Indicators of Forest Extent

Forest Extent

The Forest Extent Indicator aims to monitor the total area of forest worldwide, including natural and seminatural forests. A global tree cover extent data set from 2010 forms the basis for most statistics in this indicator. A key limitation of this data set is that it includes types of tree cover that would not be considered a “forest” by most definitions, such as fruit orchards and agricultural tree plantations such as oil palm or rubber. 

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How much forest exists in the world?

In 2010, the world had 3,999 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover covering 30 percent of land on Earth.See <a href="/gfr/data-methods#indicators-overview">Data and Methods</a>. A more recent map of global tree cover based on medium-resolution satellite data is expected to be published in 2021.

This estimate of global tree cover encompasses natural and seminatural forests as well as tree plantations and agricultural tree crops, the last of which does not typically fall under definitions of forest. In the tropics, mapped tree plantations account for roughly 2 percent of all tree cover; the remaining 98 percent of tree cover can be assumed to be natural or seminatural forest.See <a href="/gfr/data-methods#extent ">Data and Methods</a>. It is currently not possible to produce a similar estimate for the temperate and boreal ecozones due to lack of spatial data differentiating seminatural forests from tree plantations. 
 

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Forest versus Tree Cover

There are hundreds of definitions of the word forest, based on factors such as the land use, patch size, species composition, legal designation, canopy density, and more. The GFR relies on the biophysical indicator of tree cover instead because it can be measured consistently with satellite imagery at a global scale. The tree cover data used in this report are based on Hansen et al. (2013),Hansen et al. 2013, https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1244693 . who define tree cover as woody vegetation with a height of at least 5 meters and a canopy density greater than 30 percent at 30-meter resolution. This definition includes tree plantations as well as natural and seminatural forests.

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How are forests distributed throughout the world?

Tree cover is distributed across the globe and can be found in more than 200 countries. Russia, Brazil, Canada, the United States and Australia have the most tree cover by total area. Although these are also some of the largest countries by total land area, the density of tree cover reveals where tree cover is highly concentrated within country borders. More than 95 percent of the land in Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, the Solomon Islands, and Suriname has tree cover. 

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Countries with the most tree cover

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Climate, geology, and human influence shape the different types of forests around the world. Tropical and subtropical forests, located close to the equator, account for 58 percent of 2010 tree cover by area. Boreal forests, characterized by primarily coniferous forests in northern latitudes, make up 27 percent of tree cover. Temperate forests account for about 15 percent of tree cover and are found in the moderate climates between the tropics and boreal regions. They consist of a mix of broadleaf and coniferous forest types. Sparsely dispersed trees can also exist in savannas and other ecoregions and play an important role in local ecosystems and economies. See the Trees outside Forests Indicator for more information.   

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The world’s forests can be divided into boreal, temperate, tropical, and subtropical ecozones<fn>FAO 2012, <a href="http://www.fao.org/3/ap861e/ap861e00.pdf">http://www.fao.org/3/ap861e/ap861e00.pdf</a>.</fn>

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How much primary forest exists in the world?

Primary forests are those that have not been cleared or degraded by human activity in recent history and thus do not include recently reforested areas. They tend to be highly important for biodiversity and carbon storage. Primary forests account for roughly 50 percent of all forests in the tropics (1,030 Mha). Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Indonesia have the most primary forest in absolute terms, whereas French Guiana, Gabon, and Suriname have the highest proportion of their total land area covered by primary forest.See <a href="/gfr/data-methods#extent ">Data and Methods</a>. Primary forests have not been comprehensively mapped outside the tropics. 

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Is global forest extent increasing or decreasing?

The most recent global-scale geospatial study of net forest area change estimated that the world gained 224 Mha of tree cover between 1982 and 2016.Song et al. 2018, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0411-9 . The net change, a sum of tree cover loss and tree cover gain, is highly variable geographically, with net gains of tree cover in China, eastern Europe, and the United States and net losses of tree cover in the tropics. An increase in plantations and reforestation programs in China, natural regrowth of forests on abandoned agricultural land in eastern Europe, and recovering forests and forestry management in the southeastern United States all contributed to the net gain in tree cover area. 

