The Science of Deforestation

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

You might have heard about deforestation, but do you know about science behind it? Joe takes a closer look at what's really going with one of the key causes of climate change - listen up Biology and Geography students!.


Many of you will be concerned about climate change, and certainly be aware of the vast expanses of rainforest and woodland being erased from our planet, here we will look in depth at why this is so worrying, analysing why this is happening and the effect it is having on all aspects of life on earth.

What is deforestation?


Deforestation is defined as the permanent destruction of forests to provide land for other uses, primarily for agriculture or mining. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that 18 million acres of forest are lost every year, that is roughly the same size as the whole of Panama. This is an extremely worrying and concerning industry that destroys habitats (often of extremely rare species), while vastly contributing to the emission of greenhouse gases that warms the planet and causes climate change.


Where and why is the forest being lost?


This is a very complicated question to delve into, and requires a broad political understanding. To simplify this a little, it is often used as a tool by governments to exploit vast quantities of land, perhaps to provide land for agriculture or to sell the wood for fuel.


The most topical example to illustrate the complete mismanagement of rainforests is in Brazil. In January this year, the far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro was elected, and he has launched a campaign to essentially purge the rainforests of Brazil. The actual data speaks for itself, this year around 3700 km3 has been lost this year, this month alone 1250 km3 has been lost, 100% more than July last year.


The local effect of this is huge, the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is home to up to 400 indigenous groups, Bolsonaro has even threatened to integrate these people into modern society, risking their way of life completely. Before we explore the natural and world consequences of deforestation, it is important to consider this effect, the complete alienation by the president of Brazil to the native tribes goes a considerable distance to illustrate how deforestation can disrupt many lives on a local scale, and how the culture of countless individuals is on a knife edge due to this action which undoubtedly will damage people’s livelihoods.


The effects of deforestation


Here we will look at how deforestation actually effects the planet, considering species, climate change and all other aspects of the natural world.


Climate Change


Forests are a vast natural carbon storage system, the environmental research association Greenpeace produced statistics that showed trees store up to 300 billion tonnes of carbon, which is about forty times the amount of CO2 emitted each year through the combustion of fossil fuels.

While the process of deforestation obviously leads to a reduction of stored carbon, the burning of wood from trees also releases this CO2, according to the Earth Day Network, 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation - almost a quarter! It goes without saying how climate change affects the world we live in, and the process of deforestation contributes to this more than significantly.


The changes in water vapour concentration in the atmosphere will also directly affect climate, deforestation directly affects this aswell as CO2 concentration.


Loss of species


Deforestation has a resounding impact on the destruction of habitat, and thus the populations of certain species, particularly those with small and already at-risk populations.

The best example to illustrate the pure devastation that deforestation can cause for species populations, is without doubt the loss of 99% of forests in Haiti. Haiti contains a large number of endemic species (species that are only found in Haiti), 28 to be exact- all at severe risk of extinction due to the removal of native forests on the mountains of Haiti.


The country has a number of frog species already critically endangered, the endemic Macaya breast-spotted frog is severely threatened by habitat loss, scientists already coining the loss of forest in Haiti as causing a ‘mass-extinction’.


A species that has indeed been lost to destruction of habitat is the Hawaiian Crow, which was a key disperser and germinator of plants on Hawaiian Islands. It is now extinct- an illustration of how much damage deforestation can do.


Water cycle


An under-thought consequence of deforestation, the plants in the Amazon rainforest hold more than half of the water in the natural ecosystem, while also reducing the pollution in the water and thus contributing to the prevention of habitat pollution for a number of species. This is another level to the various reasons’ deforestation affects life in areas where it occurs, and indeed in areas considerable distances away - physical Geography students take note!


What is being done to tackle deforestation?


With all the negative effects of deforestation considered, it seems only fitting to end on a more upbeat note and discuss what is actually being done to halt the removal of our forests in its tracks.


The most obvious solution is reforestation, indeed this is fairly common practice in China, where citizens plant 3 trees per year, and this came to a total of 5.9 million hectares in 2009. While it will in time help to establish more forests, the time it takes for these to reach climax communities means it is not a short-term solution. In the UK, similar tree planting initiatives are afoot to help introduce more woodland to help combat climate change.


Environmental agencies also work towards providing financial incentives for landowners to conserve their land, acting to protect wildlife and the woodland and forests that provide their home.


Many corporations also act to use more sustainable resources, such as recycled paper- thus limiting the need to cut more trees down. Some organisations even go as far to offer certification for products made from recycled materials, thus helping customers determine which company has the most environmental approach to consumers.


Overall, deforestation is an issue that is not going away, but with considered government policy and the careful management of habitats particularly in areas of scientific interest, there is prospect for this to be dealt with, however it will take a radical approach, particularly in places such as Haiti- where a ‘mass-extinction’ is already well underway


Blog Post Crafted by Joe


Joe is currently working towards his BSc in Biomedical Science at the University of Warwick.


When he’s not studying, Joe tutors GCSE and A Level Science subjects in his home city of Coventry.


Joe can often be found at ridiculous times in the morning, bird ringing and searching for interesting bird and butterfly species at his local nature reserve near Coventry, or venturing further afield to find rarities on the East Coast of Norfolk.

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