Map Monday: where are our trees and why do they matter?

A few week ago Map Monday featured the challenges humans face in ensuring sufficient fresh water for all our “needs”, including the vital basic need for sources of clean water in developing countries. A critical component of keeping our water supply sufficient and healthy and our air clean is that oxygen engine called a tree. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the air to make wood, and release oxygen in return (OK, this is a pretty sketchy description – they take in water, too, and other stuff happens – but it will do for the barest of basics). The bottom line is that our planet needs a good supply of tree cover to filter our air and carry out its role in moderating climate change and ensuring healthy water sources.

I was reminded recently of how much imbalance there is in where the world’s trees are found when this eye-catching little image appeared in my Facebook feed.

With this image and the importance of trees to our environment in mind, let’s take a look at the state of trees around the world. Some of the links to the map sources provide fascinating additional information. [Click on any of the maps to see more detail.]


These maps show the number of trees per person (in global hectares, aka gha) for each country and how tree coverage has changed over the years. In some cases it has changed drastically. And the final map is already 8 years old; a map of 2020 would show even more losses. Keep in mind that these maps show the trees per person in each country averaged over the country. As with many previous maps, showing this data on a country-wide basis can be misleading, as we shall see. But it’s a good starting point. By the way, the tiny green dot just to the northeast of India in each map is showing the amazing tree cover in Bhutan!

Image source: These maps are found in interactive form at

And now for a more specific map showing where the trees are and where they’re not. Notice, as an example, Australia, where there are barely any trees, whereas the previous maps showed them fairly well endowed. The population of Australia is not large, especially in relation to its geographic size; taking a measure of the number of trees per person in a large area with few people gives misleading results when compared with countries with very different profiles. There are also countries with very large populations, so that even if they have lots of trees, their amount per capita is not high. Think about this and then take a second look at the 4 maps above.

Now let’s take a look at the main causes of deforestation. The map below shows the parts of the world where permanent deforestation is taking place through:
Commodity-driven deforestation – permanent land-use change for commodity agriculture – meaning these areas likely will not be forested again (for product like palm oil or beef farming on a large scale), and
Urbanization – primarily happening on the east coast of the U.S.
And deforestation that will eventually grow back, through:
Forestry – harvested for wood and wood fiber products, then replanted for new growth,
Shifting agriculture – small to medium farms that are eventually abandoned and returned to forest, and
Wildfire – forest destroyed by wildfire but eventually growing back.

Where are the ecological deficits and the ecological reserves?

There are no easy answers as to how to strike the right balance in the world. The places in red on the map above showing commodity-driven deforestation are countries that are trying to develop an economy for their populations, the kind of economies the developed world has been used to for a very long time by comparison.  And to a large extent, the industrial farms being created out of these forests are producing exports for welcoming markets in the developed world, sometimes owned by western-based multinational companies. We can’t solve the challenges of losing these precious “lungs of the world” by telling people they can never have what the western world reaped from around the world for centuries.  We need to find sustainable economies along with a sustainable environment for everyone.


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24 Responses to Map Monday: where are our trees and why do they matter?

  1. Sustain blog says:

    Trees per person in a particular country is a solid benchmark. Thank you….

  2. Jean says:

    I work for my municipality. I found out our parks staff were ensuring the health of a century old large tree on public land… trees are valued on the prairies…alot.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    Horror-struck at the UK and Ireland which has generally fertile land and historically the land was well covered by forests. Now they’ve largely gone there’s no going back despite gallant but almost token tree-planting projects here and there.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      It’s a sad reality, isn’t it. Much of Europe is in that situation because of what the literature describing current deforestation activity calls “commodity-driven deforestation”, but it happened over centuries for agriculture and urbanization, and has been a fait accompli for many, many years. For centuries, they came across the sea and harvested what seemed like an infinite source of lumber in Canada. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that for centuries people could use up resources and find more elsewhere. Until now! There’s a fascinating novel called Barkskins by Annie Proulx that brings this history to life.

  4. Fascinating as always, Jane. I’m so glad I live in Canada.

  5. I read an on-line article last week, a kind of summarizing of your recent ecologically themed maps, in it the authors made plain the next decade is make or break for planet earth. Unless we address climate change water shortage deforestation by 2030 then………………. well you can guess 😦 . Sad times.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Sad times, indeed, A.S. The world’s governments seem to be either saying the right words but doing precious little or not even saying the right words. Even the pandemic and those less widespread ones of the past 20 years are largely a result of human activity that has destroyed wildlife habitat and brought them in closer contact with humans.

  6. candidkay says:

    I have been thinking of replacing the large tree that was in my backyard–the one I lost to the Emerald Ash Borer. I think you’ve just tipped me over the edge.

  7. Very informative post 🙂

  8. AMWatson207 says:

    How much is a deep breath worth? I’m afraid we will soon find out

  9. Hear, hear! And I’m with bernieLynne. What a lot of research you put into these Monday posts. I am happy to report that there are many, many trees in Maine, which was pretty much deforested at one time. I live in the woods, but sixty or seventy or years ago, the land behind our house was fields. Shows how fast the trees will regrow if given the chance.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol. You’re right about Maine and it’s trees, Laurie. Maine and your sister province over here in New Brunswick are tree country for sure, and abandoned farm fields get overgrown pretty fast. When our kids were little and we’d be doing the long drive back home from a holiday down the coast from Maine, a little voice from the back seat would observe, “There sure are a lot of trees in Maine!”

  10. bernieLynne says:

    Such a lot of research you put into these Monday posts. Always thought provoking. I grew up in the grasslands, basically unchanged for centuries. Trees, growing up, where something you planted or that grew in the low areas naturally. We’ve personally planted well over 500 trees on our land but in this harsh climate they take a long time to grow. Loads of these countries could start planting trees to help the earth and for their own economic use – similiar to Australia. Now what kind of water use does that take is the question. These big picture questions often only face us as consumers in which product to buy.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I think you raise a really important point about what questions to ask as consumers to make environmentally friendly choices. Unfortunately, it’s more often than not nearly impossible to get good answers, or even to know what questions we should be asking. For example, who thought to ask whether our beef came from hormone-fed beef ? Who could have known that could happen? Who would have thought to ask whether the plastic we conscientiously separate out for recycling was being shipped to a developing country in Asia?????!

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