13 Reasons to Plant Trees and the Psychology of Tree Planting

Beautiful Tree

Why plant a tree?

  1. Trees provide the oxygen that keeps us alive. One mature tree provides enough for 10 people to breathe per year.
  2. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, removing and storing the carbon as they grow. This should be reason enough as the global CO2 concentration surpasses 400 ppm.
  3. Strategically planted trees can reduce home energy use by as much as 30 % (Arbor Day Foundation). Planting deciduous trees on the east and west sides of the home provide shade in summer, while coniferous trees planted on the north and northwest sides can shield properties from cold winter winds.
  4. Trees raise property values for the entire neighbourhood: A 2010 US Forest Service study concluded that a tree planted “growing along the public right of way added an average of $12,828 (£8,500) to the combined value of all houses within 100 ft”.
  5. In 1985 the US Forest Service estimated the value of an individual tree at $273 annually (£180), well over $57,000 over its life time (£38,000). This value comes from its contribution to climate control, soil erosion, stormwater management, wildlife shelter and air pollution reduction.
  6. Trees improve biodiversity and improve habitat for local wildlife. Trees and large shrubs in your garden can make a real difference to butterflies, bees and birds.
  7. Trees cool the streets and the city, reducing the urban heat island and the evaporation of fuels within your car parked outside.
  8. They help the soil by reducing soil erosion by slowing run-off and holding soil in place with their roots, and also by remediating the soil and breaking down harmful chemicals.
  9. Trees help conserve water through reducing evaporation and run-off, allowing underground aquifers to recharge.
  10. Aesthetically, these organisms provide beauty to residential and urban areas and research has shown their presence decreases hospital stayover times of patients who had a view of them from their window.
  11. Socially and communally they provide a sense of identity and communities often band together to protect significant or historic trees.
  12. As playmates for children and places of rest and spiritual retreat for adults.
  13. Trees can form an effective sound barrier to noisy streets, providing more peace to one’s home.

    An oak tree in Wales (John Haynes)

    An oak tree in Wales (John Haynes)

The Psychological Motivation to Plant a Tree

If the above reasons are known and understood this should provide some rationale for planting a tree in your garden or local area. To summarise key motivations:

  1. Improving Your Living Space: The serenity of trees in one’s garden adds natural beauty
  2. Financial: A mature tree increases the value of your property
  3. Helping the Planet: Understanding the environmental condition of the Earth and why trees are needed
  4. The Feel Good Factor: The sense of satisfaction that comes from providing value or help

As seen, there are already powerful human drives present in these reasons. However, with the Teratrees project I hope to add to these motivations. This project shall be launched in the near future and updates shall follow!

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia (http://www.slovenijaturizem.com/)

Bohinj Lake, Slovenia (http://www.slovenijaturizem.com/)

Deforestation: Above and Below the Waterline

A multi-faceted approach is needed in tackling the effect of human activity on the climate and natural world. A reduction in industrial emissions through better practice, technology and efficiency is key, coupled with protection of carbon sinks, namely the forests and the oceans.

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

The oceans are the largest carbon sinks in the world storing 93 % of carbon in the form of algae, vegetation and coral, and sequestering 20 to 35 % of anthropogenic emissions. However, there is evidence to suggest that the oceans are becoming less efficient since around the year 2000 in absorbing these emissions1. Further, since the 1940’s, marine carbon sinks have been suffering with a loss of 30 % of mangroves, 25 % of salt marshes and over 30 % of seagrass meadows2. These are being lost at a faster rate than the rain forests.

Coastal development, aquaculture operations and timber removal are destroying these marine ecosystems, and thus there is a connection between the destruction of forests on land and under water. Deforestation through clearing and burning also generates 17 % of global carbon emissions, more than from all the world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. The highest rates of deforestation are taking place in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia3. These are areas where there is a lack of forest governance and where accountability and transparency are often in short supply.

