The collapse of the Soviet Union didn't just affect humans — forests across Europe and Asia were impacted too. Some 533 million acres of forest in Eastern Europe have regrown since 1985, largely due to the disintegration of timber industries and abandonment of agricultural lands in countries such as Hungary, Croatia, and Bulgaria.
Drawing on 52,539 images collected by Landsat satellites between 1985 and 2012, a team of scientists has just published a series of maps showing how Eastern Europe's forests have been changing over the past 27 years. Bottom line: They have been coming back, with the exception of a small number of countries where the logging industry has actually picked up.
Across the entire study area, forest cover grew by nearly 5 per cent, although we can see from the chart above that several smaller countries experienced much, much more regrowth. Zooming in on specific regions, it becomes clear just how much these changes fall along country lines. Take, for instance, the Latvia-Russia border, pictured on the zoomed-in map below:
In Russia, a lot of the regrowth has been taking place in massive collective farms that went bust after the Soviet Union fell. And as this regrowth goes on, scientists expect that Russia will continue to be a major carbon sink into the future, according to NASA:
Overall, about 34 per cent of all cropland in Russia was abandoned after 1991. So far, only about 14 per cent of that abandoned farmland has been converted back to forest, suggesting that forest re-growth could represent a significant "carbon sink" for Russia in the future.
How significant are we talking? Well, a study published in 2013 in Global Change Biology found that abandoned farmlands in the parts of the former USSR that are now Russia have been soaking up 42.6 million tonnes of carbon every year since 1990 — or roughly 10 per cent of Russia's CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, according to New Scientist.
That may be an environmental win, but it's come with a major price tag: Enormous social and economic hardship. Reminding us, yet again, just how tricky it is to balance the needs of our changing planet alongside those of its human beings.
Changing forest cover across the former Soviet Union from 1987-2012. Green areas indicate stable or recovering forest while beige or brown areas indicate regions of net loss. Picture: NASA.