Wolfe is a poet and online writer who is interested in the environment.
Reforestation and Its Potential Downsides
A friend of mine showed me a video created by a Youtuber named Jimmy Donaldson, more commonly known as Mr. Beast. In the video, Donaldson was seen planting trees with the goal of 20 million trees in total. My skepticism was clear as day, and I was full of questions when the video ended.
Before diving into the science behind tree planting, I would like to clearly say that I am not here to bash Donaldson or accuse him of any malicious intent. Instead, I want to highlight the fact that planting trees is not a silver bullet that will save us from climate change.
When done incorrectly, tree planting, which I will refer to as reforestation, can drain vital water sources, decrease biodiversity, and even be completely unnecessary.
Trees are hailed as a gift from the heavens due to their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which means it absorbs the infrared radiation emitted by the sun. This is why carbon dioxide levels are strongly correlated with atmospheric temperature.
So even though trees can help fight climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the air, very few consider how much water trees remove from the ground. Trees require a significant amount of water to survive, which explains why mature trees can have roots that dig up to 15 meters (about 50 feet) into the ground. In King's River Basin, located in central California, fire-thinned forests saved an estimated 3.7 billion gallons of water annually (approximate 14 billion liters).
Not only do people suffer from overplanting, but the trees themselves suffer. When trees are overcrowded, there may be pressure to absorb even more water. This could result in the amount of water being taken from the ground surpassing the amount of water that is replenished, which, over time, can lead to a massive die-off. A study by the University of California-Irvine showed that this process could lead to a 20% increase in tree death.
Reforestation aims to bring a forest back after it has been anthropogenically removed. However, a forest is much more than just trees. A healthy forest has a wealth of insects, birds, flora, etc. Unfortunately, many reforestation efforts use either an invasive species or a single species of tree.
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An invasive species, a species that is not native to that area, can outcompete the native species and lead to a monoculture. A monoculture refers to an area in which a single species dominates. The problem with monocultures arises from the fact that some animals rely on specific species of trees to survive. An example of this is the beaks of birds.
Birds that eat pinecones tend to have smaller beaks which helps them pick out the seeds from thinner pinecones. Planting a monoculture of trees that produce wider pinecones would make a smaller beak unnecessary and could see that bird outcompeted by rivals such as squirrels.
It's important to keep in mind that this can also cause a ripple effect. For example, if squirrels outcompete the birds, there will be fewer birds. If there are fewer birds, the bugs they eat will continue to reproduce. That will lead to more bugs, and if those bugs happen to be spotted lanternflies, which feast on trees, an increasing population could spell disaster for the newly-planted forest.
I chose to refer to tree planting as reforestation because creating a forest is typically the end goal of large-scale tree planting. If you look around, you'll see other ecosystems besides forests. These areas are just as important as forests despite not having the same amount of trees. For example, wetlands provide a home for a wide range of species, improve water quality, and provide flood protection, among other things.
The peat bogs of Scotland are an example of an ecosystem that was taken for granted. Peat bogs store carbon which, as previously mentioned, is key for fighting climate change. When these bogs were drained for reforestation projects, all that stored carbon was released into the surrounding atmosphere.
Although planting the trees can be seen as a step forward, the release of carbon from the peat bogs is two large steps backward. Furthermore, these reforestation efforts can harm the animals that thrive in bogs and wetlands. Replacing their native habitat with forests has the same effect as deforestation on arboreal species.
Trees should be recognized for the potential benefits they bring to the planet. However, like everything else in the world, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Furthermore, the good thing can become bad when used incorrectly. On planting trees, Paul Smith, Secretary General with Botanic Gardens Conservation International, said it best: One should plant "the right tree in the right place for the right reason."
- Why planting tons of trees isn't enough to solve climate change | Science News
- How Too Many Trees Contribute To California's Drought | NPR
As the historic drought drags on, just about everyone wishes the state had gotten more water this year. That's largely up to snow and rainfall, but it also depends on trees in the state's mountains.
- Is it possible to have too many trees? | Big Think
- The promise and danger of Scotland's bog | BBC Future Planet
The ancient blanket bog of northern Scotland is reaching a turning point in its long history: degrade or flourish. Which way it goes will have significant consequences for the climate.
- A case study of coevolution: squirrels, birds, and the pinecones they love | Understanding Evolution
In most of the Rocky Mountains, red squirrels are an important predator of lodgepole pine seeds. They harvest pinecones from the trees and store them through the winter.
- Birds Are One Line of Defense Against Dreaded Spotted Lanternflies | Audubon
But to harness their full bug-eating potential, it’ll likely help to remove the invasive tree-of-heaven.
© 2022 Wolfe Rygaard