Vast tracts of land previously considered barren are actually covered by forests "hiding in plain sight", scientists said on Friday, a discovery that could help the fight against climate change and desertification.
An international team of researchers led by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) used new technology to analyse high-resolution images from Google Earth and map forest coverage in drylands worldwide.
They found that trees like baobab and acacia shade 467 million more hectares of land than previously thought - an area roughly equal to half the size of the United States - increasing estimates of global forest cover by at least nine percent.
The discovery allows for more accurate assessments of how much greenhouse gases are absorbed from the atmosphere by the world's vegetation, FAO experts said.
"Drylands absorb more carbon than we thought and they can actually help mitigate climate change," Eva Muller, director of FAO's forestry policy and resources division told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.