One of the planet's most dynamic environments is facing a rapid and worrying decline, new analysis shows.
Nearly two thirds of Earth's original tropical rainforest cover has been degraded or destroyed by human activity in a "vicious" trend that shows little sign of abating, researchers warn.
The data collected by non-profit group Rainforest Foundation Norway, revealed 34 per cent of the world’s original old-growth tropical rainforests have been wiped out while another 30 per cent have been degraded, Reuters reported.
The degradation of forest leaves them more vulnerable to fire and future destruction.
"Most of the remaining rainforest is still in the Amazon, which gives hope, but current rate of destruction is frightening," the foundation said overnight.
The impact of forest loss on the environment
It comes as scientists have been sounding the alarm about the ongoing loss of a key natural buffer against climate change as forests environments continue to vanish.
The forest loss is also a major contributor of climate-warming emissions, with the dense tropical forest vegetation representing the largest living reservoir of carbon.
More than half of the destruction since 2002 has been in South America’s Amazon and bordering rainforests.
Speaking to Reuters, Anders Krogh, a tropical rainforest researcher and lead author of the report, called it "a terrifying cycle".
Between 2002 and 2019, the amount of forest loss was roughly equal to the size of France, he said.
The Amazon is the world's most important forest bastion but it has come under increasing threat since right-wing Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro took office and weakened environmental protections.
Data released in November by Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE) showed the highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon since 2008, with more than 11,000 square kilometres (2.7 million acres) cleared.
"Because of the federal government’s anti-environmental policies, deforestation in Brazil is almost three times higher than the target for 2020 set by the country’s National Policy on Climate Change," Greenpeace's Amazon campaigner Cristiane Mazzetti said at the time.
Due to its immense significance, environmentalists have focused their attention on the Amazon which has been steadily reduced in size by agriculture and logging. The Amazon and its neighbours – the Orinoco and the Andean rainforest – account for 73.5 per cent of tropical forests still intact, according to Krogh.
Southeast Asian islands, mostly belonging to Indonesia, collectively rank second in terms of forest destruction since 2002, with much of those forests cleared for palm oil plantations.
New tech being deployed to monitor deforestation
Last year World Resources Institute (WRI) warned "in critical countries such as Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, forest loss does not appear to be slowing, and places such as Colombia and Indonesia may see a slight increase after trending downward in 2019".
The institute is one of the many groups of researchers that are embracing new technology to monitor deforestation from a bird's eye view.
Rainforests, as the name suggests, are often rainy which means they are also frequently cloudy. This can make it difficult for satellite observation as standard optical technology can't see through clouds, haze or smoke and the delays make it harder for environmental agencies to respond.
However this month WRI launched alerts using radar data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites which cover the tropics every six to 12 days, thus reducing the delay typically associated with detecting deforestation, said Global Forest Watch project manager Mikaela Weisse said in a blog post.
"Using RADD (Radar for Detecting Deforestation) alerts, forest monitors will be able to react to deforestation sooner than ever, which will give them an edge in preventing further loss.”
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