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Many areas of the tropics have experienced a net loss in tree cover during the past 35 years, whereas other boreal and temperate forests have experienced net gains in tree cover<fn>Song et al. 2018, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0411-9">https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0411-9</a>.</fn>

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How much forest is natural versus seminatural?

Natural forest includes forest that is grown without human intervention, whereas seminatural forests have been modified by humans, typically for resource extraction, and may have a different species composition than nearby natural forest. There are currently no comprehensive spatial estimates on natural and seminatural forest extent. Differentiating natural and seminatural forest using remote sensing techniques is especially challenging because these forests have similar visual qualities in satellite imagery. Seminatural forests managed for timber production are common across temperate and boreal forests, but no comprehensive spatial data are currently available that would enable estimation of their extent in relation to natural forests.  

Limitations and Future Prospects

Global spatial data on the extent of forests is surprisingly limited. The most recent medium-resolution (30-by-30 m) map is from 2010 and measures tree canopy cover, leading to an overestimation of actual forest cover due to the inclusion of tree plantations. Additional land cover maps with a forest class are produced by the U.S. Geological Survey, the European Space Agency, and others. Some are more recent than 2010, but all are lower resolution (100-by-100 m or lower resolution). 

Estimates of global forest extent vary, partly due to a multiplicity of approaches to defining and measuring a “forest.” In 2015, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported 3,999 Mha of forest worldwide, excluding agroforestry plantations, on the basis of aggregating forest area statistics reported by national governments. The estimate is comparable to this indicator’s 2010 tree cover estimate of 3,929 Mha. Furthermore, forest is a broad term encompassing many different forest types with quite different environmental, cultural, and economic values. Global geospatial data that differentiate various types of forest, such as natural versus seminatural forest and primary versus secondary forest, are limited. 

The FAO has reported a consistent decrease in forest extent over the past 25 years, resulting in the loss of 129 Mha between 1990 and 2015. In contrast, the onetime study presented in this indicator shows an increase of 224 Mha in tree cover extent from 1982 to 2016. Though the global trend differs, the FAO similarly shows net losses in tropical forests with net gains in temperate forests. 

The limited information on annual global forest extent (combination of gain and loss) is the result of incomparable data used for the Forest Loss Indicator and the Forest Gain Indicator in the Global Forest Change data set. The differences in methodology, accuracy, and time period make it impossible to use these data to calculate forest extent in a given calendar year. The gain data covers only the cumulative period 2001–12 (as opposed to annual 2001–20 data for loss), tend to underestimate the amount of gain, and measure gains only in areas that surpass 50 percent tree cover (whereas the loss data measures loss in all areas with tree cover). A newer 2020 tree cover extent map is in development, as well as annual tree cover extent maps, which would allow for a more updated and nuanced understanding of this indicator.

In addition to limitations related to the 2010 tree cover extent data set, reporting for this indicator is also incomplete because the primary forest extent data set is currently only available for the humid tropics due to methodological difficulties with mapping primary forests in other ecosystems. The most recent tree cover extent change study also covers change only for a single time period. Discerning forest types and net change from satellite imagery can be challenging, although research is ongoing by the scientific community to enable better mapping of these dynamics in the future.  
 

