9 Maps That Analyze the World's Forests
By the time we find out about deforestation, it’s usually too late to take action.
Scientists have been studying forests for centuries, chronicling the vital importance of these ecosystems for human society. But most of us still lack timely and reliable information about where, when and why forests are disappearing.
This will change with the launch of Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring system created by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and more than 40 partners. Global Forest Watch uses cutting-edge technologies to map the world’s forests with satellite imagery, detect changes in tree cover in near-real-time and make this information freely available to anyone with internet access.
With GFW, everyone from business executives to policymakers to indigenous groups can find out what’s happening in forests around the world—and use this information to take action. Now that we have the ability to peer into forests around the globe, a number of telling stories are beginning to emerge:
1. Global Tree Cover Loss Far Exceeds Tree Cover Gain
Data from the University of Maryland and Google shows that the world lost 2.3 million square kilometers of tree cover between 2000 and 2012—the equivalent of losing 50 soccer fields’ worth of forests every minute of every day for the past 13 years. By contrast, only 0.8 million square kilometers have regrown, been planted, or restored during the same period.
2. Palm Oil Development is Driving Deforestation in Indonesia’s Protected Forests
The FORMA system—which produces monthly alerts that pinpoint 500-by-500 meter blocks where new tree cover loss is likely to have occurred—indicates massive deforestation in Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo National Park over the past seven years. Greenpeace, which relied on FORMA data to produce its License to Kill report, found that palm oil plantations are the culprit for much of the park’s destruction.
3. Biodiversity Hotspots in the Congo Basin Are Under Threat
Forests are home to more than half of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Central Africa’s Eastern Afromonte eco-region—shown in teal—holds several populations of threatened and endangered animals, such as chimpanzees and gorillas. Significant tree cover loss appears to be occurring in this region, destroying important habitat for these species.
The Jane Goodall Institute, a GFW partner that uses University of Maryland and other forest data to help governments, local communities, and other partners detect the loss of great ape habitat, found that 2.4 percent of forests within chimpanzee ranges have been destroyed in Africa over the past 12 years. That's the equivalent of losing 2,000 soccer fields of forest every day.
4. Deforestation Rates Are Falling in the Brazilian Amazon
While Brazil still ranks as one of world’s largest deforesters, there’s positive news to report. The rate of deforestation in the country has actually decreased by an average of 1,318 square kilometers per year over the past decade, despite a recent uptick in 2013.
Brazil’s decreased deforestation rates are partly due to improved policies and law enforcement—supported by the country’s satellite-based, monthly deforestation alert systems. The map above compares deforestation from 2000-2006 with deforestation from 2006-2012 using data from the Deforestation Alert System developed by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO and GFW partner.
5. Forests are Protected in Brazil’s Indigenous Territories
The traditional territory of Brazil’s Surui tribe is an island of green surrounded by lands that have been significantly degraded and deforested over the past 10 years. Indigenous communities often rely on forests for their livelihoods and cultural heritage, and therefore have a strong incentive to manage forests sustainably. However, many indigenous communities struggle to protect their lands against encroachment by illegal loggers. GFW can help these communities call attention to this problem.
6. British Columbia’s Intact Forest Landscapes Are Threatened
This is a troubling trend. These forests—also known as old-growth forests—have a history of minimal human impact, so they’re particularly valuable for biodiversity, carbon storage and provision of ecosystem services such as water and air filtration.
British Columbia hosts a rich array of intact temperate rainforests, including the Great Bear Rainforest (seen above along the coastline). This forest is home to a rare subspecies of black bear that often display white coats and are considered sacred to the Native tribes of British Columbia.
7. Southern U.S. Forests Experience Some of the Highest Rates of Loss and Regrowth in the World
The Southern U.S. is home to the nation’s most heavily forested region, making up 29 percent of total U.S. forest land. The fine mosaic of tree cover loss (pink) and gain (blue) in the above map shows how forests throughout this region are used as crops, grown and harvested in five-year cycles to produce timber or wood pulp for paper production. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, nearly one-third of the tree cover in this region was either lost or regrown.
This practice of “intensive forestry” or “production forests” is used all over the world to provide valuable commodities and bolster regional and national economies. WRI analysis suggests that if managers of production forests embrace a“multiple ecosystem services strategy,” they will be able to generate additional benefits such as biodiversity, carbon storage and water filtration.
8. Forest and Peat Fires Are a Chronic Problem in Sumatra’s Palm Oil Plantations
Forest and peat fires are a chronic problem throughout Indonesia. This snapshot from early February shows that many of these fires—which are detected by NASA’s near-real-time FIRMS fire data—are located on palm oil plantations.
Last summer, fires in Sumatra sent plumes of toxic haze across Southeast Asia, causing significant damage to the regional economy and human health. WRI analysis overlaid hotspots from NASA’s FIRMS fire alerting system with concession data from the Indonesian government. We found that nearly 50 percent of all hotspots occurred in palm oil and wood pulp concessions, indicating that some of these fires may have been set to clear forest and peatland for agricultural development.
9. Deforestation Rates in South America’s Gran Chaco Region Exceed Those in the Amazon
While many media reports focus on deforestation of rainforests in the Amazon, the dry tropical forests and savannahs of the Gran Chaco region—which spans across sections of Paraguay, Argentina and southern Brazil—have some of the highest rates of tree cover loss in the world. Zooming into one area of Paraguay demonstrates the important role of agriculture in this trend. The rectangular patches of forest loss show a pattern consistent with agricultural expansion for soy fields and beef pastureland.
Make Your Own Forest Map
Previously, the data required to make these maps was difficult to obtain and interpret. Most people lacked the expertise, special software, and resources necessary to access, view, and analyze the data.
GFW allows a host of users to readily access this information. For example:
- Governments can use GFW to better enforce forest laws, monitor concessions and detect illegal forest clearing.
- NGOs can identify deforestation hotspots in near-real-time, mobilize action and collect evidence to hold governments and companies accountable for forest-related commitments.
- Indigenous communities can upload alerts and photos when encroachment occurs on their customary forest lands.
- Buyers of major commodities such as palm oil, soy, timber and beef can monitor compliance of their suppliers with relevant laws, commitments and certification standards
- Suppliers of these commodities can credibly demonstrate that their products are “deforestation-free” and legally produced.
- Media can quickly highlight trends in deforestation and gather evidence for reporting.
- Concerned citizens everywhere can learn more about the state of forests and participate in forest monitoring.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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