By Kim Robson:
Ask any pilot and he or she will confirm this: There is far less turbulence flying low (1,000 to 2,000 feet) over a forest of green trees than flying over cleared or cultivated land with no trees. The reason is heat absorption. Green trees absorb sunlight and heat, transforming that energy into glucose and oxygen via photosynthesis. Open fields reflect sunlight and heat into the atmosphere, radiating heat waves of turbulence above. That atmospheric instability leads to stronger and more frequent dangerous weather events. When we clear-cut the forests, we really have no idea how much of an impact we’re making.
Trees prevent “heat islands” from developing, cooling cities by up to fifteen degrees Fahrenheit, by shading our homes and streets, and releasing water vapor into the air through their leaves. Trees also conserve energy by reducing the need for summer air conditioning. For example, just three strategically-placed shade trees around a house can cut air conditioning use by up to fifty percent.
Unless they’re threatening to fall onto a structure, don’t cut down trees you “think” are dead. After the Cedar Fire, many property owners cut down their burned trees without giving them a chance to recover. Many trees that were burned down or cut down simply grew back from their still-healthy root systems. When I was a teen, my family and I went away for three weeks on summer vacation. Upon our return, we found to our horror that someone had drilled one-inch-wide and five-inch-deep holes in all of our sycamore trees, then filled the holes with some sort of poisonous paste. An arborist came out and removed the paste and packed the holes, but there was little else he could do. The trees were already visibly dying. He told us that if they didn’t recover in six months, to cut them down. They eventually recovered, but it took closer to five years. I’m so glad my folks ignored the arborist’s advice.
Trees are our best allies in the fight against climate change. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the form of wood, then release oxygen into the air. An acre of mature trees can absorb about as much CO2 in one year as that produced by driving a car for 26,000 miles – that’s equal to the circumference of the earth. Trees also absorb air pollutants like nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and ozone. They also filter particulates from the air with their leaves and bark.
Another way in which trees help humans is by conserving water in times of drought. Shaded lawns and gardens don’t lose as much water to evaporation. As they breathe, trees increase atmospheric moisture. During foggy or misty conditions, their leaves capture water from the air, which then drips to the ground, self-watering the tree. Trees prevent erosion and reduce storm water runoff by softening the rainfall with their leaves, allowing the water to flow down the trunk slowly and seep into the earth below the tree. This also prevents pollutants from reaching the ocean. The trees and earth act like a natural water filter to recharge groundwater supplies.
Trees increase our civic quality of life and our property values! A home or neighborhood lined with mature shade trees can raise property values by as much as twenty percent. A tree-planting event can bring residents of all cultures together, unifying a neighborhood and encouraging civic pride with a beautiful new natural landmark. In addition to providing a habitat and protection for wildlife, trees can block ugly views of concrete walls or parking lots or your neighbor’s junk-filled yard. They help to muffle city and traffic noise, absorb dust, and reduce wind and glare. Finally, studies have shown that planting pleasing landscaping and trees is a proven way to increase small-business traffic.
Lastly, trees are a relaxing balm for life’s daily stresses. Most hospitals, having learned that an eye-soothing landscape of greenery is critical to patients’ recoveries, now include “healing gardens.” Patients with views of trees outside their windows heal faster and with fewer complications. Children with ADHD exhibit fewer symptoms when exposed to nature. Getting schoolchildren out among trees and nature increases concentration and reduces mental fatigue. A Texas school recently tripled the amount of recess time for kindergarteners and first-graders, and saw immediate results: the kids are learning more and are more able to focus without fidgeting. Over ten percent of Danish preschools are nestled in forests or other natural settings. The first Danish nature school started in 1950, and was called a “Walking Kindergarten,” where a daily hike in the woods was part of the curriculum.
Biologists are finding that trees are social beings. They are capable of counting, learning and remembering. They nurse sick relatives, warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a vast underground fungal network, and, for reasons unknown, they keep the ancient snags and stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.
Trees have many lessons to teach us, if we would only listen. Whether they’re three-dimensional playgrounds for kids, teachers for biologists, healers for the sick, practical tools for homeowners and civic designers, or creative and spiritual inspiration for the rest of us, trees have been our friends and allies throughout the ages. Let’s be good friends to them. Trees deserve our care and respect.