Visualizing the world’s loss of forests since the Ice Age
How much of the Earth used to be covered with forests and what part is covered today?
The effects of deforestation on the climate are already visible and tangible, and these effects are expected to increase over time. That’s why more than 100 world leaders have pledged to end deforestation and roll back by 2030 at the COP26 climate summit.
As today’s chart using data from Our World in Data shows, the world’s forests have been shrinking at an accelerating rate since the last ice age.
Earth’s surface: 10,000 years ago
To properly examine the deforestation situation, it helps to understand the total available surface area of the Earth. After all, our world can feel huge when we look at maps or globes. But of the approximately 51 billion hectares Over 70% of the total surface area on Earth is occupied by oceans.
What remains is 14.9 billion hectares of land, not all of which are habitable. Here’s how the land was assigned 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age and before the rise of human civilizations.
Uninhabitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):
- barren land (19% or 2.8 billion ha)—Includes deserts, salt flats, exposed rocks and dunes
- Glaciers (10% or 1.5 billion ha)—The vast majority concentrated in Antarctica
Habitable land on Earth (10,000 years ago):
- Forest (57% or 6 billion ha)—Includes tropical, temperate, and boreal forests
- Grassland (42% or 4.6 billion ha) — Wild grassland and shrubs
- Fresh water (1% or
In 2018, the forests had decreased to only 4 billion hectares. What happened?
Forests and grassland give way to agriculture
Once people figured out how to grow plants and livestock for regular food sources, they needed land to use.
For centuries, the loss of greenery has been relatively slow. By 1800, the world had lost 700 million hectares of forest and grassland, replaced by about 900 million hectares of land for grazing animals and 400 million hectares for crops.
But industrialization in the 19th century quickly accelerated the process.
|Percentage of habitable land||1700||1800||1900||1950||2018|
While half of Earth’s forest loss occurred from 10,000 years ago to 1900, the other half or 1.1 billion hectares have been lost since 1900. Some of this loss, about 100 million hectares, occurred in the more recent period from 2000 to 2018.
The biggest culprit?
Although urban land use has grown rapidly, it still pales in comparison to the 31% of the habitable land is now used for grazing livestock. Most of that land originally came from repurposed grasslands, but forests have also been cut along the way.
Where does food come from?
Countries that promise to stop deforestation must overcome two major hurdles: financial and survival.
First, there are many businesses, jobs and economies that depend on the production and marketing of goods made from forests, such as timber.
But more importantly, the increasing use of the world’s land for crops and agriculture reflects our burgeoning population. In 1900, the world’s population was just 1.6 billion people. In 2021 it was exceeded 7.9 billionwith hundreds of millions still affected by food shortages every day.
How do you feed so many people without needing more land? The extremely large footprint of meat makes it more attractive to prioritize crops and other solutions are being researched, such as meat from the lab and preventing erosion from grazing.
As the effects of climate change become increasingly felt, it is likely that countries, businesses and people will have to embrace many different solutions at once.