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Tropical Forests Lost 40 Football Fields of Tree Cover Per Minute in 2017

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Tropical Forests Lost 40 Football Fields of Tree Cover Per Minute in 2017
Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Neil Palmer, CIAT / CC BY 2.0

New University of Maryland data published by Global Forest Watch (GFW) Wednesday revealed 2017 as the second-worst year on record for tropical tree cover loss, a GFW blog announced.

Tropical tree cover decreased by an area the size of Bangladesh—a total of 39 million acres. That amounts to 40 football fields worth of trees cut every minute of last year in a devastating blow to biodiversity and the global climate.


Despite conservation efforts, 2017 was only slightly less devastating for tropical rainforests than 2016, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), which runs GFW.

"This is truly an urgent issue that should be getting more attention," WRI senior fellow Frances Seymour told The Guardian. "We are trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon."

Part of the loss is due to a nasty climate change feedback loop. Forests are an important carbon sink, and deforestation contributes as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as the U.S., according the The Guardian. This drives global warming that makes wildfires and storms more common and severe, partly contributing to more tree cover loss. For example, 2017's devastating hurricanes cost the island of Dominica 32 percent of its tree cover and Puerto Rico 10 percent, according to GFW.

But most of last year's loss was more directly human caused.

"The main reason tropical forests are disappearing is not a mystery—vast areas continue to be cleared for soy, beef, palm oil, timber, and other globally traded commodities," Seymour told The Guardian.

Brazil had the dubious honor of leading the world's countries in 2017 tree cover loss, mostly due to fires set to clear land. Brazil saw an important decline in tree cover loss beginning in 2005, but it spiked again to the highest it's ever been in 2016 and only fell slightly this year. This is partly due to political instability, lack of enforcement and a government that has rolled back environmental protections, according to GFW.

"What we are seeing today is the backlash," Carlos Nobre at the University of São Paulo, Brazil told The Guardian.

"Global warming makes much hotter temperatures, making forests more vulnerable to human-set fires and natural-caused fires," Nobre added.

Also in the Amazonian region, Colombia saw a 46 percent spike in tree cover loss after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were pushed out of forested areas, leading aspiring farmers and miners to race to clear and develop the previously inaccessible land.

In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) broke its record for tree cover loss in 2017, mostly due to agriculture, logging and charcoal production.

The one bright spot was Indonesia, which saw an overall decline in tree cover lost and a 60 percent drop in the loss of primary forest. Part of this is due to a national moratorium on peat drainage that went into effect in 2016, GFW said.

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.