The razing of millions of acres of forests by wildfires has been increasing in scale and intensity for the past few decades. This year has set new records for the number of trees and shrubs destroyed by fire – not just in the United States and Canada, but also in many other countries, including England, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sweden, Latvia, and North Korea.
Wildfires, of course, have been a yearly occurrence in the summer months for centuries. Triggered mainly by lightning, they were Mother Nature’s way of disposing of dead timber and providing fertile ground for new plant growth.
That is still an important natural process, although many conflagrations today are unnaturally caused by human carelessness, such as poorly tended campfires and flipped-away cigarette butts.
Far more devastating for the world’s forests today, however, are the effects of global warming, mostly caused by the greenhouse gas emissions that emanate from the burning of fossil fuels.
One of the detrimental effects of climate change on forests has been the frequency and duration of severe droughts. “Dry wood,” says Bob Ward of the Grantham Research Institute, “obviously provides more fuel for fires.”
Brazil has been afflicted by severe drought for the past four years. Sao Paulo, home to 20 million people, is drying up, and Rio de Janiero and other cities in the country’s southeast are also suffering from a severe lack of rainfall. “Sao Paulo’s reservoirs are nearly empty,” Wayne Ellwood notes in a New Internationalist article. “Last year, the Cantareira reservoir, which supplies nine million people, was operating at just five-per-cent capacity. All signs point to climate change as the culprit.”
Global warming has also fueled the sweltering heat waves that have stricken North America, Europe, India, and many other regions in recent years. Scientists who have been monitoring the interaction between climate change and extreme weather events – tornadoes and floods as well as forest fires – are predicting they will continue and worsen as the globe continues to warm.
As Richard Manning points out in a recent article in Harper’s, aptly titled As the World Burns, “Warmer temperatures deprive the high country of snowmelt earlier each year, drying out higher elevations. Bugs such as pine beetles survive winters that are growing milder, killing even more trees. And dead trees burn more easily than live ones.”
Fires not forests’ worst enemy
As devastating as the wildfires have been, they are not the only – or even the worst – threat to the world’s forests. Trees, after all, are a renewable resource that can recover and be regrown from the worst fires. But here’s the catch: They need arable land in which to grow, and that kind of fertile soil is rapidly being depleted by mining, logging, and oil and gas companies, by urbanization, by the construction of large dams and power plants, and by the conversion of forest acreage from trees to coffee, tea, corn, and other cash crops.
Massive deforestation of this kind continues to be widely practised and permitted. “In Australia,” writes Ellwood, “coal mining menaces more than a million hectares of forest, while in Canada 20 per cent of the boreal forest – more than 150 million hectares – has been ceded to logging companies, oil and gas exploration, hydro dams and mines.”
Here are some salient facts and figures compiled by New Internationalist:
- Of the 100 million hectares of land converted to farming in the tropics from 1980 to 2000, 83% came from clearing rainforests.
- 80% of the world’s original forests have already been logged. Around 13 million hectares of forest per year were destroyed in the last decade.
- 35-60% of the world’s old growth forests are still being logged to make consumer items like cardboard and toilet paper.
- More than 50 countries now have forested land on less than 10% of their total land area.
- More than 100 million cubic metres of timber are cut illegally every year, destroying 5 million hectares of forest.
- 2.4 billion people burn wood to cook, and 264 million use wood to boil water for drinking.
- Forest products are used for basic shelter by 1.3 billion people, 18% of the world’s population.
- Forests are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. A typical 10-square-kilometre patch of rainforest contains as many as 1,500 flowering plants, 750 species of trees, 400 species of birds, and 150 species of butterflies.
- Canada’s boreal forest supports 85 mammal species (including bears, wolves, bison, and caribou), 130 species of fish, 32,000 species of insects, and over 300 species of birds.
- Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, so forests act as “carbon sinks” that slow the rate of climate change. Conversely, however, when trees are logged or burned, they become carbon sources. Deforestation accounts for at least 20% of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions.
- Through photosynthesis, trees absorb the sun’s energy and pump oxygen into the atmosphere. 40% of the world’s oxygen is produced by rainforests. A mature tree can release 1,000 litres of water vapour a day, cooling the planet and feeding the rainfall cycle. Forests are also a storehouse of beneficial drugs, with 25% of all our medications having been derived from rainforest plants.
Obviously, all these vital benefits provided by the world’s forests are being drastically reduced by uncontrolled deforestation. It would not be an exaggeration to conclude that most of Earth’s current environmental calamities – from global warming to increasingly violent weather – can be attributed to the reckless ruination of so much of the world’s woodlands.
Ellwood ends his New Internationalist essay with a poignant plea: “People need forests. So do the creatures we share the planet with. So does the planet itself. That’s why it’s urgent that we both protect and nurture them.”
Unfortunately, time to provide such belated protection and nurture is rapidly running out. Deforestation is bad for all of Earth’s inhabitants, and so are forest fires. But for politically powerful logging, mining, oil and gas companies, and cash crop growers, deforestation is profitable. So don’t count on it’s being curbed any time soon.
(If any readers have doubts about the accuracy of some of the facts and figures I’ve cited, I’ll be only too glad to provide them with the sources.)