Where the forest is still primeval

photo by Chris Linder

photo by Chris Linder

Have you ever wondered where the largest tracts of natural forests are located – forests that are the least disturbed by the hand of man, where the largest trees can be found, where the ecosystem functions as it has for centuries, taking CO2 out of the atmosphere while producing oxygen and cooling the ground by casting shade and the air by transpiring water vapor?

In a recent paper published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, scientists at the University of Maryland (UMD) and Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) located these minimally disturbed “hinterland” forests across South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Using Landsat high-resolution satellite imagery, the authors present a new and automated approach to map these structurally intact forests.

Not surprisingly, the authors show that most of these forests are located in the Amazon and Congo basins, particularly in Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but they also show large tracts of minimally disturbed forest in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and a number of other tropical nations. Some countries to the north of Brazil still retain most of their forests in a natural state, including Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana.

“Where we should invest carbon sequestration or biodiversity conservation efforts requires consistent measures of forest extent and change, something captured in the hinterland forest map,” says lead author Dr. Alexandra Tyukavina of UMD.

In some countries, such as Indonesia, only a third of their remaining forests is in a minimally disturbed state, and those forests are found mostly in a chain of mountains along the west coast of Sumatra and in the central highlands of Borneo and New Guinea. Most of the lowland forests in Southeast Asia have been converted to agriculture to support large populations and palm oil plantations for both domestic consumption and export markets.

“Strategies for national-scale land use planning can make use of hinterland forest data in balancing the maintenance of forest ecosystem services and economic development,” says co-author Dr. Matthew Hansen of UMD.

The authors also document where these remaining intact forest areas have been recently degraded, identifying countries such as Myanmar and Laos, where more than half of the minimally disturbed forests, already relatively small in extent, have been further degraded between 2007 and 2012.

According to co-author and WHRC Senior Scientist Scott Goetz, the maps of remaining minimally disturbed forests “provide a starting point for focusing longer-term forest and biodiversity conservation efforts, while also showing where climate change mitigation is still an option by avoiding atmospheric carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”

Woods Hole Research Center is an independent institution where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the world.

Link to abstract »
Link to interactive map »


WHRC is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.