbon Sink in the Clouds

Posted: November 12, 2014

Where the Amazon washes into the Andes, the greatest concentration of species on Earth occurs, a rapid succession of plant and animal communities that in just a few hours by car change from dark jaguar lowlands, to sunny alpine meadows, the domain of the elusive spectacled-bear. Right before getting into Finals’ rush, the SFS Peru team spent a week at the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Research Station, 10,000 feet above sea level, near the Andean tree-line. There we cooled our bones, breathed in the crisp mountain air, and were reminded that plentiful oxygen is a luxury of the lowlands.

Walking on centuries-old Inca trails, students and professors alike appreciated the puzzling ecology of the elfin cloud forest, whose spongy moss carpets absorb water from the air and release it slowly into the ground to fill the mighty Amazon below. The bouncy leaf litter mass beneath our feet, we discussed, concealed a giant carbon sink: ever faster growing roots that pump CO2 straight into the bedrock. The quietness of the Lord-of-the-Rings-landscape was only broken here and there by colorful mixed-species flocks of birds, and by a startled masked trogon, which we inadvertently flushed out of its trailside nest.

Further away, in the drier valleys beyond the clouds, we explored the complex vertical ecology of highland agriculture and witnessed with concern how low-profit cattle ranching and associated fires eat away at the cloud forest, our much needed ally in the fight against climate change. Can we substitute deeply-rooted economic traditions for more profitable and climate friendly practices in the high Andes? The solution may be complex, but the first step to find an answer is to be out here.