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Keywords:

  • Biodiversity;
  • conservation biogeography;
  • dry forest;
  • latitudinal diversity gradients;
  • Pleistocene refugia;
  • precipitation patterns;
  • rain forest;
  • tropical Andes;
  • water-energy dynamics

Abstract

Aim  To explain the relationship between topography, prevailing winds and precipitation in order to identify regions with contrasting precipitation regimes and then compare floristic similarity among regions in the context of climate change.

Location  Eastern slope of the tropical Andes, South America.

Methods  We used information sources in the public domain to identify the relationship between geology, topography, prevailing wind patterns and precipitation. Areas with contrasting precipitation regimes were identified and compared for their floristic similarity.

Results  We identify spatially separate super-humid, humid and relatively dry regions on the eastern slope of the Andes and show how they are formed by the interaction of prevailing winds, diurnally varying atmospheric circulations and the local topography of the Andes. One key aspect related to the formation of these climatically distinct regions is the South American low-level jet (SALLJ), a relatively steady wind gyre that flows pole-ward along the eastern slopes of the Andes and is part of the gyre associated with the Atlantic trade winds that cross the Amazon Basin. The strongest winds of the SALLJ occur near the ‘elbow of the Andes’ at 18° S. Super-humid regions with mean annual precipitation greater than 3500 mm, are associated with a ‘favourable’ combination of topography, wind-flow orientation and local air circulation that favours ascent at certain hours of the day. Much drier regions, with mean annual precipitation less than 1500 mm, are associated with ‘unfavourable’ topographic orientation with respect to the mean winds and areas of reduced cloudiness produced by local breezes that moderate the cloudiness. We show the distribution of satellite-estimated frequency of cloudiness and offer hypotheses to explain the occurrence of these patterns and to explain regions of anomalously low precipitation in Bolivia and northern Peru. Floristic analysis shows that overall similarity among all circumscribed regions of this study is low; however, similarity among super-humid and humid regions is greater when compared with similarity among dry regions. Spatially separate areas with humid and super-humid precipitation regimes show similarity gradients that are correlated with latitude (proximity) and precipitation.

Main conclusions  The distribution of precipitation on the eastern slope of the Andes is not simply correlated with latitude, as is often assumed, but is the result of the interplay between wind and topography. Understanding the phenomena responsible for producing the observed precipitation patterns is important for mapping and modelling biodiversity, as well as for interpreting both past and future climate scenarios and the impact of climate change on biodiversity. Super-humid and dry regions have topographic characteristics that contribute to local climatic stability and may represent ancestral refugia for biodiversity; these regions are a conservation priority due to their unique climatic characteristics and the biodiversity associated with those characteristics.