Mighty Trees, Warriors Against The Threat Of Climate Change
SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.
From the coastal plains to the mountains, North Carolina is known as a place to experience the awe and wonder of the natural world. We have one of the highest rates of biodiversity here, which is the number of living species within a given area. Many northern species are at their southernmost limit, and they overlap with southern species that are at their northernmost limit. In addition, the state is home to a collection of endemic species; that is, species that aren’t found anywhere else. One could argue that we are truly a gem in the southern forests.
Southern forests have over 300 plant species and 130 tree species. It’s the highest concentration of tree species in the United States. There are 595 species of birds, 246 species of mammals, 170 amphibian, and 197 reptile species. Those concentrations are the highest concentrations in the United States, and many of those don’t occur anywhere else in the world.
That’s Dr. Sam Davis, Research Director at Dogwood Alliance in Asheville, NC, an organization dedicated to protecting the environmental and economic value of Southern forests.
Forests are our number one defense against climate change. They’re cheap to grow and keep. The world’s forests absorb almost 40% of manmade carbon dioxide. So, all of our cars, and all of our planes, and all of our power facilities emitting carbon dioxide, 40% of that gets taken up by the world’s forests.
80% of wetland forests are gone, from the 1600s, which is better than the 98% of longleaf pine forests taken. Compared to dry forest, they contribute about twice the value in endangered species protection, in wildlife habitat, in pollution treatment, and flood control, and water treatment. And they also provide significantly more carbon sequestration.
Clearly, there is value to protecting and preserving our forests. Davis’ organization has been working with environmental organizations, as well as industries that use the forest’s resources to accomplish this. There is growing concern, however, about a recently developed fuel source.
An individual tree can absorb about 13 pounds of carbon a year. When you cut a tree, you are taking the ability of that tree to store carbon away for the future. When you cut for wood pellets, those pellets are getting burned, which releases all of the carbon back into the atmosphere; carbon that may have been stored and protected from the atmosphere for a hundred years.
Pellets are able to target a whole new category of wood. So, traditional timber harvests focus on sort of long straight trees that will be easy to process. Wood pellet production can take any trees, which means that a whole new piece of the ecosystem of the US South is open to pellet production. And the easiest way to get pellets is to clear-cut an acre of trees. Or several acres. Or several hundred acres.
The impacts of clear-cutting, for any reason, goes beyond the effects of tree loss. Without the forest, the soil itself becomes problematic in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.
Forest soil also has hundreds of different species of microbes and millions and millions of individuals. And when you cause a disturbance, which could be manmade or not, you can cause a soil-carbon emission. So on top of logging effects, you have this persistent soil-carbon emission from these microbes, that can last up to 50 years. So, any time you clear-cut a forest, you run the risk of increasing carbon emissions from that area, instead of having those trees absorb the carbon for up to 50 years.
I can’t emphasize enough that our trees are really our best fight against climate change and we need to revalue them as essential parts of this community, this global community that we live in. If we let trees do their job, climate change would not be a problem, if we had enough trees and we let them get big enough, and maybe we cut back a bit on the SUVs ... just a little bit.