For decades, we’ve been hearing about how the world’s forests are under attack, how the equivalent of "36 football fields of the world's forests are being cut every minute." With all this pressure on nature, could the Earth possibly be getting greener? Not a chance, right? Surprisingly, that's what a team of scientists discovered when they looked at two decades' worth of data from satellites that use a technique called "passive microwave remote sensing," which allows researchers to measure how much biomass, or living matter, is present on the surface of the planet.

The researchers found that despite ongoing deforestation in the rain forests of South America and Southeast Asia — a huge problem, regardless of what happens elsewhere — other regions outside the tropics, such as Africa and Australia, have been improving enough to offset the losses. Some of the more unexpected sources of this extra biomass are farmland abandoned after the fall of communism where forests have spontaneously regrown in the former Soviet republics, as well as in areas of China where large-scale tree planting projects took place.

We’re only talking about biomass quantities being offset, though; the loss of rain forests also mean the loss of many species of animals and plants, as well as unique habitats that can’t be replaced by other regions elsewhere, such as the savannah of Africa or the Australian Outback. So while this is good news, we can't declare victory over deforestation just yet!

Biomass as seen from space

The concentration of biomass stored in trees in the U.S. The darkest greens reveal the areas with the densest, tallest, and most robust forest growth. (Photo: NASA)

In the period between 2003-2012, the total amount of vegetation above the ground has increased by about 4 billion tonnes of carbon. Any way you slice in, 4 billion tonnes is significant!

This is particularly important because around 25 percent of the CO2 that we release into the atmosphere by burning formerly buried hydrocarbons is absorbed by plants, so having more of them can help slow down (but not stop) climate change, and there’s a limit to plants' rate of absorption. Still, it's nice to get good news for a change ...

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Michael Graham Richard ( @Michael_GR ) Michael writes for MNN and TreeHugger about science, space and technology and more.