Global Forest Watch, By Mikaela Weisse and Liz Goldman
18 Oct 2017
Global tree cover loss reached a record 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) in 2016, according to new data from the University of Maryland released today on Global Forest Watch. The loss is 51 percent higher than the previous year, totaling an area about the size of New Zealand. Forest fires seem to be a primary cause of this year’s spike, including dramatic fire-related degradation in Brazil. Deforestation due to agriculture, logging, and mining continue to drive global tree cover loss from year-to-year.
The wide scale of forest disturbance shows the urgent need to improve forest management.
Forests at a Flash Point
Fire rarely occurs naturally in tropical forests; fires happen when human use of fire interacts with extreme temperatures and drought. This year’s trend is due in part to the global effects of 2015/2016 El Niño, the second-strongest ever recorded, which brought drought conditions throughout the tropics. Human-caused deforestation and degradation also make forests more fire-prone by drying the local climate. El Niño also plays a role in boreal and temperate forests, where fires are a more natural occurrence, but climate change is increasing the intensity and costs of fires.
An increase in forest fires is worrying on many levels. Even in places where fires are an important part of the ecosystem, large blazes can have major impacts on human health and cause wide-spread damage to property and infrastructure. Forest burning can release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, and, in tropical forests where such fires are rare, greatly impact forest structure and biodiversity. Interactions of tropical fires with land use change and climate change could lead to future forest diebacks in places like the Amazon.
Better forest management can reduce the risk of fires starting in the first place: deforestation and degradation greatly increase the risk of fire in tropical forests, while in fire-prone ecosystems, overgrown forests results in more damaging fires. Early detection systems like VIIRS and rapid interagency cooperation mechanisms enable response to fires as early as possible to reduce damage and the costs of fire-fighting.
To mitigate fire damage to people and forests, stopping the use of fire during dry times of year is crucial. Both Indonesia and Brazil have policies on the books to limit use of fire to clear land, but reports suggest these policies are not enforced effectively or are underfunded.
Strong Indonesian Fire Season Shows Up in 2016 Data
Indonesia also saw an increase in tree cover loss in 2016, likely related to the strong fire season of late 2015.
The Indonesian fires of late 2015, well-documented by the media, were a major environmental disaster, releasing 1.62 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. The resulting haze caused over 100,000 premature deaths. (Though many of the fires occurred in late 2015, most subsequent tree cover loss wasn’t recorded until early 2016. Learn why here.)
The effects of logging and expansion of large- and small-scale plantations are also visible in Indonesia’s 2016 data. Papua experienced an uptick in tree cover loss last year, which has continued in 2016, with oil palm plantations continuing to expand in primary forest.
Read the original article at Global Forest Watch