Archive for August, 2006

Travel Update – Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

Welcome to update 4 from Ride for Climate!

    Since last update, I have biked across Colombia, Venezuela, and northern Brazil, traversing the Andes, the Amazon, and crossing the equator. I crossed the ‘half-way’ point of this trip in Venezuela, and the trip odometer has passed 9,000 miles. Ride for Climate continues to reach a wide audience, and since last update, I have visited schools and appeared in newspapers and television in almost every major city I have visited. I write you now from the banks of the Amazon River (map).

Campsite in la Gran Sabana
Rain is good for some things
Chicamochoca River Canyon and Cactus

   Below are entries from the past three months.


  • 5/28 Elections in Colombia
  • 6/5 To Medellin and into the Andes
  • 6/12 Medellin to Bogota – lots of rain
  • 6/19 Bicycles in Bogota
  • 6/19 Mountaintops and Climate Change
  • 6/26 Bogota to Bucaramanga
  • 7/5 Bucaramanga to Venezuela

  • 7/12 Is Oil Good for Venezuela?
  • 7/12 Cars and Politics in Caracas
  • 7/18 Floods and Climate Change
  • 7/26 Biking with Tom Hunt
  • 7/27 Coral reefs in Venezuela

  • 8/15 Into the Amazon and learning Portuguese
  • 8/22 The future of the Amazon?

    A bombero celebrates his birthday in Medellin, Colombia
    Bicycle commuters in Bogota, Colombia
    A bike is faster than an ambulance in Caracas, Venezuela
    Truck full of kids yelling ‘gringo! gringo!’
    Entering an indigenous reserve in the Amazon


    Cartagena sits barely above sea level

       Due to rising sea levels, many of the coastal areas I visited, and especially the historic city of Cartagena in Colombia, are at risk. The water source for Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is also at risk (see journal entry), as the ecosystem that supplies the water sits at the mountain tops and may not survive global warming. This would also undoubtedly cause extinctions. In my journals, I also wrote about floods in Caracas as well as potential droughts in the Amazon – there is a chance that global warming will cause the Amazon to dry out. I also wrote about the coral reefs that I visited off the coast of Venezuela – these too are at risk.

    The Paramo - a strange grassland at the mountaintops
    A healthy reef
    Nice forest - look at the diversity of trees!

       One topic I have not discussed in my journals, but hope to do so, is the possible spread of tropical diseases. In Colombia and Venezuela, the majority of the population lives in the mountains, where it is too cold for many tropical diseases such as malaria or dengue. As the climate warms, more of these centers may be exposed to such diseases.

       I am currently working with people in the U.S. to plan the next phase of Ride for Climate – a loop around the United States to promote solutions to global warming. I will be sending you all an email shortly about this project and asking for your help, so stay tuned!

        Over the next few months I will be stopping in the following cities: Iquitos, Yurimaguas, Huaraz, Lima, Cusco, and La Paz, as well as potentially other locations. If you know of people along the way that would be interested in hosting a ride for climate presentation (or simply help with a place to stay), let me know.

       I am currently taking a boat up the Amazon River from Manaus into Peru. From Peru, I will bike across the Andes, and then follow the mountain range south crossing Peru and Bolivia before crossing into Argentina and Chile, at which point I will send out another update.

       Thank you again to everyone who has helped with this journey, and feel free to send me an email! Best,


    Miles by country:
    Colombia: 1,123
    Venezuela: 1,188
    Brazil: 651

    The future of the Amazon? A week in Manaus

    Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006
    Universidade Nacional Amazones

       I spent a week in Manaus, staying in the apartment of two graduate students and visiting Instituto National de Pesquisas da Amazonia (INPA), a famous research center. Here, in addition to giving a presentation for INPA and also for students at a neighboring University, I talked with scientists modelling climate in the Amazon rainforest. From what I gather, the rainforest faces three major threats. 1) Direct deforestation, 2) Decreased rainfall caused by deforestation, and 3) the possibility that global warming will dry out the basin.

       Although the Amazon basin is enormous (similar in size to the contiguous U.S.), deforestation is a major threat. Everywhere roads are built, the forest is cut down, making way for fields of soy beans or beef cattle. From one of the researchers at INPA, I received the images below which show the forest in 1992, deforestation by 2002, and then projected deforestation in 2033 (deforestation shown in red).

    Amazon 1992 - forest shown in green
    Amazon 2002 - deforestation shown in red
    Amazon projected 2033 - deforestation shown in red, source: Soares-Filho et al., 2004
    Francis, Theo, and their supercomputer for climate modeling

       I talked with two climate modellers at INPA, Francis and Theotonio (shown on the right with their ‘supercomputer’), about how this deforestation would affect the rainforest, as cutting down a forest changes evaporation and thus rain patterns. If the entire forest were cut down, they estimate that rainfall would decrease on average 30%, with many areas becoming too dry for forest. Indeed, one study suggests that there are two stable states of the Amazon – one state like the rainforest we find today, and another state where much of the forest is dry savannah. If too much forest is cut down, there is a possibility that it would push much of the Amazon into the drier state, unable to easily return to forest. (More on this here.)

       These studies, however, do not consider the effects of global warming. To be sure, the effects of global warming are uncertain because large scale climate models are not good at modelling rainfall in the tropics. Nonetheless, a few models (not all) suggest that a warmer earth means a much drier Amazon, which would turn much of the basin into savannah. This may be wrong. It may also be correct.

