Time is Running Out for the World's Tropical Rain Forests

Time is running out for the world's tropical rain forests, includes information on the earth's greenbelt, tropical rain forests as climate stabilizers, environmental devastation and how to help the rain forests.

| July/August 1987

  • Tropical rain forests
    Rain forests are also potent climatic and environmental stabilizers. A fifth of the earth's fresh water cycles through the Amazonian filter and back to the Atlantic each year.
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    Diagram of tropical rain forests of the world.

  • Tropical rain forests
  • 106-096-01

Time is running out for the most valuable bioregion on the planet, our tropical rain forests. 

The World's Tropical Rain Forests

Imagine a place where it's dusk at noon, where the temperature seldom varies from 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is always close to 100%. You stand on a spongy mat of decaying leaves that few plants penetrate. Massive roots lying on the ground gather to buttress tree trunks that vanish into a leafy canopy at least 30 feet above. As open as it is at ground level, the foliage layer overhead is so dense that less than 3% of the sunlight falling on the treetops 150 feet above filters to the forest floor. But for the occasional piercing calls of birds, there's scant evidence of animal life. Little would you guess that this is home to half the species on our planet.

Misconceptions abound about what a rain forest is and what value it has. To people of temperate climates, the tropical rain forest is mysterious, alien. Hollywood images are threatening: thick, viper-and vermin-ridden undergrowth accessible only to sweating, machete-wielding persons of limited (and often diminishing) sanity. As a result, tropical rain forests too often is taken to mean jungle.

The Earth's Greenbelt

Tropical forests are no more monolithic than they are jungles. Botanists subdivide them into 30 or 40 categories, but we can probably get by if we stretch the term tropical rain forest to include woodlands that get over 80 inches of rainfall per year and are close enough to the equator to be so unaffected by seasons that all the trees are evergreen.

Virgin tropical rain forests wrap around the equator, covering about 1,500,000 square miles. Almost 60% are located in the Amazonian regions of Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela, but there are other significant stands in Indonesia, Zaire, Papau-New Guinea and Burma.

For hundreds of millions of years, tropical rain forests have protected life-forms against the vagaries of climate—serving as Earth's safe-deposit boxes of biological diversity. They have grown and shrunk with the eons, they have been divided by the parting of the continents, and different areas have evolved separately. But threads can be tied from current residents to species of the early Cretaceous period, 140 million years ago.

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