Please get it right NPR – climate change is real everywhere and not just in the arctic

Over the past couple of days, NPR has given a lot of coverage to climate change associated with President Obama’s visit to the Arctic.  While I appreciate any attention they bring to these important issues, I am very disappointed in some of the statements that they have made which are misleading and simply inaccurate.  In yesterday’s Takeaway program they stated that Obama is in the arctic where “climate change is a reality and not just a theory” and today they again stated that Obama is in the arctic “where climate change is a reality” (or something to that effect). Climate change is a reality everywhere and nowhere is it just a theory.  Climate change is happening in tropical rainforests, beaches, alpine meadows, deserts, boreal forests and arctic tundras.  It is having strong effects everywhere and people livelihoods are being impacted by climate change (although they don’t alway realize it).  What they should be saying is that the effects climate change are ‘more visible‘ in the arctic.

Migrating trees

Below is the abstract and FIU NEWS article by  about the new article that colleagues and I recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, entitled “Thermophilization of adult and juvenile tree communities in the northern tropical Andes“.

Thermophilization of adult and juvenile tree communities in the northern tropical Andes. by Alvaro Duque, Pablo R. Stevenson, and Kenneth J. Feeley

Abstract. Climate change is expected to cause shifts in the composition of tropical montane forests towards increased relative abundances of species whose ranges were previously centered at lower, hotter elevations. To investigate this process of “thermophilization,” we analyzed patterns of compositional change over the last decade using recensus data from a network of 16 adult and juvenile tree plots in the tropical forests of northern Andes Mountains and adjacent lowlands in northwestern Colombia. Analyses show evidence that tree species composition is strongly linked to temperature and that composition is changing directionally through time, potentially in response to climate change and increasing temperatures. Mean rates of thermophilization [thermal migration rate (TMR), °C⋅y−1] across all censuses were 0.011 °C⋅y−1 (95% confidence interval = 0.002–0.022 °C⋅y−1) for adult trees and 0.027 °C⋅y−1 (95% confidence interval = 0.009–0.050 °C⋅y−1) for juvenile trees. The fact that thermophilization is occurring in both the adult and juvenile trees and at rates consistent with concurrent warming supports the hypothesis that the observed compositional changes are part of a long-term process, such as global warming, and are not a response to any single episodic event. The observed changes in composition were driven primarily by patterns of tree mortality, indicating that the changes in composition are mostly via range retractions, rather than range shifts or expansions. These results all indicate that tropical forests are being strongly affected by climate change and suggest that many species will be at elevated risk for extinction as warming continues.

Migrating Amazonian trees are a cause for concern
by Evelyn Perez

Tropical forests in the Andes Mountains are changing in the face of climate change.

A new study published in PNAS reveals the number of highland tree species is decreasing as a result of lowland tree species moving upslope along South America’s longest mountain chain in response to rising temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. Instead of shifting to different locations, the highland trees are retracting, or dying back. The results suggest tropical tree species in the Andes are at risk of extinction with ongoing warming.

“The effects of climate change are everywhere – you can’t escape it,” said Kenneth J. Feeley, a researcher in FIU’s Department of Biological Sciences and International Center for Tropical Botany (ICTB). “Some people hold the notion that the Amazon is an isolated and pristine ecosystem, immune to disturbances. We need to change our mindset and open our eyes to the fact that even in the middle of the Amazon or the remote Andes Mountains, species are at risk. Tropical forests, and the thousands of rare or endemic species they support, are highly sensitive to changes in climate and that they are perhaps some of the most threatened ecosystems of all. Climate change is pervasive and dangerous.”

Feeley, who has studied the ecology, biogeography and conservation of tropical plant and animal communities for more than 15 years, is the corresponding author on the paper.

Kenneth Feeley measures the diameter of a tree in the lowland Amazonian rainforest [and yes – I do know that the measuring tape is crooked! I was in the process of straightening it when they took the picture].

