Watch Earth's Forests Disappear Before Your Very Eyes

From 2000 to 2012, the planet lost more than 888,000 square miles of tree cover.
Nov 20, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Want to see exactly how awful deforestation is? You actually do—because this video is as mesmerizing to watch as it is alarming to comprehend.

University of Maryland geographer Matthew Hansen recently partnered with Google Earth to create the most high-resolution map of global forests ever. Using 650,000 satellite images taken by NASA satellites, Hansen and Google compiled imagery detailing the planet’s forest loss over a 12-year period.

According to the data, from 2000 to 2012, more than 888,000 square miles—yes, miles, not acres—of tree cover disappeared. That’s a staggering loss, even considering that during the same time period more than 300,000 square miles of forest were gained. Those gains were mostly the result of previously cleared forests that finally grew back, a process that can take years or decades.

Published in the journal Science, Hansen's findings show that tree loss was particularly accelerated in the tropics, mostly because of logging and strip mining. His work also details that some of the deforestation was caused by natural disasters, such as fires and earthquakes.

Prior to the study, accurately tracking forest deficits was difficult because doing so relied heavily on locally sourced estimates. These, Hansen told Climate Desk, are often incomplete or outdated. Satellite imagery, on the other hand, is a visually refined tool, able to provide a more accurate picture of the extent of forest loss on both a local and a global scale.

It’s not only the detail of his data that makes Hansen’s research so compelling but the speed at which the images were processed. Climate Desk reports an average personal computer would have taken 15 years to process all the NASA satellite photos. Earth Engine, Google’s supercomputer, was able to do it in a matter of days.

The loss of forests worldwide has far-reaching implications. Tree cover not only provides a home for vital plant and animal species but also prevents flooding and erosion. The flooding that ravaged parts of Colorado in September, for example, was blamed in part on the deforestation caused by the Flagstaff fire in 2012 and the Fourmile Canyon fire in 2010, both of which affected the Boulder area. Without the vegetation responsible for trapping rainwater, flash floods besieged Boulder County.

Equally important is a forest’s role in slowing global warming. Research from the University of Leeds suggests that forests absorb as much as 40 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. And now that Hansen has an accurate picture of how much of our forests has been lost, his hope is to use those findings to gauge how much that loss could affect the rate of climate change.

“Often when we talk about climate, we talk mostly about energy and transportation, but in fact, deforestation causes more greenhouse gases than all transportation put together,” says Ana Paula Tavares, the executive vice president of Rainforest Alliance, an international conservation organization working to preserve biodiversity and promote sustainable business practices.

Stopping, or at least slowing, global deforestation sounds like a job reserved for countries and major corporations, but individual consumers can also play a vital role. Greenpeace, which is in the midst of a campaign to end deforestation by 2020, recommends buying recycled or certified wood products, actively protesting environmentally destructive companies, and supporting others that have zero-deforestation policies already in place.

Some of those companies can be found through Rainforest Alliance, which keeps a growing list of businesses that have been certified by the organization for their dedication to sustainable practices.

“Forests have more value, including economic value, when they’re standing, than when they are cut down,” Tavares says. “It’s not about tree hugging; it’s about resources. It’s about keeping a planet balanced and healthy so we can support life here.”