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Illegal logging actually floods the market with cheaper wood, which suppresses global timber prices between 7 and 16 per cent3. It is estimated that legal timber companies are being denied US$30 billion per year from these activities.

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

As can be imagined, protecting forests and marine ecosystems require political and economic solutions, as well as enforcement of law. And as an end user of timber products we have a deep responsibility to ensure that our furniture, floors and wooden features in our homes and businesses are from sustainable and legal timber. We are all part of the solution.

References

  1. Khatiwala et al. (2009). Reconstruction of the history of anthropogenic CO2 concentrations in the ocean. Nature 462, 346-349
  2. Blue Carbon – The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon. Rapid Response Assessment by GRID-Arendal and UNEP. 14 October 2009
  3. Davyth Stewart. Combating illegal logging key to saving our forests and preventing climate change. Project LEAF (Interpol), 21 March 2013

A Solution in our Midst

The atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration, as reported by the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, was recorded at 395.5 ppm1 (parts per million) as of January 2013. This value is consistent with the upward trend as measured since 1959 from this observatory. The maximum value Earth’s atmosphere should have, if we wish to sustain life on this planet in its current form, is 350 ppm2. Not only do we have much work to get there, but we first have to stop the rising trend which is moving in the opposite direction.

Latest CO2 Trends (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - US Dept. of Commerce)

Latest CO2 Trends (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – US Dept. of Commerce)

Copenhagen climate negotiators in 2009 argued to keep the increase in average global temperature below 3.6 °F or 2 °C. This target of low ambition would lead to a different planet, one with an ice-free Arctic and sea level rises of many metres3,4, affecting hundreds of millions of people and the planet’s fauna and flora. Currently, The Marshalls, Kiribati, and Tuvalu islands are already feeling the effects of rising sea levels. If we continue business as usual we are looking at an increase of 5.4 °F or 3 °C, which would result in a collapse of the Amazon ecosystem, sea levels 25 metres higher and huge terrestrial areas exposed to permanent drought. The Earth will be vastly different.

Already Kiribati is suffering from sea level rise. They are currently negotiating with Fiji to by land for relocation. (Ciril Jazbec)

Already Kiribati is suffering from sea level rise. They are currently negotiating with Fiji to buy land for relocation. (Ciril Jazbec)

As is often the case, governments are slow to act, and even when the facts are simple and the case is clear, presidents and prime ministers have been fearful about affecting their re-election.  A broader and more honest response is required. Such a response requires first understanding the gravity of the situation and then acting, or creating incentives for solutions. Richard Branson has done exactly that with the setting up of the Carbon War Room as well as creating the Virgin Earth Challenge where a $25 million prize will be awarded for an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Current finalists have been announced.

A $25 million prize

A $25 million prize

Such a contest is to be welcomed and the technologies celebrated, but perhaps there is a simpler technology in our midst. One that is so familiar that we take it for granted, yet when absent, its lack is felt in barren landscapes and concrete vistas. I speak here of the tree. The first tree appeared in the mid-Devonian period 385 million years ago. As forests rose in the latter part of this period the Earth’s CO2 concentration was reduced which resulted in a cooling of the planet. We thus know this technology works.

oak_tree

Trees can be large and small, narrow and broad. But no matter their size, the carbon content of woody matter (trunk, branches and roots) is about 50 %.  Researchers at Ecometrica derived a general equation for the mass of a tree based on its dimensions and calculated that a mature sycamore of height 12 m contains one ton of carbon. And this ton of carbon would have locked up 3.67 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere in a form pleasing to the eye and of much use to fauna and ecosystems.  Simple is beautiful.

 

References

  1. Mauna Loa Observatory Data
  2. Hansen et. al. (2008). Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?
  3. Mark Fischetti. 2-Degree Global Warming Limit Is Called a “Prescription for Disaster”. Scientific American Dec 2011.
  4. Robinson et. al. (2012). Multistability and critical thresholds of the Greenland ice sheet. Nature Climate Change 2, 429 – 432 

The Boreal Forest (Taiga)

Rainforests gain a lot of attention due to the amount and variety of species they support, but the world’s largest land-based biome is the Boreal Forest, aptly named after Boreas, the Greek God of the North wind. Also known as Taiga, from Russian, this concentration of trees covers much of Russia, most of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland and Norway,  coastal Iceland, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the U.S. and Japan representing 29 % of the world’s forest cover.

