EarthLabs > Climate and the Carbon Cycle: Unit Overview > Lab 4: Forests - Changes in the Land > Lab 4A: Forests - Changes in Forest Cover

Forests: Changes in the Land

Part A: Changes in Forest Cover

Disappearing trees in Sweden
If you are lucky enough to have trees in your neighborhood, look out your window. Have you ever thought about how you would feel if the trees in your neighborhood suddenly disappeared? What effects, if any, would it have on your health, your environment, your local climate? To get a sense of how you might feel, watch the short video on the right created by a graphic artists showing disappearing trees in a Swedish city.

Forest cover...then and now!

Next, examine the two images that each tells a story of changes in forest cover over very different times scales. The first image shows changes in forest cover that has occurred over thousands of years. The second image shows changes in forest cover loss from 2002-2012.


  • What has happened to global forest cover over the past few thousands of years? What countries or regions around the world have experienced the greatest change in forest cover? What do you think the causes of these changes might be? List as many as you can.
  • Next, look at changes in forest cover from 2000 to 2012. What countries or regions show higher losses in forest/tree cover compared to other countries and regions? Why do you think these countries or regions have higher losses?
  • Compare the changes in forest cover in the two images. What patterns or trends in forest cover change do you see when comparing changes over a thousand years to changes over a recent decade?
  • Think about how the loss of forest cover over time might affect the global carbon cycle. List as many as you can.
  • How can preserving forests help to mitigate the effects of rising atmospherics CO2 and climate change?
  • At the end of Lab 4A, you will have the opportunity to use the Global Forest Watch tool to develop and investigate your own research question. But, why should we care about changes in forest cover, especially if these changes are happening far away from where we live? List as many reasons as you can and share with the class.

What causes losses in forest cover over time?

There are many reasons that forest cover can be lost over time. For example, the image on the right shows loss of original, natural forest cover in Indonesia to make way for the planting of palm oil trees. The global market for palm oil as biofuel is one of the many complex factors driving this change in forest cover. Palm trees will be planted in place of the original trees, however the original forest and the creatures that lived there will be lost.

There are both natural causes and man-made causes of forest cover loss.

Natural causes include events such as:

Man-made causes of forest cover loss include clearing the land for:

Drought and Wildfires

Millions of Trees Die in Texas!

Severe tree cover loss can happen right in your own backyard. In 2011, Texas experienced its worst and most resilient drought in recorded history. The ongoing drought set the stage for a more active wildfire season as vegetation dried out. According to State Impact Texas over 3 million trees died from drought and related fires. These NASA satellite images show the burn scar from one of these drought-related fires in Bastrop, Texas in 2011. Over 34,000 acres burned. The false-color image on the right shows a wide-area view of the fire. Vegetation is bright green, and sparsely vegetated or bare land is green-yellow. The burn scar appears in shades of red and orange. Far from uniform, the burned areas are separated by unburned expanses. The area outlined in white in the top image corresponds to the close-up view provided in the natural-color image below. Take a minute to study and compare these two images before moving on to the discussion questions below.


  • Which image - false color or natural color- is the most useful to you for determining the extent of damage from this fire? Why?
  • What happens to the carbon stored in the 3 million trees that died due to the 2011 Texas drought?? Where will that carbon go?
  • Should Texas implement a reforestation project to replace these trees? Why or why not?

Wildfires out west: Climate Central


Not all wildfires are caused by the same environmental conditions. Watch "Wildfires out West" from ClimateCentral. As you watch, make note of the different environmental conditions that are involved in creating wildfires in Montana versus wildfires in Nevada.

Not all wildfires are bad for forest ecosystems. As a matter of fact, wildfires have always been a natural and important part of forest ecology. For example, after the 1988 wildfires that burned 1.2 million acres in Yellowstone National Park and surrounding areas, fire ecologists found that fires were important to lodge pole pine trees. Read or listen to the article Yellowstone Fires: Ecological Blessings.

Wildfires seen from space - NASA keeps track!

