How fast is the World losing its Forests?

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Illustration by Miguel Montaner
Words by Anna Schober

The latest UN report on climate says reducing deforestation is crucial to slowing global warming. Sustainably managed forests can create 30 percent of the targeted emissions reduction. Forests have an exceptional capacity to absorb and store carbon and are therefore an important part of the solution. But the dynamic of tree loss and regrowth is difficult to assess due to contradicting data.

If humanity is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we must halt deforestation and expand the world’s forests.
— United Nations Forum on Forests

Sadly, the world is losing its forests faster than ever. An area the size of Italy disappeared last year. Or did it not? New research suggests three-quarters of those lost forests may already be regrowing. But it’s not that simple. We still know remarkably little about the true extent of deforestation, because measuring the status of the world’s forest is complicated.

What’s for sure is that forests are the second largest storehouse of carbon after oceans. Trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and store it as wood. That means, they are an important counterpart to the emissions created by energy production, transport, industry, agriculture and humans’ everyday lives. However, the healing capability of the forests is progressively shrinking because of deforestation. That’s why it’s critical to understand the extent of deforestation and the regrowth of trees.

The tricky part is measuring the state of destruction or health of the worldwide forests. Tree loss is measured most objectively with satellite images: deforestation is easy to spot because it’s very sudden and complete. However, forest regrowth is slow and incremental and not unambiguously identifiable on satellite imagery. Therefore, it is necessary to rely on other sources of data.

New studies found that just under a third of forest loss is permanent, the rest is temporary. The satellite images mistakenly take all logging for permanent. However, for example, land that has been cleared of forest for agriculture may be left deserted after a couple of years and the forest can start to recover. Hence, there is a large regrowth potential of temporarily deforested areas.

Forest ecosystems are not as fragile as often portrayed. Given sufficient time, tropical rainforests disturbed by modern human activities may be able to regenerate.
— Kathy Willis, science director at Kew Gardens, London

The process of deforestation and regrowth is very dynamic and measuring the positive impact of reforestation is difficult. So how can anyone decide if progress is being made to end the loss of the world’s forest and the determine the positive impact of forests on climate change?

More research is needed and the scientific community is delivering promising results. But regardless of the measuring difficulties, a new picture of deforestation is emerging that is very different from the conventional image of forest loss as a one-way street. The situation is much more fluid, with rapid forest loss sometimes counterbalanced by equally rapid recovery, at least in forest cover. This does not mean that the deforestation crisis is close to being resolved. But it might be a gleam of hope to stopping climate change.

Scientific Source: e360