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Why Are Rainforests Important? 

Rainforests surpass other ecosystems when it comes to the amount of rainfall, accommodating about half the total species of flora and fauna. But there's more to why rainforests are important. The article covers the varied kinds of rainforests and dives into the necessity for their preservation. It also discusses the threats they face and the strategies for their conservation.

What is a rainforest?  

rainforest daytime
Photo by CRYSTAL MIRALLEGRO on Unsplash.

Rainforests, the biomes experiencing the highest annual rainfall, stand as one of the earth's most intricate and ancient ecosystems, hosting many plant and animal species. These valuable habitats fall into two categories - tropical and temperate rainforests.

While both showcase significant rainfall, tropical rainforests hold a warmth that temperate rainforests lack. Regrettably, most temperate rainforests have suffered destruction and constitute only 0.3% of our planet's surface.

Tropical rainforests provide habitats of dense vegetation, large trees, and vibrant greenery in the equator region. However, the soils of these areas, Oxisols and Ultisols, tend to be rich in rainfall but poor in nutrients due to excessive nutrient utilization by the local flora.

Conversely, temperate forest soils are nutrient-rich. They primarily comprise Andisols, formed from volcanic ash residues; Spodosols, a light, sandy variety; and nutrient-dense Alfisols.

A substantial 40% to 75% of the world's biotic species call rainforests home. A single hectare of rainforest can house as many as 42,000 insect species, 1,500 varieties of higher plants, and 807 trees spanning 313 species. Moreover, it's plausible that millions of yet-to-be-discovered plant, animal, and microbe species reside within these lush biomes.

The five major regions in the world with tropical forests are tropical America, Africa, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Madagascar. Some smaller tropical forests exist in Australia. Antarctica is the only region without a rainforest. 

What is the significance of rainforests?   

1. Protects Diverse Biodiversity.

hornbill in rainforest
Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.

About 80% of the world’s documented plants and animals live in rainforests. These forests have various layers that support many species. For instance, tall trees with large canopies provide food and shelter to sloths and toucans.

Birds, reptiles, birds, and jaguars live in the middle layer of a rainforest, while insects, fungi, and microorganisms inhabit the forest floor. The loss of the rainforest ecosystem means thousands of species lose their home and chance for survival.

Rainforests are a biological treasure trove. Their enormous biodiversity ensures the cycle of life continues. They have existed for millions of years, facilitating the evolution of various species, and will continue to do so as long as we protect the ecosystem.   

2. Rainforests Control Erosion and Flooding.

Rainforests soak up excess rainwater, preventing runoff and erosion. Their high water retention ability controls the amount and timing of the water released into groundwater and nearby waterways. 

The dense canopy and root network slow down rainfall, reducing its impact on the ground. The forest floor has more time to absorb rainwater because it doesn’t hit the ground directly. Also, dense root networks prevent soil runoff during heavy rainfall by binding the soil together. 

Rainforest plants, trees, and grasses act as sponges by absorbing and holding water. Buffering rainfall reduces the chances of contaminated and polluted water entering streams, lakes, and rivers, protecting aquatic animals and plants.

They also have a high rate of evaporation and transpiration. The plants release water stored through their pores back into the atmosphere, reducing the chances of flooding and erosion.

3. They Produce Oxygen.

tropical rainforest
Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY 4.0 (Cropped from original).

People often refer to rainforests as the lungs of the earth because of the significant amount of oxygen they produce. Rainforests are important because they produce up to 20% of the world’s oxygen. They do this through a process called photosynthesis. 

Most of the world’s plants do this, but the rainforest has a significant impact because it has denser vegetation and trees. The trees absorb carbon dioxide and release it into the atmosphere as the oxygen we breathe in. 

Without rainforests, the greenhouse effect from human activities would lead to global warming. 

4. The Rainforest Provides Most Of The Foods We Consume.

A rainforest ecosystem is crucial because it produces most of what we eat. The Amazon rainforest has lots of nuts and fruits essential to human survival. It produces spices and flavorings like cardamom, cloves, black pepper, and cinnamon. Rainforests also produce edible oils like coconut and palm oils. Without the rainforests, we wouldn’t have access to the foods we enjoy today. 

The rainforest is also a crucial source of some of our products. For instance, the Amazon rainforest contains different tree and plant species used to make fibers for textiles, furniture, paper products, and construction purposes.   

5. It Is Home To Indigenous People.

Various rainforests are home to indigenous people who depend on the resources they provide. It is a crucial aspect of their culture, so they have special knowledge about plant species and the animals in the forest. 

Indigenous people depend on the forest for shelter, food, medicine, and other materials. They preserve the ecosystem because they believe the nature surrounding them is sacred, and future generations will also imbibe its cultural significance. 

6. Rainforests Regulate The Water Cycle.

stream in rainforest
Photo by Allan Carvalho on Pexels.

Rainforests regulate the water cycle by absorbing moisture in their roots, stems, and leaves and releasing them into the atmosphere. In the Amazon rainforest, the plants and vegetation hold more than half of the water in the ecosystem. 

The water vapor released into the atmosphere creates clouds and brings more rain. Then, the tree roots redirect the precipitation into waterways. Without the regulation of the water cycle, the climate becomes drier, and agriculture becomes more difficult. 

