Indonesia pays price for massive palm tree plantation: Ground water depletion, increasing temperature and more

An International research team has found that oil palm cultivation has resulted in increasing surface temperatures in Indonesia. This has resulted in decreasing groundwater levels and increasing number of forest fires.

Oil palm
A worker loads oil palm fruits into a truck before sending them to a factory in Morowali district, in Indonesia's central Sulawesi province, April 1, 2008. Indonesian palm oil prices fell sharply on Tuesday, jolted by a big drop in Malaysian crude palm oil futures, as traders turned cautious after recent volatility. Reuters

Indonesia, the largest producer of palm oil, suffers from increasing temperature because of its massive palm oil tree cultivation, found an international research team.

The research paper published in the European Geosciences Union journal Biogeosciences showed how the land use pattern increased the temperature, leading to climate change. It has also made the country vulnerable to frequent forest fires affecting the plant life and animals in the region.

Indonesia had cleared large areas of its rainforests during the last five decades to start palm oil plant cultivation and the worst affected is the Sumatra Island, which had lost the highest amount of its rainforest cover. It has already witnessed a huge loss of its biodiversity. However, there weren't any significant studies about the changing conditions till the recent one.

The International research team, led by Clifton Sabajo and Alexander Knohl from the University of Gottingen in Germany, has taken up an intense study on changes in the land use patterns in different regions contributing to the rise of temperature.

The research team studied the difference in surface temperature for various land covers including forests, clear-cut lands, and cash crops in the Jambi province in Sumatra. Satellite data from the NASA Landsat missions and the MODIS instrument from 2000 to 2015, along with the ground-based data, was mainly used for the study.

The researchers found that the cleared land, the phase between forest and other land cover types, such as small-holders, small-scale family farms or commercial plantations had 10 degree Celsius more temperature than forests.

The study also found that young palm oil plantations were 6 degrees C warmer than the forest while mature palm oil plantations were about 0.8 degree C warmer.

Sabajo, the lead author of the Biogeosciences study stated: "Young palm oil plantations have fewer and smaller leaves and an open canopy, thus they transpire less water. Also, the soil receives more solar radiation and dries out faster." The older mature palm trees which are more than 5 years of age have closed canopy and larger and more abundant leaves. It results in the cooler grounds for the mature plantations when compared to the younger ones.

The average mid-morning temperature in Jambi province has increased by 1.05 0C between 2000 and 2015. The changes in the land use pattern and climate changes are believed to have caused this temperature rise.

Alexander Knohl said, "We compared the average land-surface temperature increase in the province with a site that was covered by forest over the entire period and that can be considered as a control, unaffected by direct land-use change. The land-surface temperature of the forest sites (at 10:30 am) only increased by 0.45 0C, suggesting that at least 0.6 0C increase is due to land-use change."

The study says that the Jambi province model may serve as an indication of future changes in land surface temperatures for other regions of Indonesia which are vying for palm oil plantation.

Prof. Alexander Knohl, a researcher in bioclimatology said, "Land use change from forest to cash crops such as oil palm and rubber plantations does not only impact biodiversity and stored carbon but also has a surface warming effect, adding to climate change."

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil as an essential ingredient in making many consumer goods from chocolates to soaps.