Island tropical montane cloud forests may be among the most sensitive of the world's ecosystems to global climate change. Measurements in and above a montane cloud forest on East Maui, Hawaii, document steep microclimatic gradients. Relatively small climate-driven shifts in patterns of atmospheric circulation are likely to trigger major local changes in rainfall, cloud cover, and humidity. Increased interannual variability in precipitation and hurricane incidence would provide additional stresses on island biota that are highly vulnerable to disturbance-related invasion of non-native species. Because of the exceptional sensitivity of these microclimates and forests to change, they may provide valuable ‘listening posts’ for detecting the onset of human-induced global climate change.