Archive for April, 2006

Climate Change and Extinction in Monteverde, Costa Rica

Sunday, April 30th, 2006
Monte Verde Cloud Forest

   Before arriving in San Jose, my father and I biked to the Monteverde cloud forest biological preserve. This preserve, at about 5,000 feet above sea level, literally sits in clouds, and is constantly blanketed by mist. We toured the forest, seeing bellbirds (see the video on the left and listen to the bird), quetzals (photo middle), monkeys, tarantulas, hummingbirds, strange insects, and much more. The forest’s thick fog provides moisture and nutrients for plants that grow on other plants, and the trees are thick with mosses and vines hanging off branches.

A singing Bell Bird
A Quetzal through the scope
Look!  A spider monkey.

   As with most places in the tropics, the biodiversity in Monteverde is far higher than what I am used to coming from the U.S. My hometown may have only a dozen types of trees, but here, in Monteverde, you will find hundreds of different species of trees. Likewise, there are more bird species in tiny Costa Rica than found in the entire United States.

   This biodiversity, though, may be threatened, as the climate in Monteverde is already changing. As the oceans have warmed, the clouds at Monteverde are forming at higher altitudes, and the amount of mist in the forest is far less than it was in the 1970s (the photo on the left shows the clouds sitting on top of the mountain – Monteverde is behind the clouds). I talked with one researcher, Dr. Karen Masters, about what this means for the epiphytes – the plants growing on other plants, which account for half of the plant species in the forest. Her experiment (see video middle), although still underway, already shows the new conditions are poor for some species (see dead orchids on the right).

Up in those clouds is the cloud forest of Monteverde
Dr. Karen Masters explains her experiment
Orchids that have died, probably from lack of mist - part of Dr. Karen Masters' experiment

   Two recent extinctions of toads in Monteverde, the golden toad and the harlequin toad, appear to be linked to abnormally warm years. A more recent paper, which looks at extinctions of toads around the world, shows that recent abnormally warm years are extremely well correlated with toad extinctions, suggesting that climate change is already playing a large role in the loss of species.

   The climate is clearly changing here, and the science is backed up by common sense: if you change the climate, you will lose species that cannot adapt. There are many reasons we should preserve biodiversity, as diverse ecosystems provide better services as well as potential pharmaceutical benefits. For me, though, the strongest argument is for simple existence. Each species represents millions of years of evolution, which is completely lost every time a species goes extinct.

Mangua to San Jose – two weeks with Pops

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

   As I said in the previous entry, my father flew to Managua with a silly looking bicycle and the plan to bike with me to Costa Rica. Two years ago, Pops and I biked from Virginia to Oregon (watch the movie of this trip) and, amazingly, we still want to ride together.

   After spending a night with a family in Managua, my father and I biked for two days and then took a boat out to a volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s largest lake. After three days of enjoying the island, we took a second boat to the far side of the lake near the Costa Rican boarder. We rode ‘first class’ on this boat, which meant we slept on the crowded second floor with tourists instead of the crowded first floor with Nicaraguans, many of whom we were told were hoping to cross the border into Costa Rica to work.

Biking in Granada
Waiting to get on the ferry to the Isla de Ometepe
Biking the Isla de Ometepe
Crowds waiting to get on the boat from Ometepe to San Carlos
The bikes rode 'economy class,' boat to San Carlos
Boat ride to Costa Rica
Sugar Cane processing plant
Costa Rica has efficient industrial agriculture

   After another short boat ride, we entered Costa Rica. Costa Rica has a stronger economy than the other Central American countries (see facts), which is why many of the Nicaraguans wanted to go there to work. In comparison to Nicaragua, the farms were not small family lots but rather large efficient farms. While there were still people using machetes, many others used gas powered weed-whackers. Roadside trash was nearly non-existent, and somehow I felt far safer biking into the major cities. Also, the dogs in Costa Rica are more likely to chase cyclists (watch movie of dogs), which I would guess is because they are better fed.

Two Rainbow Tarptents, and a cow eating my handlebar tape
Pushing our bikes up the hill
I think this is a 20% grade
Hurry up Pops
Biological Preserve

   Pops and I climbed up into the mountains, following steep dirt roads with 20% grades . We spent two days at a biological preserve, where I met with scientists studying climate change and my father recorded birdsong. (Pops studies birdsong – he even wrote a book about it.)

American School of San Jose, middle school

   From Monteverde, we biked to the coast and then back up into the mountains to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, where I visited the American School of San Jose. I now have to say goodbye to Pops, who is catching a flight tomorrow morning.

Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Central America

Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

   Since arriving in Central America, I have asked nearly every person I have stayed with about how hurricanes have affected their lives.

Beach at Placencia

   In Belize, the majority of the population lives in coastal settlements that are barely above sea level. The town where I learned to SCUBA dive, Placencia, was almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Iris in 1991. People with insurance or in the tourism industry have rebuilt. Others sold their land and moved. Down the road from Placencia is Sand Bite, a small town that does not receive tourism dollars. This town has not fully rebuilt from the storm.

   Hurricanes are likely to be stronger on a warmer earth. A recent study (here is a description) showed how an increase in the power of Atlantic hurricanes over the past 20 years is correlated with warmer ocean water in the Atlantic. This makes intuitive sense – hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean water, and warmer ocean water should mean more powerful hurricanes. More powerful hurricanes are also predicted by climate models. Furthermore, much of the damage done by hurricanes is not just by their winds, but by the rain that accompanies the storms. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, and thus will likely provide heavier rains (read more on rains here).

