Where there used to be vibrant forest, images of orangutans in charred ground have become commonplace1. The lungs of the world are burning but what are the actual environmental issues surrounding deforestation?
Firstly, the emotive phrase ‘lungs of the world’ is technically incorrect2. In fact, tropical forests do not contribute significant oxygen to the atmosphere. Rather, the issue lies in the release of carbon dioxide when trees are burnt 3. In this article, we will explore the effects of deforestation on four areas of life on Earth which trees help to regulate: the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and soil.
Introducing the deforestation environmental issues with the Biosphere
The biosphere includes all plants and animals on a global scale4, while on a smaller scale microclimates operate and are regulated by trees. Removing trees, or burning land, kills the surrounding plants and subsequently causes habitat loss. This destruction is significant because rainforests house around 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity 5! Biodiversity means the variety of living things , the loss of many species has consequently been called the “Sixth Mass Extinction” 6. However, the link between habitat loss and extinction has been disputed.
In the 1990’s, data from Indonesia showed widespread deforestation for farming had not led to the predicted number of endangered species 7. In contrast, the consensus nowadays is that deforestation does lead to the loss of species and consequential loss of biodiversity 8.
Burning forests to use as fuel or to clear land releases carbon held in the trees into the atmosphere, consequently increasing global warming9. Tropical forests are considered to be carbon neutral. However, when they are cleared they not only initially release carbon, but the remaining land is also more likely to release more carbon. For example, deforested peat bogs in Indonesia are highly flammable, especially in periods of drought10. This will become more common and widespread as the climate changes due to the greenhouse effect. As a result, deforestation leads to more carbon in the atmosphere, which traps radiation from the Sun making the Earth generally hotter.
The hydrosphere is simply the Earth’s water and it is affected in a range of ways by deforestation. For instance, trees absorb water from underground and transport it to the leaves where it evaporates. Tree roots also create cavities that allow water to enter the soil, rather than run over it11. After deforestation there is higher risk of flooding because forests slow surface runoff. Meaning trunks and leaves on the floor trap water when there is excess rainfall. Therefore, trees regulate the water cycle on a regional (and potentially global) scale 12.
Soil: an important part of deforestation environmental issues
Slash and burn deforestation (commonly used for cattle farming) means the nutrient store of plants is lost. This results in poor soil nutrient thus making the soil more prone to flooding and erosion. Therefore, soil becomes compacted and is often unsuitable for growing crops 13.
To conclude, the four areas of the environment examined here show that the issues of deforestation is a global problem because of forests’ vital role in the interconnected biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and soil. Trees help stabilize soil, regulate water as well as are essential for storing carbon and removing it from the atmosphere14. In short, it’s paramount that we protect the environment in order to slow climate change by changing our deforestation habits, and it’s important that we do it fast.
- Wright, Rebecca., Watson, Ivan., Booth, Tom., and Jamaluddin, Masrur. Borneo is Burning, Published November 2019, CNN https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/11/asia/borneo-climate-bomb-intl-hnk/index.html
- Shellenberger, Michael. Everything You’ve Heard About The Amazon Being The ‘Lungs Of The World’ Is Wrong, Climate Change Dispatch, Published August 26, 2019, https://climatechangedispatch.com/amazon-lungs-world-wrong/
- Moran, Emilio F. (1993) Deforestation and land use in the Brazilian Amazon, Human Ecology 21: 1–21
- Thomas, David S.G. [Editor] (2016) The Dictionary of Physical Geography, 4th Edition, John Wiley & Sons Ltd: Oxford
- World Wildlife Fund, (2020) Overview, Forest Habitat
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Picador: New York.
- Pimm, S. L.; Russell, G. J.; Gittleman, J. L.; Brooks, T. M. (1995) The Future of Biodiversity. Science. 269 (5222): 347–350
- Atteberry, Jonathan. (2020) What’s the Earth’s biggest threat to biodiversity? Howstuffworks
- WWF. The Effects of Deforestation, Accessed 14 May 2020, https://www.wwf.org.uk/learn/effects-of/deforestation
- Kuhn, Anthony. Indonesia’s Peat Fires Still Blaze, But Not As Much As They Used To, Published March 19, 2017, NPR, https://text.npr.org/s.php?sId=514995516
- SaveEarth. Deforestation, Accessed 14 May 2020, https://www.saveearth.info/deforestation/
- Welch, Craig. How Amazon forest loss may affect water and climate far away, National Geographic, August 27th 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/how-cutting-the-amazon-forest-could-affect-weather/
- Lindsey, Rebecca. (2007) Tropical Deforestation, NASA Earth
- Nunez, Christina. Climate 101: Deforestation, National Geographic, Published February 7th 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation/