The ‘War Against Nature’ has taken a brutal global turn for the worse. As species disappear ten times faster than my colleagues believed, the Earth’s lungs, its forests, are dying.
About 10,000 years ago, 50 per cent of Earth’s land surface was forested. Today, a little over 25 per cent of the planet is covered with trees. Humans are destroying and polluting the biosphere at an extraordinary rate.
For the first time in the history of our species, forest biologists have detected a frightening global pattern that is irrefutable: dying forests on every forested continent.
Mature trees are the finest carbon dioxide warehouses to have ever evolved on the globe. For every one tonne of wood grown, one and a half tonnes of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and one tonne of oxygen is released. More oxygen is required to sustain 8 billion humans predicted by 2024, yet each day chainsaws mutilate Earth’s lungs.
Climate disruption as a result of rising global temperatures of 0.9 C has irrevocably changed how forests function. This has disastrous consequences for all life.
Forests evolved over 350 million years ago, profoundly modifying the water and energy flow between the land and the atmosphere.
The unparalleled warming since the 1950s as evidenced by tree ring growth of the oldest living trees on Earth, Great Basin bristlecone pines, has triggered sub-continental insect epidemics.
Since frigid autumn temperatures have not occurred over the past 15 years, the indigenous pine bark beetles of western North America have killed 30 billion mature pines. The beetles have taken a crucial terrestrial system that absorbs carbon dioxide – what is known in biological parlance as a ‘carbon sink’ – and turned it into a ‘carbon source.’ When the dead trees decompose, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Sub-continental droughts and heat-induced stress have killed America’s Southwest woodland forests and its champion drought tolerant pinyon pines and junipers. In concert with pine beetles arid New Mexico has lost 100 million trees.
It has become so hot and dry that pinyons and junipers are unable to regenerate and form woodland forests. This is devastating for all Southwestern wildlife as those trees provide indispensable shade, habitat, food and water. For 10 million humans this means that the water cycle has dramatically changed.
Climate disruption has wreaked havoc upon the Amazon, the Lamborghini of Earth’s forests is breaking down regularly. The Amazon Basin is a hotbed of life, a cornucopia of pharmaceutical drugs, a tremendous genetic library only equaled by Australia’s dying Great Barrier Reef. The Amazon River carries almost one-fifth of the world’s flowing freshwater – equal to that of the next 10 biggest rivers combined. It has over 3,300 fish species, more than the entire Atlantic Ocean.
In early 2005, an intense storm (100 by 200 kilometres) ripped across the Amazon Basin and blew-down about half a billion mature trees that evolved in the windless Inter Tropical Zone of Convergence. That one incident accounted for the loss of the equivalent of 23 per cent of estimated mean annual carbon accumulation capacity of the Amazon jungle.
Later that year, a ‘one-in-one hundred-year’ drought occurred. Not only did the Amazon rainforest fail to absorb 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide that year, but also over the next decade, it has released approximately 5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from decomposing, drought-killed trees.
In 2007, extreme droughts in the southeast Amazon rainforest created conditions for epic wildfires, ten times more fires than in an average climate year. The area that burned that year was the equivalent to one million World Cup Brazilian soccer fields.
And then in 2010, another mega sub-continental drought enveloped 3 million square kilometres of the Amazon Basin. The gigantic swath of dead rainforest from that event began releasing an estimated 8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Earth’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon Basin, has begun a transition from pristine wilderness to drought and fire dominated regimes on a scale never witnessed since our progenitors first walked the Earth seven million years ago.
The Amazon jungle has reached its tipping point; that is, it’s on the verge en masse of contributing to rising greenhouse gases rather than removing them.
Not only has the Amazon lost billions of oxygen-producing mature trees since 2005, but also their phenomenal ability to make daily rain clouds, regulating the water cycle providing massive afternoon white cloud surfaces reflecting incoming solar radiation, ameliorating Earth’s temperature. Instead, solar radiation penetrates denuded forest floors all day long, heating them, and in turn heating the atmosphere.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Earth, Indonesian rainforests are being felled furiously. The third largest remaining rainforests are, in forester vernacular, being ‘liquidated’ at an escalated rate that makes deforestation at its height in the Amazon seem timid. In 2012 alone Indonesia destroyed over 729,000 hectares or almost twice that logged in the Amazon.
Corruption is widespread amongst the Indonesian officials as exquisite rainforests are rapaciously converted into monoculture palm oil plantations. Its tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans are on a fast track to extinction. In addition, rainforests are being cleared at lightning speed to make way for mountains of Borneo coal barged incessantly down Mahakam River every few moments, supplying 200 million tonnes of coal annually to the voracious Chinese and Indian markets.
Plundering these magnificent tropical rainforests for palm oil is akin to burning each work of art within the Louvre. The senseless destruction of Nature is taking thousands of years’ worth of carbon storage in the Indonesian peatland swamps and literally washing it down the river.
These 17- to 21-metre thick saturated peat swamps contain about 55 billion tonnes of stored heat-trapping carbon, which if left unprotected will bleed into our atmosphere within the next decade, as all swamps will be drained and mined.
Co-founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben put it to me this way: “We need forests standing and carbon left in the ground — that is, we need Brazil and Indonesia defending rainforests, and North America and Australia keeping watch over coal deposits, making sure they all stay in place. And everyone else too!”
Already International Union of Forest Research Organization scientists have warned that surpassing 2.5 C, Industrial Revolution benchmark, will jeopardize Earth’s forests and their entire carbon storage capacity. Some of my colleagues believe we won’t have to wait until reaching that dreaded 2.5 C mark because Earth’s forests are turning into blackened graveyards as we near the half way point.
When the G-20 meet in Brisbane, Australia in mid-November, they would be well advised to heed the sagacious advice of former Australian Senator and leader of the Greens, Dr Bob Brown: “The Age of Forests is closing and the Age of Deserts is yawning before us as our rampaging herd of human mammals chainsaws down the greenery and burns fossil fuels – from ancient forests – to heat up the modern globe. All that is needed to reverse this disaster is the sensible abandonment of the economists’ mantra that growth in the consumption of Earth’s living resources is a good thing. That is all.”
If Earth’s forests die, we die.