Rainforests - the Lungs of the Planet

In GCSE Geography students will look at different climates and environments. One environment they will study is that of the rainforests which act as the lungs of the planet, recycling carbon dioxide and providing us with oxygen.

The name rainforest comes from the high amount of rainfall that occurs in them each year. By definition no less than 168cm (some definitions refer to 250cm) of rain falls on a rainforest annually, although in rare cases it can exceed 1,000cm. Rainforests exist in temperate zones, but the tropical rainforests are much more extensive and incredibly important. The rainfall and the warm climate lead to hot humid conditions that the plants and animals living there have adapted to. Mean temperatures can exceed 18 degrees Celsius all months of the year and many of the creatures exist nowhere else on the planet. Many useful materials come from rainforests, including chemicals from plants and animals that provide the basis for modern medicines.

Rainforests act as the lungs of planet Earth. They are responsible for 28% of the world’s oxygen turnover. They convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and so help to slow global warming. Deforestation and the burning of the trees is both reducing the amount of oxygen turnover and increasing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

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Over half the world's species are contained within rainforests and deforestation is responsible for the extinction of up to 50,000 species of plant and animal each year. 90% of the rainforest in western Africa has already been cut down, in 10 years time the rain forests of Indonesia will be gone, and Papa New Guinea's rainforests will have gone within 16 years. By 2030 it’s thought that 60% of the Amazon rainforest will have been damaged or destroyed. Palm oil is a leading cause for deforestation, especially in Indonesia, whilst in Australia much of the destruction is due to urban expansion.

Brazilian rainforests are so large that in 2007 there were still 67 tribes that had had no contact with outside populations. They’re not the only rainforests with isolated tribes - New Guinea has 44 tribes that are still untouched by the modern world. Deforestation is threatening these tribes just as much as it threatens animal species.

Play this quiz and find out how much you know about the climate, environment and ecosystems found inside the rainforests - the lungs of our planet.

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  1. There are multiple layers in the rainforest. What is the top layer called?
    The emergent layer is occupied by birds and insects. This layer is where a few of the largest trees have managed to grow higher to get the light
  2. Huge trees need huge roots to support their weight. However, the nutrients in the rainforest soil are close to the surface meaning the roots need to be shallow. How have trees adapted to these conditions?
    These huge buttress roots support the tree and provide unique places for specialised flora and fauna to live
  3. Where is most of the rainfall intercepted in a rain forest?
    The heavy leaf cover means that most of the rainfall is intercepted by the canopy layer. This reduces the amount that reaches the lower levels. Many of the plants that operate on the lower levels draw water from the humid air
  4. When a tree falls in the rainforest what happens to the small trees and other plants in the shrub layer?
    The under canopy and the shrub level receive very little sunlight compared to the canopy and emergents. A missing tree provides a gap in the canopy to allow the sunlight to penetrate
  5. What part of the rainforest ecosystem are the latsols?
    Latsols have a thick litter layer which is full of nutrients. However, rapid leaching means that once the vegetation is removed it becomes infertile rapidly
  6. Within a rainforest much of the water comes from convectional rainfall. What are the stages of this process?
    The process of convectional rainfall is the means by which most of the regular rainfall occurs in the afternoon of every day
  7. Some trees use the trunks of others to climb up from the forest floor. What are these woody plants known as?
    Lianas climb up from the forest floor to the canopy where they spread from tree to tree
  8. Which of the following continents or islands does not contain rainforests?
    Not all rainforests are tropical. The UK has some small areas of temperate rainforest, for example the Celtic rainforest in parts of Wales and western Scotland
  9. Which layer is occupied by birds and monkeys?
    With little light reaching the forest floor and the presence of large predators on the lowest level, monkeys and birds tend to occupy the canopy level where food is more abundant
  10. Why does rainforest land cleared for agriculture only remain fertile enough to grow crops for a year or two before it has to be abandoned?
    The thin soils are usually replenished with a deep leaf litter from the trees above. Without the trees the thin soils are eaily washed away and the nutrients lost

Author: Ruth M

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