The end of the Soviet Union had far-reaching effects all over the world. Even today, researchers continue to discover new ways by which the fall of communism shaped not only global society and politics – but even European forests, as it turns out.
"I personally was quite surprised with our results on forest dynamics," Peter Potapov, a professor at the University of Maryland, admitted.
Potapov has carefully analyzed forest cover changes in eastern Europe and western Russia over the last 27 years. His results are striking: The transition from communism to a liberal market economy has left clear traces that can be seen on satellite images. In most eastern European countries, forests have expanded overall.
Potapov's research shows how the end of the Soviet Union literally made the world more green – but at a substantial human cost.
How unemployment made forests grow
One of the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union was its economic struggles. Following the breakup, the former Soviet states' economies declined even further.
Efficient western European and American companies suddenly entered into competition with neglected eastern European enterprises. It only took several months for most of those companies to go bankrupt. Especially hard-hit were farmers who had few other options than moving into urban areas. "Reduction of agriculture area affected most of the region, but was especially severe in areas where farming was marginally profitable," Potapov concluded.
Due to warfare, villages were abandoned
Two years after the Berlin wall had fallen, war broke out in the Balkans which lasted for a decade. Tens of thousands of people were killed with massacres carried out that continue to haunt the region until today.
"In addition to the severe human toll, the effects of the war are also still clearly visible in the physical landscape and economy," University of Colorado's John O’Loughlin and Frank W. Witmer observed in a paper.
Near Srebrenica, a town where 8,000 Muslim Bosnians were killed in a massacre in 1995, forests have expanded and taken over abandoned cropland.
"In addition to destroyed equipment and transportation infrastructure, the widespread placement of landmines also inhibited cultivation of land and has continued to deter residents from returning," Witmer and O’Loughlin explained.
Some of those areas look eerie when viewed from the ground. Google Earth has captured some of the abandoned relics of war, for instance the village of Bučje in Croatia which housed a terrifying internment camp during the war.
Today, only the walls of the village's houses are still standing -- whereas trees have taken over the rest.
Some countries did lose forests, but they were in the minority
Three nations, Macedonia, Estonia and Latvia lost forest cover between 1985 and 2012.
According to Potapov, "trade liberalization after joining the European Union and short distances to paper and timber mills," are among the main reasons why Estonia and Latvia lost forest cover. In contrast to their neighbors, these countries were quickly able to establish a profitable timber market.
Western Russia was far less successful in doing so, but even so the impact of logging as seen on satellite images is astonishing. You can clearly see how systematically the logging industry laid out transport paths and removed parts of the forest, for instance in the Archangelsk region.
It's not only logging that has contributed to some of the forest loss in Europe and Russia: Forest fires, often taking place far away from urban areas and out of reach from firefighters, have taken its toll in the region, as well.
In 2010, more than 100,000 hectares of forest were destroyed by catastrophic blights in Russia -- and global warming could make the problem even worse.
"The catastrophic fires of 2010 showed what may happen if extreme fire weather is coupled with the lack of fire suppression and poor forest management," Potapov said. "Surprisingly, even the frequency of major wind damage events also increased significantly from 1990s to 2012."