Contents (Click To Jump)
When you think of rainforests, you probably think of movies like The Jungle Book. But tropical rainforests aren’t necessarily jungles, which is the term used for overgrown, dense vegetation.
Instead, a rainforest is characterized by the amount of rainfall it gets a year (at least 98 inches) and its location in terms of latitude and longitude.
Because they need certain levels of humidity, sunlight, and water to thrive, rainforests of the world are located only near the the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. Most of the Earth’s land is located north of these tropic lines, which is why there is only 13% of land “delegated” to rainforests.
Depending on the exact area, a variety of plant and animal species can be found in these tropical rainforests, and tropical rainforests account for 28% of all the oxygen created on Earth. Today, the largest stretch of tropical rainforest is, of course, the Amazon, which is located along the Amazon River in South America.
Most of the Amazon (about 65%) is located in Brazil, which is also home to nearly a third of the world’s tropical forests. This area is so dense with rainforest coverage and biodiversity, accounting for millions of the world’s living species. On top of that, the Amazon alone creates 20% of the oxygen on Earth!
Other rainforests in the world can be found in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and West Africa. Of course, over 50% of the existing rainforests are located in South America, with Brazil leading the way.
WHILE SOME OF THESE RAINFORESTS MAY LOOK LIKE THE JUNGLE MANY OF US SEE IN MOVIES, MOST RAINFORESTS ARE COMPOSED OF SPECIFIC LAYERS, INCLUDING THE:
- EMERGENT LAYERLarge trees that extend past the thick canopy layer.UNDERSTORYThe middle area between the treetops and the forest floor.
- CANOPYDense tree and vegetation layer that forms a continuous cover.FOREST FLOORThe ground, which only sees about 2% of the canopy’s sunlight.
In some cases, the forest floor can grow overly dense if the canopy is thin, allowing vines, plants, and more to grow at faster rates because they get more sun. However, because most of the rainforest floor doesn’t see much sun, this area is usually not as dense as you’d expect, and is often very damp from rain and humidity.
Traditionally, tropical rainforests have been home to millions of plants, animals, bugs, and even indigenous human tribes. There are approximately 50 million indigenous people who still live in the rainforest, and depend on all of its offerings for survival. In addition, many of our medicines, plants, spices, and food (like chocolate) come from rainforests all over the world.
Unfortunately, while people all over the globe have been depending on the rainforest for millions of years, rainforests are starting to dwindle – and their ecosystems are changing.
THE CURRENT STATE OF RAINFORESTS
Today, rainforests only account for about 13 percent of all the land in the world.
Unfortunately, this 13% is continuing to dwindle due to overpopulation, logging, and development in the countries and regions where this sort of ecosystem exists. While there’s approximately 7.7 million square miles remaining of these rainforests, most of it is broken up, which puts the health of these areas at risk. It’s like separating living body parts and expecting them to function in the same way.
Human development, climate change, and extinction are all major factors that are changing tropical rainforests as we know them – and at a faster rate than most scientists could’ve predicted.
According to savetheamazon.org, we are losing 1.5 acres of rainforest every second. At this rate, it’s anticipated that 80 to 90% of rainforest ecosystems will be destroyed by 2020. In 2019, there was a devastating surge in fires in the Amazon rainforest, resulting in the worst fires to hit the Amazon in over a decade.
That’s why it’s so important to understand the impact that humans are having on the rainforest – and how we can fix it.
ISSUES AFFECTING RAINFORESTS TODAY
There’s no denying it: rainforests are at risk. There are a number of factors causing this destruction, most of which involve human activity. These include deforestation, harvesting, climate change, and more.
As of 2018, the largest threat to the world’s rainforests is deforestation. For many of the regions that are home to rainforests, their economies thrive on timber and cattle – cutting down the rainforest to sell wood or raise cows (and often both). According to the World Wildlife Foundation, we’ve lost nearly 17% of the Amazon in the past 50 years to deforestation.
In addition, many rainforests are being
over-harvested for vegetable oil, such as palm oil, soy, and canola. Land is cleared to grow the plants that are harvested for oil, which puts species at risk, causes major human conflict, and can actually add to the effects of climate change as more of these oils are burned and consumed by humans.
Due to deforestation and overdevelopment in areas that are prone to high rainfall and require dense vegetation, soil erosion is a major concern in these areas. This can cause landslides, mudslides, and major damage to the animals, plants, and people, but it also makes it harder for vegetation – or even crops – to survive in this area.
This means less growth, which means less clean air and fewer of the foods and ingredients we as humans have come to depend on.
Extinction is another huge risk to the dwindling state of our world’s rainforests. While the rainforest is home to over 50% of our species in the entire world, we’re seeing extinction in these areas at a rate never before seen.
In fact, it’s estimated that 137 species are going extinct every day because of logging, cattle ranching, and development. At that rate, we are losing over 50,000 species a year – and scientists estimate we have about
10 million species in our rainforests. If we continue to lose species at this rate, every rainforest species could be extinct in 200 years.