The precipitation released by Amazon rainforests affects areas hundreds of miles away. The moisture reaches the midwest region of the United States.

7. Tropical rainforests have medicinal plant species.

The rainforest has many plant species that researchers use to formulate pharmaceutical remedies. 25% of the drugs made in Western medicine and 70% of the world’s plants with anti-cancer qualities are in the rainforest. We need to conserve rainforests to preserve the future of Western medicine1.

8. Rainforest Plants Remove Carbon Dioxide And Other Greenhouse Gas Emissions From The Atmosphere.  

borneo rainforest
Photo by Dukeabruzzi on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Rainforests prevent climate change and global warming by acting as carbon sinks. They absorb carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions better than any other ecosystem. The Amazon rainforest absorbs about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. 

We produce these greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels and other human activities. Every part of the rain forest, root networks, dense vegetation, and soil stores tons of carbon dioxide and processes it through photosynthesis. These processes nourish nature and promote its growth. They also provide the oxygen we need for survival.

Causes Of Rainforest Destruction   

1. Wildfire  

wildfire
Photo by Идеологист on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (Cropped from original).

Over the past few years, we have lost forests to countless wildfires. Brazil's rainforests experienced over 121,000 fire outbreaks in 2019, and it just keeps getting worse. These fire outbreaks were unnatural because natural wildfires cannot occur in humid areas. These are fires caused by humans. 

Farmers and cattle ranchers intentionally set fires to forests as a slash-and-burn agricultural method. They burn forests to clear land for crops and livestock because the ash left behind on the soil acts as fertilizers for the crops. In most cases, the fires spread far beyond the intended area, especially during the dry season (August - September). 

Also, climate change is contributing to the spreading of these fires. Rainforests are not as humid as they used to be, so they burn faster. These fires further increase the risks of global warming. 

2. Deforestation 

deforestation
Photo by Tom Vanhoof on Unsplash.

Deforestation is a major threat to forests around the world. It refers to the felling of trees to make room for other land uses, such as agricultural practices or construction. Although deforestation can occur due to natural disasters, it is also caused by our activities. 

We clear large forest areas for many reasons, including mining, cattle ranching, agriculture, commercial logging, and urbanization. The demand for natural resources like minerals and fossil fuels is the reason behind the mining activities in the Amazon.

Also, soybean production contributes to the rampant deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest. There's a high demand for soybeans and its products, and the Amazon is the best choice for farmers because of its nutritious soil quality. Farmers chose to clear acres of forest because it's the easiest and cheapest solution for mass production. 

Brazilians have one of the highest beef exportation rates in the world. By freeing land for cattle ranching, they contribute to Amazon deforestation. Furthermore, the demand for paper products and furniture contributes to the rainforest's decline.

Manufacturers cut down trees to make these products. The rapid increase in the human population also causes an increase in urbanization. This means forests are cleared to provide room for more roads, bridges, houses, and other infrastructure.

These activities also cause environmental pollution that can harm the indigenous people and biodiversity in the rainforest. For instance, mining operations release many pollutants that contaminate waterways and harm aquatic species. 

Deforestation also harms wildlife living in forests. Animals depend on the tropical rainforest for shelter and food. Destroying the forest fragments habitat, causing the extinction of many animals.

3. Climate change  

air pollution
Photo by Ella Ivanescu on Unsplash.

Climate change occurs because our activities produce toxic gases and trap heat in the atmosphere. It reduces the humidity of rainforests, making it difficult for the trees and plants to survive. 

The forest loses its ability to generate rainfall, slowly turning into a dry savannah. As the forest dries faster, the chances of a wildfire spreading across great distances increase. The degradation of the rainforest ecosystem also puts wildlife species at risk of extinction. 

Rainforest Conservation 

young tree
Photo by Lauri Poldre on Pexels.

We have lost a large percentage of the rainforests in the world decades ago, and we will keep losing these troves of untapped potential if we don’t set up practices and policies that protect them. Some ways to protect rainforests are: 

1. Raising awareness 

The first step in protecting the environment is spreading awareness about rainforest threats. Educate the public on how to contribute to exploiting the rainforest ecosystem. 

However, it's not enough to be aware of the problem without working towards a change. Also, they should be educated on ways to protect the troves of untapped potential around them.

2. Reforestation  

Reforestation is the replacement of trees that were destroyed. The replacement is not a random tree species. It must be the species native to the environment. For example, the Amazon rainforest has native faunas like the deciduous Brazil nut and Kapok trees.

Many brands have a sustainability policy stating that some proceeds from product sales go to tree-planting initiatives. Conservation International partnered with the Brazilian government and other organizations to plant 73 million trees to replace trees destroyed in South America2.

3. Setting tougher laws and policies 

The government must enforce stricter laws to protect the Amazon, Indonesia rainforest, and other rainforests. There should be fines and punishments for deforestation and wildlife trafficking.

Conclusion: Why Are Rainforests Important? 

Rainforests are home to indigenous people and various plant and animal species. They protect biodiversity, regulate climate change, and provide food and medicines. We can preserve the rainforest ecosystem by raising awareness and setting stricter laws.  

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.

Photo by Chris 73 on Wikimedia Commons licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 (Cropped from original).
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