Football fields of deforestation: What does it mean?

In an effort to be more readily understood by the general public, scientists and journalists sometime resort to analogies.  A particularly common analogy, when discussing deforestation, is to say how many football fields of forest are being destroyed each minute (or hour). 

As discussed below, ALERT member Erik Meijaard has a problem with the football field analogy.  ALERT director Bill Laurance is notably guilty of this sin, but we're happy to let Erik air his concerns and then you can be the judge. 

A recent newspaper article stated that Indonesia lost 4.6 million hectares of forest between 2009 and 2013.  This was equated to an area of three football fields every minute.

I understand what journalists are trying to do with their frequent reference to football fields.  Presumably it makes that obscure, ivory-tower world of weird units like hectares and square kilometers easier to visualize by comparing it to something everyone is apparently familiar with: 22 football (soccer) players running up and down those revered green pitches.

But how helpful is this comparison, especially when it is so often inaccurate?

I searched the internet for football field–deforestation comparisons over the past few years and found that Indonesia is being deforested at a rate of:

- 300 football fields every hour

- 12 football fields every day (0.5 fields per hour)

- 10 football fields every minute (600 fields per hour)

- 6 football fields a minute (360 fields per hour)

- 7 American football fields every minute (315 fields per hour)

- 300 football fields of forest lost every hour to palm oil alone (300 fields per hour just because of oil palm)

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of European and American football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 hectares per hour at the lowest to 648 hectares per hour at the highest.

Or, in the more usual measurements, the rate ranges from 1752 hectares per year to 5.7 million hectares per year -- a 3,000-fold difference!

And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

The size of football pitches in the English Premier League already varies quite a bit, with the largest (Manchester City’s) being 16% larger than the smallest (West Ham). And American football fields are 25% smaller than their soccer cousins.

Humans took the wise decision to standardize their length and area measurements to get rid of the bewildering variety of Rijnland Inches, four-inch hands, and mornings (the amount of land tillable by one man behind an ox in the morning hours of a day).

Can we just stop dumbing down the public and provide people with proper scientific measurements and units?

Deforestation is a serious issue affecting everyone in this world.  Reducing clarity about its magnitude isn't helping matters.