7 Rainforest Ecosystem Services and How They Work
From coral reefs and wetlands to forests and jungles, our planet’s varied ecosystems are an important and intrinsic part of our life on Earth. Not only do they provide for the flora and fauna they contain, but they also support and regulate the most critical natural processes. So how do rainforest ecosystem services work?
According to The Wealth of Nature, ecosystems are vital in regulating natural processes on Earth. However, they also provide social, cultural, and economic benefits to humans – much more so than we realize. The Rainforest Conservation Fund (RCF) estimates that if we had to provide these ecosystem services for ourselves, they would cost us trillions of dollars per year.
What Is a Rainforest?
These incredible areas cover approximately 6 percent of the Earth’s surface. However, more than half of the world’s plant and animal species live here. Tropical rainforests are typically rich in tall trees, rain, and warm climates. Most of rainforests see more than one inch of rain almost every day – all year round!
Tropical rainforests used to cover 6 million square miles worldwide. Due to heavy deforestation, we are left with just 2.4 million square miles. At the current rate of forest loss, we will lose 5-10 more rainforest each decade. While Africa, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America all have their own rainforests, the largest in the world is the famous Amazon rainforest in South America.
Necessity of Rainforest Ecosystem Services
In many parts of the world, rainforest ecosystem services – including climate regulation, increased rainfall, and soil stability – are completely entwined with the successful production of food. Amazonian and Congolese rainforests, for example, provide heavy rainfall in key, agricultural areas.
Let’s look at some of the most important rainforest ecosystem services, how they work, and what they provide for us.
1. Regulating Climate and Air Quality
Rainforests play a crucial factor in maintaining the natural balance. The Rainforest Concern believes that if we had no rainforests to recycle immense quantities of water – feeding lakes, rivers, and irrigation systems – droughts would occur more often than they do today. As for the air purification service, the rainforest is great at capturing carbon and releasing clean oxygen (more about the carbon storage below).
2. Preventing Soil Erosion
The original and mighty tropical rainforest protected soils from erosion as the main rainforest ecosystem service. The tall forest canopy intercepted the force and pressure of storms. Consequently, the forest floor below was quite protected from the heavy blows of pounding rain. At the same time, tree roots down below created underground networks of fungal tendrils. This also resisted erosion through the resulting mat that bound the soil together.
However, now that more forests are felled down, the removal of its fungal-root mat allows the soil to be washed down slope. Seeing that the sediment then silts up rivers, coastal mangroves and coral reefs, it ultimately smothers many of the aquatic creatures. Upstream and downstream fish that serve as food sources for local people die from lack of oxygen.
3. Nutrient Recycling
The Rainforest Conservation Fund describes the current tropical rainforests as living “on the edge.” This means that they must produce most of the nutrients themselves seeing that they receive very few nutrient inputs from the outside world.
But that’s not a bad thing; when left on its own, a rainforest is a perfectly closed-loop system, recycling and reusing the nutrients it has created. However, due to the lack of tree cover, these nutrients end up lost, which eventually kills the forest.
4. Carbon Storage
Thanks to the 390 billion trees that form the Amazon rainforest, massive amounts of carbon get locked up in their trunks, branches, and leaves. Global Change Biology revealed in 2007 that, according to their estimates, the Amazonian forest is a giant store for over 86 billion tons of carbon. It represents more than a third of all carbon stored by tropical forests globally.
5. Provisioning Goods
Rainforest ecosystem services are not just vital for their regulating roles. They are also great producers of goods that have economic value. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide draw goods from forests to sustain their livelihoods.
When extracted, rainforest trees provide us with necessities like fiber, wood, and – most importantly – fuel. Moreover, rainforest processes often offer us invaluable ideas; the field of biomimicry is constantly looking for solutions to human problems by examining and imitating nature.
6. Rain Making and Agricultural Support
The Amazon rainforest is a genuine treasure. Reportedly, the area uses a combination of processes to create almost 50 percent of its own rainfall. According to Paradise Earth, an international conservation project, the rainforest ecosystem uses the moisture brought by winds moving westward from the Atlantic Ocean.
The plants and trees capture the high humidity and recycle it through transpiration. Then, they release it back into the atmosphere through their leaves. In combination with the persistent cloud cover over the region, this process forms the basis of rainforest precipitation.
When the wave of moisture meets the high wall of the Andes, the water reserve is deflected to the south. There, it provides consistent rainfall that encourages agricultural growth and hydropower production. This Amazon rain machine is crucial for the crops in south-central Brazil and northern Argentina.
7. Sustaining Culture
More than the natural benefits, rainforest ecosystems are also important to society and culture. In addition to their considerable scientific and educational value, they are also increasingly popular destinations for eco-tourism and recreation. For those who live near them, rainforests can represent a source of a sense of belonging, offering cultural heritage, and spiritual and religious significance. And, of course, we cannot overlook the fact that their beauty has immeasurable aesthetic value to the world.
UNEP estimates that, since 1990, we have deforested more than 300 million hectares of the world’s primary rainforests. However, many human and natural processes are bound to collapse without the rainforest ecosystem services. This fact alone should make us willing to save the natural treasures of Planet Earth.