January 17th, 2012 by

By Michelle Werts

Last week, NASA Earth Observatory released as series of maps showing the world’s forests, as mapped from three dimensions: area, density and height. Through the work of researchers, we have one of the largest, highest-resolution forest biomass maps ever.

US Forest Cover

Map by Robert Simmon, based on data from Woods Hole Research Center

Pretty nifty, huh? It is, in terms of the research and technology that went into creating the map. Not so nifty are the stories underlying the pretty green patches.

On first glance, you might think, “Wow, 33 percent of the U.S. is covered by forest. That’s a pretty impressive number.” It might be until you remember that when the first permanent European settlers arrived in America more than 400 years ago, more than half of the U.S. was covered in woodlands. Imagine how green that U.S. map would be.

And while the map gives us a view of where the forests are, it fails to show us in what condition the forests are.

For instance, take a look at the red circled area in this close-up of the Northwest:

Wyoming forest cover

A nice, healthy amount of forest in the northwest corner of Wyoming/southeast Idaho, yes? Not really, because while there is forest there, that forest looks like this:

Caribou-Targhee National Forest

Green spaces intercut with hulking, dead masses of trees. Devastated by beetles and disease. The USDA Forest Service estimates that about 100,000 trees fall to the ground every day in Wyoming and Colorado thanks to beetles.

Or how about this lovely area in Texas:

Texas forest coverLast year, much of it looked like this:

Possum Kingdom Lake Fire in Texas

Possum Kingdom Lake Fire in Texas. Credit: SSG Malcolm McClendon

Wildfires destroyed more than eight million acres of forest across the country in 2011, hitting Texas especially hard. With the drought conditions expected to continue for parts of the South and Southwest into the summer, 2012 may very well follow in 2011’s footsteps.

And these two examples are just tip of the iceberg of threats and difficulties facing America’s forests, which means in order to protect and restore the green on that map, we all need to work extra hard to care for our forests.