Researchers’ Surprising Finding: Global Tree Cover Is Actually Expanding

August 13, 2018

Researchers’ Surprising Finding: Global Tree Cover Is Actually Expanding

Between 1982 and 2016, Worldwide Tree Cover Increased by Over Two Million Square Kilometers

Scientists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center teamed up with researchers from the University of Maryland and the State University of New York to study the trend in worldwide landmass tree coverage over the past thirty-five years. Last week they reported their findings in the scientific journal Nature, and their paper surprised experts and laypeople alike.

Until now, the consensus was that global tree cover must be shrinking – the inevitable result of tropical deforestation, agricultural expansion and urbanization. Instead, and surprisingly, the research team discovered that global tree cover is increasing, rather than contracting.

The team calculated forest growth and loss over the period of 1982 through 2016 by studying data collected by 16 weather satellites; specifically, data collected by high-resolution radiometers (instruments used to detect and measure intensity of radiant energy) aboard the satellites. Researchers studied changes in daily readings to establish long-term trends in tree cover losses and gains.

Their key finding is that over the past 35 years, new tree growth surpassed tree loss globally by approximately 2.24 million square kilometers. As a point of reference, consider that this is approximately equal to the landmass of Texas and Alaska combined.

The research team determined that the overall net gain resulted from a loss of tree cover in the tropics that was more than offset by a net gain in the extratropics (i.e., middle latitudes). Bare ground tree cover decreased globally by 1.16 million square kilometers (−3.1%; most notably in agricultural regions in Asia), whereas global tree cover increased by 2.24 million square kilometers (+7.1%; most notably in locations that were previously barren, such as in deserts and tundra and in even in cities).

In their report researchers cited several factors that contributed to the 7 percent growth. Three-fifths of new tree growth resulted from concerted efforts by humans, they concluded (e.g., reforestation projects in China and Africa). Some of the gain was an unintentional consequence of global warming; as temperatures rise, so do timberlines in some mountainous regions. Also, some new tree growth traced to the abandonment of large farms in such places as Russia.

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