Reforestation relies on the right trees in the right place: 3 stories you may have missed

© CI/Yoji Natori

Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

1. Tree planting is booming. Here’s how that could help, or harm, the planet.

Planting the right trees in the right place is key for the climate — and healthy ecosystems.

The story: Reforestation efforts are growing, with billions of new trees planted every single year. This seems like good news for our climate — the more trees to capture carbon from the atmosphere the better, right? Well, not quite. Planting non-native trees in places where they don’t belong can actually make ecosystems far less resilient, reports Catrin Einhorn for the New York Times. 

In some cases, well-intentioned (but ultimately harmful) projects have planted scores of trees on native grasslands or savannas where they would not naturally occur — permanently altering the fragile ecosystems on which wildlife and other native species rely. In others, fast-growing, non-native trees like eucalyptus are prioritized for timber or crops, which creates a monoculture situation, where one species dominates the forest — the opposite of a healthy, diverse ecosystem.

The big picture: Scientists estimate that 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) of tropical forest — an area more than twice the size of Belize — is cut down every single year. So, getting reforestation right is incredibly important. 

One solution is to let deforested lands regenerate on their own. In 2020, a team of researchers, including Conservation International climate expert Bronson Griscom, set out to discover what would happen if we let forests that had been stripped of trees regrow naturally. Their research resulted in a global map that pinpoints forest areas with the most potential to help humanity combat climate change — as long as we leave them alone.

“This new dataset is a pivotal tool for determining where to target our restoration investments so that we can get the most bang for our buck, while re-greening the planet,” Griscom told Conservation News.

Read more here

2. Great Barrier Reef hit by sixth mass bleaching event, leading coral scientist says

A leading coral scientist believes the Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. 

The story: The Great Barrier Reef is showing early signs of a mass bleaching event — caused when vast stretches of corals expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues due to climate change-induced heat stress. Initially the bleaching was thought to be mild. But leading coral expert Terry Hughes, a professor of marine biology in Australia, has sounded the alarm, saying he suspects a larger crisis is underway, reports Graham Readfearn for the Guardian. 

“We all breathed a sigh of relief because corals that were pale in December regained their color in January and February,” Hughes told The Guardian. “But in the last three weeks there have been reports of moderate to strong bleaching all along the reef.”

Now, official monitoring efforts are under way along the Queensland coastline to confirm Hughes’ claim. This could be the Great Barrier Reef’s sixth mass bleaching event since 1998, which could be disastrous for the long-term health of the reef — and the abundance of species it supports. 

The big picture: With each bleaching event, surviving corals are under increasing pressure as water temperatures continue to rise. Scientists are now rushing to find a solution, including improving water quality, removing a starfish species that preys on coral and introducing heat-tolerant algae

Around 20 percent of the world’s coral is already gone; much of what remains could be wiped out by the end of this century. A 2020 study, supported by Conservation International scientists, showed that this future can be prevented with relatively small steps such as creating marine protected areas or stronger fishing regulations. Researchers found that when applied to coral reefs with low-to-medium human impacts, these two strategies create a “coral reef first aid kit” that can have massive benefits — giving reefs a fighting chance before it’s too late. 

The world’s most iconic forest is being pushed toward a point of no return. 

The story: A multitude of threats — including deforestation, degradation, fire and climate change — are wreaking havoc on the Amazon rainforest, reports Terrence McCoy for The Washington Post. The destruction has led to a vicious cycle: Deforestation causes the forest to lose its ability to retain moisture and recycle water back into the atmosphere, which, combined with rising temperatures caused by climate change, has contributed to longer periods of drought or more intense fire seasons. 

The big picture: Experts estimate that 17 percent of the Amazon has already been destroyed by deforestation. If that rate is allowed to continue year-over-year, the rainforest could be pushed to an ecological tipping point — gradually turning into a dry savanna. If current trends continue, this horrifying domino effect could begin occurring within a decade — after 20 to 25 percent of the forest is lost, according to researchers. 

Losing the trees in this ecosystem would be disastrous for the Earth’s climate. A recent study by Conservation International revealed that the Amazon rainforest stores more than 20 percent of all irrecoverable carbon — that is, carbon that, if emitted into the atmosphere, could not be restored by 2050 — within its trees and soil, more than any other region on Earth.

Read more here


Will McCarry is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: A reforestation project in the Philippines  Conservation International/photo by Yoji Natori)