Connect with us

Environment

Visualizing the World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age

Published

on

How to Use: To navigate this slideshow, click the arrows on the sides of each image or use the arrow keys on your keyboard.

Can I share this graphic?
Yes. Visualizations are free to share and post in their original form across the web—even for publishers. Please link back to this page and attribute Visual Capitalist.
When do I need a license?
Licenses are required for some commercial uses, translations, or layout modifications. You can even whitelabel our visualizations. Explore your options.
Interested in this piece?
Click here to license this visualization.

Visualizing The World’s Loss of Forests Since the Ice-Age

How much of Earth used to be covered by forests, and what portion is covered today?

The effects of deforestation on the climate are already being seen and felt, and these repercussions are expected to increase with time. That’s why more than 100 world leaders pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit.

As today’s graphic using data from Our World in Data highlights, the world’s forests have been shrinking since the last ice age at an increasingly rapid pace.

Earth’s Surface Area: 10,000 Years Ago

To examine the deforestation situation properly, it helps to understand Earth’s total available surface area. After all, our world can feel massive when glancing at maps or globes. But of the roughly 51 billion hectares in total surface area on Earth, more than 70% is taken up by oceans.

What’s left is 14.9 billion hectares of land, not all of which is habitable. Here is how the land was allocated 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age and before the rise of human civilizations.

Uninhabitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):

  • Barren land (19% or 2.8bn ha)—Includes deserts, salt flats, exposed rocks, and dunes
  • Glaciers (10% or 1.5bn ha)—The vast majority concentrated in Antarctica

Habitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):

  • Forest (57% or 6bn ha)—Includes tropical, temperate, and boreal forests
  • Grassland (42% or 4.6bn ha)—Wild grassland and shrubs
  • Freshwater (1% or <510M ha)—Lakes and rivers

By 2018, forests had receded to just 4 billion hectares. What happened?

Forests and Grassland Recede for Agriculture

Once humans figured out how to cultivate plants and livestock for regular sources of food, they needed land to use.

For centuries, the loss of greenery was relatively slow. By 1800, the world had lost 700 million hectares each of forest and grassland, replaced by around 900 million hectares of land for grazing animals and 400 million hectares for crops.

But industrialization in the 1800s rapidly sped up the process.

Percentage of Habitable Land17001800190019502018
Forest52%50%48%44%38%
Grassland38%36%27%12%14%
Grazing6%9%16%31%31%
Crops3%4%8%12%15%
Freshwater1%1%1%1%1%
Urban<1%<1%<1%<1%1%

While half of Earth’s loss of forests occurred from 10,000 years ago to 1900, the other half or 1.1 billion hectares have been lost since 1900. Part of this loss, about 100 million hectares, has occurred in the more recent time period of 2000 to 2018.

The biggest culprit?

Though urban land use has rapidly grown, it still pales in comparison to the 31% of habitable land now being used for grazing livestock. Most of that land came at first from repurposed grasslands, but forests have also been cleared along the way.

Where Will Food Come From?

Countries pledging to stop deforestation have two major hurdles to solve: financial and survival.

Firstly, there are many companies, jobs, and economies that rely on producing and marketing goods made from forests, such as lumber.

But more importantly, the world’s rising use of land for crops and agriculture reflects our rapidly growing population. In 1900, the global population numbered just 1.6 billion people. By 2021, it had exceeded 7.9 billion, with hundreds of millions still affected by food shortages every day.

How do you feed so many without needing more land? Meat’s extremely large footprint makes prioritizing crops more attractive, and research into other solutions like lab-grown meat and grazing erosion prevention is ongoing.

As the effects of climate change become increasingly felt, it’s likely that countries, companies, and people will have to embrace many different solutions at once.

Click for Comments

Environment

Charted: Share of World Forests by Country

We visualize which countries have the biggest share of world forests by area—and while country size plays a factor, so too, does the environment.

Published

on

A cropped pie chart showing the share of world forest by country.

Charted: Share of World Forests by Country

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

The world contains over three trillion trees.

The tropics and subtropics account for slightly less than half of all trees (1.3 trillion), the boreal regions for about one-fourth (0.74 trillion) and the temperate regions about one-fifth of the world’s forests (0.66 trillion).

What does this look like on a per country basis?

Using data from the World Bank, we visualize the share of the world’s total forest area per country.

Naturally larger countries tend to have more forest area, and thus, a greater percentage of the world’s forests, but it’s interesting to see how local environments also influence the metric.

Ranked: Countries with the Largest Share of World Forests

At the top of the list, Russia, has more than one-fifth of the world’s forests by itself. This is equal to 8 million km2 of forest, slightly less than half of the entire country.

RankCountryForest Area (Sq. km)Forest Area (% of
World's Forests)
1🇷🇺 Russia8,153,11620.1%
2🇧🇷 Brazil4,953,91412.3%
3🇨🇦 Canada3,468,9118.6%
4🇺🇸 U.S.3,097,9507.7%
5🇨🇳 China2,218,5785.5%
6🇦🇺 Australia1,340,0513.3%
7🇨🇩 DRC1,250,5393.1%
8🇮🇩 Indonesia915,2772.3%
9🇮🇳 India724,2641.8%
10🇵🇪 Peru721,5751.8%
11🇦🇴 Angola660,5231.6%
12🇲🇽 Mexico655,6431.6%
13🇨🇴 Colombia589,4261.5%
14🇧🇴 Bolivia506,2081.3%
15🇻🇪 Venezuela461,7341.1%
16🇹🇿 Tanzania452,7601.1%
17🇿🇲 Zambia446,2581.1%
18🇲🇿 Mozambique364,9760.9%
19🇵🇬 Papua New Guinea358,2220.9%
20🇦🇷 Argentina284,6370.7%

The fifth-biggest (and sixth-most populated) country, Brazil, ranks second with slightly more than 12% of total forests, close to 5 million km2, which is more than 60% of the whole country. The biggest contributor to its forest cover is the Amazon, which has lost 237,000 km2 in the span of five years because of deforestation. The Amazon is also a significant part of Peru’s forest cover (ranked 10th on this list, with 1.8% share).

Canada and the U.S. each have about 8% of the world’s forests within their borders. Both countries have developed beloved national park systems aimed at protecting the natural biodiversity of the continent.

China rounds out the top five, with its 5.5% share. Unlike other nations whose forest cover has seen a steady decline, China managed to increase its forest area by 511,807 km2 in two and a half decades, an area that is bigger than the entirety of Thailand. The country also aims to have about 30% of the country covered by forests by 2050. Critics state that this massive reforestation drive might come at the cost of maintaining natural tree species, and instead promotes monocultures of non-native trees.

Meanwhile, Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) each share 3% of the world’s forests. The Congo Basin, the world’s second largest tropical rainforest, contributes heavily to the latter’s forest cover, and spreads out over five other countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

Indonesia, India, and Peru round out the top 10 with a 2% share each.

Continue Reading
MSCI Direct Indexing

Subscribe

Popular