Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Plight of World’s Forests Not as Grim as Expected

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            Deforestation is a significant ecological problem across the world, affecting not only the organisms that reside there but endangering the planet as a whole as well. Huge swaths of rain forest, predominantly in Brazil and Southeast Asia, are cleared every year to open up land for farms and urban developments. This has been cited as a major contribution to the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because up to a quarter of the planet’s carbon absorption has been attributed to the world’s forests. But according to newly published research data, the situation might not be quite as bad as we thought.

            Using some new and very useful technology, researches have been able to reconstruct the trends in the rise and fall of organic aboveground biomass across the globe. The technology is called passive microwave remote sensing, which involves measuring the changes in radio-frequency radiation being emitted from the Earth’s surface using satellites. This technology allowed researchers to organize the data month-to-month and observe the trend over the past two decades. What their results yielded surprised them: the biomass had increased by nearly 4 billion tonnes of carbon since 2003. They observed substantial loss of biomass in the rainforests of South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia as expected, but the new technology showed astonishing regrowth of forests in places like China and Russia. It also allowed researchers to measure the growth of biomass in scrubland and savannah habitats, where the previous methods only monitored closed forest systems. As a result, they found that the biomass in such habitats had increased sharply to the point that it offset the loss of such substantial areas of rain forest. The most polarizing data came from Australia, a place where the world thought was the epicenter of the drastic side effects of climate change. While there was some loss of biomass in the more populace areas of southeastern Australia, the dry scrublands of the northern “bush” areas have experienced large increases in biomass. The researchers attribute this to the increase in rainfall in these areas, as well as the fact that plant species in these areas are generally better at water retention and carbon absorption.

            While this is very encouraging news, we’re still not out of the woods. This is a step in the right direction but still does not even approach a solution to the issue of rising greenhouse gas emissions. This article grabbed my attention because I have spent substantial time in the beautiful bushland of northern Queensland and was surprised that such a seemingly sparse landscape could in fact be compensating in some ways for disappearing rain forests elsewhere. But at the same time there is still so much more that can be done. What are your thoughts? Do you have any opinions or ideas elicited by the article, or just about climate change in general?


  1. - Ian Mallor, Group B

  2. I enjoyed your perspective on this subject. It's definitely reassuring news, but still leaves room for questions, as you mentioned. I feel like this article encourages those who don't believe in climate change to continue on with their false beliefs. I wonder how long plants will be able to continue this trend of CO2 absorption before deforestation does take its toll on biodiversity. It mentioned in the article that enclosed forests were previously studied, but that this article focused primarily on larger stretches of land, such as the African savanna. What is the average trend for loss of biodiversity between these two different biomes? Thanks!

    -Rebecca Quirie