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A Raincoat for a Rainforest

The installation of 3000 clear plastic panels simulates an El Niño drought

The installation of 3000 clear plastic panels simulates an El Niño drought in 4000 m2 of Daintree rainforest. Credit: William Laurance

By Susan Laurance

How do you study the effects of drought in a rainforest? Try covering one in plastic.

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I have been working in the tropics for more than two decades, and I still find that the wet season has to be experienced to be believed. Hot, humid days harken an early darkening sky and often-thunderous downpours. Under the rainforest canopy, one sees, hears and smells the rain minutes before one feels it. The massive trees, vines and epiphytes above need to become saturated before the rain reaches the understorey, giving one a few moments to scurry for shelter or at least a raincoat.

Rainforests are wet places, and have been so for millions of years, but will this always be the case? While most people think about global climate change as the gradual rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide and of temperature, in the short term it’s the increasing likelihood of extreme events such as droughts and heat waves that most worries ecologists like myself.

Severe droughts, such as those associated with El Niño or rising sea-surface temperatures, have affected vast areas of tropical rainforest already, including much of the Amazon, Borneo and New Guinea. Leading computer models suggest that droughts may become more frequent in the future.

Tree death is one of the most important consequences of drought and, if widespread, can provoke changes in forest composition, carbon storage and flammability.

The problem with extreme events like droughts is that they...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.