According to a report in The Independent, and another in Science Daily, our planet has around 46% fewer trees than it did before the human race started its destructive shenanigans. At the same time we currently have around 3 trillion trees on earth, more than seven times the number scientists had previously estimated. And we’re cutting down a monster 15 billion of them every year.
What’s going on? It’s an important question, since international, national and local forest conservation initiatives need to be based on the most accurate and current data.
The results provide the most comprehensive assessment of tree populations ever undertaken, and they deliver a host of fresh insight into the organism we love so much. As wood finishing experts, without them we wouldn’t have a business. So we thought it’d be interesting to take a look at both reports. First, the Independent…
We’ve lost ‘more than half’ our trees through human activity
A study reported by The Independent reveals the earth is currently home to an eye-watering 3 trillion trees, around 45% of the number we had before humans started chopping them down.
The research is a collaborative effort by forty or so experts from fifteen countries, who harnessed images from satellites, forest research data, verified ground-level tree counts and forest inventories. The scientists crunched information on a vast scale to estimate accurately how many trees grow on each continent. And the results were surprising, blowing previous estimates out of the water.
We used to think there were around 400 billion trees on the planet, 61 for every human being. But this study is much more accurate and ups the ante dramatically, with a whopping 422 trees per person growing on earth right now. It’s good news because there are about 8 times more trees around than we’d predicted. On the downside we’re felling them at an alarming rate, chopping down about 15 billion a year with the greatest losses in the tropics.
Places where the most trees grow
Apparently around 1.39 trillion trees grow in tropical and sub-tropical forests alone, and 0.61 trillion in cooler places like the USA and Europe. Another 0.74 trillion trees live in the beautiful, high altitude forests of far-northern areas like Canada and Siberia. The densest areas of forest are in Russia, Scandinavia and North America, where the trees there are younger and smaller than species that grow in rainforests. But the biggest forests are found in the tropics. They’re home to a massive 43% or so of the world’s trees.
Trees are essential to human survival, health and wellbeing
Thomas Crowther of Yale University, the lead author of the study, confirms that trees are one of the most ‘prominent and critical’ living beings on our planet, but we’re only just starting to appreciate their importance to our survival, their extent and distribution. Trees store vast amounts of carbon, so they play a crucial part in mitigating climate change. They’re vital for good quality air and water, and we use wood in a vast array of circumstances: artistic, domestic and industrial.
The overall picture is this: more humans = fewer trees. The study highlighted how human population increases almost always lead to more trees being felled, which is exactly what has happened in Europe since the last ice age.
Second, the Science Daily report
The Science daily report adds some fine detail…
The research was inspired by Plant for the Planet, a worldwide initiative for young people which leads the UN’s special Environment Programme’s ‘Billion Tree’ campaign. They found they couldn’t identify baseline estimates of tree numbers at a regional or global scale, an essential piece of information when you want to set targets and evaluate where best to focus your tree planting efforts.
Taking a square kilometre-level view
The international team of researchers apparently mapped tree populations at square kilometre level, an impressively fine-tuned and granular effort. It’s the ‘most comprehensive assessment’ of tree populations ever, examining the impact of a living being that shapes most of the land-based biomes we’re familiar with, a biome being ‘a large, naturally occurring community of flora and fauna occupying a major habitat’.
Fresh insight into modelling other large and complex systems
The results of the study are set to deliver fresh insight into modelling other large-scale systems, whether it’s carbon cycling and climate change models or the real-life distribution of various animal species. Scientists will also be able to draw better conclusions about the structure of forest ecosystems in different places, improving predictions about carbon storage and biodiversity. It’s all great news because until now planet-wide environmental data has been pretty coarse, without the essential fine detail needed to draw reliable conclusions.
The human effect
The study also illustrates the way tree density changes according to the type of forest. It looks like the climate can help predict tree density in most areas. If it’s wetter than average, for example, more trees grow. But this effect is mitigated by the fact that humans prefer damp, productive areas because they make great farmland. The result is tension, a struggle between humanity’s needs and nature’s requirements.
It looks like human activity is the biggest driver of tree numbers all over the planet. Tree densities usually plummet as the human population increases, with deforestation, change of land use and forest management tipped as responsible for the 15 billion trees we lose every year. It all goes to show just how much hard work we have to do to protect our forests and restore damaged and deforested areas to good health.
Love our trees
Trees are essential for human life. Ultimately if they go, we go. And somewhere along the line, at a juncture we really don’t want to reach, there’s a tipping point. Next time you’re tempted to laugh at a tree-hugger, join in and plant a tree instead!
Tree planting charities in Britain – Go plant a tree
Some people scurry outdoors in the dead of night on guerilla tree planting sessions. They either simply bury seeds like acorns and conkers along verges and roadsides, or grow proto-trees in pots to transfer to the wild.
Others prefer to do things in a more organised fashion. There are plenty of British organisations and charities that support, encourage and facilitate the planting of trees. We featured some of them in last week’s post, and a Google search will deliver more. They’re a great source of tree planting wisdom, so go explore and do your bit.
Planting trees in your garden
There’s no reason why you can’t plant trees in your garden at home. But there are a few important things to consider:
- The root system – if the species you want to plant has a large and extensive root system, the roots could eventually cause damage to your drains and underground pipework
- The same goes for your home’s foundations, and some home insurers won’t cover you for damage by subsidence or heave caused by tree roots
- Search Google to find out which trees are the best for a small space – you might be best off planting something comparatively neat, like a holly, or something that grows very slowly, like a yew
- It’s almost always possible to ‘bonsai’ a tree so it doesn’t grow too big. Just trim the branches regularly to keep the above-ground parts of the tree small and neat, and the roots ought to stay smaller, too
You could also read this excellent article in The Guardian about growing small trees for the garden.
Back next week with more about wood and wood finishes
Come back next week for more insight into the wonderful world of trees, wood and wood finishing products.
For more on the incredible story of Jadav Payeng and his amazing forest.