Oct 26, 2015 by


Healthy forests protect our climate and moderate our weather. As the ‘Godzilla’ El Niño builds in the weeks ahead of Paris talks, it is a timely warning that deforestation is partly to blame for its impacts
Analyses from Noaa and Nasa confirm that El Niño is strengthening and that it looks a lot like the strong event that occurred in 1997–98. Photograph: Noaa/Nasa

Deborah Lawrence

Lawrence is an environmental sciences researcher at the University of Virginia


Indonesia is smouldering and Godzilla is to blame. But even though this is reality, not a monster movie, there is still a hero: the tropical rainforest.

This year’s El Niño, the ocean-traveling climate cycle notorious for throwing the weather off kilter, is nicknamed “Godzilla”. While it is projected to deliver plenty of rain to some parts of the world, including drought-parched California, it is already causing dangerously dry conditions in the tropics. Papua New Guinea, for example, is experiencing its worst drought in decades, which spells doom for coffee and food crops.
What is El Niño?
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The last time El Niño was this intense, in 1997, five million hectares of rainforest went up in smoke in Indonesia at a time when rain usually falls in sheets. The forest fires generated gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 13-40% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions at the time. The resulting haze, which spanned an area from northern Australia to the Philippines to Sri Lanka, caused widespread health problems and grounded airplanes.

With six of Indonesia’s provinces on high alert and fires raging, this year could be just as bad. Already, over 25 million Indonesians have suffered from the fires.

Standing, healthy forests, the Earth’s “sweat glands”, pump moisture into the atmosphere, providing the globe with its greatest defense against droughts, forest fires and other weather-related disasters. Without this buffer, we’re more exposed and vulnerable to the whims of extreme weather.

To maintain an effective buffer, it is imperative that global efforts to protect forests are accelerated. Tropical forests are important climate bulwarks, and the impact of cutting them down packs a wallop beyond the release of the vast stores of carbon they hold. Tearing down forests also changes the earth’s surface, triggering major shifts in rainfall and increases in temperature worldwide that can be just as disruptive to the climate and weather as those caused by carbon pollution.

One of the most ambitious forest commitments to date, last year’s New York Declaration on Forests, recognizes the “double whammy” impact of deforestation on the climate and weather. This agreement among corporations, governments, NGOs and indigenous groups to end deforestation by 2030 includes a call to restore and regrow forests in addition to protecting already-standing forests.
A peatland fire in Simpang Tiga village, Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra3000t
A peatland fire in Simpang Tiga village, Ogan Ilir, South Sumatra. Photograph: Antara Foto/Reuters

Planting forests eventually stores carbon. But it takes an agonizingly slow 50-100 years or more for new forests to absorb the amount of carbon released when a tropical forest is cleared and burned. It is far more effective to prevent the forests from falling in the first place. But planted forests can provide a different, underappreciated benefit to the world’s climate and weather – and they do so more quickly than they recover carbon or the plant and animal life they once held.

Within a decade, most planted forests in tropical regions develop a closed canopy, as branches from one tree touch those of the next. At this stage of growth, they transform substantial amounts of water in the soil – which they reach via roots far deeper than found in crops or grasses – into moisture in the air, which cools the atmosphere above and the area around them. This process also generates moist conditions and rainfall locally and in the surrounding region.

It also generates the mass movement of air and conditions in the upper atmosphere that ultimately influence rainfall and temperature, both close by and far away. When forests are standing, they give us our climate and they can help protect us against a changing climate.

But when forests are cut down, these systems are disrupted. Changes in circulation due to tropical deforestation ultimately hit the upper atmosphere, where they cause ripples, or teleconnections, that flow outward in various directions, similar to the way in which an underwater earthquake can create a tsunami. The atmosphere connects climate in one place to climate in the rest of the world.
A man carries his son through the haze
A man carries his son through the haze on the way to his house as fires burn peatland and fields at Ogan Ilir in Palembang. Photograph: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Deforestation across the tropics, therefore, might alter growing conditions in agricultural areas in south-east Asia, South America and Africa, and as far away as the US Midwest, Europe and China. This means that cutting down forests could imperil the world’s breadbaskets, even those thousands of miles away from the tropical forest belt – with dire implications for the ever-increasing demands on the world’s food supply.

As the Godzilla El Niño bears down and the climate talks in Paris heat up, remember that deforestation is partly to blame for its impacts. Deforestation worsens droughts, making El Niño more damaging than it would otherwise be. Healthy forests protect our climate and moderate our weather.

The international community assembling in Paris in December cannot keep global warming below 2C without both protecting the world’s remaining tropical forests and restoring vast areas of tropical forest that have already been lost. If we do not ensure the future of our forests, this year’s Godzilla El Niño may prove to be a puny harbinger of the monsters to come.

El Niño southern oscillation Deforestation Trees and forests Indonesia Natural disasters and extreme weather

1 Comment

  1. Franklin N. Blunt

    Except in specific matters this article promotes undeserved & unfounded alarm, absurd hype, dubious connections, blatant omissions, & further child abuse (another ludicrous El Nino reference). Ubiquitous mistakes & misinformation somehow blame ENSO (without indicating the driving mechanisms) for supposed destruction & conditions such as the Indonesian forest fire, when that is related with aberrant political & socio-economic conditions. (
    Why can’t the author indicate transpiration, albedo, convection, landmass heating & cooling, pressure differentials, dynamic variation, succession, ecosystems, bioservices, biomes, ITCZ, & the driving energy requirement provided by the Sun? Mitigation is a myth that is exploited for undeserved profit & indulgences. Even the supposed food shortage is a myth, the cause is not production but distribution.
    Drought should not be a surprise & the climate is mistakenly blamed since many populated regions (hello California) have been historically arid, the hydrologic cycle has been altered with hydrogeographic changes among the watersheds, & much water (as well as other resources) has been wasted & misused (ethanol, …).
    Also, much to my concern, old growth forests have been criticized as ineffective when they should have been recognized as invaluable & upon their loss, the tremendous costs, essential services, & tragedy incurred. Perhaps it is the writing method, but the presentation made the authors position in this matter questionable. Teleconnection is another questionable assertion when terrestrial & water masses, biomes, as well as other geographic, planetary, & extra-terrestrial factors buffer that supposed effect while creating the distinct regional climate characteristics. This discussion requires knowledge of scale & other factors, many confounding that are usually omitted from discussion, models, & experiments.
    The information is not new to me. Although presented in a sophomoric manner that could use some improvement, there are some worthy points & actions. I have synthesized immense volumes of experimental data, study, & provided information allowing formal criticism. Much of the derision involves unethical policies & exploitation, such as greenwashing, corporateering, kleptocracy, & hypocrisy. The misleading, obfuscating, & misinforming propaganda has been rife with insincerity, exploitation & hypocrisy. Right now there is much disappointment with many dubious organizations, promoted policies, & supposed solutions, especially the fraud-ridden, irresponsible, & opaque carbon markets (again, hello California). Those money laundering schemes fail to perform anything novel, while deliberately evading other significant causal factors, & indulging much other environmental destruction, resource exploitation, socio-economic disparity & injustice.
    Too many people involved are suspect, lacking ethical standards, & moral conduct for achieving the selfless & courageous objectives required in resolving the climate of corruption.
    Peace, wisdom, & strength be with us.

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