August 29, 2023

Why are forests so important for life on Earth?

Over a third of the planet is covered in forest. Rainforests, kelp forests, pine forests, coniferous forests… Each is home to an abundance of connected ecosystems that rely on each other to survive and thrive. From all the weird and wonderful creatures that call the forest home to climate magic, we will explore why forests aren't just amazing — they're absolutely essential for our survival. 

Why are forests so important?

Forests of all sizes play a very important role in the health of the earth. They are home to more than half of the world’s land-based animals, plants and insects and support the livelihoods of approximately 1.6 billion people. Forests are so much more than just areas of trees, plants, shrubs and dirt — they’re the lungs of the planet, producing a significant amount of the oxygen we breathe. 

Forest landscape
Forests are the lungs of the planet

Forests are also one of our key impact areas, alongside animals and oceans. We chose forests because of the importance they have to biodiversity around the world.  

Forests act as carbon sinks

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has grown significantly in the last 100 years. Overuse of fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) have caused the world to heat up with disastrous outcomes. The sudden change in our climate has meant that heatwaves, floods, droughts and storms have become more frequent. Forests help the planet fight back. 

Billions of creatures large and small call forests home

The Earth's carbon cycle involves the continuous exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, oceans, soil, and forests. Through the carbon cycle, forests remove some of this excess carbon from the atmosphere. These “carbon sinks” play a crucial role in counteracting the effects of climate change by absorbing and storing carbon from the air. Other natural carbon sinks are the oceans and soil

Forests clean our air

Through photosynthesis, trees and plants release oxygen into the air. Plants absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide to create fuel in the form of sugar which helps them grow. A byproduct of this process is oxygen, which means plants (and forests) are responsible for producing much of the breathable oxygen on Earth! The density of forests also means they can act like natural air filters. They trap matter which can be harmful to humans and animals in their leaves and branches, such as dust, pollen and other pollutants. This gives us fresher, cleaner oxygen!

A lush
Forests make the air clean and breathable

Forests are giant, open-air pharmacies!

Did you know that many of the world’s most important and revolutionary medical treatments come directly from forests? The leaves and bark from all kinds of trees are used for medicinal purposes by various cultures around the world. Here are some examples:

  • White Willow (Salix alba): The bark of white willow contains salicin, which is a natural compound similar to aspirin and can be used as an anti-inflammatory and pain-reliever.
  • Yew Tree (Taxus spp.): The bark of yew trees contains taxanes, compounds which are used in cancer treatment. 
  • Quinine Tree (Cinchona spp.): The bark of this tree is used to treat malaria.
  • Eucalyptus Tree (Eucalyptus spp.): Eucalyptus leaves contain essential oils that have been used in ointment for joint pain or to relieve congestion. 
  • Birch Tree (Betula spp.): Birch bark contains betulin and betulinic acid, which has the potential to treat viruses.
  • Cascara Sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana): The bark of cascara sagrada has been used as a natural laxative.
  • Red Alder (Alnus rubra): Red alder bark has been long used by indigenous communities for its antimicrobial properties.
  • Bandicoot berry (Leea indica): This berry is used to treat certain kinds of cancers such as uterus cancer and intestinal cancer.

Forests create important microclimates

The Earth’s climate is constantly changing; summer, spring, winter, fall — changes in the temperature throughout the year do more than just mark the passage of time. The changes in climate control the life cycle of plants and animals. 

Depiction of a microclimate
Microclimates foster unique ecosystems over small areas

While all life within forests is subject to changing seasons, their vast canopies provide shade from the sun, while their density protects areas from wind or rain. This means the forest is full of many smaller microclimates. Areas with a different temperature, humidity, wind pattern, or precipitation from the broader regional climate can be considered a microclimate. 

Microclimates are important for biodiversity. They cool down (or warm up) parts of the forest floor, and offer good protection from the elements. All the plants, animals, insects, fungi, birds, etc that call their forest home need to interact with these microclimates to survive. They create a diversity of habitats, offer refuge for various species and provide ecosystems with resilience from diseases, invasive species and extreme weather events. 

Forests are crucial for our well-being

As well as producing much of the air we breathe and regulating the climate, forests are deeply meaningful to human beings. Cultures all over the world revere the forest; drawing peace, learnings and connection from its trees. For many cultures, forests are deeply entangled with tradition and community. Spending time in natural environments such as forests has been proven to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and promote mental and emotional well-being. 

A fox in the wild
Being out in nature is vital for human health

For us, forests are many things; places of sacred beauty, spirituality and myth, home to bountiful biodiversity, economic opportunities, adventure, and survival. When forests are destroyed, it can deeply impact the mental health of individuals and communities that derive their livelihoods and meaning from their connection to this environment. 

Forests are nature’s shield against natural disasters

Forests in storm-prone areas can act as windbreaks, slowing down wind speed and reducing the dispersion of harmful airborne particles and pollutants. Mangrove and kelp forests can reduce the impact of waves and storm surges, serving as a first line of defense against flooding and a safe haven for sealife.

A kelp forest
Not all forests are made of trees

Tree roots also play an important role in binding soil together to reduce the risk of landslides during heavy rainfall or seismic events. Microclimates help forests retain moisture, making them less susceptible to catching fire during warmer months. Forests form a safe haven for billions of plants and animals. Increased biodiversity makes ecosystems more resilient so species can adapt to disturbances and recover after disasters faster.

Protecting our forests is more important than ever before

Forests large and small are critical for the health and survival of life on the planet, which is why we need to protect these key habitats from destruction. Deforestation, climate change, wildfires, exploitation, hunting and various other human activities are causing chaos to these delicate ecosystems. While only covering 30% of the world, forests are home to 80 percent of all amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species and 68 percent of mammal species. 

An area of forest where trees have been cut down
We need to protect our forests

In the last 10,000 years, it’s estimated that 2 billion hectares of forest has been cleared to grow crops, raise livestock and use for fuel. That’s an area twice the size of the United States. Most of this loss has occurred in the last 300 years alone. All that forest was once home to billions of species now lost to extinction. Striving to protect the world’s forests means safeguarding the planet's health, preserving biodiversity, fighting back against climate change and securing resources for future generations.

Do you want to help us protect the world’s forests? Become a Planet Wild member today!

A bison wearing sunglasses

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