The state of the woodlands of America: ‘More forests lose trees per second’

Image copyright EPA Image caption Debris caught in wind gusts in the Boston area during blizzard conditions

A report out this week describes America’s forests as being in trouble.

“Our national forests are quickly becoming depleted and more vulnerable to decay and wildfire, contributing to climate change and diminishing water quality,” says the analysis published by The Nature Conservancy.

The report found that the main culprits are insect infestations, falling timber values and climate change.

It cited this year’s US fires as one indicator of the growing problem.

The report, which is based on national data collected by the US Forest Service and is published as part of Nature magazine’s State of the Woods project, found that 36 million trees are lost to greenhouses gases and the ecosystem loses “one tree per second”.

It found that communities in Florida, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia had the highest rate of tree loss.

Image copyright Stan Scott Image caption The Jacksonville Bay development’s current view

The Nature Conservancy, a US organisation that is trying to restore forests, wants Congress to change how the federal government manages America’s 2.5m sq km (1m sq miles) of forest.

It wants to see “a system that optimises ecosystem health and well-being for people while also ensuring there are enough forests to meet the needs of current and future generations”.

The organisation is particularly critical of the agencies that oversee the US timber industry.

“They have no other role than to increase production from forests or ensure their marketability at the expense of forests’ ecosystem health,” it says.

By reducing the amount of timber produced by US forests, it argues, the wood gets “sold on the international market at significant discounts”.

The Conservancy says the reason America’s forests are in such trouble is that the business model for forestry is in constant transition.

The timber industry moves towards more mechanised harvesting. But, it says, more and more forests are being converted into other uses such as housing, offices and hotel rooms.

What is the link between climate change and the loss of trees?

The forest acts as a buffer

The Forest Service itself acknowledges the connection between global warming and the falling timber values.

Earlier this year it published a report on the “effect of climate change on forest health” and said that forests are among the first and hardest hit by changes in the climate.

“Even reductions in bark beetle activity will result in forest disinvestment,” the report said.

However, the Forest Service goes on to say that it is “increasingly challenged to plan for and protect what the community wants in terms of forest land use and forest preservation”.

It cites housing development and increased motor vehicle traffic as factors that are straining existing forest management practices.

Image copyright Henry Correia Image caption The islands of Cape Cod and the Boston area have borne the brunt of this year’s wildfires

Warming temperatures, increased acidity, and changing rainfall patterns and temperatures could make some of the most dense stands of trees susceptible to insects and disease, and increase vulnerability to wildfires.

“Climate change could change the pace and amount of tree mortality in the forest,” the report added.

Is change inevitable?

Experts agree that changing temperatures and changing weather patterns will not be sudden but will continue to accelerate.

“Every time there’s a period of warming, in the history of the world that we have records on, that’s what makes changes worse,” says Jeff Mansfield, a distinguished professor of geography at Michigan State University.

Image copyright EPA Image caption Clouds gather behind a dust-covered Philadelphia park at sunset on Sunday

The fire season has already been lengthening in parts of the US but Professor Mansfield believes it will only take a few more extreme years like this one for alarm bells to start ringing.

“When we see longer fire seasons, and intense fires, that starts to raise questions about how things are progressing in terms of climate change, especially given the fact that we continue to get hotter and hotter,” he says.

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