NASA uses satellites, aircraft and ground resources to observe and analyze fires around the world. This research helps scientists understand how fire affects our environment on local, regional and global scales. NASA has created a visualization from ten years of global fire surveillance data taken by the MODIS instruments on NASA's Terra and Aqua's satellites. Take a visual tour of a decade of fires created from these satellite measurements. As you watch, make note of the following:

Checking In

1. Which of the following statements are true? Select all the answers that are true, and then click the Check Answers button at the bottom of the list.

How does the carbon cycle respond to wildfires?

Wildfires in Indonesia provide a clue to this important question. In 1997–98, the growth rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled, reaching the highest on record. According to researchers studying the carbon cycle much of this increase in carbon dioxide emissions can be attributed to the forest and peat fires in Indonesia that began in 1997 and lasted into 1998. In addition to releasing higher levels of CO2, these fires spewed carbon-containing smoke particles (black carbon) and spread haze to nearby countries causing air pollution. By the time the 1997-98 forest fires were finally over, more than 8 million hectares of land had burned. According to the researchers, the amount of extra carbon the 1997-98 Indonesian fires pumped into the atmosphere was more than all living things on Earth remove from the atmosphere in one year! That's a lot of carbon!

Although wildfires around the world differ from each other in a variety of ways, the processes that drive the carbon cycle will respond to wildfires, but at different time and spatial scales. They are:

Activity and Discussion

  • Draw two conceptual model diagrams illustrating how the carbon cycle responds to wildfires at different time scales.

Drawing 1 assumes regeneration of the forest will occur after the fire through natural regeneration and/or purposeful planting of trees.

Drawing 2 assumes that no regeneration of the forest will occur after the fire.

  • Share your diagrams with each other and the rest of the class. After 100 years, how will atmospheric concentrations of CO2 differ between the two models? Why?

Deforestation: Permanent loss of forest cover

If left to themselves, forests will regenerate over time. We can also plant trees to replace trees lost to fire and drought events such as the 2011 drought and wildfires in Texas. Deforestation is different. Trees are not replaced and the land is converted to a non-forest use. Examples of deforestation include cutting down forests and converting that land to cropland, cattle ranches, urban development, roads, and mining operations. Forests can also be cut down to provide wood to burn for cooking and heating. The largest and most direct cause of tropical deforestation is converting forested land to cropland or pasture for cows and other animals.


Let's examine a well known example of deforestation - Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Both these countries share the same island. The NASA satellite image above shows the border between Haiti on the left and the Dominican Republic on the right. Click on the image to make it larger. Then, take a few minutes to carefully look at and think about the image you are viewing.
  • What difference(s) in forest cover can you observe in this satellite image? What is the evidence for the difference(s) you observe?
  • What do you think might be some contributing causes to the differences in forest cover between these two countries? List all that you can think of.
  • Share your ideas with the rest of the class.

Basic stages of deforestation

Click on this link to view the basic Stages of Deforestation. As you view these stages, think about following:

Next, watch the CNN movie Planet in Peril and then answer the Checking In questions below.

Checking In

  1. What stage(s) of deforestation releases higher than normal amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere? Select all the answers that are correct, and then click the Check Answers button at the bottom of the list.
  2. Which stage(s) represents a carbon sink - Select all the answers that are correct, and then click the Check Answers button at the bottom of the list.
  3. When deforestation occurs, which carbon cycle process(s) increase the emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.?
  4. Which of these stages could contribute to soil erosion?


How much carbon is in tropical rainforests?

How much carbon would be lost in the deforestation of the tropical rainforest? To answer that question, consider the new NASA map of Carbon Storage in Tropical Forests on the right. This map uses NASA satellite data combined with ground measurements to quantify the amount of carbon stored in tropical forest biomass. Remember that a tree's biomass includes all the carbon compounds in the tree's leaves, branches, trunk and roots.

Trouble in the Amazon?

