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What Are Rainforests and How Do They Affect Our Climate? What is a Rainforest? Tropical rainforests are one of the most remarkable things on this planet because they are home to incredible diverse plant and animal populations. One reason for this diversity is the variety of layers which a rainforest is composed of: the forest floor, under story, upper canopy, and emergent layers. On the forest floor, only very small plants can survive with the less than one percent of sunlight that filters through the dense foliage above. Earthworms, fungi, and termites thrive on the rich deposits of litter from the trees above. Above them, the relatively small trees of the under story reach approximately 18 meters (60 ft) in height. This lower canopy is thoroughly shaded and very humid. Most of the animals in the rainforest live above this layer in the upper canopy amongst 18-40 m (60-130 ft) tall trees where the most food is available. The emergent layer of the rainforest consists of the tops of the tallest trees, some reaching higher than 50 m (164 ft). Rainforests receive copious amounts of rainfall each year (more than 2.54 meters, or 100 inches). Temperatures remain between 20-34 degrees Celsius (68°-93° F), the average being 25° C (77° F). Over half of the species on this planet make these hot, wet forests their home. Also, approximately ¼ of our medicines were derived from rainforest plants. Rainforests As “Carbon Dioxide Sinks” Worldwide, approximately 610 billion tons of carbon are stored in the plants and soil of tropical forests. Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the air and release oxygen. For instance, the Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen. When the area or density of a forest increases, it becomes a “carbon dioxide sink.” According to Laurie Wayburn, president of the Pacific Forest Trust, “the loss of forests and the depletion of forests is the second largest cause of CO2 emissions.” What is Global Warming? Global warming is the increase of the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. It is caused by a build up of greenhouse gases (see box) which trap heat. This warming effect is increased as the concentrations of these gases increase. The planet does naturally go through periods of warming and cooling. But human civilization arose - and exists today - during a time of relative stability called an “interglacial period.” Yet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in 1750, human emissions of greenhouse gases through the burning of fossil fuels and vegetation has led to the beginning of a new warming period. Most recently, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded a sharp increase in both carbon dioxide and methane levels in 2007 (see chart). Many species of plants and animals have been dying out in the last few decades, unable to adapt to the changes in their ecosystems brought on by global warming. What is Being Done, and What Can We Do? “Carbon ranching” has become a popular practice among nations with high CO2 emissions. In this process the nation “adopts” an area of rainforest and balances its carbon emissions with the rainforest’s absorption of CO2 and release of O2. Often, conserving rainforest is less expensive than reducing emissions. Carbon ranching projects are being carried out worldwide, but particularly by a group of “rainforest nations” led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. Another initiative is being made by the Yachana Foundation, an organization created by American businessman Douglas McMeekin. The Foundation gives local farmers in the Amazon high-quality cacao seedlings to encourage the planting of the space-efficient crop, preventing the unnecessary destruction of wide tracts of forest. Alternative crops such as the cacao could be the solution to minimizing deforestation. There are many different ways that a single person can contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions and fight against global warming. You can discover your indirect and direct effect on carbon emissions by calculating your “carbon footprint,” which may be done through several online websites. By changing everyday activities in simple ways, the population can have a significant impact on carbon emissions. The following steps will both help the environment and lower your energy bill: 1) Walk, bicycle, use mass transit or car pool to reach a location. 2) Cut down on the amount of waste you produce by recycling and selecting reusable, recycled, or minimally packaged products. 3) Plant shade trees (i.e. oaks, maples, and ash trees) (i.e. oaks, maples, and ash trees) where the sun hits your house most directly 4) Paint your house a light color. This is appropriate for Florida’s warm climate, but use a dark paint if you live in a cold climate. 5) Buy appliances with the “Energy Star” label; they are approved by the government as products which use energy more efficiently than standard or outdated appliances. 6) Clean or replace dirty air filters. 7) Install a low-flow shower head to save energy used to heat shower water. 8) Seal cracks around windows and doors. 9) Use compact fluorescent bulbs. 10) Use cold water when hot water isn’t necessary (in washing laundry, etc.) The Miami Herald: “Global Warming: 10 destinations to see before it’s too late” Many of the world’s most exotic and popular tourist destinations may be much different in just a few decades. As the destruction of the rainforest and burning of fossil fuels have contributed to global warming, the natural wonders of the world are feeling the effects. The glaciers of US National Glacier Park may be completely melted by 2030, and a similar process is occurring in the Swiss Alps. Other famous places under threat include New England and western pine forests in the United States, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and low-lying islands across the globe. The new trend in tourism is “climate sightseeing, a kind of farewell tour of the Earth’s greatest hits.” Major Greenhouse Gases Sources in Human Activity Sources in Nature Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Combustion of Fossil Fuels Deforestation Industrial Processes Respiration by plants and animals, Decaying organic matter and fermentation Volcanoes Forest/grass fires Oceans Methane (CH4) Livestock and rice cultivation Biomass burning Natural gas delivery systems Landfills Coal mining Wetlands Oceans Termites Hydrates Nitrous Oxide (NO2) Fertilizers Combustion of Fossil Fuels and Wood Soil and Water denitrification Effects on Rainforest Fauna Effects of rising temperature are being felt by animal species on every continent. An example is the squirrel monkey of Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park. Monkeys have begun to starve to death as the rainforest trees stop bearing fruit. The lack of fruiting trees is a result of excessive rainfall caused by rising temperatures. The weather has also prevented the monkeys from foraging for other food in the understory. Photography by James Herrera © Microsoft Corporation
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