Old-Growth Forests are Key to Fighting Climate Change
- Nov 17, 2022 8:09 pm GMT
Deep within the forest lies another universe. Towering trunks and a canopy of leaves shield the underbrush from light. Far below, critters of all shapes and sizes scuttle around, searching for food. These old-growth forests are a hub of history and unique wildlife, but they also house a better future for all humanity.
President Biden recently signed an executive order to conserve mature forests and end forest loss by 2030. These regions are forests that have existed undisturbed for a long time, and are often home to ecological rarities and marvels.
Not only do they provide time-honored sights of lush beauty, but forests are also one of the first lines of defense against climate change. From absorbing carbon dioxide to providing clean water, these forests are the true heroes humanity needs.
Currents in the Climate Crisis
Every day the catastrophes of the climate crisis grow, so the need for old-growth forests is more prevalent than ever. In their 2022 climate change report, the United Nations found that extreme heat is increasing human mortality and flood has displaced people all across Asia, Africa, and Central America. Excessive drought and flood increased food scarcity as well.
Climate change is also irrevocably changing landscapes. Water ecosystems are degrading and animals are disappearing. Arctic regions are slowly warming up, causing glaciers to retreat and food sources for arctic animals to become scarce.
Because these are real and present dangers for people everywhere, nourishing forests that protect air and water quality is the key to a better future for the natural world and all who live there.
Powers of Old-Growth Forests
There are key ways scientists are looking to old-growth forests for a massive climate change cleanup. Learn how these ancient forests are fighting for clean air, water, and skies below.
1. Trap Greenhouse Gasses
Greenhouse gasses are the root of the rising warmth across the globe, causing natural disasters like floods, droughts, and melting arctic zones. However, forests trap greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and store them away. The bigger the tree, the more carbon dioxide it can hold, too; just 1% of trees account for 50% of the overall carbon dioxide storage in a forest.
There is only one downside to this storage. When these trees are cut down, that carbon dioxide is rereleased into the atmosphere. With a massive forestry and logging industry encroaching on more forests, carbon dioxide trapped for decades is joining that already in the atmosphere.
2. Clean Air
Furthermore, these forests contribute to cleaner air. Just like carbon dioxide absorption, these storied trees sponge up nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Clean air is becoming a more scarce resource every day as cities fill with air pollution and smog. Some cities even employ danger zones to report dangerously low air quality on certain days.
Conserving these forests would mean another helping hand in combating polluted air.
3. Regulate Fresh Water
Forests are experts at guiding rain and runoff to their thirsty roots and back to waterways without flooding the area. This is crucial for the wildlife living here to not get swept away or dehydrated, but also for the surrounding human populations that rely on the waterways for drinking water.
Incredibly, over 60 million people get drinking water from national forests in the United States. In large cities, officials source water from watersheds in undeveloped forests.
With deforestation, these lands lose the water-guiding roots and their natural cover from the canopy of leaves above. Without this cover, the soil is baked out in the hot sun, unable to provide the proper moisture and nutrients for wildlife.
When forests dwindle, both humans and animals lose out on fresh water.
4. Provide a Refuge for Wildlife
Ancient trees have had decades to establish themselves, giving branches for birds to rest, holes for animals to nest, and sprinkling seeds or nuts to provide food for all. This support system also extends to mosses and lichens that wrap around the branches or tiny insects scuttling up the roots. An ancient tree is a fixture of forest life, and its removal could upset hundreds of ecosystems.
Old-growth forests are also usually undisturbed by human interaction. A salmon swimming in a cool stream (thanks to overhanging shade from massive trees) will live and die in that stream, providing fertilization for the trees’ soil or sustenance for larger creatures like bears. If humans were to begin fishing or chopping down here, the natural order becomes out of balance.
Even the existence of dead trees brings life to the forest. As they decompose, trees become part of the soil, rich and soft enough for teetering seedlings to sprout. Loggers also often take detritus or residue for wood pellet production, so this miracle growth and nesting place is wrenched away.
Conservation and Construction: Finding a Balance
Conserving forests is the key to a better future for everyone, and one crucial step is for governments to take a starring role in protection.
President Biden’s order to conserve is one that should be built upon. How can forestry officials and civilians work together to protect these places from human disruption? How can commercial loggers and the government work towards a more sustainable industry? These are all questions to explore in these meetings, and ones that need open communication to find solutions.
For example, many people wonder if there even is a way to merge environmentally-conscious practices and forestry. However, sustainable forestry calls to create a balance between human demand and natural ecosystems. Humanity will always value paper, furniture, and other resources, so it is unrealistic to call for an end to forestry altogether.
However, the current state of the industry is irreparably damaging the world. Discussing what types of equipment might preserve life, like heavy lifters leaving behind root systems and decaying trunks for the ecosystem to thrive, is one of the first steps to this harmony between humanity and nature.
The Rainforest Alliance is also seeking an international standard for forest management, including the number of raw materials harvested and how many trees are disrupted. They also guide companies toward managed forests instead of old-growth giants that promise so many benefits. Their programs seek to protect what is here, while also encouraging production companies to plant more trees for a regenerating supply.
Finally, people can look to the past for answers. Most scientists consider old-growth forests as undisturbed by humanity, but they often do not remember that these were originally Indigenous homelands, preserved by their cultures for centuries. Given that Indigenous peoples manage and protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity today, experts are turning to Indigenous practices to rebalance wildlife with hunting and agricultural systems.
A Cleaner Future
Trees represent a stark, mighty beauty in the natural landscape, but they provide an even greater resource to humanity – a contribution to stopping climate change. From absorbing carbon to cleaning air and water, old-growth forests are an incredibly powerful part of the future.
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