, Volume 39, Issue 2-3, pp 317-336

Tropical Forests in a Future Climate: Changes in Biological Diversity and Impact on the Global Carbon Cycle

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Abstract

Tropical forest ecosystems are large stores of carbon which supply millions of people with life support requirements. Currently tropical forests are undergoing massive deforestation. Here, I address the possible impact of global change conditions, including elevated CO2, temperature rise, and nitrogen deposition on forest structure and dynamics. Tropical forests may be particularly susceptible to climate change for the following reasons: (1) Phenological events (such as flowering and fruiting) are highly tuned to climatic conditions. Thus a small change in climate can have a major impact on the forest, its biological diversity and its role in the carbon cycle. (2) There are strong coevolutionary interactions, such as pollination seed dispersal, with a high degree of specialization, i.e., only certain animals can effect these activities for certain species. Global change can decouple these tight coevolutionary interactions. (3) Because of high species diversity per unit area, species of the tropical rain forest must have narrow niches. Thus changes in global climate can eliminate species and therefore reduce biological diversity. (4) Deforestation and other forms of disturbance may have significant feedback on hydrology both regionally and globally. The predicted decline in the rainfall in the Amazon Basin and the intensification of the Indian monsoon can have a large effect on water availability and floods which are already devastating low-lying areas. It is concluded that tropical forests may be very sensitive to climate change. Under climatic change conditions their structure and function may greatly change, their integrity may be violated and their services to people may be greatly modified. Because they are large stores of great biological diversity, they require immediate study before it is too late. The study requires the collaboration of scientists with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences including biologists, climate modellers, atmospheric scientists, economists, human demographers and sociologists in order to carry out holistic and urgently needed work. Global climatic change brings a great challenge to science and to policy makers.