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Earth’s trees number ‘three trillion’

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David Zeleny

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The new estimate includes “ground truth” density data from 400,000 forest plots

There are just over three trillion trees on Earth, according to a new assessment.

The figure is eight times as big as the previous best estimate, which counted perhaps 400 billion at most.

It has been produced by Thomas Crowther from Yale University, and colleagues, who combined a mass of ground survey data with satellite pictures.

The team tells the journal Nature that the new total represents upwards of 420 trees for every person on the planet.

The more refined number will now form a baseline for a wide range of research applications – everything from studies that consider animal and plant habitats for biodiversity reasons, to new models of the climate, because it is trees of course that play an important role in removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

‘Forest system in numbers’

But Dr Crowther cautioned that the higher number did not of itself change anything.

He told the BBC’s Science In Action programme: “It’s not like we’ve discovered a load of new trees; it’s not like we’ve discovered a load of new carbon.

“So, it’s not good news for the world or bad news that we’ve produced this new number.

“We’re simply describing the state of the global forest system in numbers that people can understand and that scientists can use, and that environmental practitioners or policymakers can understand and use.”

Key to the new estimate is the greater use of ground-truth data. The team collected tree density information from over 400,000 forest plots around the world.

Influence of humans on trees

This included many national forest inventories and a host of peer-reviewed studies where workers had actually gone out and counted the number of trunks in a given area and in a given forest type.

This then enabled Dr Crowther and his group to build a model that better characterised what they were seeing in satellite pictures, which are very good at showing forest extent but are not so good at revealing just how many individual trees are standing below the canopy.

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Clara Rowe

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Their great extent means the tropical forests host the largest number of individual trees

Of their approximately 3,040,000,000,000 trees, the scientists put most (1.39 trillion) in the tropics and sub-tropics, 0.61 trillion in temperate regions, and 0.74 trillion in the boreal forests – that great band of conifers that circles the globe just below the Arctic.

Indeed, it is in the boreal forests that they say the greatest densities are seen.

What is abundantly clear from the study is the influence humans now have on the number of trees on Earth. The team estimates we are removing about 15 billion a year, with perhaps only five billion being planted back.

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