The first terrestrial ecosystems were the outcome of an extraordinary transition in the history of life. Any form of life had previously existed only in the oceans. However, 470 million years ago during the geologic period called Ordovician , the living organisms started to colonize the inanimate land.
The emergence of plants, and one hundred million years later the emergence of the first trees such as Archaeopteris, led to important changes in the Earth’s climate, which created suitable conditions on the land for other life forms to thrive.
Prehistoric forests contributed significantly to life favorable changes such as the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, which resulted in a decrease of temperatures so that the planet’s climate became similar to what we know today.
Through extensive root systems, trees created a strong foundation for the diversity of terrestrial ecosystems by altering soil chemistry. And fallen leaves with rotting twigs became an important source of nutrition for many newly evolved aquatic organisms in adjoining streams .
So, what would happen if we lost all our forests?
Perhaps Easter Island can serve as an example of the impact that extensive deforestation can have on a civilization. During the era of the great development, the people of Easter Island, called Rapa Nui, cleared out the island’s native palm forests, causing widespread extinction of other species, and triggering the downfall of their society.
Approximately 70% of the island’s surface was originally covered with lush forest of Easter Island palm (Paschalococos disperta). This palm has been extinct since 1400 due to overharvesting and harm done by the proliferation of rats, which fed on its seeds.
The loss of trees was accompanied by other serious impacts on the island’s sensitive ecosystem. Seasonal heavy rains with strong winds eroded soils that were once needed for agricultural production. Sources of drinking water slowly dried up. The island was struck by famine, and the highly-skilled Rapa Nui civilization collapsed after period of civil wars and chaos aroused by the lack of natural resources .
According to many historians, events tend to be repeated in cycles. When looking at the tragic end of the Rapa Nui civilization, we have to wonder what future awaits us with the current levels of deforestation. In the past 15 years, about 129 million hectares of forest were cleared globally, equivalent to an area the size of South Africa . Such a profound destruction of ancient intact forests and rainforests affects negatively all ecosystems, and will seriously decrease our wellbeing.
The most detrimental impacts of deforestation
- Changes in the composition of air
The most important function of forests is the ability to produce oxygen through photosynthesis. During this process trees also absorb carbon dioxide, which is one of the major greenhouse gases. They also help clean up the air polluted by various anthropogenic activities.
Take trees out of the equation and the final outcome would be air satiated with pollutants, and higher concentration of carbon dioxide that would alter the planet’s climate.
- Changes in water availability and loss of top soils
Trees are living creatures that need water for survival, but at the same time they have the ability to catch rainwater, enabling its filtration through the soil, and replenishing freshwater resources.
Another extra feature is their ability to prevent land degradation and loss of fertile soil layer by holding it in place with their root system.
- Mass extinction
Natural processes are connected to each other and so are living creatures. Forests are very important habitats for many unique species, some of which haven’t even been identified by scientists. Without the specific conditions in which they evolved, these species will disappear.
- Deprived lifestyle
Forests largely support our lifestyle by providing material, fuel, and livelihood to many people. And perhaps it is easy to forget that forests supply also many medical substances. Some of them are used as painkillers, other help with diseases such as multiple sclerosis, or Alzheimer’s disease [5,6]. The mysterious world of rainforests is still uncharted, and many believe that the cure to AIDS or cancer could be hiding somewhere there .
- Increase in mental disorders
Life without forests would impact our mental wellbeing, as well. According to many studies, forests have calming and stress relieving properties for our soul. When looking at a tree our brain sends positive vibrations to our body and makes it more resilient to external influences.
Forests have been our home for thousands of years, and served us well. Trees are still protecting many areas from torrential rains, avalanches, landslides, dust storms and wildfires. They act as an important buffer between human world and rough natural processes. It is time to acknowledge that we are responsible for their continued destruction more than any other species on the planet. Forests are the key to life, and we should treat them that way.