10 things you need to know on the International Day of Forests
Forests cover nearly a third of the Earth’s land surface
Trees cover some four billion hectares – that’s 8% of Earth’s entire surface area or over twice the size of Russia. Russia happens to have more forest than any other nation; nearly half the country is covered with trees. It’s followed by Brazil, Canada, the United States and China.
There are more than 60,000 species of trees
Oak, birch, beech… you might think the UK has a huge variety of trees. In fact, less than 0.2% of the world’s 60,065 tree species are found here – 85 in total.
Living near a forest makes you happier
People who live close to forests have a healthier amygdala – the part of the brain that regulates stress and reacts to danger – than those who don’t. Researchers found no such link to living close to water or urban green spaces such as parks.
‘Forest bathing’ – basically just being in the presence of trees – has proven health benefits, too. One study found it lowers heart rate and blood pressure, reduces stress hormone production, boosts the immune system and improves overall feelings of well-being.
80% of terrestrial species can be found in forests
Forests are havens for life, containing the majority of all terrestrial animal and plant species. Rainforests are the planet’s biodiversity hotspots: a single acre can be home to 15,000 species.
They’re also an important source of food for animals big and small. Many insects have a specially adapted life cycle to emerge just as the most nutritious first leaves of spring emerge. Climate change can disrupt this, particularly if the species use cues other than the trees to determine when to emerge or migrate to warmer places.
They’re also home to hundreds of millions of us
An estimated 300 million people live in forests and 1.6 billion – nearly a fifth of the world’s population – depend on them for their livelihoods. Early Spanish settlers in the New World, for example, used the salty leaves of mangrove trees to flavour their foods. Later settlers ground up mangrove bark and used it to brew medicinal teas.
What's more, forest communities can play an important role in the fight against climate change:
Forests can help us predict the future
By simulating what conditions may be like years from now, we can predict how forests will respond to climate and environmental change. At the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research (BIFoR), rings of giant towers are used to increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations in patches of woodland. Earthwatch volunteers use the site to study the growth rates of trees and other aspects of the carbon cycle.
We’re still losing vast swathes of forest every year
Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. 129 million hectares was lost between 1990 and 2015 – that’s the equivalent of 13 football fields every minute. 2016 saw the highest loss of tree cover globally in more than 15 years, due in part to a strong El Niño event the previous year that led to unprecedented droughts and wildfires, as well as the continued expansion of agricultural production for things like palm oil in Southeast Asia.
There are plans to plant a Northern Forest of 50 MILLION trees
In the UK, we’re planting fewer trees than at almost any point in the last 40 years. An ambitious plan by the Woodland Trust and Community Forests would see 50 million trees planted in and around Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull in a single generation. The government has already pledged £5.7 million to help make it happen.
Forests store an enormous amount of carbon
The world’s forests absorb and store carbon, both above ground and below. When they’re cut down, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, accelerating the rate of climate change. Tropical deforestation alone accounts for 10% of carbon dioxide emissions – that’s the same as about 600 million cars, or twice as many as there are in the United States.
You’ll find one of the world’s most researched forests in… Oxfordshire
The ancient woodland at Wytham is home to more than 3,800 animal species (including 800 butterflies and moths) and 600 plant species. Earthwatch researchers and volunteers collect vital data there, helping us understand how woodlands are responding to climate change.
Images: iStock/zlikovec, iStock/Bartfett, iStock/m-gucci, Tim Bearder, Global Forest Watch, Woodland Trust, iStock/Mark Green