Better Living: Trees of the Future?

April 30, 2012

Despite the best of research efforts, we remain uncertain of exactly what changes our earth and ecosystems will undergo as global climate change continues. But a recent study, published in the journal Tree Physiology, suggests that we may have an unexpected laboratory on hand that will provide insight into the changes that trees will undergo in the coming years.

Large cities tend to be hotter than the surrounding land areas, a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island” effect. In cities, much of the land is covered with pavement and buildings, which absorb energy instead of reflecting it back. While this effect may pose problems for people living in cities as climate change accelerates, other organisms might appreciate the extra heat. The recently-published study demonstrated that red oak saplings in northeastern Central Park, planted in 2007 and 2008, developed eight times more biomass than those in the country. While increased nitrogen, a nutrient needed for plant growth, may have contributed to the faster rate of growth, temperature was found to be the main factor.

ScienceDaily reported on the story, and commented that other experiments in Japan and Australia have shown similar increases in growth under the influence of higher temperatures. On the other hand, rising temperatures have promoted “massive die-offs” in the western U.S. and Alaska. They quoted Gary Lovett, a forest ecologist at the the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., who said that “Cities are special places — they might be laboratories for what the world will look like in coming years.”

Cities could be a valuable resource for not just predicting the future effects of climate change on people and other organisms, but for practicing ways to counteract the effects of a warming climate. Being one step ahead in rising temperatures is a terrific opportunity to take that same step forward in climate change mitigation.

(Photo Credit: Wade McGillis/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

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