Can we save the rainforests?

Students and faculty at MC recently mobilized to bring awareness to the multifaceted challenge of global warming. One of the most significant contributors to this complex problem is deforestation of the rainforests of South America.

According to analysis of satellite data, tropical forests are being destroyed at a rate of about 31,000 square miles a year. Some of the deforestation is done in efforts to provide wood for fuel, cooking and construction, but most is done in efforts to make the land available for agriculture and livestock. 

“A big mistake lots of people make is they say the rainforest is on fire,” said Dr. David Unger, associate professor of Biology. “The rainforest is being burned, and it is nearing the tipping point. The fundamental weather has changed. Based on the latitude alone, the rainforest is much cooler and wetter than it should be because it makes the conditions to heal itself.”

According to a study focusing on the Brazilian Atlantic forest, certain aspects of the rainforest can return surprisingly quickly—within 65 years—but for the environment to truly regain its native identity takes a lot longer—up to 4000 years.

This can only happen if we reduce the rate of deforestation. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), enough rainforest is destroyed each year to cover the country of Panama; that’s roughly one and one-half acres of rainforest lost every second.

“When well-intentioned people burn a half acre of firewood to heat their food, they are just trying to survive,” said Dr. Mark O’Gorman, professor of Political Science and coordinator for Environmental Studies. “There are two stressors at play here: the deforestation itself and the fragmenting of the remaining forest.”

Non-forest lands threaten the forest by degrading habitat, increasing land erosion, reducing diversity, increasing invasive plants and pests, and reducing water quality. The South American rainforest affects weather here in Tennessee, as well, according to Unger. 

“Rainforests actually produce moisture, and lots of that moisture is carried by the gulf stream to the South Eastern United States,” Unger said. It would be much drier and hotter here if it weren’t for this. 

“We have a rainforest right here in our back yard,” O’Gorman said. “The great Smokey Mountains is the most biodiverse area on the planet. For every bit, we help the Amazon rainforest we help ours ten-fold. And there’s lots we can do as individuals—even more as groups.”

“The Amazon rainforest is the biggest place where we can understand how plants breathe,” O’Gorman said. “It’s a carbon sink. It takes carbon out of the atmosphere and puts oxygen back in. It’s estimated to produce 10 to 20 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere. We’ve got to make choices. Will the planet we’re used to be here in 150 years?”

“Don’t assume one person can’t make a difference,” Unger said. “Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old activist, just pulled off the global climate strike. Millions of people, in one voice, said something has to be done.”

“Educate yourself,” O’Gorman said. “Then educate others on how we can change our behaviors to make a smaller carbon footprint.”

“Get involved with an environmental group—especially their education projects,” Unger said. “When it comes to voting, you’ve got to vote to make a change, college age people especially. Vote for people who share ideas and priorities with you. Remember, mother nature doesn’t care about our politics, intentions or regrets.” In just the last 40 years, rainforests roughly equal to the size of Europe are gone, according to the UNFAO. At current rates, the world’s rainforests will vanish altogether in about 100 years.

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