Searching for “fall color” is a favorite pastime here in the Midwest where I live. And that’s right up my alley, as I love trees. That’s why in autumn, I particularly think of forests.
Do any Internet search on phrases such as “most beautiful forests in the world,” and you’ll come up with millions of results, with most of the articles having titles like These are the 10 Most Beautiful Forests in the World or Seven of the Most Beautiful Forests in the World. But three particular forests end up on almost all of the lists you’re likely to encounter: the Amazon Rain Forest in South America, the Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia, Canada, and the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. And there are Natural Habitat Adventures tours that will take you to all of them.
It’s certainly no wonder that we’re all fascinated by trees. After all, they’re capable of communicating with each other, they hold long histories and stories, and they provide us with the very air we breathe.
Unfortunately, however, trees may have reached their tipping point.
Amazon Rain Forest, South America
At 1.3 billion acres, the Amazon is the largest rain forest on Earth. It covers roughly 40 percent of South America and accounts for half of the planet’s remaining tropical forests. It spans across eight, rapidly developing countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela; and into French Guiana, an overseas territory of France. Crisscrossed by 4,100 miles of winding rivers—including the powerful Amazon—this forest is home to more than 40,000 plant species and 1,300 bird species. In fact, one in 10 known species on Earth is found here. Among the wet, broad-leaved trees, blue poison dart frogs and scarlet macaws live side by side with brown-throated sloths and tawny-colored jaguars.
There is a clear link between the health of the colossal Amazon Rain Forest and the wellness of the planet. Currently, the world is emitting around 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere every year. The Amazon absorbs 2 billion tons of CO2 per year (or 5 percent of annual emissions), making it vital for alleviating the effects of climate change.
Extreme droughts, however, are leaving trees parched, making them vulnerable to large-scale diebacks and more susceptible to forest fires. And deforestation could release significant amounts of this carbon dioxide, which could have catastrophic consequences around the world.
The Amazon Rain Forest is a fragile place, despite its size. You can visit this significant and sensitive terrain on several of Natural Habitat Adventures’ South American trips, including The Great Amazon River Cruise and the Discover Amazon and Machu Picchu adventure.
Great Bear Rain Forest, British Columbia, Canada
Contrary to popular belief, the southern hemisphere doesn’t have a monopoly on rain forests. In the northern hemisphere, there’s another great rain forest: the Great Bear Rain Forest in British Columbia, Canada. At 19 million acres (roughly the size of Ireland) and stretching from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska, it’s the largest intact temperate rain forest in the world. This fjord-filled wilderness is home to hundreds of animal species—including bald eagles, humpback whales and Steller sea lions—making it, too, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. And with its massive cedar trees, 4,000-foot granite cliffs, mist-shrouded streams and roaring waterfalls, it’s no wonder it makes almost everyone’s most-beautiful-forests lists.
Two of the rain forest’s most fascinating creatures are the coastal wolf and the Kermode bear (known by First Nations peoples as “spirit bears”). Coastal wolves swim for miles between the islands just off Canada’s western edge, and they get up to two-thirds of their food from the ocean, combing the beach for clams, crabs and roe.
There’s no agreement on the exact number of Kermode bears living in this corner of the world, but the best estimate is that the population numbers no more than 400 individuals. These black bears carry two copies of a recessive gene that yields their cream-colored fur. The Kitasoo/Xaixais First Nations people, who have lived among these special animals for thousands of years, believe they are sacred and have supernatural powers.
About 9 million acres of the Great Bear Rain Forest are legally protected from industrial logging, with the balance managed under some of the world’s most stringent harvest standards. You can explore this land of mist-covered pines on the Natural Habitat Adventures Spirit Bears, Humpbacks and Wildlife of BC tour.
Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
In Costa Rica, you’ll find a different kind of rain forest: a cloud forest, also known as a “montane rain forest.” The Monteverde Cloud Forest sits atop the crest of the Cordillera de Tilaran. When precipitation rises and flows over the peaks, moisture hits the upper windward slopes and forms clouds. The result is a forest ecosystem drenched in mist, from the canopy to the soil.
These forests are renowned for their plant biodiversity, lush vegetation and unique species. Layers upon layers of plants cloak the stunted, gnarled trees in the elfin forests that grow at the highest elevations. Epiphytes (air plants, such as orchids), climbing ferns, lichens and mosses form thick blankets on the trunks and branches of the trees. Begonias, ferns and many other herbaceous plants may grow to exceptionally large sizes in the clearings.
Founded in October 1972, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve was Costa Rica’s first private wildlife conservation area. Bats, reptiles and migratory birds, plus the highest diversity of orchids in the world (more than 500 known species), fill this nearly 26,000-acre region. The cloud forest holds 50 percent of Costa Rica’s fauna and flora—10 percent of which is endemic—and houses 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity.
Field studies conducted near Monteverde show that the trees here can absorb the water in clouds directly through their leaves. During the dry seasons in Costa Rica, this helps them to stay hydrated.
Cloud forests are globally uncommon yet biologically significant. In addition to their high levels of species richness, they play an important role in watershed ecology. Unfortunately, as with many tropical ecosystems, they are threatened by numerous forms of human disturbance. You can experience this rare place on Natural Habitat Adventures Natural Jewels of Costa Rica trip.
Reaching the tipping point
All of the trees in the world’s forests play a critical role in pulling excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. But at some point, these plants will get their fill. Exactly when that will happen, though, is a question that scientists are racing to answer.
In a study published in the scientific journal Trends in Plant Science in May 2019, it is noted that since the Industrial Revolution began in the early 20th century, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by human activity has rapidly increased. Using computer models, the study’s authors concluded that photosynthesis has increased by 30 percent.
Currently, terrestrial plants are removing about 29 percent of our emissions that would otherwise contribute to the growth of atmospheric CO2. But regardless of the rate at which photosynthesis has increased, scientists agree that excess carbon dioxide is acting like a fertilizer for plants, boosting their growth. Trees are leafier, and there’s more wood, which is where most of the CO2 is absorbed in the plant.
In fact, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory have observed that when plants are exposed to increasing levels of CO2, the size of the pores on a leaf increase. When researchers exposed plants to double the amount of carbon dioxide they were used to, the composition of their leaf tissues changed, making them tougher for herbivores to eat and harder for larvae to grow on.
With atmospheric CO2 rising, it’s likely that, eventually, plants won’t be able to keep up. “The response of the land carbon sink to increasing atmospheric CO2 remains the largest uncertainty in global carbon cycle modeling to date, and this is a huge contributor to uncertainty in climate change projections,” the Oak Ridge National Laboratory notes on its website.
Clearing land for agriculture or ranching and fossil fuel emissions are the biggest influences on the carbon cycle. Without dialing those two things way back, scientists say, a tipping point is inevitable. More of the CO2 we emit will stay in the air, quickly raising concentrations; and climate change will occur more rapidly.
In September 2018, environmental groups met in San Francisco to devise a plan to save forests, a natural asset they say is the “forgotten climate solution.” Taking immediate measures to protect forests and getting to work immediately to decarbonize our energy production could maintain the presently efficient carbon sink.
I’m a big fan of forests. Not only are they some of the most beautiful places on Earth (especially in the fall) by almost all counts on their outsides, their attractiveness extends to their insides—down to their very heartwood.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,