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{"Glossary":{"51":{"name":"agricultural tree crops","description":"Trees cultivated for their food, cultural, or economic values. These include oil palm, rubber, cocoa, cashew, mango, oranges (citrus), plantain, banana, and coconut.\r\n"},"94":{"name":"biodiversity intactness","description":"The proportion and abundance of a location\u0027s original forest community (number of species and individuals) that remain.\u0026nbsp;\r\n"},"95":{"name":"biodiversity significance","description":"The importance of an area for the persistence of forest-dependent species based on range rarity.\r\n"},"98":{"name":"carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)","description":"Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is a measure used to aggregate emissions from various greenhouse gases (GHGs) on the basis of their 100-year global warming potentials by equating non-CO2 GHGs to the equivalent amount of CO2.\r\n"},"99":{"name":"CO2e","description":"Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) is a measure used to aggregate emissions from various greenhouse gases (GHGs) on the basis of their 100-year global warming potentials by equating non-CO2 GHGs to the equivalent amount of CO2.\r\n"},"1":{"name":"deforestation","description":"The change from forest to another land cover or land use, such as forest to plantation or forest to urban area.\r\n"},"77":{"name":"deforested","description":"The change from forest to another land cover or land use, such as forest to plantation or forest to urban area.\r\n"},"76":{"name":"degradation","description":"The reduction in a forest\u2019s ability to perform ecosystem services, such as carbon storage and water regulation, due to natural and anthropogenic changes.\r\n"},"75":{"name":"degraded","description":"The reduction in a forest\u2019s ability to perform ecosystem services, such as carbon storage and water regulation, due to natural and anthropogenic changes.\r\n"},"79":{"name":"disturbances","description":"A discrete event that changes the structure of a forest ecosystem.\r\n"},"68":{"name":"disturbed","description":"A discrete event that changes the structure of a forest ecosystem.\r\n"},"65":{"name":"driver of tree cover loss","description":"The direct cause of forest disturbance.\r\n"},"70":{"name":"drivers of loss","description":"The direct cause of forest disturbance.\r\n"},"81":{"name":"drivers of tree cover loss","description":"The direct cause of forest disturbance.\r\n"},"2":{"name":"forest","description":"Forests include tree cover greater than 30 percent tree canopy density and greater than 5 meters in height as mapped at a 30-meter Landsat pixel scale.\r\n"},"3":{"name":"forest concession","description":"A legal agreement allowing an entity the right to manage a public forest for production purposes.\r\n"},"90":{"name":"forest concessions","description":"A legal agreement allowing an entity the right to manage a public forest for production purposes.\r\n"},"53":{"name":"forest degradation","description":"The reduction in a forest\u2019s ability to perform ecosystem services, such as carbon storage and water regulation, due to natural and anthropogenic changes.\r\n"},"54":{"name":"forest disturbance","description":"A discrete event that changes the structure of a forest ecosystem.\r\n"},"100":{"name":"forest disturbances","description":"A discrete event that changes the structure of a forest ecosystem.\r\n"},"5":{"name":"forest fragmentation","description":"The breaking of large, contiguous forests into smaller pieces, with other land cover types interspersed.\r\n"},"6":{"name":"forest management plan","description":"A plan that documents the stewardship and use of forests and other wooded land to meet environmental, economic, social, and cultural objectives. Such plans are typically implemented by companies in forest concessions.\r\n"},"62":{"name":"forests","description":"Forests include tree cover greater than 30 percent tree canopy density and greater than 5 meters in height as mapped at a 30-meter Landsat pixel scale.\r\n"},"69":{"name":"fragmentation","description":"The breaking of large, contiguous forests into smaller pieces, with other land cover types interspersed.\r\n"},"80":{"name":"fragmented","description":"The breaking of large, contiguous forests into smaller pieces, with other land cover types interspersed.\r\n"},"74":{"name":"gain","description":"The establishment of tree canopy in an area that previously had no tree cover. Tree cover gain may indicate a number of potential activities, including natural forest growth or the crop rotation cycle of tree plantations.\r\n"},"7":{"name":"hectare","description":"One hectare equals 100 square meters, 2.47 acres, or 0.01 square kilometers and is about the size of a rugby field. A football pitch is slightly smaller than a hectare (pitches are between 0.62 and 0.82 hectares).\r\n"},"66":{"name":"hectares","description":"One hectare equals 100 square meters, 2.47 acres, or 0.01 square kilometers and is about the size of a rugby field. A football pitch is slightly smaller than a hectare (pitches are between 0.62 and 0.82 hectares).\r\n"},"67":{"name":"intact","description":"A forest that contains no signs of human activity or habitat fragmentation as determined by remote sensing images and is large enough to maintain all native biological biodiversity.\r\n"},"78":{"name":"intact forest","description":"A forest that contains no signs of human activity or habitat fragmentation as determined by remote sensing images and is large enough to maintain all native biological biodiversity.