CSU Researcher Leads International Team to Determine Future Water Availability from Tropical Forests

A Colorado State University researcher is leading an international team of scientists in examining the likely effects of climate change on vulnerable and ecologically important cloud forests in the world’s tropical regions.

The project, led by Patrick Martin in CSU’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, is expected to provide insights about future water availability in tropical environments that rely on high-elevation forests to provide essential “fog capture,” which transforms cloud cover into water supplies for plants, animals and people.

Loss of dense but delicate vegetation in the face of rising global temperatures, drought and violent weather patterns could greatly impact this vital forest function, Martin said.
“In many parts of the tropics, mountains are the main source of fresh water as a result of cloud-zone dynamics, including direct fog capture by vegetation. This water is critical for natural ecosystems, agriculture and drinking water,” said Martin, an assistant professor who teaches CSU ecology classes. “Cloud forests provide all sorts of benefits, including ensuring water quality and water yield, as a result of their distinctive vegetation, especially super-abundant moss cover.”

The project is funded with a $500,000 grant from the prestigious National Science Foundation, a sign of its status as leading-edge research marked by novel collaboration and an expectation that findings will contribute to fundamental scientific understandings. The project also is an example of innovative work in CSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences to better understand the role of water as a natural resource that is both critical and increasingly limited in many settings.

“The substantial investment of competitively awarded NSF funds in this project is a reflection of Dr. Martin’s expertise, leadership and vision,” said Stephen Wallner, head of the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. “While this aspect of Dr. Martin’s work is focused on tropical forests, the results will be relevant to many other ecosystems and landscapes, including high-elevation forests in Colorado. This work will also enrich his teaching as he shares new knowledge and interesting experiences with his students on campus.”

A key element of the project is Martin’s collaboration with other scientists. The approach is meant to draw together research findings about the ecology of tropical montane cloud forests from different disciplines, institutions, cultures and regions. The project will build an international research coordination network to dramatically increase ecological knowledge of these ecosystems, Martin said.

“We really need to get people together to standardize and synthesize all of our work so we truly understand what is happening in these high-elevation tropical cloud forests,” he said. An outgrowth of this collaboration, Martin added, will be improved instruction for university students and web-based education about tropical montane cloud forests delivered to the public.

A project steering committee is composed of researchers at Cornell University, Florida Institute of Technology, Instituto de Ecología-Veracruz, University of Alabama, University of Amsterdam, University Connecticut, University of Hawaii, University of New Hampshire, University of Pennsylvania and University of Texas-Austin.

The initial group of network participants includes more than 40 scientists representing 15 countries with expertise in biogeography, populations and communities, climatology, ecosystem sciences, evolutionary ecology, hydrology, paleoecology, physiology, remote sensing and soil science, Martin said.

The project builds upon Martin’s earlier ecological research, which in particular has studied the effects of catastrophic disturbances, such as natural fires and hurricanes, in the pristine cloud forests within the central mountain range of Hispaniola. Above this wilderness rises Pico Duarte, which, at more than 10,000 feet in elevation, is the highest peak in all the Caribbean islands. Martin has studied the ecology of epiphytic plants, or those that grow atop others. These include bromeliads, orchids and mosses that grow in luxuriant layers in the canopy of trees in the misty forest.

“Cloud forests are a unique and striking ecosystem found at high elevations on tropical mountains where persistent cloud cover forms almost every day,” Martin has written. “These ecosystems are not only beautiful, but play a critical role in biodiversity protection, water resources and human livelihoods. Yet they are among the world’s least known ecosystems and are likely to be exceptionally vulnerable to global change.”

Martin also studies how variability in moisture influences the dynamics of high-elevation Colorado forests, another example of research on the vital issue of water availability for natural ecosystems, agriculture and human consumption.