Vanuatu, Two Years After Cyclone Pam

Happy New Year!

As promised, I am here to tell you a bit more about Vanuatu, and the amazing people I get to work with, and what I do there.

To get started, I want to give you a brief history about the country and where it is in the world. Vanuatu is a country of about 280,000 people and home to around 80 islands just to the West of Fiji in the South Pacific.

 

One might be surprised to know that Vanuatu has the highest concentration of languages per capita in the world. For those of you who were thinking I am mistaking this with Papua New Guinea, Papua New Guinea is actually the most diverse, but given its geographic size, it can’t claim the title of most linguistically dense. What this means though in Vanuatu is that in every village you go to, they will most likely have a distinct local language that is not used in a village only a few miles away. In addition, due to Vanuatu’s history as being jointly governed by the French and the British, many people also speak either French or English with some people speaking both. Beyond this even, Vanuatu has developed a local language that almost everyone speaks and is a combination of English, French and various local languages. This language is called Bislama and is fairly easy for an English speaking individual begin to understand, as the words are largely of English origin. In turn, the people of Vanuatu, Ni-Vanuatu, are often bi-, tri-, or quadrilingual, and sometimes speak more than this!

Much of what we know botanically about Vanuatu comes from the Northern most islands, however, the work I am a part of is focused in the Southern islands. Some of the communities we work in also speak French, and I don’t speak a lick of French. Thankfully, many of our team members do speak French or Bislama and there are a number of people in the communities that we work with who also speak English.

 Just a few team members from our recent trip.

Just a few team members from our recent trip.

The project is large and diverse, which is also an accurate description of our team. Composed of folks from Vanuatu’s Department of Forests and Cultural Center, the New York Botanical Garden, California State University, Swarthmore College, the South Pacific Regional Herbarium based in Fiji, and the University of Hawaii, together we are a team of students, professors, researchers, and professionals specializing (ethno)botany, mycology, linguistics, and ecology. Parts of the project focus on language documentation, especially of plants and other tools, and then also information about what plants are important for medicine, construction, ceremony, crafts, and other uses. The mycologists on the team focus both on macrofungi, or what we think of typically as ‘mushrooms’, and microfungi, which are microscopic fungi that can live in places like our soils or on plants. Others of us look at native forest biodiversity and recovery after major cyclone disturbance, cyclone Pam of 2015 being our example of disturbance.

 Members of team University of Hawai'i! Left to Right: Tom Ranker, Tamara Ticktin, Ashley McGuigan, Andre Boraks

Members of team University of Hawai'i! Left to Right: Tom Ranker, Tamara Ticktin, Ashley McGuigan, Andre Boraks

I work both on the documentation of plants important for health, specifically women’s reproductive health, and on how the forests are recovering after cyclone Pam. This December trip was focused on the native forest recovery part of the project and as such, I’ll talk about this work in this post, saving a description of my other work for another time.

So how do native forests recover after a major disturbance like a cyclone? Well, we don’t fully know. We can make educated guesses and hypothesize how they will recover based off of studies done in other parts of the world, such as in the Southeastern US, the Caribbean, and South America for example. However, these studies are less applicable to the South Pacific as these countries’ infrastructure systems are dramatically different, the types of plants and environmental conditions are not always comparable, and most especially, the cyclones themselves have been historically different in intensity and frequency. Furthermore, there are only a handful of studies in the South Pacific that have looked at how cyclones impact forests and their recovery, and even these have only looked at indirect cyclone impact. Our research represents the first study to my knowledge to assess what happens to forests after the direct impact of a large (category-5) cyclone.

Now, we have to have ‘before’ data in order to compare what happens ‘after’ the cyclone hits, right? We have to know how many trees there were, how tall and round they were, how much did their branches shade out the ground below, etc., in order to know how much changed based on measuring these things after the cyclone. One reason why these studies are few and far between – we just don’t know more than a few days ahead of time when and where a major cyclone is going to hit. And I sure am not going to run out in front of a storm to try and collect this data, even if there is a few days warning. Amazingly, this was data that was collected just prior to the cyclone, the last of which literally was collected just a day before Pam hit! This is also a good example of the dynamic (and sometimes dangerous) nature of fieldwork. Originally, the project aimed to document the biodiversity of the native forests in the Northern island of Tanna, but when the cyclone came, it presented a new opportunity to also assess how cyclones change biodiversity and the kinds of damage cyclones can inflict on various types of trees using these established sampling units called, transects.

transect.jpg

Before I became involved on the project, the team had set up 8 transects, with 8 10m x 10m plots to a transect, across Tanna in three different communities to record the biodiversity and size characteristics of the trees and other plants. They recorded how much of the sky was covered by foliage and shading out the ground below (canopy cover), as well as how much of the ground was covered by smaller plants (ground cover). When I entered the project, we decided to set up two additional 1m x 1m seedling and canopy cover photo subplots within each plot of the transect, placed randomly in the corners of these plots, to record how ground and canopy cover, and seedling diversity changed (see diagram above).

Seedling: when seeds and begin to grow, they are called seedlings as they emerge from the ground.

 Nancy and I taking a canopy cover photo in 2017. In 2015 her older sister, Nellie, helped me in the field.

Nancy and I taking a canopy cover photo in 2017. In 2015 her older sister, Nellie, helped me in the field.

With the help of people from the local communities and some of my other team members, we set up these subplots in each of the transects in November of 2015.In each subplot I recorded the species (or type) of seedling growing and how tall it was, and assigned it a number which I wrote on an aluminum tag and attached to each seedling using a metal twist-tie placed like a loose belt around the seedling’s stem. Often times many seedlings will sprout at once, however, they can be fragile and, competing for limited resources, many don’t survive. Because of the sheer density of seedling growth after the cyclone, we focused only on seedlings of woody plants, primarily trees. I also took photos of the canopy at this time using a hemispherical fish-eye lens. This bubble-like lens shape attached to the camera allows me to get a 180 degree view of the canopy above and assess how much light is allowed down to the ground for seedlings to use to grow.

 

 Laurance and Mary helping set up subplots in 2015

Laurance and Mary helping set up subplots in 2015

There were a lot of seedlings to tag in 2015! This was thanks to the increased light allowed in from the damage the cyclone had done to the canopy. However, by the time we returned this December 2017, the canopy had closed up considerably as new branches had formed and new leaf growth covered in the gaps formerly seen in the canopy from the wind damage. As you might expect, there was also a dramatic decrease in seedling density this past trip. Many seedlings had died, however, a few had made it and were now growing taller – on their way to becoming saplings, the next larger size class in tree development. I also took photos of the canopy again, noting how much less sun I could see coming in to the photos.

 Canopy cover photo from 2015. Much of the canopy, which consists of tree branches and leaves, is open, allowing sunlight to shine down to the ground below and help seedlings grow.

Canopy cover photo from 2015. Much of the canopy, which consists of tree branches and leaves, is open, allowing sunlight to shine down to the ground below and help seedlings grow.

As we begin the new year and the next semester, we will enter this data and an undergraduate student researcher will begin to analyze the differences in canopy cover between the two years. I will also begin preparing for my comprehensive exams, which involves loads of reading and eventually writing, to hopefully become ABD, or all but dissertation. More on that in the next post!