Tropical forests are critical ecosystems affecting the Earth’s climate, hydrological cycles and human cultures. Although they only cover about 10 percent of the Earth’s land surface, they store about 40 percent of the Carbon residing in terrestrial vegetation. They are incredibly important habitats for plants and animals harboring between one-half to two-thirds of the world’s species. Not only are they large sinks of terrestrial carbon but they are significant sources of carbon emissions to the atmosphere as a result of high rates of deforestation, fire, and land conversion.
The tropical forests of Hawaii and other islands of the Pacific are global treasures of biological diversity. They posses a higher proportion of endemic plants and animals than anywhere on Earth. However, the combined effects of land use/land cover change, invasive species, and global climate change present unprecedented threats to the existence of the species, ecosystems, and cultures that have thrived there for millennia.
Global climate change represents an unprecedented serious threat to tropical forests and people who depend upon them. The effects of increasing temperature, changes in rainfall, increased frequency of ENSO (El Niño) events, rising sea level, and hurricanes or typhoons of greater intensity on tropical landscapes and cultures are of great concern. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that small islands have characteristics that make them especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, sea level rise, and extreme events.
Interactions of climate change with other human impacts especially land cover change and invasive species droughts will greatly exacerbate the already large anticipated impacts on people and the tropical landscape. Ecosystem collapse and the demise of Pacific island cultures as a result of climate change are real possibilities.
Global change research in tropical landscapes from forested ridges to coral reefs is a core focus at the Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. Institute scientists are leading studies that provide critical information to stake holders on the vulnerability of Pacific island ecosystems to climate change, as well as critical strategies for assisting with adaptation and mitigation efforts including landscape-scale restoration efforts, breaking the invasive species-wildland fire cycle, and reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation.
Scientists of the institute are recognized globally for their expertise in tropical invasive species, wetlands, and hydrology, and approaches to forest restoration. In terms of climate change, studies are centering on dynamics of hydrological cycles and carbon pools, controls on forest carbon sequestration, and losses of carbon from ecosystems owing to climate change, invasive species, and land use/land cover change.
A core feature of the institute’s Global Change Program are studies conducted at the recently established Hawaii Experimental Tropical Forest (HETF). This newest experimental forest in the USA was conceived and designed to address fundamental questions in global change science. The HETF encompasses remarkable gradients of temperature and precipitation over very short distances. This large land area provides ideal platforms for conducting research studies on climate change relevant not only to Hawaii but to tropical ecosystems globally.
Currently, scientists are establishing long-term permanent forest plots, climate stations, and stream gages that will serve as both early warning systems to effects of climate change and measures of long-term change of the tropical landscapes.
One of the most significant events concerning the HETF over the last year has been its designation as a wildland site supporting the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). This effort, as well as numerous other ongoing studies on the HETF, is designed to discover and understand the fundamental biophysical controls and responses of the biosphere to global change. The world- class research generated from the HETF is providing globally relevant information relating to climate change effects and adaptation and mitigation strategies. Inclusive is the development of REDD strategies (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation) for tropical Pacific nations.
The Forest Service’s Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry is a leading Institution addressing important issues of the Pacific. For more information on global change research and technical transfer at the IPIF, please contact Dr Boone Kauffman.