the wisdom of trees

This is the first of a couple of unrelated posts for today. Wayne at Niches has just posted about the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) which is due out Friday. I encourage you to have a wander over to his blog to learn more if you haven’t been keeping up with climate change news and reports. Wayne’s post reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile, but haven’t gotten around to — and that is the impact of climate change on forests.

I admit that I haven’t been following climate change studies outside of Canada, but do try to keep up with some of what’s been happening here. For example, the Canadian Forest Service branch of Natural Resources Canada, maintains a Climate Change links page on the Research part of its website. If you happen to visit that page, you’ll find that in each region of the country, research is being conducted to study the impact of climate change on forests. For example, the Northern Forestry Centre has been working on a study entitled CIPHA (Climate Change Impacts on the Productivity and Health of Aspens). If you read the introduction, you’ll find a statement for why this research is being conducted. It reads:

Since the 1980s, dieback and reduced growth of aspen has been noted, especially along the southern edge of the boreal forest and the aspen parkland. Studies to date have suggested that dieback in these areas was caused by a combination of climatic factors and defoliation by insects.

If you check out research being done at other forestry centres, you’ll see that they’re looking at a variety of scenarios such as how climate change might impact insect damage, and which tree species are most damaged by ice storms. Now, while perusing through the website pages, you won’t see much on who or what may be responsible for climate change, and no firm statement that it’s even occurring, but at least someone (well, quite a few someones) are studying the forests for signs of impact from climate change. It’s good to see that there are active monitoring programs in place, and that scientists are working out climate change models for the forests — regardless of perceived reasons for, or degree of, climate change. At least someone is looking, which is better than pretending something doesn’t exist, or worse yet, arguing that everything is just fine and dandy.

It seems to me that there’s something to be learned from the example of the forestry climate change studies. The research continues despite all of the haggling over who or what may be causing climate change. Hopefully, there aren’t forestry scientists sitting on their butts saying that they refuse to study climate change impacts because it couldn’t possibly be happening, or because they don’t buy that it might be caused by human activity — or for that matter, by some other cause if that were the case.

It seems to me that refusing to study something, or take action when you see a problem, is a lot like refusing to pick up litter because someone you don’t like put it there. Only, it goes even further. It’s like seeing litter on the ground and tossing your candy wrappers or drink cans on the ground too because there’s already a bunch of stuff there. What the heck! It’s not your fault that all that litter is on the ground, and there’s *so much* of it already, so what difference does it make if you toss your stuff into the mess?! Or, let’s look at another example. You come home from work and find your house on fire, but you don’t know how it happened, so you don’t bother to try to put out the flames. Oh, hell, even better — *because* you don’t know how it started, you toss another chunk of dry timber on the pyre so that it will burn even faster and better. That’s really what complacency is all about. Not bothering to do something because you don’t feel responsible.

Can we change? Will we try?

The trees continue their silent watch. Soon enough, I believe they’ll tell us how we’re doing.


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5 Responses to “the wisdom of trees”

  1. robin andrea Says:

    Studying the changing forest is essential, and does not require “believing” in global climate change. At some point the problems will be so big that denying them will be impossible. Perhaps we are there already, and so finally an assessment of the damage will be forthcoming. To not do anything in the face of such environmental decline is insane, but to knowingly contribute to it (the way our lovely administration has been doing) is absolutely criminal. Yes, like tossing more wood on the pyre.

  2. Wayne Says:

    The word “criminal”, as well as “morally bankrupt”, has been going through my head a lot lately, Robin.

    I only got a start on it last season, but I think that I will be choosing a few areas and doing concentrated observation on the state of existing trees, as well as other plants, in these areas. Bev’s blue numbers post got me to thinking about how that might be done.

    Bev lists the effects of freaky weather as well as the incidence of emerging diseases on trees. Here I’ve observed the decline of rainfall and especially in the spring. It seems that a cline of one or more tree species along a slope would be worth watching.

    It’s hard to perceive trees as being canaries, but the rationale is good. They’re long-lived enough to persist through decadal variations in climate and yet a mature tree is so large that it must be living on the cusp of barely making it most of the time. And the intrusion of disease borne by insects and other vectors must be a big thing too.

  3. burning silo Says:

    robin – I guess that’s what irks me so much about those who have “decided” that climate change doesn’t exist — I act like those who are concerned are some kind of cult followers. Rather bizarre considering that many of the people who are studying the effects of climate are scientists such as the forestry research people. Something is either happening or it isn’t — simple as that. The same goes for water and air pollution. It’s not a fantasy. it’s a quantifiable thing – there’s no “believing” that there is or isn’t pollution. Makes me mad when people twist the whole thing just because they don’t like the results.

    Wayne – I think trees are ideal as canaries. With so many species that favour different climate conditions, we should see changes in the survival of species on the edges of their range. I’m glad that montoring of forest stands began awhile ago. At least there should be some kind of baseline established… even if it’s a somewhat damaged one.

  4. Wayne Says:

    Bev – damaged, yes! If we’re thinking about the same thing, it would be that harvesting of wild trees (kind of akin to slaughtering tigers for their aphrodisiac properties) makes it hard to follow stable communities, as there are few such. Another plug for protection!

    Trees – they’re big, easily identifiable and described, and, excepting the above problem, easy to monitor, though slow to move. Which makes their use as a canary even more of a good idea. And it’s a good point that forests have been monitored for many, many years. Somewhere in the internets all of these data are available, I’m sure.

  5. burning silo Says:

    Wayne – Yes, I believe we’re thinking about the same things. First, there’s the timber harvesting that makes it hard to draw a baseline of how a forest is doing. By removing trees before or as they’re maturing, I think it may be impossible to evaluate long term effect of things like climate change. I think a lot of plantation pines are harvested by the time they’re about 30 to 40 years old, so how can you evaluate “damage”. Also, as is the case up here, we’ve had ice storms that have made quite a mess of the forests. I think that’s now complicating the whole process. I’ve heard a few foresters say that the after-effects of the ice storm in ’98 have not ended (continued weakness of trees that are easily damaged by wind and ice, insects and disease that were able to get a foothold in storm-damaged trees). So, how do you establish a base? The only way I can think of, offhand, is to look at forests such as stands of Sugar Maple. Luckily, I think they’ve been studied for quite some time due to concerns over acid rain damage (as mentioned in the blue-marked trees post). However, a lot of the Maple sugar forests up here were severely damaged in the ice storm, there goes a big part of the “study group”…