Very few studies have looked at the effects of climate change on tropical forests. And, of those studies, nearly all have focused exclusively on adult trees, many of which are thought to be centuries old. This study, led by Alvaro Duque of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Medellin, Colombia) and 2014 Fulbright Research Fellow at FIU, integrated smaller individuals, including both shrubs and juvenile trees.

The researchers mapped and measured more than 32,000 individual plants representing more than 1,820 species in the northern Andes Mountains and northwestern Colombia. By looking repeatedly at the composition species occurring in a series of 16 forest plots spanning a nearly 3,000-meter elevation gradient, the researchers were able to show highland species are decreasing in abundance through time relative to lowland heat-tolerant species.

The compositional changes, which the authors refer to as thermophilzation, are occurring in both the large and small stems which suggests that the cause is a long-term disruption, such as global warming, rather than any single past climate event.

“This data is invaluable for assessing the consequences of climate change,” said Christopher Baraloto, director of the ICTB. “It is not easy to compile long-term information with precise botanical determinations in remote tropical forests, and we must invest in research projects like this across the tropics so that we can continue to monitor the impacts of climate change.

“We hope to promote exactly this type of research initiative as part of the new International Center for Tropical Botany at FIU.”

This study adds to the growing body of evidence compiled by Feeley and colleagues, showing upward migration of tropical plant species in recent decades in Peru and Costa Rica. With the addition of these new results from Colombia, the scientists now have a more complete understanding of how the highly complex and understudied ecosystems of tropical montane forests are being affected by changes in climate.

This knowledge will be integral in improving predictions of how these forests will fare in the future and for designing effective conservation strategies.

A migrating tree

Eat less meat to save the planet

This is a repost of an FIU NEWS article by Evelyn Perez describing some of the recent work and findings of upwithclimate team member, Brian Machovina.  Brian’s work has also been recently featured in Science News.

Eat less meat, save the planet
by Evelyn Perez

To conserve the planet’s ecosystems and their diverse plant and animal species, human populations should consume less meat, according to FIU researchers.

Producing livestock, including cattle, goats and sheep, for human consumption is the single largest driver of habitat loss and deforestation worldwide. It accounts for 75 percent of agricultural land and is a leading cause of climate change, soil loss, water pollution, and the loss of wild carnivores and herbivores.

In a recent study published in Science of the Total Environment, FIU biologists Brian Machovina and Kenneth J. Feeley argue in order to decrease the land demands and ecological footprint of agriculture people should reduce animal products in their diets to a daily average of 10 percent or less of calories. That is a tall order when trying to balance the availability of food for people, their desire to eat meant, and the need to increase nutritional health. The recommended reduction is equivalent to a daily serving of meat that is about the size of a deck of playing cards.

Brian Machovina and Eileen McHale talk about the negative effects of livestock production and meat consumption on the environment.

“Reducing animal-based product consumption is realistic if we can offer delicious, convenient, plant-based foods that people want to eat,” Machovina said. “The power of the market is what drives meat consumption, and the power of the market can equally drive its reduction. Awareness about the damage of meat consumption to personal and environmental health can help change these trends through market-driven conservation.”

By analyzing data sets of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Machovina found the production of meat in the most biodiverse countries in the world — including those in Asia, Africa and South America — is increasing rapidly. Some countries may require 30 to 50 percent more land beyond their current agricultural areas just to meet their meat production needs by 2050. China is of particular concern because of its very rapid rise in human population and meat consumption, as well as the hunting and consumption of wild animal meat in Africa and Asia.

But there is hope, according to Machovina. Growing crops, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and soy protein would increase the number of food calories available for people by as much as 70 percent on the agricultural lands currently in use. Soybeans contain twice the protein of beef, pork or chicken, and 10 times more protein than whole milk. Cultivating them requires less land area than what is needed to raise livestock. This could allow an additional 4 billion people to be fed, surpassing the estimated global population growth of 2-3 billion people.

