Stoked on Science: Phenomenal forestry

Spring has subtly shifted its way into summer.

The late June rains swept through the valleys, cooling the air, bringing much need moisture to the region. We are lucky, other regions are not so fortunate.

It is these wetter, cooler days where I appreciate the forest on my mountain bike or by foot. The canopy shelters you from the brunt of the weather, the smell of organic matter and vegetation growing is so fresh you have to stop to embrace it, just for a moment.

Forests cover one third of the Earth’s surface and contain an estimated three trillion trees. Forests exist in every kind of climate from cold and dry to wet and hot. The species in the forests have adapted exceptional characteristics that allow them to thrive in their particular climate biome.

B.C. is characterized by its abundant forests, covering close to two-thirds of the province. These contribute to making B.C. more diverse physically and biologically than any other region in Canada. The 40 different species of native trees in B.C. are each adapted to the different terrain, climate and landforms we possess. Western red cedar excels on the coast and wetter parts of the interior whereas the towing ponderosa pines prefer the open savannah and dry heat of the southern interior.

Our B.C. forests contribute to Earth’s biodiversity and include species, genetic and ecosystem diversity of epic proportions. They provide critical habitat for a myriad of animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms. According to the Canadian Forestry Association, a significant portion of the species in B.C. depend on forests, including 82 per cent of freshwater fish, 72 per cent of the amphibians, 60 per cent of the mammals, 50 per cent of breeding birds and 31 per cent of reptiles. Trees, as the dominant living part of the forest, play a vital role in providing wildlife habitat, nutrient cycling, soil conservation, the exchange of gases and the water cycle. Trees provide us with fruits, nuts, seeds and sap, as well as supporting the forest floor species such as edible mushrooms, berries and beetles.

The forests provide a home to larger animals like deer, turkeys, rabbits and fish and even gives us medicine. For example taxol, a potent anti-cancer drug is found in Pacific yew. It is now being synthetically reproduced on an industrial scale. This is not to mention the resources of food, clothing, transport, cooking and storage forests have provided for First Nations peoples and the jobs and materials that the forests have, and continue to provide for people in B.C.

Trees are being talked about on the world stage right now as being potentially the easiest and most effective tool in response to climate change. A study published in the science journal Nature this week entitled The Global Tree Restoration Project claims that if an additional one billion hectares of the Earth’s surface is reforested we could significantly help to reduce the impact of CO2 in our atmosphere.

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and spit out fresh oxygen for us to breathe through the process of photosynthesis. The study shows that if the canopy cover could be increased by this large amount that these areas could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon. Over the decades this could reverse the amount of carbon pollution we have released over the past 25 years. With the exponential increase in CO2, we are dumping into the atmosphere and the destruction of many different forest habitats for agriculture or housing it is necessary to re-address the balance.

There are limitations to the practicalities of this study, however. Much of the proposed land may be privately owned, and the owners would need to be highly incentivized to change the use of their land. Some of the proposed reforestation areas are in forest fire-prone regions or in areas of drought where a delayed response to lack of water could affect groundwater stores and lead to the eventual death of the trees anyway.

A multi-pronged attack to tackle climate change that combines a natural approach of planting trees in combination with a move towards more renewable energy sources should be employed according to University of Alberta professor Scott Chang, an expert in forest soils. It stands to reason that we try to implement as many methods as possible to minimize the continued impact on our climate that we our making.

B.C. is a world leader in sustainable forest management and employs leading-edge environmental practices. Ninty-four per cent of the land and forest is Crown Land, where the province determines when, where and how forest resources can be used.

I think a moment of appreciation for the forest landscape is in order, something I know so many locals I talk with take for granted. As we are so blessed with prolific forests around us, it is easy to become complacent about their sheer majesty and bounty of goods. Thank you Mother Nature for your phenomenal forests.

Jade Harvey has a degree in physical geography and likes to share her passion for science through writing and telling stories.

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