Forests and Climate Change


Climate change during our lifetimes can affect New Yorkers more than some other parts of the world. A USDA Forest Service report (RMAP NRS9) predicts that within the next several decades the Northeastern United States will have a greater upward change in the yearly minimum temperatures than the rest of the country. This same report predicts the increase in summer heat will be most profound in the Northeast and Midwestern United States and that 50% of northeastern lands will see significant increases in drought. New York’s forests and woodlands can make significant contributions to reducing the effects of impending climate shifts. Simultaneously, these wooded areas can store tremendous amounts of carbon, further reducing one of the causes of climate change. Trees, like all green plants, take in carbon dioxide along with other chemicals both through leaves and roots. These are converted into tissue for the tree to grow. Oxygen, a byproduct of this photosynthesis process, is released to the atmosphere. When a tree is harvested for wood products, carbon continues to be stored in building materials, wood furniture, and other products. Using trees as biomass for energy production converts the carbon into energy, and like all combustible processes, releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. However, there are significantly less pollutants from wood chip combustion compared to fossil fuels, such as coal and almost no “acid rain.” Trees, especially in residential areas, provide shade in summer reducing the need for electricity for air conditioners. A shady yard with lower temperatures enables families to enjoy the nice New York summers. Some climate change is inevitable even with sustainable forests. Looking at New England and northern New York’s forests, another Forest Service report (GTR NRS 143) sees an increase in winter precipitation along with rising winter temperatures. This will bring difficulties to the extensive spruce-fir forests of those areas while possibly benefiting other tree species. However, insects and diseases are likely to increase without the normal overwintering mortality of these pests. All the contributions of trees and forests to reducing carbon dioxide and global warming are enhanced by sustainable management of our wooded lands. Vigorous trees growing without disease will fix more carbon than over mature or stunted ones. Being able to have the forests of New York for reducing climate change/global warming requires the same things as for other uses of the forests: property tax policies that do not cause owners to convert their forest holdings to liquidate all their timber or convert the land to other uses; enlightened local government regulations to permit sustainable timber harvesting; and technical assistance to forest landowners to develop sustainable forests.