National Geographic Magazine ‘Future of the Forest’: On Earth Day, the magazine explores humanity’s relationship with trees
For this Earth Day, National Geographic has focused its lens on humanity’s relationship with the world’s 3 trillion trees and 10 billion acres of forests, which cover a third of the planet’s surface.
The world has lost a third of its forests in the past 10,000 years – half since 1990, a number that has resulted in more trees being lost globally than the total number of trees in the United States.
This single-themed May special explores what’s happened to these forests, the trees we still have and what new techniques can save them before it’s too late.
All ecosystems, including the people within them, rely on forests and trees to maintain balance. They absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, are home to countless species, and are the backbone of some of the most beautiful and beloved spaces on Earth.
Logging and clearing are the biggest drivers of tree loss, but climate change poses an increasingly dangerous threat.
Forests are particularly vulnerable to heat and drought, which have killed billions of trees directly and indirectly over the past 20 years. In response to the lack of moisture, the plants will close the pores in their leaves or fall off altogether, meaning both starve from the lack of carbon dioxide absorption.
In Texas, for example, a 2011 drought killed more than 300 million trees — one in every 16 in the state. And plants that are weak due to drought will be more susceptible to insects and pathogens.
Wildfires, made worse by climate change, have played an important role in deforestation. Five of the eight most abundant tree species in the Western United States have declined significantly since 2000 alone, mainly due to fire and insect infestation. Californians are particularly familiar with their devastation – from the Mojave Desert, where the Dome Fire of 2020 has killed more than 1 million Joshua trees, to the north, where fires over the past two years have killed up to one-fifth of the largest Sequoias.
Even changing sea levels are affecting forests around the world: For example, seawater seeping into North Carolina’s freshwater marshes has devastated its bald cypress tree population.
Without action, world forest cover could be halved by 2100.
However, there is still hope.
If nations keep their promises to limit fossil fuel emissions that will prevent the planet from warming more than 3 degrees Celsius, this could limit tree loss for many of the world’s forests.
Researchers and communities around the world are also coming up with innovative solutions to limit damage.
Farmers in Niger now grow their grain by planting it around, rather than clearing the forest. Since then, more than 200 million trees have grown back.
Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are renewing their homeland with ancient planned burning techniques, dramatically reducing the total area burned by bushfires.
Foresters in British Columbia planted more than 150,000 seedlings from 15 tree species in 48 locations from Northern California to Southern Yukon to determine which sites are best suited to rapidly changing climates.
Alternatively, a scientist in New York may be finally on track to bring chestnuts back by altering DNA to fight a fungus that killed billions of people in the early 1900s.
The forests on Earth will never be the same, but we can save what remains to this day.
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