The cloud forest doesn’t look particularly inviting this morning. The wind feels cold and wet, and erratic violent gusts whip an endless stream of low clouds through the canopy. This is the perfect day for a visit. Yesterday, when we arrived here we were lucky enough to see a couple of Resplendent Quetzals (male and female) up in the canopy, just at the entrance of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. An awe-inspiring and unforgettable encounter, even if you are not much of a birder. It was a lovely, sunny afternoon. But if you want to understand this place, you have to experience the wind and the mist, the ubiquitous and intense wetness. That’s what it’s all about.
Cloud forests represent only a small fraction of tropical vegetation. Estimates range between 1 and 12% of tropical forest cover, and half of them may already be lost, fragmented, and degraded. Despite their relatively small area, they are of enormous importance. Tropical cloud forests widely overlap with biodiversity hotspots in tropical mountains. Epiphytes, such as ferns, bromeliads, and orchids cover literally every available spot from mossy tree trunks up to the heavily laden branches in the canopy. Cloud forests are also home to many endemic organisms which occur only in limited areas such as a single mountain range. The case of the Golden Toad, which suddenly disappeared from the Monteverde Reserve (and thus from the planet) in the late 1980s famously illustrates the vulnerable uniqueness of this place.
What makes cloud forests essential for us, though, is their importance for freshwater supply, especially in the seasonal tropics. Costa Rica owes a huge proportion of its drinking water, irrigated agriculture, and hydropower to its forested and cloud-bathed mountain tops. You immediately understand this when you are standing in the middle of the forest on a day like today and see the clouds, thick as smoke, swoosh through the canopy, leaving the whole mossy forest soaked and sending a cold shower of cloud water dripping down.
Photos by Joanna Parkman, Program Intern