What is the state of the world’s forests?

Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Forests and Global Change reflects on the state of the world’s forests on International Day of Forests

Aerial view of a forest

In celebration of the International Day of Forests, commemorated worldwide on 21 March, Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Forests and Global Change reflects on the state of the world’s forests and how little or how much we understand them.

— by Mark A. Adams, Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Forests and Global Change

Professor Mark A. Adams, Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Forests and Global Change
Professor Mark A. Adams, Field Chief Editor

The space and pace of change

In a shrinking world — a world where anyone can now easily see and talk to anyone else on the other side of the planet in real time, and travel to them faster than ever before — forests are an epitomic reminder that understanding the spatial and temporal dimensions of change is arguably a “grand challenge” of our age.  In many respects, this is a restatement of ideals that have long guided forest research; the search for understanding of “patterns and processes”.

Forests record history and are home to biological diversity

For thousands of years, people have regarded forests with awe.  The vast areas of contiguous tropical and boreal forests, and the tremendous size of the world’s biggest hardwood and coniferous trees, drove people to engage with forests: first as resources and for shelter and food, but increasingly as a subject for scientific investigation.  Recognition of the longevity of many trees and their consequent indelible and century scale recording of natural disturbances, climate and management, has served for decades to inspire scientists. More recent understanding that forests contain a very significant proportion of the world’s biological diversity and provide significant ecosystem services to every person on the planet, has enhanced the forest research prerogative.

Related Research Topic: African Forest Livelihoods

Decreasing contact with forests and the services they provide

Worldwide, people regard forests as symbols of nature, and want to retain the values inherent to forests.  But an ever-increasing proportion of people in developed countries live in urban areas and a declining proportion have first-hand forest experience.  This contrasts with the many millions of people who still live in and depend directly on forests in developing countries.  In the not-too-distant future, however, and as evidenced by the extraordinary rate of economic progress in some of the world’s most populous developing countries, the proportion of national populations having direct experience of forests will be very small, everywhere.  Relatively few people will have first-hand experience or understanding of how forests grow and regrow, of how they provide the ecosystem goods and services we need, of how they interact with the atmosphere, and of how forest fauna and flora interact with each other, and with humans.

In the Anthropocene, forest scientists thus have a tremendous responsibility to both increase knowledge and understanding, and then convey that knowledge and understanding to fellow scientists, to the public, and to policy makers, free of bias or ideology. 

Related Research Topic: Improving Environmental Sustainability in Oil Palm: Linking Science, Policy, & Practice across the Tropics

Forests present special challenges in that ‘generation times’ are long; trees can live for hundreds of years, adapting as they grow to changing environmental conditions.  One of the key — and most difficult — tasks of forest scientists is thus to distill changes in forest patterns and processes driven by long-term unidirectional changes in the environment or management, from those induced by hour-to-hour, day-to-day, or year-to-year variation in conditions, or by catastrophic and episodic events that range from ice storms to wildfire. 

Related Research Topics:

Land-use Change Impacts on Tropical Ecosystems

Fire, Flood, and Fury – Forest Ecophysiological Response to Extreme Events

Frontiers in Forests and Global Change is a vehicle for conveying the latest, most significant forest research, and for helping the research community communicate often difficult, long-term understandings to the rest of the world.

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