In addition to helping the planet, the researchers say decreasing the intake of animal products can benefit health. Heart disease is the leading cause of human death and is strongly associated with consuming meat and other animal products.

“I had no idea livestock production was the number one use of land by mankind, the largest driver of deforestation, or that animal product consumption is the underlying cause of most deaths via circulatory disease,” Machovina said. “But when I started reading on the subject and focusing my work on how animal consumption is affecting biodiversity, the results have been profound. When people experience the positive changes plant-based foods can have on their health and the health of their loved ones, the opportunity for widespread change is powerful.”

Machovina’s research on ecology and food security, including the effects of meat consumption by humans on the environment, has been featured in various journals, including PNAS, Nature and Science. He has also presented his work at TEDxFIU in 2014.

FIU GLADES names as ESA SEEDS chapter of the year!

GLADES (Growth of Leadership Academics and Diversity in Ecological Sciences) is FIU’s new undergraduate ecology club (started by Christine Pardo and friends in 2013).   The club focuses on introducing Florida International undergraduate students to ecology and in getting students ready for a graduate school or careers in natural sciences.

GLADES is a chapter of the Ecological Society of America’s SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability; program which aims to diversify ecology.  This year, ESA SEEDS named GLADES as their “Chapter of the Year” in recognition of the club’s wonderful success and progress (selected out of 93 chapters nationwide)!  The award was presented to club member at the ESA conference in Baltimore in August.

As GLADES founding and active faculty mentor, I am extremely very proud of everything that the club has done.  I look forward to working more with the club this year and on into the future.  It will be a lot of fun to watch the club grow and to see more and more students from an ever-greater diversity of backgrounds getting excited about ecology and conservation.

Way to go GLADES!  Keep up the good work!


FIU GLADES member Valeria Paz receives the SEEDS’ “Chapter of the Year” award on behalf of the club at the ESA conference in Baltimore.

OTS Course Blog

It is currently the last official week of my OTS Course, Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach. During this course I have had the pleasure of sharing adventures with outstanding graduate students and scientists in some of Costa Rica’s most beautiful ecosystems. We are all sharing some our experiences on this blog (my post can be viewed here). Keep an eye out for when I post a link to our Course Book. This book will contain a collection of projects that students have completed individually, or with faculty, at the handful of sites we have visited.

It is hard to pick a favorite site, but Monteverde is in the top three. Judging by the smiles on everyone’s faces below, I think they would agree with me…

Students of OTS' Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach,  Summer 2015

Students of OTS’ Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach (Summer 2015), Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Costa Rica.

An Important Message to College Students

The Huffington Post just published an excellent essay by Keith Parsons about the differences between high school and college. The original article can be found HERE and I have also pasted it below.

Message to My Freshman Students
Keith M. Parsons

For the first time in many years I am teaching a freshman course, Introduction to Philosophy. The experience has been mostly good. I had been told that my freshman students would be apathetic, incurious, inattentive, unresponsive and frequently absent, and that they would exude an insufferable sense of entitlement. I am happy to say that this characterization was not true of most students. Still, some students are often absent, and others, even when present, are distracted or disengaged. Some have had to be cautioned that class is not their social hour and others reminded not to send text messages in class. I have had to tell these students that, unlike high school, they will not be sent to detention if they are found in the hall without a pass, and that they are free to leave if they are not interested. Actually, I doubt that the differences between high school and university have ever been adequately explained to them, so, on the first class day of next term, I will address my new freshmen as follows:

Welcome to higher education! If you want to be successful here you need to know a few things about how this place works. One of the main things you need to know is the difference between the instructors you will have here and those you had before. Let me take a few minutes to explain this to you.

First, I am your professor, not your teacher. There is a difference. Up to now your instruction has been in the hands of teachers, and a teacher’s job is to make sure that you learn. Teachers are evaluated on the basis of learning outcomes, generally as measured by standardized tests. If you don’t learn, then your teacher is blamed. However, things are very different for a university professor. It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job — and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.