Unfortunately, that number will likely only increase, speeding up the rate of overall extinction as human population and resource consumption grows.
Of course, it’s not just the rainforests affected by this; when animals go extinct in the rainforest, the biodiversity is affected. Fruits, plants, and animals that we need from these areas will go extinct, and our resources will decrease, causing shockwaves all across the world.
Climate change, which is a risk to every ecosystem on Earth, is having a huge impact on rainforests. Scientists are now finding that the rising global temperatures are affecting the health of rainforest trees, most of which are in the emergent and canopy layer. Because these trees serve as the “shield” between the undergrowth and forest floor, their health is vital to the overall ecosystem.
When they get too hot and die, more sun reaches the rainforest floor, which can affect how bacteria, insects, and animals survive. In addition, changing weather patterns are causing droughts or monsoons
in areas that thrive on a specific rainfall each year, throwing these systems into further chaos.
With all of these components risking the health of the rainforest, it’s easy to see why we’re losing these areas at such a high rate. But what does it mean when these areas are gone for good?
WHY WE NEED RAINFORESTS
There’s no doubt that rainforests are beautiful, and that they are home to millions of life forms. But they’re more than that; they’re major cornerstones of human life and the Earth’s health.
Not only do we get over a quarter of all the air we breathe from rainforests, but they’re also part of the biodiversity that keeps the world spinning.
Rainforests are also a major part of our human economies and overall health, accounting for thousands of species of food, life-saving medications, and everyday household items.
POLLINATION AND FOOD
Because climate change and extinction are tightly linked, their effects on the rainforests have massive ramifications for the world as a whole. As more and more rainforest is compromised by changing global temperatures, more species will die out. This is especially relevant to the plants, birds, and insects that are responsible for pollination.
How does this affect us? For one, the rainforest is a huge source of food that feeds people all over the world. People in the Western world consume about 200 fruits that come directly from the rainforest, while people living nearer to these rainforests consume nearly 2,000.
We get thousands of spices from the rainforest, and chocolate and coffee beans are two of the largest exports from these regions. Could you go without chocolate or coffee? What about bananas?
Did you know that approximately two-thirds of all the cancer medications we have are made from compounds directly sourced from rainforests?
In addition, we get medications like novocaine (numbing shots you get at the dentist, for instance) from the coca plant in rainforests in South America, and vincristine from the rosy periwinkle plant from rainforests in Madagascar (used to treat pediatric leukemia). Over 120 prescription medicines are now on the market thanks to rainforest plants.
Because of plants that only grow in the rainforest, we can save lives, improve quality of life, and cure diseases that previously were considered incurable. As the rainforest dies off, so do our chances of surviving in a world with disease.
The largest source of palm oil comes directly from rainforests, and it is a needed component in a variety of our household items. Palm oil is used in our cosmetics, soaps, margarine, detergent, and even some gasoline products (but more on this in a bit).
Ingredients for chewing gum come from rainforests, as does the rubber that we use in many products (like shoes and tires). Bamboo, essential oils, and even fibers for rope and furniture are also derived from plants in the rainforest. Essentially, almost everything we use comes, at least in part, from these highly diverse ecosystems.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP SAVE THE RAINFORESTS
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when reading information about the destruction of the rainforest and its impact on the world at large. However, the beauty of this new knowledge is that you can use it to do your part.
If you want to help save the tropical rainforests of the world, you’re not alone! Luckily, there are also a number of things you can do to contribute.
YOU CAN START SMALL AND FOCUS ON YOUR IMMEDIATE SURROUNDINGS:
- Reduce your consumption. If everyone consumed less, there would be less economic reason to destroy the rainforest for lumber, foods, cattle, etc.
- Don’t purchase tropical hardwoods. Mahogany, Rosewood and Ebony are some of the most popular hardwoods sold directly from rainforests. If you don’t purchase these, and encourage others to not, there will be less reason to cut them down!
- Use less paper. Paper is made from trees, and the less paper we consume, the fewer trees need to be cut down. Avoid paper napkins, paper bags, paper plates, etc. to really cut down on your consumption.
- Eat locally sourced beef. Many of the largest sources of beef in the world come from deforested rainforest land. If you want to continue eating beef, find companies that source their beef from your country or, better yet, buy from a local farmer or butcher.
- Avoid palm oil products where you can. Palm oil is becoming the largest export from deforested land, increasing the likelihood that more land will be cut down to make space for the export. If you can, buy unprocessed, organic foods, or buy packaged foods that don’t include vegetable oil, palm oil, canola oil, etc.The less we consume of these products, the less businesses will want to make them.
Of course, if you’d like to make more of a difference, it’s important to start raising your voice. Share this article with your friends and let them know just how important the rainforests are for everyone!
Donate to causes like the Rainforest Alliance, the Rainforest Trust, Amazon Watch, and more. But most of all, vote with your dollars and with your voice. Tell your representatives what you want to see from your country and focus on spending money that doesn’t directly harm the rainforest.
A little goes a long way, and if everyone pitches in, we can reverse the damage done to our rainforest and our world.