   In 1998, a huge category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Mitch, tore through the Caribbean and then parked itself over Central America, affecting almost every country. Ten thousand people died, and over 100,000 were left homeless.

Flood waters of Hurricane Mitch reached the third floor of this building
There used to be houses all along this bank in Tegucigalpa.

   The storm hit Honduras the hardest. It destroyed some coastal communities and then dropped amazing amounts of rain. A security guard at the San Pedro Sula airport described water in his house up to his armpits. A family who I stayed with in the countryside told me that they lost all of their crops. I asked what they did that year, and they replied that they were hungry that year. In Tegucigalpa, the flooding reached the third floor of some buildings (such as the building on the left). According to my city guide Carleton, many of the houses on the hill sides washed away. He showed me a large section of bare earth (shown on the right) where there used to be houses.

I camped in front of Cristina's house.
Omar explains that all these new houses replaced those destroyed by Hurricane Mitch

   The destruction continued in the rest of Central America. In San Miguel, El Salvador, one man described a landslide that destroyed many homes. In Nicaragua, the family that I swam with on Good Friday invited me back to their house. Their house had been destroyed by Mitch, and rebuilt a year later by help from the government (photo left). Also in Nicaragua, I spent one night at the house of Cristina, who is shown on the right. Cristina explained that although no one in her community died, they lost all of their animals. “We ate a lot of rice and beans.”

   Mitch was so strong that its name has been retired – whereas most names for storms are reused after a few years, meteorologists will never again use the name Mitch. If current research is correct, though, we will see more storms like Mitch. And, the people who will suffer the most will be the people who I have met here in Central America – people who live in poorly constructed houses, who live on vulnerable slopes, or who rely on the food they grow to live.

   Based on these stories, it seems that the human toll of Hurricane Mitch was many times worse than any storm in the U.S. Again, this is because of how people live here – they have fewer resources to survive and recover from a storm. Yet, growing up in the U.S., for a long time I thought that hurricanes damaged only Florida and nearby states because that is what I heard about in the media. Somehow we need to expand our view to other countries, especially as our actions – emissions of greenhouse gasses – will make storms worse internationally.

Through Honduras to Nicaragua

Sunday, April 16th, 2006

   Leaving El Salvador, I climbed into the mountains of Honduras, continuing my winding route through Central America (see the map of my route).

I stayed here for the night

   Returning to Honduras, I spent my first night camped outside of a family’s house in the countryside. Like the last Honduran family I stayed with, they had no electricity, although they did have many candles and they ran a small store selling refreshments. They invited me into their home, let me cook my dinner on their stove, and showed me pictures of past family events.

   Earlier that day, I drank some water I should not have. That night, I emerged from my tent many times, and one time left a pile of vomit in the lawn near the outhouse. This is not the way to be a good guest. Although a dog and the rain immediately cleaned up my mess, the family had heard me, because, as they told me in the morning, they could not sleep because of mosquitoes at night. They said they could not afford a mosquito net. The mother gave me some medicine and wished me well; I felt bad that I had little to give in return, but I shared some of my food and offered to mail them a copy of a picture I took of them.

   After spending a day recovering in a hotel in the city of La Paz, I biked into Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital city. The city sits at about 3,000 feet above sea level in the middle of a large valley surrounded by pine forests. Here I stayed with Marta and Carleton, the mother and step-father of a friend of mine from college. Carleton runs a school, but it was the week before Easter, and all of Latin America is on vacation (I did, however, get an interview on television). Nonetheless, Carleton gave me a tour of the city and told me about how he once ran for mayor of Tegucigalpa. He ran on an anti-corruption platform, but then lost the race to a man who, as was later learned, received illegal funding from the government.

Main Plaza, Tegucigalpa
Houses on hillside, Tegucigalpa
Marta and Carleton helped me out in Tegucigalpa.

   I continued into Nicaragua, which did not change dramatically from Honduras. Nicaragua is one of the poorer countries in Latin America (see comparison). Like El Salvador, Nicaragua had a long civil war during the 1980s. However, in Nicaragua, it was the government that was socialist instead of the guerillas attempting to overthrow it. As such, the U.S. massively supported the guerrillas, and also enacted a trade embargo that strangled the country (the people fighting the government were known as ‘contras,’ and you may know of this from the ‘Iran-contra’ affair).

Dancing at the pool....they start so young here.
Swimming with the family on Semana Santa, near la Trinidad

   Now the country is peaceful, and, like El Salvador, I felt relatively safe biking. As it was the week before Easter, everyone was on vacation, and most people were at the beach or the local swimming hole. On Good Friday, I passed a family that demanded I join them at the local pool. Despite the strange murky color of the pool water, I enjoyed playing tag and diving into the crowded pool. If you have a high-speed connection, you should look at the video on the right.

   Arriving in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, I stopped at the airport to pick up my father, who will be biking with me through Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In an effort to embarrass his son, pops showed up at the airport with the most ridiculous looking bicycle he could possibly find – a folding bike that can fit within a suitcase. With over half a dozen security guards watching us, we quickly assembled his bike, attached the suitcase as a trailer, and biked away from the airport.

Pops shows up at the Managua airport with his folding bike
Security made sure it was safe to assemble the bicycle, Managua airport
Pops brought a silly-looking bike just to embarrass me

Should I bike Colombia?

Saturday, April 15th, 2006

   As I get closer, I am considering biking Colombia. I have received completely contradictory advice as to whether or not I would be safe biking the country, and I am trying to collect as much information as I can. If you have any advice, information, or contacts, let me know or leave a comment!