       Decreasing rain and savannahization are real risks to the rainforest. Due to uncertainty in the science–we can’t be sure if deforestation or global warming will reduce rain–it is difficult to put percentages on these risks, and Theotonio and Francis, while claiming it a real possibility, balked at guessing its probability. Nonetheless, if it is true, the results are very bad. A loss of the Amazon would not only loose countless species, but also release incredible amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. Do we really want to find out if it is true or not?

    Tower to measure carbon dioxide fluxes in the Amazon
    Alex downloading data
    Reminds me of an experiment I used to work on...
    Nice forest - look at the diversity of trees!

       My last full day in Manaus, I travelled with Alexender, one of my hosts, to a large forest preserve near the city. In the preserve, Alex maintains a large tower that measures CO2 concentrations, and is he trying to understand how CO2 fluxes into and out of the forest. Alex let me climb to the top of the tower, where I was able to look across the treetops of a forest that stretches for thousands of miles beyond the horizon. Listening to the birds, monkeys, and insects, it was hard not to be both awed by the Amazon and to wonder what its future will be.

    South into the Amazon

    Tuesday, August 15th, 2006
    Welcome to la Gran Sabana - a high grassland in southeast Venezuela

       Heading south from Puerto Ordaz/Ciudad Guyana (the city seems to have two names), I followed the only road that connects Venezuela and Brazil. Thinly populated, this road follows jungle before climbing into a region known as ‘La Gran Sabana,’ a high grassland with strange flat toped mountains and many rivers and waterfalls. (This is where Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, is found – it was too far off my route, though). I slowed down through this part, camping on the high mesas and swimming in the many pools, meeting vacationing Venezuelans at the same time.

    Venezuelan vacationers who helped me out
    Kama Falls
    Campsite in la Gran Sabana
    Campsite sunrise
    lots of waterfalls and places to swim in la Gran Sabana
    La Gran Sabana
    Swimming with teenagers near Boa Vista

       Entering Brazil, the road descended from the mountains into the Amazon basin, where, after two days of riding, I arrived in the city of Boa Vista. Before entering town, I went swimming with a few teenagers (photo right). I asked the kids if I should worry about piranhas or crocodiles, to which they said ‘don’t worry about it.’

       In Brazil, unlike almost every country I have visited, the language is Portuguese instead of Spanish. Fortunately, Spanish and Portuguese are very similar languages, and sometimes I almost understand what people say. Also, some important phrases, such as ‘where is the fire station’ are almost the same in both languages. In Boa Vista, where I stayed for two days, I gave a talk at a middle school. I was able to say a few words in Portuguese, and, whenever what I said was unintelligible, the teacher next to me would repeat what I said in Portuguese (many people here understand Spanish). The bombeiros (firefighters), who I stayed with two nights, also had time to help me congegate verbs, and, when I was interviewed by the local television, I mostly understood the questions and gave responses that might have been understood.

    Bombeiros da Boa Vista teaching me Portugues
    Escola Eulclides da Cunha in Boa Vista
    Note that I am trapped in the corner.
    Crossing the ecuator

       Continuing south, I followed the only major road through this section of the Amazon. While most of this region is pure jungle, and there are very few people and towns, about half the time the roadside is cleared for cattle grazing. The cleared land, however, did make it easier to see the many types of birds (The shot on the right shows me crossing the equator).

    Roadside cleared for cattle.
    Tree full of tropical birds

       Further south, however, a 75 mile stretch of road is indigenous land, reserved for the native peoples, and this is pure jungle. The natives do not like outsiders on their land, and you are only allowed to pass this section during the daytime, and you are not allowed to stop. In talking with people on the road (talking in Portuguese, where we had to say everything a few times), I was amazed at how afraid everyone was of the Indian reservation and the jungle. Most said I would not be able to pass through this section of road. I thought that this was just prejudice against the natives. Before I entered the reserve, one man told me I would be ‘killed and eaten’ by the natives, and then he added something that I didn’t understand and acted out some type of animal with large claws attacking me. I was ready to dismiss what he was saying, but then he said ‘and, this woman had her husband killed and eaten by the natives.’ The woman walked over and confirmed what the man had said. At this point I reconsidered traveling slowly on a bike through the reserve.

    Amazon Jungle creeping over the road
    Entering the Indiginous Reserve

       At the reserve´s entrance, though, a police officer changed my mind. He told me that such attacks were far in the past, and that they would never happen along the road in the daytime – the tribes would harm only people who enter their reserve where they are not supposed to. Ok, I thought, and continued to bike the 75 miles, stopping only to pee and get more food out of my pannier (I ate while biking). The jungle here was thick and alive – I saw numerous monkeys (scared a few crossing the road), a small deer like animal, and heard many sounds that I did not hear elsewhere along the road.

       On the exit to the reserve, I stopped at a building where some of the indigenous people were selling crarftwork. Both of us speaking Portuguese, which is neither of our first languages, I learned that yes, these people still hunt with bow and arrows and no, they do not drink any coca-cola (they did look very healthy). I asked about bicycles crossing the reserve, and the man said ‘it is allowed, but we do not like it.’

       After two more days of travel, mostly through rolling hills, I arrived in the large city of Manaus, which sits where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon River. I will be here for a few days before taking a boat up the Amazon river and into Peru.