How many square miles of forest land have been permanently eliminated in the last 13 years? That’s the question researchers at the University of Maryland sought to answer with ‘Global Forest Change’, a Google Earth-based project that aggregates more than 650,000 satellite images captured between 1999 and 2012.
Now that the results have been tallied, the researchers have uncovered a disturbing trend: deforestation outnumbered tree regrowth by roughly 1.5 million square kilometers, or roughly 932,000 square miles ― an area roughly three and a half times the size of Texas.
It’s easy to point the finger at our fellow man, but according to an article published earlier this month in The Atlantic, natural phenomenon shoulder a significant amount of blame. Some of the most common culprits include wildfires caused by lightning strikes, storms, insect infestations, and botanical diseases. However, the new study reveals that illegal and unsustainable logging practices have made the largest impact on deforestation ― and by the same token, proactive steps to recover forests have proven highly effective at boosting regrowth numbers.
Brazil is one country that has managed to reduce its deforestation rate by a considerable margin. Just 10 years ago, the country reported an average deforestation rate of 15,444 square miles on an annual basis; in recent years, the South American country has managed to cut this figure in half.
However, Brazil’s successes have been offset by the failures of other nations. Indonesia has one of the poorest track records, having doubled its deforestation rate to more than 7,700 square miles since 2000. Paraguay is another example; no country in the world reported a higher disparity between deforestation and tree regrowth. Other countries where deforestation rates are disastrously high include Angola, Bolivia, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Zambia.
An interactive map that depicts forest cover loss and gain from 2000 to 2012 is available online. As the map indicates, parts of the United States ― including Alaska and much of the Southeast ― have also recorded forest losses that outweigh forest gains during that time period. However, the tropics were the only climate region where deforestation was considered a “dominant” trend.
In closing, consider that forests cover roughly 19.2 million square miles (or 49.8 million square kilometers) of the Earth’s surface. If the trends in this report are to be believed ― and it’s hard to argue with satellite imagery ― then an area this size could be completely eradicated within the next 20 years.