Your teachers were held responsible if you failed, and expected to show that they had tried hard to avoid that dreaded result. I am not held responsible for your failures. On the contrary, I get paid the same whether you get an “F” or an “A.” My dean will not call me in and ask how many conferences I had with your parents about your progress. Indeed, since you are now an adult, providing such information to your parents would be an illegal breach of privacy. Neither will I have to document how often I offered you tutoring or extra credit assignments. I have no obligation whatsoever to make sure that you pass or make any particular grade at all.

Secondly, universities are ancient and tend to do things the old-fashioned way. In high school your education was basically a test-preparation service. Your teachers were not allowed to teach, but were required to focus on preparing you for those all-important standardized tests. Though it galls ideologues, we university professors still enjoy a large degree of academic freedom. That means that the content and format of your courses is still mostly under your professor’s control, and the format will probably include a good bit of lecture, some discussion and little or no test preparation.

Lecture has come under attack recently. “Flipped learning” is the current buzz term among higher-education reformers. We old-fashioned chalk-and-talk professors are told that we need to stop being the “sage on the stage,” but should become the “guide on the side,” helping students develop their problem-solving skills. Lecture, we are told, is an ineffective strategy for reaching today’s young people, whose attention span is measured in nanoseconds. We should not foolishly expect them to listen to us, but instead cater to their conditioned craving for constant stimulation.

Hogwash. You need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that you are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes. Your high school curriculum would have served you better had it focused more on developing your listening skills rather than drilling you on test-taking.

Finally, when you go to a university, you are in a sense going to another country, one with a different culture and different values. I have come to realize that the biggest gap between you and me is a cultural difference. I have absorbed deeply the norms and values of an ancient academic culture and they are now a part of me. You, on the other hand, come to my classes fresh from a culture with different values, one that finds academic ways strange and hard to understand.

Take the issue of documentation. For an academic, there is something sacred about a citation. The proper citation of a source is a small tribute to the hard work, diligence, intelligence and integrity of someone dedicated enough to make a contribution to knowledge. For you, citations and bibliographies are pointless hoops to jump through and you often treat these requirements carelessly. Further, our differences on the issue of giving or taking proper credit accounts for the fact that you so seldom take plagiarism as seriously as I do.

If you want to know the biggest difference between you and your professor, it is probably this: You see university as a place where you get a credential. For your professor, a university is not primarily about credentialing. Your professor still harbors the traditional view that universities are about education. If your aim is to get a credential, then for you courses will be obstacles in your path. For your professor, a course is an opportunity for you to make your world richer and yourself stronger.

Patterns and Dynamics in Andean Forests

My colleagues and I in the Andean forest plot network, RED DE BOSQUES, just published a new article on “Large-Scale Patterns of Turnover and Basal Area Change in Andean Forests”.  The article is open access and can be downloaded HERE.

Large-Scale Patterns of Turnover and Basal Area Change in Andean Forests

by Báez S. et al.

ABSTRACT. General patterns of forest dynamics and productivity in the Andes Mountains are poorly characterized. Here we present the first large-scale study of Andean forest dynamics using a set of 63 permanent forest plots assembled over the past two decades. In the North-Central Andes tree turnover (mortality and recruitment) and tree growth declined with increasing elevation and decreasing temperature. In addition, basal area increased in Lower Montane Moist Forests but did not change in Higher Montane Humid Forests. However, at higher elevations the lack of net basal area change and excess of mortality over recruitment suggests negative environmental impacts. In North-Western Argentina, forest dynamics appear to be influenced by land use history in addition to environmental variation. Taken together, our results indicate that combinations of abiotic and biotic factors that vary across elevation gradients are important determinants of tree turnover and productivity in the Andes. More extensive and longer-term monitoring and analyses of forest dynamics in permanent plots will be necessary to understand how demographic processes and woody biomass are responding to changing environmental conditions along elevation gradients through this century.

Fig 1.  Distribution of the 63 permanent forest plots used in this study.