The world's forests are being consumed rapidly. Trees are cut down for paper and wood products, for cooking fuel, to clear land for development, and to expand farming areas. The land left behind is stripped not only of its trees, but the plants, animals, and insects that lived in that ecosystem as well. With no plant roots to hold it in place, valuable soil washes away with every rainfall and ends up in the rivers and streams upon which people depend for their water supply. In extreme cases, hundreds or thousands of people lose their homes or perish in landslides when deforested slopes become unstable.
Forests also play an important part in regulating global climate. Trees remove carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere, while cycling oxygen back into it. When trees are cut down, however, the CO2 is released again. It is estimated that up to 25% of the total amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere every year is released from trees being cut and burned. It's clear that protecting the world's forests is an important part of solving the global climate change problem.
Healthy forests are not a luxury; they are vital to the overall health of the planet. In addition to controlling erosion, protecting water supplies, and helping to regulate the global climate, forests are also important reservoirs of biodiversity. Tropical rainforests alone support as many as 30 million different species, including important medicinal plants.
What can be done to protect the world's forests? Many countries are actively trying to protect their remaining forests from loggers, developers, and slash-and-burn farming techniques. Slowing deforestation and educating communities about sustainable land-use practices is making a difference in these places, where as little as 2-3% of native forests still remain. Replanting trees in deforested areas is also crucial. Although this seems like a very long-term solution, replanting actually makes an almost immediate impact. Tree seedlings planted in tropical or semi-tropical environments grow very rapidly: seedlings planted now will be towering trees in only a few years. Also, trees in their first few years of life absorb more CO2 than when they are mature.
There are many ways you can make a difference in keeping our forests healthy. Use recycled paper whenever you can, and recycle the paper, paperboard, and cardboard that you use. Of course, planting trees is always a good idea! You can even have trees planted to offset the paper you use. Planting a tree is not only an investment in the future, but an important way to help keep the planet healthy.
To learn more please visit the National Geographic page on global warming and deforestation.