Because the Amazon forest is so large and so much carbon is stored there, deforestation in this region concerns us all. The larger the forest, the greater its impact on the carbon cycle. What impact will deforestation have on the Amazon Rainforest and its ability to remain a strong carbon sink as opposed to a carbon source? To help you answer this question, use a time series interactive Forest changes in Rondônia, Brazil and watch Amazon Deforestation

In the times series interactive, you can:

Checking in

  1. By 2003, how many square kilometers had been cleared from the Amazonian Forest in Rondônia? How many acres would that be? Use the metric conversion website to help you answer that question.
    67,764 sq kilometers = 16,744,849 acres.

  2. One acre of forests can absorb approximately one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. If deforestation has cleared 16,744,609 acres in just Rondônia, how many less tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide will be stored in the trees every year?
    16,744,609 tons of carbon dioxide

Stop and Think

1. Describe how deforestation can impact the the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Up in Smoke: Deforestation, Fire, Farmers and the Carbon Cycle - a mini case study.

Slash and Burn Farming.

Cutting down trees is only one part of the complex "carbon cycle" story in areas of deforestation. When rainforest trees are cut, burned, or left to decompose, what happens to the carbon contained in those trees? What happens to the land left behind? Answers to this last question are often dependent on the local economy and the needs of small communities to provide for their families. Small farmers and ranchers use a very old technique called "slash and burn" to clear and prepare the land for agriculture and cattle. In slash-and-burn agriculture, farmers will typically cut forests months ahead of the dry season. During the dry season, the "slashed" trees dry out and are then burned. The ash from the burned trees fertilizes the soil to support crops such as as rice, corn and soybeans and grass for cattle. Unfortunately, soil nutrients such as nitrogen are used up fairly quickly, the land becomes barren and farmers then move on to slash-and-burn other parts of the rainforest. In this way, fire and soil become part of this complex carbon cycle, the economy of the rainforest and the people who live there. So, what can be done to mitigate the impact of slash and burn farming on the carbon cycle? Read about the work of Mike Hand, a British ecologist, and Inga trees to find out!

Mike Hand, a British ecologist, has lived in and studied the rainforests in Honduras for over twenty years. He observed that slash and burn was creating a vicious cycle that destroyed forests in order to create agricultural land that could be farmed only temporarily. Eventually, the land turned into a nutrient-deficient barren wasteland, farmers grew poorer and poorer and even more rainforest was cut down. Mike's ideas and efforts on stopping this vicious cycle of "slash and burn" have recently been portrayed in an award winning documentary Up in Smoke. If the full documentary is unavailable to watch, you can watch video clips created by Oxfam and The Guardian from the documentary here. View all short videos, then work with a partner or a group to complete the task below.

Model and Discussion

Watch the five Oxfam short videos or the documentary linked above. As you watch, take notes that will allow you to compare and contrast the "slash and burn" farming with sustainable "crop alley" farming in terms of:

Use your notes to create a conceptual model diagram that describes how the carbon cycle differs when "slash and burn" methods are used versus sustainable "crop alley" methods. Describe as many changes to the carbon cycle and the community that are part of this carbon cycle story.

Stop and Think

2. Think about the complex story of deforestation, slash and burn agriculture and the carbon cycle in the Central American and Amazon rainforests. Describe how deforestation, combustion and decomposition all impact the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Global Forest Watch - Keeping track of forests in real time!

At the beginning of this lesson, you examined a "Global Forest Watch" map to identify regions of the world that were experiencing forest cover loss from 2000 to 2012. You were also asked to think of some reasons why should we care about changes in forest cover - especially if these changes are occurring far away in other places in the world. Take a few minutes to revisit the list of reasons you made. Would you add any new reasons to your list? Why?

World Resources Institute and their partners have collaborated to produce "Global Forest Watch" - a mapping application that unites satellite technology, open data, and crowd sourcing to guarantee access to timely and reliable information about forests. Governments, organizations, scientists and citizens all can use this mapping application to both generate questions and data related to those questions. Watch this short Global Forest Watch video to introduce you this powerful new tool. You will use this tool in a research task that is described below.

Content extensions:

Background reading on wildfires:

Background reading and activities on deforestation:

Back ground information on Reforestation and Afforestation -

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