Trees are dying at unprecedented rates. Can we rethink conservation before it’s too late?
Our forests perform a cornucopia of services: Serving as a stabilizing force for nearly all of terrestrial life, they foster biodiversity and even make us happier. But as climate change accelerates, drawing that carbon out of the air has become trees’ most critical role.
Absorbing CO2 is key to avoiding the worst effects of climate change when each year matters so much. Carbon “sinks,” like the wood of trees and organic matter buried in dirt, prevent the gas from returning to the atmosphere for dozens or even hundreds of years. Right now, about a third of all human carbon emissions are absorbed by trees and other land plants — the rest remains in the atmosphere or gets buried at sea. That share will need to rise toward and beyond 100 percent in order to counter all of humanity’s emissions past and present.
For trees to pull this off, though, they have to be alive, thriving, and spreading. And at the moment, the world’s forests are trending in the opposite direction.
New evidence shows that the climate is shifting so quickly, it’s putting many of the world’s trees in jeopardy. Rising temperatures and increasingly unusual rainfall patterns inflict more frequent drought, pest outbreaks, and fires. Trees are dying at the fastest rate ever seen, on the backs of extreme events like the 2015 El Niño, which sparked massive forest fires across the tropics. In 2016, the world lost a New Zealand-sized amount of trees, the most in recorded history.
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