The Death of Trees

It's autumn here in the nation's capital, and that means that in a normal year, trees would be bursting with color, the air would turn crisp, and harvest apples and seasonal apple products would fill store shelves.

Except that right now, apple growers in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley are struggling to grow apples, and climate change is to blame.

The really bad news isn't that Virginia apple harvests are failing, that's just a signpost for some of the most dire climate change scenarios that we're heading for.

Because if apple trees are starting to fail and die as our planet warms and climate changes, trees of every type will start to fail and die too.

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies recently reported that September 2016 "was the warmest September in 136 years of modern record-keeping."

There's no doubt that the planet's climate is changing, and it's threatening countless species of plants and trees that won't be able to adapt to such rapid changes because of their specialized evolution and inability to migrate.

Trees can't pick up roots and move, and different species of trees are differently adapted to particular types of soils, growing seasons, water availability and even altitudes, so trees are especially vulnerable to the shifting climate zones of a warming planet.

And that will have profound impacts on the health of our planet and future generations.

Most people understand that trees are the planets lungs, they literally breathe in carbon dioxide through leaves, and then they exhale oxygen as their waste, which you and I are breathing right now.

When trees "inhale" carbon dioxide though, they don't JUST "exhale" oxygen, they also trap carbon in their wood, and the bigger they grow, the more carbon they hold.

Beyond that, the root structures of trees are necessary for healthy soils, and healthy soils hold in significant amounts of carbon trapped from the atmosphere.

When trees die though, those processes are reversed: trees stop capturing carbon, and start emitting carbon as their wood rots and the tree decays.

So as trees die because of our warming planet's shifting climates, the warming will actually accelerate, because the dying trees will release once-stored-carbon back into the atmosphere.

But that's not all that trees do for us; as I wrote in my book: "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight," it's barely even the beginning.

Trees are also essential to our planet's water cycle, and water issues are only going to get worse as climate change threatens forest habitats across the planet.

We're already facing a number of drinking water crises around the world, in part because of how humans have mismanaged our water resources, but also in large part because our reckless management of forest resources has fundamentally disrupted the water cycle across many parts of the world.

In a healthy forest ecosystem, rain falls from the sky, and soaks into the ground.

As the water seeps into the ground, it generally absorbs high concentrations of dissolved minerals, especially salts.

Then, the roots of a tree draws moisture from just above the salty water, pumping the moisture into the atmosphere through the tree's leaves, and absorbing the minerals into the tree's wood.

When it rains again, the moisture from the soil is replaced, and the cycle continues, keeping the soils and the trees healthy.

When trees die though, the saltier water underground is allowed to creep upward, infiltrating closer and closer to the surface, until it damages the surviving trees' immune systems and makes them vulnerable to parasitic infections.

Then, if no trees are able to grow back, the salty water will infiltrate even further towards the surface, killing crops and ultimately leading to desertification.

It's a scenario we've seen play out across the world: from California to the Mediterranean and from Senegal to China, deforestation has destroyed soils, polluted water, and left huge swaths of desert wasteland.

On average, it takes about 400 years for a forest to create a foot of topsoil that is capable of sustaining crops, but without healthy forests, there is almost no topsoil created at all.

Without healthy topsoil, humans can't grow agriculture. And without growing agriculture, humans will face global starvation.

Failing apple orchards aren't the end of the world, but they are a signpost for the potential disasters to come if we don't take bold and immediate action.

We need to start respecting how necessary forests are for the health of our planet (and our species!), and that means putting an end to slash-and-burn farming and severely limiting the practice of clearcutting forests.

Instead, we need to start intelligently re-planting forests to help suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, to help re-balance the water cycle, and to produce healthy top soils that will sustain future generations.

We also need to tackle the threat of climate change at its core, by putting a price on carbon and by investing massively in renewable technologies and technologies to capture planet-warming carbon from the atmosphere - and then we may be able to move towards a world that works for all.


cccccttttt 7 years 35 weeks ago

A carbon tax will give incentive for companies to go green.

Hopefully the revenues will be directed at tech in these three areas:

Fusion (especially the smaller machines)

Aeroponics (grow food plants without soil, already a for profit business)

"Water from air" devices.

("The amount of water available in the air is for all forseeable practical purposes unlimited. The bottom 1 kilometre (in the atmosphere) alone contains about 1.000,000,000,000,000 litres of water and that is turned over every few hours}


Kend's picture
Kend 7 years 35 weeks ago

So what caused the global warming, dust bowl in the 30's. Carbon???? It was much warmer then. I have to be a global warming denier. I certainty believe in climate change. Climate has changed for millions of years. If you look at it logically we have spent trillions on global warming and it hasn't reduced carbon at all. In fact according to Thom Carbon levels have gone up. Would we have been better off spending those trillions on healthcare and education?

