In August, satellite imagery from NASA corroborated the first reports from Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, (INPE) that the Amazon rainforest was burning at a rate nearly 80 per cent greater than in the same period last year. With smoke from the fires causing a mid-afternoon blackout in Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, 2,800km away, the rapid circulation of images through social media and news websites created global alarm.
This is hardly surprising given that the Amazon is not only the world’s largest rainforest but also Earth’s largest single ‘carbon sink’; scientists estimate that nearly 25 per cent of our planet’s carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the forest’s plants and biomass. Without this sink, ‘greenhouse gas’ concentrations would increase and ultimately contribute to higher global temperatures. Furthermore, when the forest burns, carbon dioxide is immediately released, thereby adding to the total carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere.
While much of the focus from the resulting political fallout focused on Brazil and the environmental policies of its newly-elected president Jair Bolsonaro, the Amazon fires extended well beyond Brazil’s borders. According to the INPE, in the period from January to August this year there were 84,957 forest fires in Brazil, 26,573 in Venezuela, 19,265 in Bolivia, 14,363 in Colombia, 14,969 in Argentina, 10,810 in Paraguay, 6,534 in Peru, 2,935 in Chile, 898 in Guyana, 407 in Uruguay, 328 in Ecuador, 162 in Suriname, and 11 in French Guiana. It seemed South America was ablaze like never before.
A DELIBERATE ACT
Perhaps more alarming than the number of forest fires burning at any one time, is the disturbing fact that the vast majority are deliberately lit. Of course, humans have been clearing forests for thousands of years to make places to live, grow food and raise livestock. Land for cattle ranches is the main driver of the fires in every Amazon nation, particularly in Brazil where approximately 200 million head of cattle, supplying a quarter of the world’s global beef market, now graze in areas once covered by verdant rainforest. To put the scale of forest loss into perspective, an estimated 450,000km2 of Amazon rainforest, an area greater than Germany and Austria combined, has been cleared for cattle pasture alone. In addition, soya is the other primary driver of deforestation in the Amazon, with Brazil now ranked as the world’s second largest supplier of this cash crop, grown mostly for cattle feed.
It is a similar story in the equatorial jungles of Southeast Asia where illegal logging for exotic hardwoods and the rising global demand for palm oil has seen an acceleration in forest slash and burn. The trend is particularly acute in Sumatra and Borneo, home to the orang-utan, Asia’s only great ape. Orang-utan numbers have plummeted in the past 40 years as their rainforest homes are ravaged by deliberately lit fires and then cleared for oil palm plantations. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, nearly 100,000km2 (an area greater than Portugal) of prime orang-utan habitat was destroyed between 1973 and 2010.
Orang-utans are iconic, highly intelligent and very photogenic animals, images of which are frequently used to advertise the natural wonders of Indonesia and Malaysia. However, that status does not appear to be a guarantee of their long-term survival, and thousands more species are also endangered by the seemingly uncontrolled destruction of rainforest habitat.
More than half of the world’s known biodiversity can be found in our equatorial jungles but current rates of forest destruction could see these vital ecosystems vanish by the middle of this century. In the Amazon alone, scientists say 15,000 tree species face extinction at current rates of clearance.
Clearly, there never has been a more urgent time for people to reappraise the value of forests and seek solutions to ensure their future preservation. While much of the media’s attention has focused on the destruction of the Amazon, saving existing woodland is a major issue also for developed European nations such as Great Britain, where major forest clearances began hundreds of years before the first loggers entered the Amazon.
Forests cover barely 13 per cent of our countryside, yet the British people’s love of trees remains strong and woodland walks, usually with camera or mobile phone close to hand, continue to be a popular pastime. Fortunately, many urban areas are within easy reach of established areas of woodland, thanks to the ‘green-belt’ policies that restrict development in these areas.
Like other countries in Europe’s temperate zone, Britain is home to two main types of forest coverage: the evergreen conifer plantations managed by the Forestry Commission that provide much of our timber and pulp needs, and the older native broadleaf woodlands where oak, beech, chestnut, ash and other deciduous species are common.
It is these ancient woods that provide the greater photographic potential: broadleaf trees change their shape, colour and character throughout the year. These changes influence the lifecycle of other woodland species, both plant and animal. By contrast, conifers hardly alter in appearance from one season to the next and many are planted in evenly spaced rows, like the static ranks of a regiment on a military parade ground.
Of course, autumn is a favourite time for photographing broadleaf forests, and not only because of the changing colours. As John Keats wrote, autumn is a ‘season of mist and mellow fruitfulness’ and those mists, combined with the low sunlight of the season, are many a landscape photographer’s yearning. Misty woodland creates an eerie and mystical atmosphere, removing much of the colour and contrast from a scene. With the light diffused by fog, fine details are obscured so that compositional elements are reduced to subtle tonal variations. The lower contrast levels makes exposure metering easier too, allowing more time to be spent creating an image that is more about mood, tension and form.
With leaves fallen and dispersed, the winter months present a different photographic challenge. For instance, sub-zero morning temperatures with an icy hoarfrost offer a chance to depict an isolated tree as a vision of prickly white starkness. This effect becomes more pronounced after a heavy snowfall, particularly when the tree is photographed against a morning sky of cobalt blue. However, such mornings are becoming rarer due to the milder and wetter winters brought about by global warming.
The arrival of spring is marked by new leaf growth and the emergence of wild flowers on the forest floor. It is a welcome sight as early spring days are the only time when the sun’s rays are able to reach the woodland flowers on the forest floor. For just a few weeks, flowers such as primrose, bluebell and wild garlic are bathed in sunlight dappled by the shadows of bare branches overhead.
Such is the beauty and colour of this seasonal change that many landscape photographers never tire of returning to the same woodland setting each year to capture the scene afresh. However, the high contrast between the bright shafts of sunlight and dark raking shadows can make accurate exposures difficult to attain. Thankfully, the High Dynamc Range (HDR) facility of today’s cameras can cope with such lighting variances.
Although Britain’s total forested area of 13 per cent amounts to one of the lowest in Europe, a major replanting program in the past decade has seen a modest increase in ‘leaf cover’. In 2018, 13,400 hectares of woodland were planted in the UK, most of it in Scotland, but this falls well short of the UK Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation that 30,000 hectares be planted every year as part of the government strategy to meet its pledge of reaching ‘net zero’ carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. That equates to a total of 1.5 billion more trees.
Planting more trees is now seen by many scientists as one of the simplest solutions to combating carbon dioxide emissions, but the scale of reforestation required to limit rising global temperatures is enormous. Research published in July by scientists from the Crowther Lab in Zurich found that a new forest area the size of the United States was needed to absorb over half of the extra carbon released into the atmosphere by human activity since the industrial revolution.
While finally recognising that trees are a force for good in reducing the impact of the climate crisis, recent studies also show the importance of forests to our individual well-being. In Japan, the custom of shinrin yoku (‘forest bathing’) is widely practiced for its health benefits. According to research by universities in Japan and abroad, forest bathing reduces stress, boosts the body’s immune system and accelerates recovery from illness. In one study by the department of psychology at the University of Utah, forest bathing was shown to even improve creativity, with participants seeing ‘a 50 per cent improvement in their creative problem solving’.
However, it is unlikely that this creative boost applied to photography as those taking part in the research spent three days immersed in nature with all access to modern technology removed, including mobile phones and cameras! That said, there is no better time than now to find photographic inspiration in your nearest woodland and to view the trees with a new-found respect as our greatest allies in a world coming to terms with a changing climate.