Global deforestation continued at an alarming pace in 2021, according to an annual report released by the World Resources Institute. A total of 43,000 square miles of forest were lost, of which about a third occurred in primary or “virgin” tropical forests. Per CNN, that means primary forests were destroyed at the “equivalent of 10 soccer fields every minute.” The WRI analysis used satellite imagery to track changes in tree cover, or canopy. Most forest loss was a result of logging, agriculture, mining, roadbuilding, and other types of development, but wildfires were also a major factor.
Researchers say global warming is contributing directly to the wildfire threat as warmer temperatures and shifting rain patterns leave many forests vulnerable to widespread destruction. This includes the Boreal forests, which stretch across Canada, Alaska, and Russia and experienced the “highest loss of tree cover on record last year.” In turn, scientists say, more fires lead to more carbon emissions and more warming, thus creating feedback loops that compound the environmental threat. And because all forests serve as natural "carbon sinks"—where carbon is captured and stored in plants and soils—deforestation releases even more carbon into the atmosphere, thereby feeding the loop.
The WRI report included a shred of good news, as there is evidence that government and corporate actions are reducing forest loss in some countries. For example, per the New York Times, Indonesia tightened restrictions on the palm oil industry after widespread fires in 2016 “resulted in a huge loss of tree cover and widespread severe air pollution.” But destruction of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest might negate progress in other places, as deforestation threatens to push the region past a vital threshold that could “release enough carbon into the atmosphere to blow the Paris Agreement goals right out of the water,” according to Francis Seymour, senior fellow at WRI. On a related note, the Washington Post reports that Americans’ appetite for beef is a major contributor to Amazon deforestation, especially since President Jair Bolsonaro paved the way for more rainforest to be cleared for cattle grazing. (Read more deforestation stories.)