Thursday, September 23, 2010

Into the Jungle...

Well, I'm finally out of Jogja. Now I'm on the island of Sumatra. I road on a small bus today to the site of my research project. It only took 7 hours! Last time it took 10 hours. I was very happy, because on a 10 hour bus ride it's the last three that really get to you, whereas on a 7 hour ride, it's only the last 2.

So far I've told you a great deal about Indonesia, but I haven't told you much about what I'm doing here. I'll start today by telling you a bit about the forests of Indonesia and why they are important for the rest of the world. Like I mentioned in a previous post, Indonesia is a tropical country. Since Indonesia is close to the equator it receives a lot of energy from the sun year-round. Since the sun is the source of virtually all life on earth (1), this means that Indonesia has the perfect conditions for all sorts of wonderful plants and animals to grow. As a general rule, the closer a place is to the equator, the more variety it will have in terms of plants and animals. This is referred to as biodiversity. Indonesia is a perfect illustration of this rule of thumb; it is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. Here you can find countless species of insects (most of them not even discovered yet!), dozens of reptiles (including the largest lizard in the world: the Komodo Dragon (2)), rhinos, tigers, elephants, and the tallest and largest flower in the world! The forests of Indonesia serve as the habitat for most of these fantastic species (as well as thousands of others).

The forests here also have other, less visible benefits as well. The forests help to counteract global warming (3) by absorbing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. And they are a source of food and other materials for millions of people across these islands.They also help to prevent floods and landslides. Trees guard against flooding by slowing the rain down so it doesn't all go into the river at one time. Think about the last time you were out after the rain. What happens when you walk under a tree and the wind blows? That's right, you get wet! That's because the rainwater pools on the leaves. Some of it evaporates from the leaves, and some falls to the ground after a while. But if all the trees are cut down there is nothing to stop the water, and so the rivers rise very fast. Trees also guard against landslides because the roots of the trees help to strengthen the ground and keep it in place. Ask one of your parents or your teacher to help you with the diagram I've included. This should help you visualize how important trees are for hydrological balance (4).

But trees are also valuable as wood if they are cut down (5). In addition, many people value the land much more for farming than as forests (remember from an earlier post I said that Indonesia is an agricultural country). Thus there is incredible pressure on the forests of Indonesia from people that that would rather sell the trees for wood or as paper for pulp or cut them down to make room for new farmland. This brings up a very difficult problem. On the one hand, we understand that the forests are very important for all the services they provide. However, on the other hand we understand that people need to make a living. Nature organizations and governments have been working on this problem for a long time now, but it still hasn't been solved. One way of protecting forests is to create national parks. And that's why I'm here. I'm currently in a town called Sungai Penuh (6). This town is right in the middle of the largest national park on Sumatra, Kerinci Seblat National Park. It's almost twice the size of the Big Island! But this park faces many problems: illegal logging, road-building through the park, encroachment by farmers growing crops within the park, and the poaching of critically-endangered species like the Sumatran Tiger and Sumatran Rhinoceros. I'm here to study all of these problems and the reasons why people choose to cut down trees and poach animals. It's a tough job, though. The hardest thing is to try to find solutions that everyone will agree with.

If you've ever been hiking in Hawai'i to a place like Manoa Falls you've walked through rain forest. What do you remember about the hike? Was it wet? Humid? Were there a lot of insects? The forests of Indonesia are a lot like the forest in the back of Manoa Valley. Next time you go on a nature hike, try to think of all the benefits the forests provide. That's all for tonight. I'll try to write some more tomorrow. In the mean time, you might want to think about the questions below.

1. Nearly all life on Earth depends on the sun. This starts with plants, that use the energy of the sun to grow and make food for themselves. They are the basis of the food web. Other creatures eat plants, and they in turn are eaten by other animals. When plants and animals die, they decay, returning their nutrients to the earth. Can you work with your classmates to draw a picture of a food web for O'ahu?

2. You may have seen the Komodo Dragon at the Honolulu Zoo. How big was it?

3. Geographers prefer to use the term "climate change", but global warming is the term most people are familiar with. What do you know about global warming? Why is it bad? Do you know what causes it?

4. The prefix hydro- generally has something to do with water. So if you see a word you don't know with "hydro" in it, you might be able to guess the meaning from the context. Can you think of some words that have hydro in them? What do these words have to do with water?

5. Virtually all economic analyses of forests indicate that they are more valuable left standing for the services they provide than as wood or pulp for paper. If this is the case, why would anyone want to cut down trees? Discuss this question with your teacher and see if you can figure out the answer.

6. Can you find Sungai Penuh on a map? Try using Google Earth...

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