Humans certainly have a heavy impact on the Earth, and their extensive land use takes a toll on the environment. Researchers estimate that people cut down up to 15 billion trees each year to clear land for human use. However, the effects of land clearing can have devastating impacts on wildlife, the surrounding habitats and even the climate.
What Is Land Clearing?
When people want to use a patch of land – for farming, development or some other purpose – they cut down the trees in that area. Food production is the most common reason for land clearing. This land clearing, also known as deforestation, often occurs so people can raise cattle or other meat sources for consumption, or grow plants for palm oil or soya production.
What Are the Effects of Land Clearing?
Deforestation has devastating impacts on the environment on both a small scale and a global scale. In the immediate vicinity, land clearing destroys and fragments habitats, endangers animals, increases soil erosion, contributes to pollution, increases flooding risk and even exacerbates the effects of climate change.
Wildlife Threat, Habitat Loss and Fragmentation
The extensive land use for food production and urban development impacts wildlife in many ways. The physical process of clearing land causes direct mortality for any animal that cannot flee the machinery in time. For those animals who do not face direct destruction from the process of land clearing, the results leave them without a natural habitat to return to.
Habitat loss impacts many types of wildlife. From jaguars to capybara to poison dart frogs, all types of animals suffer when deforestation occurs. The more people clear land, the less available habitat animals have to use for their survival and reproduction, resulting in population decline for many species.
The loss of habitat isn't the only pitfall to land clearing. When humans clear portions of usable habitat, it also creates fragmentation. This means that sections of appropriate habitats, such as rainforests, become fragmented and separated from one another. Animals that use rainforest habitats and avoid cleared areas do not cross to other fragmented sections of rainforest. This means that not only do the animals have less usable habitat, but also less genetic diversity for reproduction as they cannot easily access the populations in the other fragments.
Erosion, Pollution and Flooding
Land clearing also results in environmental concerns as well as creates direct threats to wildlife. The roots of trees hold moisture and keep soil in place, protecting it from washing away during wind and rain. When you remove the trees, the soil - and any pollutants or pesticides present in the soil - washes into nearby waterways. This leads to water pollution and algal blooms, and it can even damage important aquatic habitats like coral reefs.
This erosion can also lead to flooding in waterways. Because trees are no longer holding the soil in place, rain flushes the sediment into waterways. This newly added sediment settles to the bottom eventually, changing the shape and structure of the river or stream. When large amounts of sediment accumulate, it can impact the river's ability to flow properly and cause flooding upstream.
Worsening Climate Change
Land clearing obviously impacts the environment heavily on a local scale, but it also causes global repercussions as well. This is especially true when land use and deforestation occurs on a massive scale, such as what is occurring in the Amazon rainforest.
Trees remove carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into oxygen, supplying the planet with critical climate alteration. When you remove large portions of trees during land clearing, you decrease oxygen output and increase carbon dioxide, which increases negative climate change factors. For example, increased carbon dioxide contributes to greenhouse gases "insulating" the planet and impacting global climate change.
About the Author
Marina Somma is a freelance writer and animal trainer. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and a B.S. in Marine and Environmental Biology & Policy from Monmouth University. Marina has worked with a number of publications involving animal science, behavior and training, including animals.net, SmallDogsAcademy and more.