It may be impossible to overestimate the importance of tropical rainforests to human health and global stability. Their incredible biodiversity produces cancer fighters and other lifesaving medication, and the control they exert on atmospheric climate is enormous, in part because of their role in global water circulation. Rainforests' carbon storage capacities, however, are garnering the most press lately.
Nature reports that African forests are taking in 0.6 metric tons of carbon per hectare (2.471 acres) every year, a significant finding that puts them on par with the Amazon rainforests as carbon sinks. While research can't yet pinpoint the cause of the increased mass - either the forests are still growing because of past damage or the trees are soaking up excess carbon dioxide because of climate changes, or both - the forests need protection at any rate:
"The research also highlights the need to protect African forests, write the authors of the Nature paper, led by Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds, UK. "With adequate protection these forests are likely to remain large carbon stores in the longer term. Securing this service will probably require formalising and enforcing land rights for forest dwellers, alongside payments for ecosystem services to those living near forested areas." - Science and Development Network
Whether the African forests are simply recovering from undetected damage like wildfires or whether they're helping alleviate climate change, the fact remains that cutting the trees down would release all that CO2 into the air. Over in Canada, ForestEthics, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club BC just published a report on the side effects of industrial logging in the 21 million-acre Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia, one of the last large non-tropical rainforests on Earth. Damage estimates equal 153 million metric tons of released CO2.
Australian research from the government's Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility explains that dangers to the world's rainforests don't just come from chainsaws, either:
"The impact of global warming on tropical rainforests will be so severe that even increases in temperature that are widely regarded as "safe" could raise tree mortality rates to such a level that almost 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere.
That is the sobering warning contained in new research from a team of Australian scientists, which suggests that even a two degree increase in average global temperatures will see the "carbon sink" effect currently provided by the world's rainforests cut in half.
It also calculates that should temperatures reach four degrees above pre-industrial levels, the rate of forest die-off will reach a level where rainforests become a net contributor to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, potentially triggering runaway climate change." - BusinessGreen
Droughts in the wake of higher temperatures could trigger the rainforests to empty their sinks, as scientists recently discovered Amazonian trees are very sensitive to drought after a 30-year study. According to University of Leeds researchers in Science,
"The 2005 drought sharply reversed decades of carbon absorption, in which Amazonia helped slow climate change.
In normal years the forest absorbs nearly 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. The drought caused a loss of more than 3 billion tonnes. The total impact of the drought - 5 billion extra tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - exceeds the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined." - Science Daily
Saving rainforests like the ones in Africa, Canada, and the Amazon, involves both preventing large-scale logging and reducing the emissions contributing to global climate change. Environmental groups are focusing on careful, practical preservation plans that involve limited, responsible development to save these valuable biodiversity banks and carbon sinks while providing livelihoods for the local communities at the same time.
For this type of ambitious preservation, the Great Bear Rainforest mentioned above provides a good example. The Nature Conservancy raised $60 million and is now working with First Nations, the government, environmental groups, and the timber industry to accomplish a complex system of plans that will protect 5 million acres of the forest as an "ecological core" and place the remaining 19 million acres under ecosystem based management:
"Ecosystem based management is an approach to natural resource management that integrates ecological, economic and social principles to safeguard the long-term ecological sustainability, natural diversity and productivity of natural systems. On the ground, the result will be a comprehensive network of protected areas within a well-managed working landscape." - Nature Conservancy
What does that mean in concrete terms? For one, these plans don't forbid logging but they do prevent destructive large-scale harvesting. In essence, timber companies will follow a responsible system of forestry management, and other likeminded industries will sustain the communities who live in the region while preserving the ecosystem of the rainforest over the long term.
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