An uneasy feeling creeps over me as dark figures emerge from the foliage above. I freeze as the spindly-limbed creatures climb down toward us, jumping from branch to branch – taunting us with breathy grunts as they hang from prehensile tails, shaking branches in a show of bravado. One of the larger males glares at me with a gaze that clearly communicates, “I don’t know who or what you are, but I don’t like you here.”
We spent three full days travelling to this place deep in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, and three more searching: slashing though thick tangles of vines, braving legions of biting ants, and wading waist-deep through murky waters. And now we find ourselves being heckled by a troupe of spider monkeys in a remote corner of the Xingu River basin. Eighty-five years ago, somewhere near here, Percy Fawcett, the world-famous tropical explorer, disappeared without a trace while looking for a lost city of gold, a place he called simply “Z.”
The object of our intrepid journey was not quite as mysterious as Fawcett’s, but in a world where signs of a changing climate are all around, it’s just as valuable, and similarly elusive.
If you read this blog, you know by now that forests are the lungs of our planet and 10 to 15 percent of the carbon pollution problem comes from their destruction. The Forest Carbon Team at the Nature Conservancy has been working on a powerful climate catastrophe stopgap: protect the earth’s lungs, so that they can continue to breathe in more carbon.
This makes sense intuitively, but when you start to hash out the details of how to protect forest carbon, it gets complicated. If we want to guard the health of the planet’s lungs, we need the diagnostic tools of the physician; we need to know where forests are working really well – sucking up vast quantities of carbon – and where they’re not. We need a detailed forest X-ray that can map the complex variations in global carbon density.
Fortunately for us, a bunch of smart scientists discovered just this kind of tool in a developing laser technology called LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging). I’ll spare you the geeky details, but suffice it to say that the engineering of lasers has advanced to the point where they are really good at measuring things as small as trees from as far away as a satellite orbiting 400 miles above earth’s surface.
In this way, LiDAR lays the framework for a map of the world’s most carbon-rich forest sites, but it’s not enough to provide the golden number we’re searching for – the amount of carbon stored in the world’s rainforests. For that, we need to calibrate the LiDAR map with good ole’ field-based measurements. Good news for field lackeys like me who want an excuse to get out of the office.
Avid followers of Planet Change may recall my intrepid colleague Rane Cortez’s account of our initial search last December for “specific locations on the ground” where the LiDAR lasers touch down. Armed with the same treasure map of these locations, I was continuing this search when I ran into to the angry monkeys. Turns out the skinny little buggers really were guarding something. When we came across them, we had just located the exact spot where, in 2007, a 70-meter wide beam of laser pulses were shot down into the forest from NASA’s IceSat II satellite. The monkeys were sentinels of “golden trees.”
Measuring these LiDAR-lasered trees means we’ll be able to more accurately estimate the carbon in trees throughout the Amazon. Maybe not Fawcett’s Lost City of Gold, but an important part of the carbon treasure map (a calibrated map of forest carbon density).
But the spider monkeys had their own reason to guard big carbon treasure. I found out later that this species of spider monkey is rare and exists nowhere else in the world except in the very carbon-dense mature forests – with their big fruit-bearing trees – in the Xingu and Tocantins river basins. And, unfortunately for the white-cheeked spider monkey, these forests are disappearing fast. As the treasure dwindles, so do its protector inhabitants.
This is what gets me really excited about “forest carbon.” Until now, we’ve essentially screamed back at these monkeys and allowed the destruction of their habitat to continue unchecked. If we really can, through solid science, convince our own species of hairless apes that these forests are our best pollution-reduction tool, perhaps we can develop a plan that allows us to live alongside our cousins with greater respect for their carbon treasure.
Peter Ellis is a forest carbon scientist based in the Arlington, Virginia worldwide headquarters of The Nature Conservancy.
Photos courtesy of Oliverio Cortez for The Nature Conservancy. (In the top photo, a white-cheeked spider monkey - Ateles marginatus - is an endangered species limited to remote forests in the southern Brazilian Amazon and looks over the Conservancy’s forest-carbon cowboys. In the second photo, from left to right, are photographer Oliverio Cortez, Noeci Batista Gama of the Conservancy, Rone do Carmo Parente Brito of Instituto Florestal Tropical, and Peter Ellis of the Conservancy.)
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