In the heart of the Colombian Andes lies the magical Los Nevados Natural Park, one of the few places on Earth that has the unique and fascinating páramo ecosystem. The páramo is home to a great variety of plants and wildlife, many of them endemic to this environment. Hundreds of people live in Los Nevados, thousands of tourists visit the park every year, and a million people drink from its waters in the lowlands. The overwhelming peacefulness and beauty of the park immediately enchants. Unfortunately, we have seen changes in Los Nevados that have made us question how we can preserve something we do not fully understand. We began a research initiative, the Poleka Kasue Mountain Observatory, to preserve the valuable páramo ecosystem and to make the magnificence and richness of our mountains known to all.
The goal of our long-term, multi-tiered research project (now in its ninth year) is to deepen our understanding of the function and importance of páramo environments and assess the best suite of adaptation strategies for their conservation. Our socio-ecological, mountain monitoring system integrates seven components of analysis:
(i) long-term changes in key circulation dynamics (e.g. convective processes);
(ii) diagnostics of water balance and potential changes in hydrological regimes;
(iii) assessments of biodiversity levels and vulnerabilities;
(iv) role of anthropic disturbances;
(v) carbon capture and storage in soils, peatlands and aquatic microhabitats;
(vi) socio-economic factors (e.g. ecosystem services valuation, community perceptions, land-use practices, and prevalent concerns of stakeholders); and
(vii) long-term changes in climatic conditions (past climate reconstructions, analysis of instrumental periods, hindcasts, and climate model projections).
Research activities are supported on the analysis of primary data collected by weather and gauging stations, georeferenced photographs, biological parameters from vegetation experimental plots, and sets of temperature and relative humidity data loggers installed along ~4,000 m altitudinal gradients.
The Field Work
Our history of quarterly field trips to monitor on-the-ground climatic and environmental variables in Los Nevados spans back almost nine years. We learned to overcome the challenge of coping with extreme weather conditions that characterize the upper altitudinal range of the natural park. We set up campsites
within walking distance from local community-owned farm houses that are located on the buffer zone of the protected area, and carry all the weight to base camps. The weight in our backpacks comes from a short list of devices, including optical USB stations, which are required to read out data loggers that were deployed in the protected area. Digital sensors ll in the gaps of historical climatic information in Colombian high-altitude environments and allow us to assess the impacts of the faster tropical upper-tropospheric warming on the overall integrity of páramo environments.
Climate and Water
A faster warming of the tropical upper troposphere worsens the already rapid shrinkage of tropical mountain glaciers and disrupts key local circulation dynamics. Our loggers were deployed at elevational intervals of 300-500 meters, and are currently measuring near-surface air temperature, relative humidity and dew point at hourly intervals. Data are read out during quarterly field campaigns and processed to characterize ground-based environmental lapse rates and time of occurrence of vertical motions. Historical records, which span back to December 2008, are shared with the main institutions involved in research activities, and are periodically posted to data library sites to provide free access and visual representation.
The upper tropospheric warming also changes the altitudinal distribution of solid and liquid precipitation in the headwaters of local watersheds. Spatially-distributed hydrological modeling is implemented to assess the potential changes in their ecohydrologic response. On-the-ground activities aimed at measuring changes in snowpack melting, peatland and lagoon water storage, instant stream ow, horizontal precipitation, and water retention in páramo vegetation are being conducted in two key watersheds (the Claro and Otún rivers) to support the study.
Biodiversity and Anthropic Disturbance
Our initiative also includes assessments of biodiversity levels and vulnerabilities. The project integrates different ecological scales (from general ecosystem approach to specific species level) and multiple methodological approaches (from geographical modelling to in-situ observations and long-term monitoring).
We are studying potential changes in the extent of life zones and the current distributions of plant growth forms and species. We are also assessing the vulnerability to climate change of several plant species through the implementation of the Nature Serve Vulnerability Index. We have installed experimental plots along the altitudinal gradients to describe species presence and abundance, and to gather baseline data for composition and distribution of plant communities. A detailed photographic record of experimental plots and plant species is also being stored for comparison throughout the years to assess potential changes over time.
We are also studying the role of anthropic disturbances such as high-altitude res, which are causing almost-irreversible damage to páramo soils, wetlands, fauna, and ora. In the surroundings of Los Nevados, res are still set to regenerate grass for livestock, prepare land after harvesting potato crops, and expand utilized and cultivated land areas. In the absence of appropriate techniques for controlling res, they can rapidly spread into non-targeted natural vegetation inhabiting páramo zones. Our group is currently working on understanding the slow recovery time of páramo ecosystems by observing several places that were affected by small-scale high-altitude res. We have also collected soil samples from different horizons in several locations along the altitudinal transects to determine the total amount of organic material in soils and its fraction of non-labile carbon. The aim of this activity is to properly determine the amount of carbon stored in páramo soils and quantify potential carbon releases under different scenarios of environmental pressure.
Looking to the Past, Valorizing the Present
As part of a larger investigation of the role of the tropics in the global climate, our group teamed up with researchers from the University of Maine (USA) to study the geologic record of glaciation in the northern Andes in order to assess tropical climate variability over the last ~20,000 to 30,000 years. We are studying unconsolidated glacial debris and other geological formations that may keep a record of the timing and magnitude of past glacial advances. Field work activities involve detailed mapping of glacial landforms and sample collection from several moraines for surface-exposure dating. Weather station data are also processed to determine changes in climatic patterns over the instrumental record. Retrospective and prospective simulation outputs of several global climate models, as well as reanalysis data, are processed to assess historical and projected changes in prevalent climatic conditions. Multi-model ensemble prospective simulation runs are analyzed to assess climate change scenarios at different spatial scales.
Finally, our multidisciplinary team is including socioeconomic assessments. We have been interacting with multiple stakeholders, local communities, visiting tourists and other potential users of the environmental services of Los Nevados and its surrounding areas to inform them about our scientific findings and to obtain monetary values for the attributes and functions of Colombian páramos. The results of the valuation process allow us to evaluate and rank how the communities value high mountain ecosystem environmental services. They also provide us with key information to be shared with planning and conservation institutions and policy makers in charge of designing and implementing adaptation strategies. In this way, we successfully link our role as researchers to the interests and concerns of the communities, contribute to the social construction and appropriation of knowledge, and inform policy- and decision making processes.
Author: Daniel Ruiz-Carrascal, Universidad EIA, Columbia, and International Research Institute for Climate and Society, Columbia University, New York, New York
Photos by: Maria Elena Gutierrez and Daniel Ruiz-Carrascal, Universidad EIA, Colombia