Natural Disasters Can Accelerate Changes to Tropical Forests


It’s no surprise that warming temperatures across the earth are having a slow, yet profound impact on the forests of the world.

In a global process called thermophilization, the makeup of forests and other natural communities are changing as plants and trees slowly shift their ranges to higher, cooler altitudes. Species that favor cold climates are moving away from the hot lowlands and into colder highland areas or disappearing from landscapes entirely. While species that favor warmer conditions are moving up and replacing them, research indicates.

Although Kenneth Feeley, associate professor of biology, has documented this phenomenon throughout South and Central America, he wanted to explore whether natural disasters could impact thermophilization, which is driven by climate change. By collaborating with an international team of renowned ecologists, including Edmund Tanner, professor at the University of Cambridge; John Healey, professor at Bangor University; and Peter Bellingham, a professor at the University of Auckland, Feeley said they were able to chronicle the conditions of a Jamaican forest for 40 years and observed that a hurricane sped up the transformation of these tropical forests.

“We saw a consistent process of thermophilization through time, but we noticed the rate of this process was not consistent, and that the hurricane actually accelerated the process,” said Feeley, the University’s Smathers Chair of Tropical Biology. “The forest is resilient and tends to resist changes imposed by climate change, but when you get a large disturbance event like a hurricane, it can break down those barriers, open up the forest to change, and speed up the process of thermophilization.”

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