The convergence of local and global changes compounds the impacts on fragile but important high mountain ecosystems. Increased radiation and warmer temperatures cause plants normally found at lower elevations to move upslope. Invasive plant, animal and insect species also migrate, disrupting the delicate biological machinery that makes páramos and high forests function as a fine-tuned water storage and distribution system.
Instead of precipitation in the form of fog, páramos and forests receive more precipitation as rain. This affects the plants adapted to collecting moisture from fog and the soil, because they are unaccustomed to heavier rain droplets. Those heavier raindrops also compact the soil, causing it to absorb less water and increasing runoff and sediment, which clog rivers and contribute significantly to lowland flooding.
As awareness of climate change and other kinds of environmental degradation grows, the Colombian government is starting to respond. One example is a collaboration between the national government, the city of Bogotá and the environmental organization Conservation International on a páramo restoration project.
The plan calls for limiting local environmental degradation in protected areas, like Chingaza, through the creation of a 1.5 million-acre conservation corridor connecting the park with the nearby páramos of Guerrero and Sumapaz, the largest páramo in the world. It also seeks better protection of privately-owned lands in the vicinity that are being cleared for cattle ranching and potato farming.
Part of that scheme includes training for local farmers and ranchers in using more sustainable practices. Conservation International is developing a forest carbon project, using the sale of carbon credits to compensate landowners for setting aside portions of their land for conservation and forest restoration.
"When we understand that these ecosystems are offering important services – not only the supply of water, but the regulation of water," said Patricia Bejarano-Mora, land-use planning coordinator for Conservation International's Colombia office.
"At this point maybe the solution is not works of engineering, like building dykes, but conservation of forests and eco-hydrology," she added. "Policies are beginning to recognize that."
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.