Trees are one of nature’s most powerful climate change solutions. They’re also one of climate change’s biggest victims.
Consider how trees help fight climate change:
They provide a highly efficient way to absorb carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Each year, Earth’s trees suck more than a hundred billion tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, about 60 times the weight of all the humans currently on the planet, reports Grist. People inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; trees do exactly the opposite, respiring CO2 and releasing oxygen. The more trees, the more carbon dioxide is reduced.
Trees also create physical barriers that protect against extreme weather events. In some southern and tropical coastal areas, mangrove forests can buffer tidal surges when hurricanes send powerful waves pounding against shorelines. On steep hillsides, forests and their root systems hold soil in place, preventing erosion and dangerous mud slides during drenching rains.
Trees keep the world cooler, too, whether that “world” is your own yard, a city street, or a national park. Just three trees properly placed around a house can save up to 30% of energy use, reports the U.S. Forest Service Center for Urban Forest Resource. But there’s more. Pine forests in North America, northern Europe, and Russia emit a scent you might identify as the “smell of pine.” This smell actually consists of volatile organic compounds (“good” VOCs) that react with oxygen to form aerosol particles. These particles reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere and help cooling clouds to form.
Trees provide many other environmental benefits as well, from helping to filter pollutants out of the air, to offering habitat for all kinds of animals and plants, to being a source of respite and comfort. Stressed out? Walking in a grove of trees or “forest bathing,” in which someone immerses herself in a forest to relax and emotionally rejuvenate, is proven to help many people get back on track.
Trees and Climate Change
Millions of trees have burned to a crisp in ravaging forest fires. California’s recent Thomas Fire, the largest in the state’s history, torched almost 300,000 acres. Small fires actually help forests regenerate. But “megafires” like Thomas are not only burning existing trees, but leave such scorched earth behind that it’s hard for forests to regrow.
Entire forests have been blown to the ground. NASA estimates that Hurricane Katrina killed or severely damaged 320 million large trees in Gulf Coasts forests. That was in 2005 – before Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Rita, and the recent Hurricanes Florence and Michael. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria inflicted “widespread and catastrophic damage” to the island’s trees, report scientists at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Using satellite images and other research techniques, they estimate that 23 to 31 million trees may have been killed or severely damaged.
Trees can’t withstand long-term droughts. A University of California/Merced study found that sequoias are struggling as the climate warms. These giant redwoods, like almost all trees, need to absorb water from the ground. But as the climate heats up, evaporation increases. So do irrigation needs for agriculture, tapping into the groundwater sequoias rely on. With no groundwater to ‘drink,’ how can these ancient forests survive?
Groves are also being chomped to death by insects that are taking advantage of warming global temperatures to move north into climates that once were too cold for them. When they get there, they devour a buffet of completely defenseless trees. During the 2000s, more than 150,000 square miles of lodgepole and ponderosa pine forest in the U.S. and Canadian Rockies died in just a few years from an unprecedented surge in beetle infestations.
“Although we know stopping deforestation is critical to curbing climate change,” says the non-profit StandforTrees.org, “we continue to lose a forest the size of New York City every 48 hours. And deforestation and forest degradation are now larger contributors to climate change than every plane, train, car, and ship on the planet combined.”
Fortunately, planting a tree is one of the easiest, simplest and most affordable ways citizens can help. And there’s no need to wait, as autumn is an excellent time to plant. These simple directions tell you exactly how to plant and care for a tree.
To get a tree inexpensively, keep an eye out for tree giveaways in the spring. Many communities want to help build up their “urban forests” and provide free tree seedlings.
Support organizations like American Forests that are working to protect trees and forests. Through its “Global ReLeaf” initiative, American Forests has set a goal of planting 3 million trees in 2018 alone.
Finally, don’t waste paper. Buy recycled paper and recycle what you use. And don’t forget to hug a tree.