What role do forests play in the water cycle?

Authors: David Ellison (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences SLU), Bart Muys (KU
Leuven), Sven Wunder (EFI)
Clean, fresh water has become a key asset of the 21st century, becoming ever more expensive and
increasingly becoming a source of conflict (e.g. Gleick 2014). On the one hand, increasing world
population and in most places rising per capita consumption drive a continuous rise in demand. On
the other hand, global environmental change is further enhancing water scarcity, including climate
change induced dry spells and land conversions that reorient rainwater allocation away from green
water production toward faster surface runoff. Together these trends are leading to chronic shortages
of these valuable resources, both worldwide and across Europe. Among the countries with a critical
freshwater balance worldwide, we note several European countries, such as Belgium, Cyprus, Greece,
Italy, Portugal and Spain (Reig et al. 2013).
Against this background, forests play an essential role in the stable provision of clean, fresh water
and many other water-related ecosystem services, such as flood and erosion protection and climate
regulation (Table 1). Additionally, next to all the things we have known about forest-water interactions for
many years, the last decade or two of research have reinvigorated our understanding of the role forests
play in recycling and transporting valuable water resources toward continental interiors (Ellison et al
2017; Creed and van Noordwijk 2018; Keys et al., 2016; Wang-Erlandsson et al., 2018; Ellison et al.,
2019). In fact, with significant tree, forest and vegetation cover loss, downwind continental interiors are
likely to suffer the consequences of declining rainfall and water availability, thereby further heightening
the threat of drought and wildfire.
The explanation for these multiple water-related benefits that forests provide can be found in the
ecosystem structure and function of forests and a good understanding of the plant-water relationships
of trees.
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