Why forests are our best chance for survival in a warming world

Trees provide habitats, resources, and refuge, and they help absorb fossil fuels’ carbon emissions. They are also at profound risk, but there's still time to act.

Despite seeing the forest for the trees, Suzanne Simard once faced harsh criticism for her groundbreaking work.

The professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia bucked the prevailing theory that a forest’s trees were isolated individuals. Her experiments showed that trees live interdependently, sharing resources via belowground networks. Simard’s essay “Why all life on Earth depends on trees” emphasizes how ecosystems rely on those connections, a truth that’s at the root of this special issue.

Forests keep our world in balance. They’re the “lungs” of the planet, drawing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. They provide habitat for countless species. And in a warming world, they’re our best chance for survival.

Yet our forests are at risk. “It’s a tough time to be a tree,” senior environment writer Craig Welch notes. “Earth has lost a third of its forests over the past 10,000 years, half of that just since 1900. We logged them for timber. We cut them to make way for farms and cattle. We cleared land to build homes and roads.” Extreme conditions related to climate change also are killing trees worldwide.

But it’s not too late to do something. In an encouraging sign, last fall more than a hundred world leaders promised to end global deforestation by 2030.

In this issue we highlight how Australia’s Aboriginal people are renewing their homelands through the ancient practice of planned burning. We offer strategies to help save forests. And you’ll find stunning photographs, graphics, and maps—opportunities to learn about and appreciate the forest and the trees.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

This story appears in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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