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Unstable States, Unstable Environments

While I am in Costa Rica this time I would like to highlight some of the major problems facing amphibians here. I have already mentioned the problem of pesticides, but there are many other man-made factors threatening their survival. including the effects of climate change and global warming. 

At the moment I am at an elevation of about 650 meters above sea level in the foothills of the Talamancan Mountain range that stretches all the way to Panama. Most days from here you can get great views over the Caribbean lowlands, but today there is cloudcover. One of the problems connected with global warming that many people don’t realise is that although lowland areas may be getting hotter, the highlands are getting cooler. Many of the problems associated with amphibian declines are happening in the high altitude areas, where thicker clouds, caused by an increase in what is called the orographic lifting effect, are stopping the sun penetrating through as much as it used to. Tropical amphibians in particular rely heavily on the sun and surrounding environmental temperatures, and not just for thermoregulation, but also to help them stay healthy enough to be able to fight off infections. The Chytrid fungus that can affect frogs is also present in some areas where the frogs seem healthy enough to fight it off. Many people now realize that it is actually a combination of several factors that’s responsible for amphibian declines in some areas – combine the presence of the fungus with the stress of consistently low temperatures and there are major problems. Weather patterns in this part of the world, and particularly those that effect Panama and Costa Rica, seem to actually compound the problem of global warming and the associated cooling. Pictured is the cloud formations for today at 10am.

Here, where I am at the moment, frog populations are very healthy. In fact, there is nowhere else known in Costa Rica that is so plentiful and supports so many species of amphibian. Some have chytrid, some don’t, but all seem perfectly healthy They get lots of sun and moisture. But this is not true of other areas in higher elevations, such as at Monteverde, where cloud cover has increased and temperatures are low.

As I look out today and watch the moisture being taken up into the clouds from the lowlands, it has reminded me of a  visit I made to the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester just before I came away. At the moment they have a superb exhibition that includes some very famous paintings. The theme is water, in all it‘s states, from ice to clouds. Drawing on John Ruskin’s precise observations of water in his controversial book Modern Painters (1843), the exhibition investigates how artists from Van de Velde to Turner have captured water in all its ‘unstable states’ using oil, watercolour and print. It’s definitely well worth a visit.

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