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Wed Dec 5, 2012, 04:49 AM

Colombia's Cloud Forests Imperiled by Climate Change, Development

Colombia's Cloud Forests Imperiled by Climate Change, Development

High in the Andes and finally open to scientists after years of conflict, Colombia's cloud forests host rich biodiversity, which is being lost before its even documented

By Autumn Spanne and DailyClimate.org

ANTIOQUIA, Colombia – Five hours by truck and mule from the nearest town, a rumbling generator cuts through the silent night to power large spotlights as botanists crouch and kneel on large blue tarps spread across a cow pasture. It's nearly midnight, and the team works urgently to describe every detail of the dozens of colorful orchids, ferns and other exotic plants they have collected that day in Las Orquídeas National Park, one of the single most biologically diverse places on the planet.

For nearly two weeks, each day begins and ends like this. At 6 a.m., the botanists emerge from their tents, just before the sun peeks over the mist covered mountains. They down a breakfast of cornmeal arepas and steaming bowls of agua de panela, a local drink made from boiled sugar cane. Then they don their rain gear, cross the river on a dubious bridge made of a single log and trudge along narrow, muddy trails before fanning out into the cloud forest.

Their mission: To collect as many species of flowering plants as possible and return to base camp before heavy afternoon rains swell the river to dangerous levels. They're racing a different clock, too. Climate change and development are beginning to erase these irreplaceable ecosystems. The researchers are scrambling to understand what is here before it disappears.

The scientists are carrying out a three-year project, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, to create a comprehensive inventory of all the vascular plants in this park. It's a considerable undertaking. At least 3,000 plant species – including the more than 200 species of orchid for which the park is named – are believed to inhabit Las Orquídeas. Potentially hundreds of plants have yet to be identified by science.


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