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Largely comprised of coniferous trees, this forest supports 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, 300 species of birds and approximately 32,000 species of insects. Life is hard here with temperatures ranging from -65 °F (-54 °C) to 86 °F (30 °C), low precipitation (200 – 750 mm/year), 50 – 120 frost free days per year and acidic, low nutrient soils.

Alaskan spruce

Alaskan spruce

Canadian wetland systems

Canadian wetland systems

The region also contains vast areas of wetland, bogs and fen, and the Canadian boreal region contains more rivers and lakes than any similar sized landmass in the world. Fire is a natural part of regeneration, and some trees like the lodgepole and jack pines have resin sealed cones which rely on fire to open and spread their seed.

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

This forest provides humans with enormous amounts of lumber and supports 1,400 communities in industrial activity. However, forestry practices are often still primitive in their approach, for example the practice of clearcutting in Canada removes most trees in an area only to be replanted as a monocrop (a singular species), which does not emulate a fire and is often followed by an increase in erosion.

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Deforestation and oil exploration along with the processing of tar sands pose significant threats, however, climate change is the main threat to this region. The boreal forests stores huge amounts of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, with much of it in the form of peat. The boreal zone of latitude has experienced some of the greatest increase in temperatures on Earth over the last 25 years, with greater relative increases in winter temperatures than those in summer. The release of carbon, mostly in the form of methane, greatly adds to a feedback cycle of warming.

pinebeetle

Attacks visible by the mountain pine beetle (Lorraine Maclauchlan)

Furthermore, the warmer winters lead to an increased survival of tree-damaging insects and recent years have seen forest destroying plagues of the spruce-bark beetle, the mountain pine beetle, the aspen leaf-miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm and spruce coneworm. In Siberia, the boreal forest is changing from predominantly deciduous larch trees to evergreen conifers; this is also likely to accelerate warming as evergreen trees absorb more of the sun’s rays. These signs indicate that serious change is already underfoot.

But this does not mean that we should bury our heads in the sand, or imagine our individual actions to be inconsequential.  Anthropomorphic warming of this planet is comprised of the activity of individuals and human minds. There may be perceptions of fear or paralysis in the comprehension of the enormity of the task required, but this is the time to act –  there is no other.

The First Tree

The first tree did not grow overnight. In fact it took 3.4 billion years for life to develop from single-celled organisms to the first plant with a woody stem. 385 million years ago in the mid-Devonian period it was relatively warm, with tropical seas at 30 °C (86 °F) and cloudless skies. In this balmy weather Wattieza (see pic) grew to a height of 8m with frond-like leaves,  and reproduced by means of spores.

Wattieza

Wattieza grew to a height of 8m

This was a momentous occasion for the planet Earth. Now plants could compete for light vertically and horizontally and convert CO2 at higher rates. Thanks to the rise of forests in the later part of this period, CO2 concentration was reduced which resulted in a cooling of the planet. The rise of Wattieza and also Archaeopteris (of the upper-Devonian, see pic),

archaeopteris

Archaeopteris grew up to 30m and lived for 40-50 years

had major effects on soil chemistry and their litter would have fed streams. It is no surprise that the numbers and varieties of freshwater fish exploded at that time.

What we can conclude from these early beginnings is that the appearance and growth of trees in the history of this planet had significant effects on other life and on the climate. The tree is thus an integral part of the global ecosystem, and significantly decreasing their numbers one would expect disruption of the climate and life. What we can also take from this early period, is that planting more trees will decrease CO2levels. While scientists and engineers scratch their heads thinking of economical methods of carbon sequestration, there is already a simple and beautiful solution.