Forests provide a significant number of ecosystem services to humans. I think a lot of people generally think of forest as being useful in only one way – the timber that is produced. This is only a fraction of their importance. I thought in this post we could take a look at why forests play a highly important role in environmental systems.
Forests have the ability to soak up large quantities of water and prevent or reduce flooding. A large healthy tree of about 30 metres in height will consume about 50 M3 of water in a growing season. That is just one tree, if we think of this for a forest when there are maybe hundreds of trees or more we have a significant amount of water consumption. This means that forests offer an important service to help prevent flooding. They almost act like a natural sponge.
We should also be aware of the rainwater interception. The canopy of a forest has the ability to capture and disseminate rainfall. You may be asking why is that important? Well, the process of interception significantly reduces throughfall of water to the ground. The water that is intercepted evaporates back to the atmosphere. This process is particularly important in areas that are humid and temperate. If an area is deforested then it can significantly increase the flow of water into a river.
Forests are extremely biodiverse ecosystems, they provide a home for many different types of animals, plants and microorganisms. As such forests serve as a storeroom for important medicines that are used to treat illness. It has been estimated for example that around three quarters of prescription drugs are derived from plants, many of which grow in forests. There is still however much potential with few tree species actually having been studied for potential use.
There’s no doubt about it forests are good for the soil in numerous ways. Trees ensure the cohesion of soil. Even a fairly small tree will have a significant root structure that binds the soil in place. This is particularly important during periods of heavy rain or on hillsides with steep gradients preventing erosion of soil. Deforestation areas can and has led to the formation of deserts as fertile topsoil is removed and few other plant species can survive.
Forests take in a massive amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. It is converted to timber as a tree grows. Forests therefore act as significant carbon sinks or reservoirs. Unfortunately, if an area is deforested by burning, as often occurs, the trees become a source of carbon dioxide as the locked away carbon is returned to the atmosphere contributing to climate change.
Recreation and Cultural Value
Forests are generally nice places to visit. In a former life I used to be into mountain biking on forest trails around the U.K. Forest‘s also have significant amenity value for hikers, wildlife watchers and hunters. This value provides a significant amount of well being and provides revenue for the local community, where there are often limited other means of making revenue. We should not forget that forests also have a religious value to some cultures.
I have touched upon this one above, but I think it is worth a category in its own right. Forests play an important role in reducing the risk of disaster scenarios. As we mentioned above forest’s have the ability to prevent flooding in addition to landslides. Mangroves also have the ability to act as a buffer between the coast and human communities reducing the extent of coastal floods.
The importance to human life that forests provide is amazing. When I read stories about significant amounts of deforestation occurring around the world it really does make me sad. I have only touched upon a few of the reasons as to why forests should be conserved in this post but even the reasons alone outline the importance of forest to humanity in addition to other species.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.