Rainforests: The Green Lungs of our Planet

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest
Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest (Photo credit: CIFOR)

Rainforests occupy approximately 7% of the world’s land area, but as we shall see, they punch above their weight in their contribution to the planet’s well-being.

It is worth noting that not all of the world’s rainforests are located within the equatorial regions. Temperate rainforests – evergreen woods with high year-round rainfall – are also found in western Scotland, Norway and Australia, as well as in Turkey, Japan and New Zealand.

The better-known tropical rainforests are primarily located near the equator. These iconic locations have become synonymous with their dense forests: the Amazon, the Congo Basin, Madagascar, and Borneo. Tropical rainforests are also found in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nicaragua. The United States has both tropical rainforests on Hawaii and temperate ones in the Pacific Northwest.

Although rainforests do not increase the amount of “new” oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere, their important role can be seen in several ways:

1. Carbon Collection and Storage

The process of photosynthesis, through which plants convert light into energy, causes carbon dioxide to be taken out of the atmosphere. It is stored within the plants and trees of the rainforest. This action alone massively reduces the amount of carbon dioxide – a key greenhouse gas – in the earth’s atmosphere.

2.  Biodiversity

As well as countless species of flowers and trees, the rainforests are home to some of the last surviving populations of such amazing creatures as tigers, gorillas, and a bewildering array of reptiles, birds and snakes.

Some of the more amazing biodiversity statistics include:

  • More than half of all the planet’s animal and plant species are found within rainforests
  • A patch of rainforest, two miles wide in each direction, would typically contain around 400 species of birds, about 1,500 flowering plants as well as 150 diverse types of butterfly.
  • America’s National Cancer Institute notes that 70% of the world’s plants which are base elements in cancer treatment grow only in rainforests.
  • Many species of plant and animal remain undiscovered. The World Wildlife Fund has calculated that between 1999 and 2009, more than 1,200 new species were discovered in the Amazon jungle alone.

3. Human sustenance

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimated that around 300 million people rely directly on forests for their daily subsistence. This group is mostly very poor. 60 million are indigenous peoples.

Plant foraging, low-impact agriculture such as planting root vegetables, along with hunting and fishing, are some of the ways that people gain a livelihood directly from the rainforests.

More widely, these forests are essential in producing rainfall for the planet, as well as collecting it into the world’s major river systems. Without the gentle trickle-down effect caused by billions of leaves, the rains would wash away vast tracts of topsoil from vast areas of river basins.

In a future article, we will consider the effects of deforestation on both the local environments, and on the wider process of global climate change.










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