Editor’s Note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire, taking a serious and entertaining world of possibilities for the world and the human race. He is also the author of “The Doomsday Book”.
RALEIGH- In last week’s column, we discussed the massive risk that the Thwaites Glacier poses to the global human population. It turns out that thousands upon thousands of people read this column, and many were hearing about this threat for the first time. It’s a horrible situation all around if this glacier goes down. Therefore, humanity as a global species must prevent this from happening.
Now let’s move on to another global tragedy that is also looming on the horizon: the collapse of the rainforest. Why should humanity do all it can to prevent rainforests from collapsing?
This is the rainforest problem in a nutshell. If the Amazon rainforest collapses, it will release hundreds of gigatons of new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Humanity already releases gigatons of carbon dioxide every year by burning fossil fuels. But with the collapse of the rainforest, we’re talking about another explosion of hundreds of gigatons. This new carbon dioxide will accelerate global warming and climate change – it will cause our planet to warm up even faster. Antarctica’s ice and glaciers will therefore melt even faster, causing sea levels to rise ever higher.
Additionally, the resulting heat wave could render much of the planet uninhabitable for humans. In these places, it will simply be too hot to go out without protection. All things considered, allowing rainforests to collapse is an incredible recipe for global disaster.
The good news, as we will see below, is that humanity can prevent the collapse of Earth’s rainforests if we act now. In fact, we can expand rainforests and in the process extract significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than rejecting it. But first, let’s take a look at the context.
Understanding the Earth’s Rainforests
Although few of us have been there, chances are we’ve all heard of the Amazon rainforest. Let’s look at some quick facts to get an idea of the place:
- The Amazon rainforest is gigantic, at around 2.6 million square miles. It is about the same size as the contiguous 48 United States, which is about the same size as the Australian continent.
- The majority of the Amazon rainforest exists in Brazil, but it also extends into Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, etc.
- The Amazon rainforest contains approximately 390 million trees.
- The Amazon rainforest contains an astonishing diversity of life on Earth: 16,000 species of trees, 24,000 species of other plants, and millions of species of insects.
- There are other rainforests on Earth, including Central America, Congo, and Southeast Asia. The Amazon rainforest is about as big as all the other rainforests combined.
The thing to focus on is that huge number of trees. Each tree contains about 50% carbon and large trees can weigh several tons. When a tree burns or decays, most of that carbon turns into carbon dioxide and ends up in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, humans are burning and chain-sawing the rainforest at an alarming rate right now. You can watch a time-lapse video like this – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4eLTYUcj7k – to see how fast and fast the destruction happens. Much of this plunder occurs in the name of agriculture. For example, farmers will burn acres of rainforest to plant soybeans which will then be exported to China. This is a foolish practice considering that these activities will eventually cause the rainforest to collapse.
Hit Yourself and Beware: Doomsday Glacier is a Global Risk
Why will the rainforest collapse? Because the rainforest depends on a repeating cycle that looks like this:
- Rain is falling in the rainforest
- All trees absorb rain and transpire water into the air through their leaves.
- This sweaty moisture becomes clouds again, and we return to #1.
Once humans cut down too many trees, this cycle breaks. The rain will stop and the rainforest will die. In the worst case, we end up with another Sahara desert instead of a rainforest. In the next worst-case scenario, the rainforest turns into grassy savannah. In both cases, hundreds of gigatons of carbon dioxide end up in the atmosphere and the planet heats up even more.
Solutions to Collapsed Rainforests
How can humanity solve this problem? How can the world’s human population prevent the collapse of tropical forests?
The most obvious solution is for humanity, as a global species, to declare these essential rainforests as Earth’s first global parks. In the United States, Yellowstone was the world’s first national park in 1872. Now, 150 years later, it’s time to create massive global parks that protect rainforests (and other important ecosystems) from the world. ‘collapse.
Under the world park model, humanity would declare the Amazon rainforest and other rainforests essential and vital global protectorates.
- We would remove destructive human activity from these rainforests.
- We would convert all agricultural fields and human developments back to rainforest.
- We would expand these rainforests as much as possible.
In the process, we would A) prevent rainforest collapse and B) absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as rainforests heal and regenerate.
This system of global parks, whose goal is to protect, heal and increase the world’s rainforests, is an obvious and rational step for the global human species to take. Every human being on the planet will suffer significant damage from the collapse of the world’s rainforests. Even so, there are people who argue the opposite – who try to promote the burning and destruction of rainforests. Their thinking goes something like this:
“Who are you to prevent Brazil from exploiting its natural resources? If Brazil wants to burn every square centimeter of the Amazon rainforest and cultivate everything, that’s its right.
The problem with this thought is that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest will harm every living thing on planet Earth. Additionally, there are a large number of activities that were once legal but are now illegal because human beings have learned and progressed over the years. An example of this is slavery – once legal, it is now illegal. Leaded gasoline is another. Freon-12 as a refrigerant is another, banned globally in the 1980s and 1990s by the Montreal Protocol. All are illegal today. We now understand that these practices pose significant threats to humanity, even though they were once ubiquitous. The destruction of rainforests now falls into the same category – it must completely stop and be reversed. For the global ecosystem to survive, rainforests cannot collapse. We must outlaw development in the rainforests to avoid a global catastrophe that we know will soon be here if not.
Will humanity as a whole be able to do something to prevent the collapse of the planet’s rainforests? Hopefully the human species can come together and make this goal a reality. Otherwise, when the rainforests collapse, we will have a real global catastrophe on our hands and billions of people will be crushed by the effects.