Flavie Ioos provides a series of compelling arguments on why you should give more than a passing thought to the destruction of rainforests; how you are both directly and indirectly affected – part two of two.
With the previous article discussing the threat of extinction and biodiversity loss as a result of tropical rainforest deforestation, lets move on to another major problem: its effect on climate change. Did you know that tropical forests contained 25% of the world’s carbon? The Amazon basin by itself is estimated to contain the equivalent of 9 to 14 decades of anthropogenic carbon emissions. If all this carbon was released, this would lead to a rise of global temperature.
But why is this a problem?
Between 1880 and 2012, the global temperature has augmented by 0.85°C and the last three decades have been hotter than any other decade since 1850. Global warming is responsible for the melting of polar ice caps and rising sea levels, but also threatens oceanic and terrestrial species by modifying their habitat conditions.
But can it get worse?
Yes, sadly it can. Rainforests have a ‘cooling’ effect: they cool the air above them by transforming the water collected from the soils into moisture in the air; and it is so powerful that it is thought that the global temperature could increase to an extent of 0.7°C if all the forests of the tropics were to be removed. It influences rainfall worldwide; for example, figure 1 (below) shows forest clearance in Central Africa can decrease rainfall in southern Europe. And this is totally independent to the loss of storage of carbon dioxide. Impressive, isn’t it? Yes, but also quite terrifying…
Figure 1. The global impact of tropical deforestation on rainfall. Predicted effects of total deforestation of either the Amazon, Central Africa or Southeast Asia. Circles represent increases in rainfall, while triangles represent decreases in rainfall. Boxes show the area where the forest was removed in the models. Red: Amazon, yellow: Central Africa and blue: Southeast Asia.
The Albedo Effect
And yet, this is not the only consequence that rainforest clearance has on climate. Have you ever heard of albedo? This measure for the reflectivity of the ground can reveal itself to be very useful to predict warming or cooling of climate. It represents the percentage of Sun radiation reflected back to the atmosphere. A surface with a total absorbance has an albedo of 0%, whereas a surface with a total reflectivity has an albedo of 100%. The smaller the albedo, the higher the amount of radiation absorption and therefore the lower the heating of air (Park).
Tropical rainforests have amongst the lowest albedo of foliage covering, the Kenyan rainforest having the lowest of all with an albedo of 9%. By cutting trees, the albedo of the area raises as soil has a higher reflectivity than trees. According to models, this can lead to local warming, and can even be the cause of regional warming if the clearance becomes too widespread (Park).
Other models show that rainforest deforestation also influences cloud cover: the more trees, the more clouds, the cooler climate is. Clouds have an important role in the cycles and patterns of global climate as they reflect an important part of the sun’s radiation. This adds to global warming, and could provoke a chain reaction, including disturbance in rainfall and wind currents.
Last but not least, rainforest destruction disturbs indigenous tribes. All they want is to live in harmony with the forest and their communities, but even this has been spoiled by money interest. They have low levels of education and little amount of legal or technical training, making it hard for them to negotiate their rights alongside big companies or states.
They are not particularly helped by legislation, as laws concerning their rights are intricate and differ between countries. In Brazil, tribes have no communal land ownership rights, but even those who do have land titles of their village – like in Peru and Colombia – are being threatened by the thirst for money of companies and governments. Indigenous tribes struggle to continue living in peace, as what is the basis of their survival and subsistence economy is at stake. Conservation associations who seek to protect the indigenous tribe’s rights exist, but it is not easy protecting those tribes from intruders who’s only aim is money, no matter what.
Are you now convinced that tropical rainforests are worth fighting for? These magical parts of the world are one of the planet’s most valuable resources, but also one of the most vulnerable right now. Biodiversity is a form of life that has evolved and is meant to continue to do so; do we therefore have the right to rob it of its future? Some biologists, philosophers and religious leaders also believe that humans should put biodiversity conservation as a moral obligation. We are in a state of urgency, where half of our species diversity is at stake, where our climate is at the mercy of big companies and states, and where people are witnesses of the gradual destruction of their homeland. How can we let this happen? Tropical rainforest destruction is a global problem, that needs to be tackled by every individual.
Nevertheless, where there’s life, there’s hope. Countries are starting to realise how lucky they are to possess one of the most precious treasures of the planet. Countries within the Congo Basin are making considerable efforts towards sustainable management of their forest and have implanted protected areas to support ecosystems. More and more nations are strengthening the legislation concerning rights of indigenous people. Brazil has reduced deforestation to a record low level and Indonesia is making efforts to try to reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions also. Change is possible, if governments, companies and consumers are willing to adjust their lifestyle.
Read the first of Flavie’s two-part series, where she discusses the threat of biodiversity loss and the importance of the services these incredible ecosystems provide.
About the Author: Flavie Ioos is a second year biology student at Cardiff University. She has a particular interest in environmental and health issues, and just started her own Facebook page ‘Healthy and Eco-Friendly me‘.