TROPICAL RAINFORESTS OF THE WORLDBy Rhett Butler
| Last updated July 22, 2012
Tropical rainforests are a world
like none other; and their importance to the global ecosystem and human
existence is paramount. Unparalleled in terms of their biological diversity,
tropical rainforests are a natural reservoir of genetic diversity which
offers a rich source of medicinal plants, high-yield foods,
and a myriad of other useful forest products. They are an important
habitat for migratory animals and sustain as much as 50 percent of the species on Earth, as well as a number of
diverse and unique indigenous cultures. Tropical rainforests play an
elemental role in regulating global weather in addition to maintaining
regular rainfall, while buffering against floods, droughts, and erosion.
They store vast quantities of carbon, while producing a significant
amount of the world's oxygen.
Despite their monumental role, tropical forests are restricted to the
small land area between the latitudes 23.5° North and 23.5° South
of the equator, or in other words between the Tropic of Capricorn
and the Tropic of Cancer. Since the majority of Earth's land is located
north of the tropics, rainforests are naturally limited to a relatively
Tropical rainforests, like so many other natural places, are a scarce
resource in the 21st century. The vast swaths of
forest, swamp, desert, and savanna that carpeted Earth's land surface
a mere five generations ago have been reduced to scattered fragments;
today, more than two-thirds of the world's tropical rainforests exist
as fragmented remnants. Just a few thousand years ago, tropical rainforests
covered as much as 12 percent of the Earth's land surface, or about 6 million square miles (15.5 million square km),
but today less than 5 percent of Earth's land is covered with
these forests (about 2.41 million square miles or 600 million hectares).
The largest unbroken stretch of rainforest is found in the Amazon river
basin of South America. Over half of this forest lies in Brazil, which
holds about one-third of the world's remaining tropical rainforests.
Another 20 percent of the world's remaining rainforest exists
in Indonesia and Congo Basin, while the balance of the world's rainforests
are scattered around the globe in tropical regions.
The global distribution of tropical rainforests can be broken up into
four biogeographical realms based roughly on four forested continental
regions: the Ethiopian or Afrotropical, the Australiasian or Australian,
the Oriental or Indomalayan/Asian, and the Neotropical. Just over half the world's rainforests lie in the Neotropical realm, roughly a quarter are in Africa, and a fifth in Asia. The remaining five percent or so are scattered across Australia, New Guinea, and various Pacific Islands.
Global forest cover
More forest cover data
charts & tables | primary forest | forest area
- Where are rainforests located?
- How much land area rainforests do cover?
- What percentage of Earth is covered by rainforests?
- How many rainforest biogeographical realms are there?
- What biogeographical realm has the most rainforest?
- True or false - less than 5% of Earth's land is covered with rainforests.
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Selection of information sources
D.W. Orr Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, Washington,
D.C.: Island Press, 1994.
David Quammen Wild Thoughts from Wild Places (New York: Scribner, 1998).
M. McKloskey in "Note on the Fragmentation of Primary
Rainforest," Ambio 22 (4), June: 250-51 1993 using analysis of satellite images.
Deforestation rates and tropical forest cover are taken from the latest State of the World's Forests 2011 (SOFO) published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).