For many centuries, clearing of forests has been occurring across our planet on a massive scale. This widespread process, known as deforestation, involves conversion of forest to an alternative permanent non-forested land use (Chakravarty et al. 1).
The removal of forests occurs around the world, though, tropical rainforests are especially targeted. Countries that were mostly affected by deforestation in 2016 were Brazil, Indonesia, Thailand, Democratic Republic of Congo, along with other parts of Africa and Eastern Europe were also involved (Bradford). About one third of the world’s landmass is covered by forests, and if the current rates continue, the world’s remaining rainforests will entirely vanish in about a hundred years, according to National Geographic. Deforestation happens for many reasons. For instance, a variety of forests are cleared rapidly for agricultural purposes, as humans try to expand farming lands as well as pastures for grazing and producing beef for the global market. Urban development is also a factor, as roads and other infrastructure are built to support the growing population. In addition, commercial logging as a form of deforestation also cut down a large number of trees each year for sale and to provide wood and paper products (Urquhart et al.). Forests provide essential resources for the world’s population, such as food, fresh water and air, wood, medicine, etc. and are of great importance for some local communities contributing to their food security. Millions of people depend directly on forests, for whom they are crucial sources of food, energy, and income. Despite the fact that deforestation is needed to satisfy some fundamental human needs as well as for growth and development on our societies, it also has serious effects on our ecosystems that support the human population. The process of deforestation leads to destruction of biodiversity, disrupts the global water cycle, and has a damaging effect on the soil.
The removal of forests causes extinction of plants and animals by destroying their habitats. Tropical rainforests are representing the world’s most diverse ecosystem. Despite the fact that they cover less than 10 percent of the Earth’s total dry land, rainforests are home to probably half of all living organisms, many of them still not named by the scientists (Urquhart et al.). The tremendous pressure of deforestation and forest degradation contribute to loss of biodiversity by rapid harm of natural habitats. According to National Geographic, “Eighty percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes” ('Deforestation and Its Effect on the Planet'). Many of the species in the rainforests live in small areas because they require certain conditions to live. Therefore, if their habitat is threatened to be destroyed, they become more vulnerable to extinction. When the canopy layer of trees is removed, many other plants and smaller trees that are dependent upon them for survival are affected. Animals dependent upon the mature trees or other type of vegetation for food, water, shelter or breeding also vanish, except for the animals who are able to migrate to contiguous forest (“Loss of Biodiversity”). In addition to the vanished species in a deforested area, the remaining plants and animals in the forest fragments become even more vulnerable. Hot, dry winds are drying out the fragment edges, which cause older trees on the margins to die as well. As a result, the variety of species that can survive within the forest is drastically reduced (Lindsey). Rare and unique species like the Javan tiger are lost and gone forever every year, and many others that play crucial roles in the forests are endangered. As reported by the World Animal Foundation, “The world is losing 137 species of plants, animals and insects every day to deforestation. A horrifying 50,000 species become extinct each year” (“Deforestation: Clearing the Path for Wildlife Extinction”). The Mountain Gorilla, the Javan Rhinoceros, the Bornean Orangutan, the Giant Panda, and the Golden Lion Tamarins are among the animals currently threatened with extinction due to mass deforestation. The loss of species will have a huge effect on our planet, as they may have potential value for the world’s population regarding food and medicine. We may not even know if the cures for cancer, AIDS, or other diseases are hidden in some of these undiscovered species, with their diminished availability on a global level (Urquhart et al.). Once lost, the planet’s biological diversity can never be recovered.
The continuing destruction of tropical rainforest is also disrupting the global hydrologic cycle. Trees in the forest serve as fountains, as they pull water from the ground and release it through their leaves into the atmosphere as a water vapor. Thus, they generate huge rivers of water in the sky in the form of clouds that produce rainfall thousands of miles away (Pearce). This process of evaporating water from the plants is called transpiration and is one of the main reasons for forming precipitation, especially inland.
While precipitation in coastal regions is caused mostly by evaporating water from the oceans, the interiors of continents get their rainfall from transpiration for the most part. For instance, “a single tree can transpire hundreds of liters of water in a day” (Pearce). This only suggests that the degree of forest cover can greatly affect precipitation patterns, and substantial forest loss can turn a wet continent into a desert. In tropical regions such as the Africa’s Congo basin, southeast Asia, and Amazon rainforest where transpiration is most intense, large-scale deforestation can lead to drought in key areas in China, India, and the Midwestern United States, posing a threat to agriculture (Pearce). For example, weakening of the Indian Monsoon can negatively affect the agricultural productivity and the economy of more than one billion people. The Nile River is also threatened by deforestation, as much of the rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands, where its flow begins, comes from the moisture recycled by the forests of Congo basin and West Africa. According to recent studies, “these rainforests may provide as much as 30 to 40 percent of the total annual rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands” (Pearce). Reduced Nile flows will impact the future food security of 300 million people which is a big issue. In Africa, where people are most dependent of rain-fed agriculture, drought can be catastrophic. Not only the farmers, but city dwellers are also heavily affected by that. A study shows that, “[out] of 29 megacities around the world…19 relied on evaporation and transpiration from land” (Pearce). Karachi in Pakistan, as well as Shanghai, Delhi, Istanbul, and Moscow are among the most vulnerable cities. Healthy forests are also blocking the incoming solar radiation, causing a cooling effect on our climate.
Consequently, clearing forests eliminates this effect of forest air-conditioning and adds to warming (Pearce). Besides the contribution of deforestation to the global climate change, local climate is also influenced. For instance, local effects are shown on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, which has the one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world due to palm oil plantations. There, since 2000, local surface temperatures have increased by 1.05 degrees Celsius, compared with 0.45 degrees in forested areas, on average (Pearce). We have seen that forests provide many environmental benefits and have a major role in the global water cycle, but they are also essential in maintaining soil quality in our ecosystems.