Trees are getting fat


The Washington Post had an interesting story recently about a group of researchers who spent 22 years documenting the thickness of trees on the East Coast by literally hugging 250,000 of them. It raised two important points as we continue to monitor the well-being of working forests.

The first thing to take away from the article is that the researchers discovered trees are getting much thicker over time, many of them two to four times faster than expected.

Why? From the Post story:

Parker said the best explanations for (the growth) seemed to relate to climate change. Temperatures in the area have risen by three-tenths of a degree; the growing season has lengthened by 7.8 days; and the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen. All of those might speed up photosynthesis, the engine of tree growth.

Which sounds, at first, like a good thing. It would appear that trees were helping more than expected to reduce the world’s greenhouse gases, sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and using it to make leaves and branches.

“The danger of that, of course, is that this can’t go on forever,” said Kenneth Feeley, a professor at Florida International University. He meant that, even if there was enough carbon dioxide to support more fast growth, the trees would eventually run out of water or plant food. Their growth would slow down, and they would stop absorbing so much carbon.

Climate change is having all kinds of effects on our natural environment, and even when it seems like a good thing (tree growth), the true impact is much more complicated.

The other compelling thing about the Post story is that researchers, rather than becoming bored by measuring the trees, took solace in walking the forests.

The volunteers said they were sustained on their weekly outings by the dramas that showed themselves everywhere, once they learned to read the woods. This tree here, with tiny sticks poking out of its trunk, is desperate and dying, reaching crazily for the light. The two trees over there are a bully and its victim, a tall, straight tree and one that has corkscrewed around, looking for a way out of its neighbor’s shadow.

“There’s never a boring moment around here,” Morrow said. “Even though it sounds like it.”

The article is a testament to the treasures — both scientific and personal — that can be found by spending part of our lives in forests.

Lastly, we wanted to spread the word about an exciting conference in Eugene this weekend. Loggers from as far away as Australia are coming to the Willamette Valley for the 72nd Oregon Logging Conference and the topic, not surprisingly, is “Biomass: Fuel of the Future?”