\r\n"},"8":{"name":"intact forests","description":"A forest that contains no signs of human activity or habitat fragmentation as determined by remote sensing images and is large enough to maintain all native biological biodiversity.\r\n"},"55":{"name":"land and environmental defenders","description":"People who peacefully promote and protect rights related to land and\/or the environment.\r\n"},"9":{"name":"loss driver","description":"The direct cause of forest disturbance.\r\n"},"10":{"name":"low tree canopy density","description":"Less than 30 percent tree canopy density.\r\n"},"84":{"name":"managed forest concession","description":"Areas where governments have given rights to private companies to harvest timber and other wood products from natural forests on public lands.\r\n"},"83":{"name":"managed forest concession maps for nine countries","description":"Cameroon, Canada, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Indonesia, Liberia, and the Republic of the Congo\r\n"},"91":{"name":"megacities","description":"A city with more than 10 million people.\r\n"},"57":{"name":"megacity","description":"A city with more than 10 million people."},"56":{"name":"mosaic restoration","description":"Restoration that integrates trees into mixed-use landscapes, such as agricultural lands and settlements, where trees can support people through improved water quality, increased soil fertility, and other ecosystem services. This type of restoration is more likely in deforested or degraded forest landscapes with moderate population density (10\u2013100 people per square kilometer). "},"86":{"name":"natural","description":"A forest that is grown without human intervention.\r\n"},"12":{"name":"natural forest","description":"A forest that is grown without human intervention.\r\n"},"63":{"name":"natural forests","description":"A forest that is grown without human intervention.\r\n"},"82":{"name":"persistent gain","description":"Forests that have experienced one gain event from 2001 to 2016.\r\n"},"13":{"name":"persistent loss and gain","description":"Forests that have experienced one loss or one gain event from 2001 to 2016."},"97":{"name":"plantation","description":"An area in which trees have been planted, generally for commercial purposes.\u0026nbsp;\r\n"},"93":{"name":"plantations","description":"An area in which trees have been planted, generally for commercial purposes.\u0026nbsp;\r\n"},"88":{"name":"planted","description":"A forest composed of trees that have been deliberately planted and\/or seeded by humans.\r\n"},"14":{"name":"planted forest","description":"A forest composed of trees that have been deliberately planted and\/or seeded by humans.\r\n"},"73":{"name":"planted forests","description":"A forest composed of trees that have been deliberately planted and\/or seeded by humans.\r\n"},"15":{"name":"primary forest","description":"Old-growth forests that are typically high in carbon stock and rich in biodiversity. The GFR uses a humid tropical primary rainforest data set, representing forests in the humid tropics that have not been cleared in recent years.\r\n"},"64":{"name":"primary forests","description":"Old-growth forests that are typically high in carbon stock and rich in biodiversity. The GFR uses a humid tropical primary rainforest data set, representing forests in the humid tropics that have not been cleared in recent years.\r\n"},"58":{"name":"production forest","description":"A forest where the primary management objective is to produce timber, pulp, fuelwood, and\/or nonwood forest products."},"89":{"name":"production forests","description":"A forest where the primary management objective is to produce timber, pulp, fuelwood, and\/or nonwood forest products.\r\n"},"87":{"name":"seminatural","description":"A managed forest modified by humans, which can have a different species composition from surrounding natural forests.\r\n"},"59":{"name":"seminatural forests","description":"A managed forest modified by humans, which can have a different species composition from surrounding natural forests. "},"96":{"name":"shifting agriculture","description":"Temporary loss or permanent deforestation due to small- and medium-scale agriculture.\r\n"},"17":{"name":"tree cover","description":"All vegetation greater than five meters in height and may take the form of natural forests or plantations across a range of canopy densities. Unless otherwise specified, the GFR uses greater than 30 percent tree canopy density for calculations.\r\n"},"71":{"name":"tree cover canopy density is low","description":"Less than 30 percent tree canopy density.\r\n"},"60":{"name":"tree cover gain","description":"The establishment of tree canopy in an area that previously had no tree cover. Tree cover gain may indicate a number of potential activities, including natural forest growth or the crop rotation cycle of tree plantations."},"18":{"name":"tree cover loss","description":"The removal or mortality of tree cover, which can be due to a variety of factors, including mechanical harvesting, fire, disease, or storm damage. As such, loss does not equate to deforestation. "},"19":{"name":"tree plantation","description":"An agricultural plantation of fast-growing tree species on short rotations for the production of timber, pulp, or fruit.\r\n"},"72":{"name":"tree plantations","description":"An agricultural plantation of fast-growing tree species on short rotations for the production of timber, pulp, or fruit.\r\n"},"85":{"name":"trees outside forests","description":"Trees found in urban areas, alongside roads, or within agricultural land\u0026nbsp;are often referred to as Trees Outside Forests (TOF).\u202f\r\n"}}}