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The Human Impact on the World’s Forests

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World Forest Cover Map

Source: Global forest Watch

world forest cover map

Snapshot of the World’s Forests

View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.

Forests cover over 30% of the world’s land, but human activity is chipping away at the tree line.

At the outset of the 20th century, there was approximately 31 million square miles (50 million square km) of forest around the world. Today, that number has shrunk to less than 25 million square miles (40 million square km). Much of this decline can be attributed to expanding agricultural land use and increasing demand for wood and paper products.

Forest Gain and Loss Animation

Source: World Bank

The growth and decline of forest cover is hardly uniform. Deserts, farmland, and urban areas ebb and flow around the world, and while some countries are rapidly removing trees from their ecosystem, others are seeing increases in their forest cover.

Receding Leaf Line

Since 1990, global forested area has shrunk by 2 million square miles (3.1 million square km), with many of those losses occurring in South America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gained Forest Area Chart

The Amazon Rainforest, one of the most important carbon sinks on the planet, has faced intense pressure from human activity over the last few decades. Brazil’s expanding network of roads has been critical for economic development, but the landscape often pays the price as the country increases its GDP per capita.

Amazon Deforestation
Rainforest turns to farmland in Brazil’s Rondônia state: 1984–2016

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Africa is grappling with deforestation.

West Africa, for example, has lost a shocking 90% of its forest cover over the last century – in a number of countries, all of the forest outside of protected areas has been logged, while illegal logging threatens parks and reserves.

If nothing is done, we may lose everything.

– Abraham Baffoe, Africa regional director at Proforest

Forest Renewal

Images of slash-and-burn land clearing and denuded hillsides grab the headlines, however, there are a few places in the world where forests are expanding.

Europe, in particular, has seen widespread regeneration of forests over the past century.

Reforestation in Europe

Source: Wageningen

China is another, perhaps surprising, place where there have been big increases in forested areas.

Each year, dust storms blowing in from the expanding Gobi Desert displace as much as 800 square miles (2,000 square km) of topsoil and damage crops adjacent to the expanding desert. In response, the government created the Three-North Shelterbelt Program, which they hope will halt desertification. Thousands of miles of newly-planted vegetation will act like a wall, containing the spread of the Gobi Desert.

The Big Picture

Activities that lead to deforestation differ from region to region, but they’re always economic in nature. Palm oil, logging, raising cattle, and even charcoal production are all ways people can pull themselves out of poverty in developing countries.

The good news is that as per capita incomes in developing countries continue to rise, pressure on forests should lessen.

This theory is best visualized by Kuznets Curve, which demonstrates a link between economic development and environmental degradation.

kuznets curve countries
Click here to view the full sized version.

In regions with lax enforcement, corruption, and a large population of people living below the poverty line, deforestation could remain a problem until economic conditions improve. Thankfully, the five countries with the most forest cover – Russia, Brazil, Canada, U.S., and China – are on or are moving towards a more favorable side of the curve.

Another bright spot in this story is that governments are increasingly protecting habitat in the form of nature reserves and national parks. Since 1990, the amount of nationally protected land in the world has nearly doubled.

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Understanding How the Air Quality Index Works

This graphic breaks down how the air quality index is measured, and looks at which regions are hardest hit by atmospheric pollution and wildfires.

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how air quality works

Understanding How the Air Quality Index Works

Air quality levels have received a lot of attention in recent months.

In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, many places reported a marked increase in air quality. Northern India captured the world’s attention when it was reported that the Himalayan mountain range was visible for the first time in decades.

On the flipside, later in the summer, wildfires swept over the Pacific Northwest and California, blanketing entire regions with a thick shroud of smoke that spanned hundreds of miles.

How is air quality measured, and what goes into the health scores we see?

Measuring the Air Quality Index

When we see that air quality is “good” or “unhealthy”, those public health categories are derived from the Air Quality Index (AQI).

In the U.S., the AQI is calculated using four major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act:

  • Ground-level ozone
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Sulfur dioxide
  • Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter

Some countries have a slightly different way of calculating their scores. For example, India also measures levels of ammonia and lead in the air.

To make these readings more accessible, the AQI has a scoring system that runs from 0 to 500, using data collected from air monitoring stations in cities around the world. Scores below 50 are considered good, with very little impact to human health. The higher the score gets, the worse the air quality is.

To make communicating potential health risks to the public even easier, ranges of scores have been organized into descriptive categories.

AQI Score RangeAQI CategoryPM2.5 (μg/m³)Health Risks
0-50Good0-12.0Air quality is satisfactory and poses little or no risk.
51-100Moderate12.1-35.4Sensitive individuals should avoid outdoor activity.
101-150Unhealthy35.5-55.4General public and sensitive individuals in particular are
at risk to experience irritation and respiratory problems.
151-200Unhealthy55.5-150.4Increased likelihood of adverse effects and aggravation
to the heart and lungs among general public.
201-300Very Unhealthy150.5-250.4General public will be noticeably affected.
Sensitive groups should restrict outdoor activities.
301+Hazardous250.5+General public is at high risk to experience strong
irritations and adverse health effects. Everyone
should avoid outdoor activities.

