San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Climate Change Threatens Critters

Climate change could dramatically alter Costa Rica’s weather patterns, habitats and animal and plant diversity, according to a new study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States.

Particularly at risk are the country’s high altitude cloud forest habitats, home to the iconic resplendent quetzal and myriad other birds, said doctoral student Ambarish Karmalkar, one of the heads of the study.

“Our focus is to look at what the temperature change is going to be,” Karmalkar

said. “Temperature is going to get warmer. For species to find an ecosystem, they’re going to have to move upslope. For species that are already at the top of the mountains, they will have no place to go.”

Any environmental change faces a backlash from the natural world. The question is how well the plants and animals will respond to the rapid changes created by global warming.

“You’re destroying the natural habitat,” Karmalkar said. “Any migration that happens too fast is detrimental. The current change is too fast.”

Using a computer model, the study anticipates an average change of about 3 degrees Celsius throughout the country about 75 years from now. The most drastic temperature changes will occur at higher elevations, compounding the problems for the cloud forests, Karmalkar said.

And the projection is likely to be on the cautious side as current temperatures are already warmer than the projection anticipated, Karmalkar explained.

But hotter temperatures are not the only change the research uncovered. According to projections, Costa Rican ecosystems will also face a drastic change in precipitation.

“What we are really seeing in Central America is that the region is going to dry out,” Karmalkar said. “There will be up to 60 percent less precipitation. You look over the region and you see that there is going to be less precipitation everywhere.”

Higher temperatures usually result in more rain, but because of the unique topography and wind patterns of the land bridge between North and South America there will be a decrease.

During the dry season from November to April, moisture is carried by wind from the Caribbean to the Pacific. Clouds form at higher elevation on the west coast and keep verdant the environments that require high amounts of water.

“Since the temperature is going to be higher, the clouds will form at much higher elevations, especially on the Pacific,” Karmalkar said.

He warned of a substantial loss of species. “You cannot stop it because there is some change that we are going to experience,” Karmalkar said. “Human actions have actually affected the global ecology.”

Not the First Warning

Biologist Cagan Sekercioglu of StanfordUniversity in Palo Alto, California, released a study last year theorizing that one in three species of land birds in the world may go extinct due to global climate change by the end of the century. His findings also suggest mountain birds would suffer the largest backlashes (TT, Jan 4, 2008).

A 2007 projection by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) theorized that climate change may also send Costa Ricans themselves heading for the hills. According to their results, 60 to 90 percent of the Puntarenas peninsula could be underwater by 2100 due to rising sea levels. Increases in temperature are also forcing mosquito populations uphill, which may result in widespread dengue fever and malaria outbreaks (TT, Aug 17, 2007).

A January 2006 study by biologist Alan Pounds of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve linked frog  and toad extinctions to climate change. The studyfound that higher temperatures spurred a fatal skin disease (TT, Jan 20, 2006).


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