As climate change worsens, trees may be the key to saving our future
October 18, 2018
Climate change is a real thing. Anyone living in Summit County for the past 20 years can see what it's done to the forests around here, both through drought and pine beetles exploiting unhealthy trees. Beyond Summit, the evidence is even more abundant and there is strong evidence that the blame lies with humans.
Based on information gleaned from ice core samples in Greenland and Antarctica, which can record 123,000 to 800,000 years of atmospheric gas history trapped in bubbles, it is clear that greenhouse gas levels contributing to changing temperature — especially carbon dioxide and methane — are the highest ever recorded.
A dramatic increase has been seen since the start of the Industrial Revolution, exactly when humans started burning fossil fuels in abundance.
Frisco resident Donna Lee worked at the State Department's Office of Global Change and represented the United States in negotiations leading up to the Paris climate agreement. Her specialty is how land use factors into climate change, and at Wednesday's meeting of the Forest Health Task Force, Lee explained the role forests have to play.
Lee explained that trees play a pivotal role in slowing down greenhouse gases as they trap and gather carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to grow. Twenty-five percent of human greenhouse gas emissions get "sequestered," or absorbed and stored by trees, and kept out of the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, massive and accelerating deforestation in places like Brazil and Indonesia is reducing forest area while global CO2 emissions continue to rise. Lee said that aside from losing that carbon "storage space," trees also emit a lot of carbon when they burn or decay, compounding the greenhouse gas problem.
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Greenhouse gases raise global temperatures by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere. The planet has seen a 1-degree-celsius change in average temperatures globally since the turn of the 20th century. That might not seem like a lot, but as we push toward a critical 1.5 or 2 degree mark in a few decades, that small temperature change can have enormous implications.
First, it's important to note that the temperature increase is an average with some areas having warmer temperatures and some cooler. Lee said that the Arctic experiences magnified warming two to three times the change elsewhere.
There are also certain "tipping points" where ice melts, which is what we are seeing now with unprecedented Arctic and Antarctic ice melt raising sea levels worldwide. There are numerous other issues with incrementally rising temperatures, including permafrost melt — which will expose a lot of once-buried, decaying organic matter and the methane it produces into the atmosphere at a frightening rate.
All of these factors combine to create more and more extreme weather conditions every year. Colorado has been experiencing extreme drought and wildfires, while other parts of the country are seeing increasingly more extreme and frequent tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes.
At the tipping point we're at now, the effects of further rising temperatures will worsen. The current contingencies humans have to protect ourselves from these disasters, such as "hurricane proofing" homes, may be pointless in the future as weather continues to accelerate past our ability to shield ourselves from it. Wildfires are also draining local, state and federal resources while pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
Lee said that there is still some hope we can slow down climate change, but humanity needs to act now. As far as land use goes, Lee says we need to start protecting our trees and plant more of them — a whole lot more.
"We need to avoid the planned 13 million acres of land development that cause forest loss," Lee said. "We will also need to restore forests after harvest or disturbance like wildfires, and expand forest area by 40 to 50 million acres."
Towns and cities have already started implementing forest policies, such as creating tree boards and investing in tree-planting strategies. Boulder, for example, has an aggressive tree-planting strategy, aiming to plant 3,000 trees a year, every year, until 2050.
If you're worried about climate change and want to help, you certainly can. In Summit County, you can volunteer for the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, which engages in trail work but also monitors forest health and plants trees in areas that need them. For more information, visit FDRD.org.