Tropical forests play a crucial role in sustaining high biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Unfortunately, these forests are under threat from deforestation, which involves the cutting and conversion of forests for various purposes such as agriculture, mining, and infrastructure development. While deforestation is a well-known issue, the impacts of human-driven degradation on the remaining tropical forests are often overlooked.

A recent study published in Nature sheds light on the extent and lasting effects of human-driven degradation in tropical moist forests. Researchers used a combination of remote sensing data and advanced data analysis techniques to quantify the effects of degradation and fragmentation on these forests. The study revealed that the impacts of degradation and fragmentation are more significant than previously estimated.

When discussing forest loss, the focus is typically on deforestation, which involves the conversion of large forest areas for human activities. However, the study highlights that there is a spectrum of forest states ranging from intact forests to degraded forests located on the edges and within fragmented landscapes. Degradation can occur through activities like selective logging, fire, and edge effects, where trees at the forest boundaries are exposed to unfavorable environmental conditions.

The study showed that degradation and fragmentation caused by agricultural or road expansion can reduce canopy height and biomass by 20-30% at the forest edges. Furthermore, the edge effect can penetrate up to 1,500 meters inside the intact forest, resulting in reduced canopy height and biomass. The overall edge effect threatens up to 18% of tropical moist forests due to high fragmentation and its far-reaching impact.

Even low-intensity disturbances can lead to a significant reduction in canopy height and biomass over 20 to 30 years. This long-term degradation is attributed to the low recovery rate of forests, which depends on factors like forest composition and climate conditions. The study also highlighted the cumulative impact of human disturbances, which increase the likelihood of complete deforestation once 50% of the canopy height is lost.

The study emphasized the importance of identifying forests that are most vulnerable to human expansions and taking steps to protect them. Degraded forests are more susceptible to natural disturbances, which further jeopardize their long-term survival. Efforts to prevent degradation and protect already degraded forests are essential to meeting conservation commitments made at international conferences on climate change and biodiversity.

The study’s findings underscore the significant impact of human activities on tropical forest degradation. By quantifying the extent of degradation and fragmentation, researchers have provided valuable insights into the challenges facing these vital ecosystems. Protecting tropical forests is crucial not only for biodiversity conservation but also for mitigating climate change and preserving essential ecosystem services.

Earth

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