How Deforestation Affects Physical Geography

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Deforestation is a problem we are likely all familiar with, even in passing. We drive or walk by small or large tracts of land with evidence that something is missing- from tree stumps to conspicuously empty land, deforestation is something that is happening in rainforests, mountains, and urban and rural areas all around the world today.

What is Deforestation?

Deforestation is the cutting down of trees that make up a forest for reasons having little to do with the health or quality of the trees in question. Typically deforestation occurs because of agriculture (the need for clear pieces of land in which to plant crops), logging operations, and subsistence farming, in which a small farmer will use the trees for fuel and food to make room for grazing animals or a small field of crops to grow.


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Forest clear cutting.  Photo: Tomas Sennett, 1972.
Forest clear cutting. Photo: Tomas Sennett, 1972.

Clear-cutting is one deforestation practice in particular that seriously harms the earth in addition to drastically changing the physical geography of the land. By clearing a large section of land by cutting down all the trees the soil is made less stable which can lead to dangerous landslides. The physical geography of rivers, mountains, and plains can all be affected by deforestation and the clear-cutting of large pieces of forest around the world.

In recent years more effort has been made by environmental groups and everyday citizens to slow the massive consumption of trees that are being lost each year to produce paper products, build homes, expand urban areas and grow food. However, this effort has not put off the incredible amount of deforestation that continues to occur in forested areas around the globe.

Effects of Deforestation

Forests currently cover about 30% of the world’s land area and produce much of the oxygen we breathe each day. Deforestation not only eliminates the opportunity for a tree to produce oxygen, but contributes to the growing pollution problems in major cities as trees and other plants filter harmful chemicals from the air. Some reports estimate that patches of forest the size of Panama are lost every year to deforestation.

If you’ve never been to Panama it can be hard to imagine what a forest that big could look like! Basically, in 100 years it is possible that the rain forests could be gone because of deforestation, which would mean an incredible loss of potential medical discoveries, the loss of unique habitats for endangered animal species, and an environmental impact that cannot be calculated.

The physical effects of deforestation might be easier to imagine than the bigger picture. Most of us have traveled through mountainous areas and have seen evidence of rock slides, mud slides, and other evidence of instability in the earth; sometimes this is a direct effect of deforestation and sometimes it is a lesser symptom.

Deforestation takes the trees off of land which can lead to instability in the ground, making fields and houses easier to create but leaving this area more susceptible to landslides, wind, and other natural weather patterns. In forests the ground remains moist because of the amount of water retention the trees keep deep in their roots; when the trees are gone the soil dries out quickly and becomes devoid of needed nutrients, which can blow away when strong winds arise.

Trees also help perpetuate the water cycle, returning water to the atmosphere from the ground. Forests help regulate the temperature of the land, too, and when they are gone the increase in the temperature of the earth can contribute to weather pattern changes and global warming. As mentioned above trees are essential to absorbing greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming and turn them into breathable oxygen.

Trees keep soil from drying out and blowing away in the wind; trees hold soil together and help keep the earth from destabilizing and moving in the form of rock or mudslides. Trees recycle water and greenhouse gasses and produce oxygen, not to mention providing beautiful and unique environments in which people, animals, and other plants can grow and live.

Deforestation will continue to be an issue as long as humanity needs paper products, houses, and places to grow food. We must be incredibly vigilant when it comes to the trees we cut down and do whatever we can to insure that trees are being planted at a greater rate than we are using them. Careful deforestation means no more clear-cutting of large areas of land- we must choose the trees we cut down not in large swathes, but in renewable pieces that will not harm the larger ecosystem of the forest or our environment at large.

Our trees are important and the continued study and renewal of our forests is essential to their preservation.

References:

National Geographic. Deforestation. 2014. http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/deforestation-overview/


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