Earth Has Lost Half of Its Trees Since Dawn of Civilization
An international collaboration of scientists has just completed the ultimate green census—by calculating that the planet is home to 3.04 trillion trees. The latest estimate is far higher and almost certainly more accurate than any previous attempt. But the bad news is that humans are removing trees at the rate of 15 billion a year—and there are now about half as many as there were at the dawn of civilization.
For every person on Earth, there are 422 trees—in total, more than 3,000 billion deciduous or evergreen growths with woody trunks greater than 10 centimeters at breast height. The researchers based their study on close analysis of satellite imagery, and of data from 429,775 plots of trees as measured on the ground in 50 countries on every continent except Antarctica. Statistical Techniques They counted forests in 14 “biomes”—or different kinds of climate, soil and topography—and in places not normally associated with trees, such as deserts, savannah, swamps, tundra and high mountains. They then they used statistical techniques that could extend their sample density measurements to the whole terrestrial world. The scientists report in Nature journal that the tropical and subtropical forests are home to 1.39 trillion trees, while the boreal forests of the north contain 0.74 trillion, and the temperate zones hold 0.61 trillion. Trees create and hold soil, forests become “sponges” that conserve and recycle water, and trees and forests between them sustain most terrestrial life, and provide human societies with food, medicines, building materials and even fabrics. They also play a vital role in the management of the atmosphere, as absorbers of carbon dioxide. So an accurate “fix” on the numbers and density of forest landscapes becomes a first step in climate modeling, and in planning for the conservation of biodiversity. “Trees are among the most prominent and critical organisms on Earth, yet we are only recently beginning to comprehend their global extent and distribution,” says Thomas Crowther, an ecologist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and lead author of the study. “They store huge amounts of carbon, are essential for the cycling of nutrients, for water and air quality, and for countless human services. “Yet you ask people to estimate, within an order of magnitude, how many trees there are and they don’t know where to begin. I don’t know what I would have guessed, but I was certainly surprised to find that we were talking about trillions.” Read page 1 The study grew out of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Billion Tree Campaign, launched in 2006. Previous global estimates of tree populations were based on satellite imagery, and the best guess had been that the total was just over 400 billion trees, or 61 per person. This widely-accepted figure began to look uncertain as soon as researchers took a closer look at measurements made in one great tropical forest, which suggested there might be 390 billion trees in the Amazon basin alone. The international team found that the greatest densities of trees were in the sub-Arctic forests of Russia, Scandinavia and North America, which hold 24 percent of the world’s woodland. The largest forest areas were in the tropics, which are home to about 43 percent of the world’s trees. The temperate zones contain 22 percent of all trees.
But although the total surprised researchers, the fact remains that the tree cover has fallen by 46 percent since the end of the last Ice Age. As human populations have grown, more and more forests have been cleared, and humans now fell or burn 15 billion trees a year. “We’ve nearly halved the number of trees on the planet, and we’ve seen the impacts on climate and human health as a result,” Dr Crowther says. “This study highlights how much more effort is needed if we are to restore healthy forests worldwide.” Scientists welcomed the study—although there were some reservations. Helen McKay, who heads the Centre for Sustainable Forestry and Climate Change at the UK Forestry Commission’s Forest Research agency, said: “Trees and forests are essential to a sustainable future for the Earth, and we welcome this paper’s contribution to our developing understanding of tree density in the world’s major biomes. Valuable Evidence “The findings will provide scientists, forest managers and policy-makers with valuable evidence, although additional information on the size, species and management of the trees in these biomes is needed to inform our view of the forests’ sustainability.” But Martin Lukac, a forest scientist at the University of Reading in the UK, has misgivings. “One of my biggest concerns,” he said, “is the method used to calculate the total number of trees. “The researchers looked only at areas categorised as ‘forest’ to calculate the total number of trees. In the UK, for example, this accounts for only 13 percent of the British land area and ignores the rest, even though we know that Britain has millions of trees growing in areas that would not be classified as forest. “The study states that forests with a higher density of trees store more carbon than those with fewer trees. This is nonsense. In a normal forest, a lot of small trees will store less carbon than fewer large trees. “The previous estimate of trees in the world was 400 billion. The new estimate is 3 trillion large trees. There are so many margins of error in this study that the real number could be anything between the two—or even 10 times higher.” YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By John R. Platt
The period of the 45th presidency will go down as dark days for the United States — not just for the violent insurgency and impeachment that capped off Donald Trump's four years in office, but for every regressive action that came before.
- Biden Announces $2 Trillion Climate and Green Recovery Plan ... ›
- How Biden and Kerry Can Rebuild America's Climate Leadership ... ›
- Biden's EPA Pick Michael Regan Urged to Address Environmental ... ›
- How Joe Biden's Climate Plan Compares to the Green New Deal ... ›
Washington state residents are taking climate matters into their own hands. Beginning this month, 90 members of the public join the country's first climate assembly to develop pollution solutions, Crosscut reported.
For the first time ever, a vegan restaurant in France has been awarded a coveted Michelin star.
- Vegan Food Goes Mainstream at U.S. Colleges - EcoWatch ›
- 8 Fast Food Chains That Serve Local, Organic, Vegan Food ... ›
- 15 of the Best Vegan Restaurants in America - EcoWatch ›
Ice cream samples in the Chinese municipality of Tianjin have tested positive for traces of the new coronavirus.
- Coronavirus Found on Frozen Food Imported to China. Should You ... ›
- Here's How to Clean Your Groceries During the COVID-19 Outbreak ... ›
- Young Children May Have Higher Coronavirus Levels, Raising ... ›