Wildfires, logging, and expanding palm oil plantations are the primary causes for worldwide deforestation according to a new study by Global Forest Watch. No big surprise there, but it is a surprise to learn that about 49 million acres of forest disappeared worldwide in 2015, the most recent year studied. That’s the second highest number of acres lost in a year since the annual study began back in 2001. Now, that 49 million acres of forest doesn’t account for trees that were planted or grew past the 16 foot mark, but even then, the world is losing millions of trees every year.
The study uses high resolution satellite data provided by Google and the University of Maryland. Researches then compile these images and examine them for total tree cover loss with trees over 16 feet tall. They use that height for several reasons, rarely are plants such as shrubs or bushes that tall, taller trees house the most carbon emissions, are old enough at that point that their survival rate is much higher, and logging companies rarely use trees that are shorter than that.
Canada, Russia, and the U.S. typically see the most forest cover loss. But before you judge, it’s because these are the three largest countries in the world, but also house the majority of demanded trees for logging, and often have the most wildfires and severe weather that will kill trees in one way or another. While these three countries see the most forest destruction, it’s actually countries along the equator that have been most damaging for the environment. Places like Brazil, the Congo, and Indonesia are doing the most damage to the planet because unlike their western and northern counterparts, these countries are NOT replacing the trees once they’re harvested or burned. Not to mention, these are countries near the equator, so their trees soak up CO2 all year round in most cases. Losing these trees has far more effect on the local and global ecosystem than losing trees in the north.
The one bright spot for the equatorial countries is Colombia, which has slowed its deforestation by a staggering 50% over the last decade or so, is planning to have a net zero deforestation rate by 2020.
It’s much easier to see in the maps above. These are some of the high resolution maps used for the study. These show the deforested areas in the pink color and then the areas that added trees in the dark blue. For the continental United States, we put back a large amount of trees that have been lost, but we still have a net loss at the end of the year. For Canada and Alaska though, the ratio isn’t even close. There are nearly zero new trees planted in Alaska, while at the same time, tens of millions are cut down or burned. It’s a similar situation in many other countries, although parts of Indonesia have significantly added trees over the last 15 years, but it still doesn’t come close to how many have been lost.