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News Article

Knock-on effects of deforestation

Deforestation on one side of the USA projected to lead to forest loss on the other

The effects of deforestation locally can have numerous detrimental effects to the immediate environment including drier soils, stronger winds, higher erosion and loss of shade and habitat. But a recent study by the University of Washington published in Environmental Research Letters has looked further afield to determine what the consequences may be for vegetation thousands of miles away. At first thought, many of us might assume very little but through a combination of atmospheric modelling and projections of vegetation response the study has uncovered the worrying possibility that forests in Eastern USA may be declining as a result of large scale deforestation on the opposite coast.

The study divided the US into 18 ecological regions as defined by the National Ecological Observationary Network. The 13 most heavily wooded regions were then experimentally removed and the effect on vegetation growth in other regions of the country recorded. The results the authors found were surprising; the area which had the lowest level of tree cover, the Pacific Southwest, was found to have the largest impact across the country when removed. Other Western regions, such as the Northern Rockies and the Great Basin region were also found to produce a similar effect, with the fallout being concentrated on the Eastern Coast. The reason behind this is not fully understood but it is suspected that it would make summers in Eastern USA warmer, retarding plant growth.

“Forest loss is disrupting or changing the flow patterns in the atmosphere that is leading to a slightly different summertime climate in the eastern part of the country,” Swann said. “It’s very analogous to El Niño or ‘the blob,’ something that’s occurring that causes the atmosphere to move around, which causes these warmer or cooler conditions, or wetter and drier conditions, somewhere else.” said first author Abigail Swann, a UW assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and of biology.

Whilst these results may be surprising to some, the authors note that atmospheric researchers have been aware of these long-reaching consequences for much longer. In fact this paper is not the first use of this modelling to examine the effects of large scale deforestation; a 2016 paper focused on the Amazon Rainforest, removing much larger forested areas to examine the global effects.

What is most concerning about the results presented in this paper is that they may already be playing out in reality. Forests in the USA can be lost to drought, forest fire and disease, indeed California has lost in excess of 130 million trees in the last 8 years meaning that detrimental effects may already be being felt on the Eastern coast at levels too small to currently detect. The reasons behind this ongoing decrease in California may be the effects of drought increasing the trees vulnerability to pests and disease. As temperatures increase globally, drought and subsequent pest and pathogen infestation are also increasing meaning these trends are likely to continue. These effects are of course not only limited to the US and the cross-disciplinary modelling used in this paper will be key to predicting how forests will respond to patterns of deforestation in the future.


Read the full paper here: Swann, A.L., Laguë, M.M., Garcia, E.S., Field, J.P., Breshears, D.D., Moore, D.J., Saleska, S.R., Stark, S.C., Villegas, J.C., Law, D.J. and Minor, D.M., 2018. Continental-scale consequences of tree die-offs in North America: identifying where forest loss matters most. Environmental Research Letters, 13(5), p.055014.


Read the original press release here:


To find over 2500 similar papers use the search string below in the Forest Science Database:

(deforest* OR “forest loss*”) AND (“remote sensing”) OR landsat OR GIS) AND (climate* OR atmospher*)

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Ellen Baker
  • Date
  • 18 June 2018
  • Source
  • University of washington
  • Subject(s)
  • Environment