Particulate Matter

While all the forms of atmospheric pollution are a cause for concern, it’s the smaller 2.5μm particles that get the most attention. For one, we can see visible evidence in the form of haze and smoke when PM2.5 levels increase. As well, these fine particles have a much easier time entering our bodies via breathing.

There are a number of factors that can increase the concentration of a region’s particulate matter. Some common examples include:

  • Coal-fired power stations
  • Cooking stoves (Many people around the world burn organic material for cooking and heating)
  • Smoke from wildfires and slash-and-burn land clearing

Wildfires and Air Quality

Air quality scores can fluctuate a lot from season to season. For example, regions that are reliant on coal for power generation tend to see AQI score spikes during peak periods.

One of the biggest fluctuations occurs during wildfire season, when places that typically have scores in the “good” category can see scores reach unsafe levels. In 2020, Eastern Australia and the West Coast of the U.S. both saw massive drops in air quality during their respective wildfire seasons.

Air quality in wildfire season

Luckily, while these types of fluctuations are extreme, they are also temporary.

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Agriculture

MegaMilk: Charting Consolidation in the U.S. Dairy Industry

This graphic charts the American dairy industry’s shift in milk production from small commercial farms to fewer, larger farms.

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MegaMilk: Charting the Consolidation of the Dairy Industry

Today’s dairy industry looks very different to how it did just 30 years ago.

Milk production in the U.S. has increased by a whopping 50% over that time frame—yet, the total number of dairy farms has dropped by three-quarters.

Fewer and larger farms now have the lion’s share of all U.S milk cow inventory. While they have the ability to produce more competitively priced dairy products and provide more value to consumers, it is causing financial devastation for small farmers.

The graphic above uses data from the USDA to chart the rapid consolidation of the American dairy industry between 1992 and 2017.

The End of the Small Dairy Farmer?

In the U.S., the dairy industry is one of the fastest consolidating industries in comparison to almost all other agricultural sectors.

Between 1992 and 2017, small commercial farms with 10-99 cows saw an average decline of 70%. These farms accounted for 48.5% share of all U.S. milk cows in 1992. In 2017, that number stood at just 12.2%.

Over time, small farm production has been replaced by that of bigger and more consolidated “megafarms”—a move that can be attributed to the many benefits that scale brings, such as lower costs of production and the potential to compete in the international market.

 Share of U.S. milk cow inventory (by year)
Herd size199219972002200720122017
1-9 milk cows0.9%0.7%0.6%0.4%0.4%0.4%
10-49 milk cows19.5%13.8%9.2%6.8%5.9%3.6%
50-99 milk cows29%24.5%19.1%13.8%11.1%8.6%
100-199 milk cows19%18%15.4%12.8%10.6%9.4%
200-499 milk cows13.7%15.3%14.7%13.8%12%12%
500-999 milk cows8%10.2%12.2%12.5%11.3%10.7%
>999 milk cows9.9%17.5%28.8%39.9%48.7%55.2%
Total 100%100%100%100%100%100%

The Need For a Survival Strategy

While small dairy farmers simply cannot keep up with larger farms encroaching on their turf, they also have fluctuations in dairy prices to contend with. Milk prices fell in 2018, narrowing the gap between milk prices and feed costs so much that another wave of farm closures ensued.

To make matters worse, many small dairy farmers are close to retirement age, and according to the USDA, exits are more likely if the farm operator is 60 or older.

Despite the hardship facing small dairy farmers, analysts suggest that consumer backlash against large-scale production could present opportunities for small dairy farmers to create premium artisanal products. However, such initiatives would be entirely dependent on the state of the economy and where consumer’s values lie.

The Wider Implications

With milk production shifting to larger farms, a range of both direct and indirect impacts are being felt across the country.

For example, milk production is now predominantly focused in fewer states such as California and Wisconsin, which together accounted for almost 33% of all U.S. milk production in 2018.

In larger farms, the herds are typically confined to tight spaces— rather than grazing in pastures—making animal welfare an issue for many of these farms. Concern over waste contamination and air pollution also brings the environmental sustainability of larger farms into question as they come under more pressure to reduce their impact on the planet.

Changing Tastes

Looking beyond the production of milk, changing consumer preferences could result in the most transformative effects on both large and small scale dairy farmers.

While rising populations are increasing the demand for dairy, per capita milk consumption declined by 24% between 2000 and 2017 in the United States. Consequently, the largest dairy producer in the country, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy in 2019, followed by another major milk producer, Borden Dairy, just two months later.

Experts claim that changing consumer preferences, along with competition from other beverage categories, are responsible for 90% of the total dairy decline.

No Country for Old Farms

The confluence of changing economics and an aging population of farmers has brought the U.S. dairy farming industry to a tipping point, and the near future is likely to bring a fresh wave of dairy farm closures.

I don’t see anything that would give them hope at this point. The best advice I can give to these folks, dairy farmers, is to sell out as fast as you can.

– Joe Schroeder, Farm Aid

As smaller farms continue to disappear from America’s rural landscape, the impacts of consolidation will not only affect dairy farmers, but entire rural communities too.

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