LaurieBethKay 7 years 35 weeks ago

I'm glad you mentioned slash-and-burn farming, but it's actually for livestock and their feedcrops. According to the facts in the movie "Cowspiracy," 136 million rainforest acres have been cleared for animal agriculture. By simply cutting back dramatically on our diet of cows alone we can regrow our forests, the lungs of the earth. This idea of creating a carbon-eating mechanism sounds pretty far-fetched, expensive, and pointless if we aren't cutting back on our consumption of this unsustainable, unhealthy, and planet-destroying practice.

douglas m 7 years 35 weeks ago

Right now the native americans are gathering their largest get together since America was born in North Dakota to stop big oil and save our planet. At least someone is smart enough to actually do something about it. Unlike the rest of us that only talk about it. Keep being lazy and watch yourselves get destroyed and watch it all burn. Or do something.

DHBranski's picture
DHBranski 7 years 35 weeks ago

We've known at least since the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 that we have an "urgent need" not only to break our dependency on foreign oil, but to dramatically reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Americans demand a solution, but not one that costs them financially or in terms of inconvenience. We know the problem, but remain stuck on finding a solution that Americans will accept.

humanitys team's picture
humanitys team 7 years 35 weeks ago

Thanks Thom you should be advising the World Government on how to save Humanity from its own demise.

It takes around 300 years for a newly planted tree to grow to the size which will allow it to produce as much oxygen as many of the old growth trees in our rainforests that have been chopped down .We have cleared hundreds of thousands of acres and we are not stopping. To replace this loss would take thousands of years .

This is called eroding the life system .We are choosing to do this to satisfy the interests of the few .Intead of balancing our planets atmosphere so life can thrive.

To change all this we have to see the environment as part of ourselves and everything in it as well, only then will we begin to act differently towards her.This is a conscious choice we have to make .

To be or not to be .That is humanitys most vital question . It always has been ...

humanitys team's picture
humanitys team 7 years 35 weeks ago

What you are saying Kend is that Humans have no impact on the environment at all and can continue to abuse the Earth with no cosequences .You deny the finest minds on the planet who have studied these things for years claiming you know better .This denial exhibited by many politicians and our biggest corporations can go on for a few more years and then it will end .

The value of conciousness is that it considers consequences . We have to keep the Earths temperature stable not going above probably 1 degree so life can thrive.Kend what happens to your body temperature changes by a few degrees .If its 40 degrees this is serious is it not . Warming up the Earth by human induced climate change has the same effect .

Denial is used for those to continue the illusion that we are seperate from each other and seperate from nature.Responsibility is for those looking to evolve and mature the species .

Skiptothefuture's picture
Skiptothefuture 7 years 35 weeks ago


Some things you get right and on this subject you are partially correct. Your biggest mistake is listening to the government bought scientist and politicans. They have an adjenda and it's not to help mother earth. Is the weather changing,yes ; are we as a people polluting,yes ; however is the MAIN polluting coming the industry,Yes. Not all are, climate change, coming from pollutents, there are other factures that are out of mans control such as oceans warming from tectonic plate movement, under sea volcanos and many other natural occurances on this planet.

Stop taking in the garbage our government speaks through it's talking heads. Do so research out of political accepted channels. Learn, adapt and change.

beerad007 7 years 35 weeks ago

Here in Davenport Iowa we just broke an all time record of of 84 by 6 degrees for hottest day in October (Oct 17) it was 90. Early this month we had our first Oct tornado. Crazy how we can't get people convinced.

Tsnowden's picture
Tsnowden 7 years 35 weeks ago

The elephant in the room, that seems to be avoided by everyone is too many people on the planet. That is the root cause to climate change and a multitude of other problems we face. Politically the subject has become a pariah so instead of attempting to address human population growth on a global and national scale we scurry about trying to figure out a cure for its individual consequences. The disease of overpopulation has symptoms of climate change, resource depletion and shortages, increased need for regulation, mass migration, wars over resources, and on and on. All of these symptoms are inevitable until we address the causal problem. How do we get the world to voluntarily and peacefully self-regulate our number of humans over the next century? If we don't, the symptoms of the disease eventually will regulate our numbers for us.

mjolnir's picture
mjolnir 7 years 35 weeks ago

Trees are NOT in a wholesale die-off from global warming. The Earth has, in fact, 14% more green vegetation than it did 30 years ago:

That is the equivalent of adding the vegetative area of twice the United States:

Thom is spouting fear mongering verbiage that has no basis in fact!

k. allen's picture
k. allen 7 years 34 weeks ago

Green Gold - Documentary by John D. Liu

Watching Apocalypse

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