Why are forests so important?
Around a third of the planet is covered by forests. They support and provide safe habitats for countless species including humans, though often people tend to forget the vital role that forests play in our lives.
They provide the world with watershed protection, help to prevent soil erosion and reduce the impact of climate change, among numerous other vital functions. Without forests, life would be almost impossible - but we continue to destroy forestland on a daily basis with activities such as illegal logging, palm oil production, cattle grazing and extensive deforestation.
An extremely important function of forests in the capacity to store carbon from the air, which helps to mitigate climate change and helps to prevent soil erosion. The impact of deforestation and the loss of other vegetation directly impacts climate change, desertification, soil erosion, flooding, increases greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and host of other problems.
Aside from their practical functions, forests provide us with some of the most beautiful sights on Earth. The world would be a whole lot more unpleasant (to put it lightly) without forests.
With this in mind, here are just a few reasons to explain why forests are so important to preserve and nurture.
Trees replenish the world’s air supply by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. It is estimated that a single mature, leafy tree produces a daily supply of oxygen sufficient for between two and ten people.
Phytoplankton, microscopic marine algae, in the ocean contribute between 50 and 85 percent of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, but forests still contribute significantly to air quality maintenance.
More than 25% of the world’s population rely on forests for their livelihoods. Most use trees on farms to produce food and cash.
Forests offer shelter, water, food and fuel. For example, trees produce fruit, paper and provide wood for building materials. Other functions that forests offer that are not necessarily as obvious include providing products for medicines, cosmetics and detergents, as outlined by the WWF (World Wildlife Federation).
Almost half of the Earth's known species live in forests, around 80% of the Earth's biodiversity is found in forests.
Biodiversity is especially rich in tropical forests or rain-forests, but all forests are full of life, wherever they are positioned on the planet.
Insects and worms provide nutrients to the soil, bees and birds spread pollen and seeds, and key species such as wolves and big cats keep hungry herbivores at bay.
Biodiversity is key to both ecosystems and human economies, but it is increasingly threatened worldwide by deforestation.
Trees create vital areas of shade on the ground thanks to their branches and leaves.
Urban forests can help to keep cities within a healthy temperature range, on small scale this helps to keep buildings cool, reducing the need for fans or air conditioners and large forests can help to regulate whole regional temperatures.
Trees also have another way of fighting heat, absorbing CO2 that fuels global warming. Plants always need some CO2 for photosynthesis, but the Earth's air is overwhelmed with CO2 due to emissions. Forests are helping to fight the impact of climate change simply by being there. The CO2 that forests absorb is stored in wood, leaves and soil, often for centuries.
In addition to helping in climate control, forests have other ecological benefits. They prevent soil erosion by reducing the force of rain on the soil surface by absorbing the water rather than allowing it to run directly off. This stops rainfall from removing top layers of soil.
Forests come in very handy when heavy rain arrives, as they help the soil to absorb as much water as possible. Prevention of soil erosion is important because erosion affects wildlife, public and private property, and contributes to pollution.
The presence of forests also helps to increase humidity through perspiration. Humidity is essentially the amount of water vapour in the air. Water vapour is important for moving energy around the Earth and is a very important part of the weather, governing how heavy a rain shower is or how comfortable it feels on a warm day. Regulating humidity levels is also important for the maintenance and fertility of soil.
Large forests can influence regional climate patterns and even create their own microclimates. The Amazon rainforest, for example, generates atmospheric conditions that not only promotes regular rainfall in this area and on nearby farmland, helping to enrich and protect the land. The positive impact of the Amazon can often stretch to as far as North America.
Forests contain a greater variety of biodiversity than any other ecosystem on Earth. Only a tiny proportion of the plethora of species found in forests have been officially discovered and studied. A single tree in the Amazon rainforest can support thousands of different species.
Forests are like giant sponges, they absorb water rather than letting it roll off the surface (like tarmac for example), but of course, they cannot absorb it all. The water that passes through the roots of trees drips into aquifers, an underground layer that contains water. These aquifers allow groundwater supplies to be replenished, which are important for worldwide sanitation and irrigation. Forests essentially act as water filters, collecting and storing water and recharging vital underground aquifers.
Clusters of trees can provide good wind protection, especially for wind-sensitive agricultural crops. And beyond protecting sensitive plants, a reduction in wind makes it easier for bees to pollinate flowers.
A network of tree roots in a forest helps to stabilise large amounts of soil, preparing the basis for the entire ecosystem against erosion by wind or water. Deforestation devastates this whole process, causing soil erosion that can trigger life-threatening problems, such as landslides or dust storms.
Trees have the ability to cleanse the air of pollution on a substantial scale. Beyond absorbing CO2, trees absorb a wide range of other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Trees literally save lives by removing toxic pollutants from the air.
The best trees to provide a noise barrier are evergreen trees, as their year-round foliage reduces sound even in winter when other trees stand bare. The dampening effect of trees is largely due to the rustling of leaves, plus other white noise from the forest, such as birds singing. Strategically placed trees can reduce background sound by five to ten decibels, which equates to about a 50% reduction in noise for human ears.
Did you know that a medication used to treat asthma comes from cacao trees? Also, around 70% of the known plants with cancer-fighting properties are produced in forests or rainforests.
Besides medicinal support, trees can hugely benefit your mental health. Walking through a forest and being among trees can help to reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure and strengthen your overall immune system.
With regards to the immune system, this could be in part due to trees releasing compounds into the air called phytoncides. These compounds promote our bodies to fight against infections and protect against harmful tumours.