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Earth Dr Reese Halter's Blog


Story ran in the Vancouver Sun December 23, 2012

It is appropriate that the most recognized and celebrated day of the year — Christmas, the birth of Christ — is also focused around trees. Trees are truly remarkable.

Urban trees provide a healthy environment for people and animals. Urban trees and forests remove as much as 85 percent of air pollution and smog; and they save communities millions of dollars a year by stabilizing stormwater run-off. Moreover, urban trees reduce energy costs for both heating and cooling by 40 percent in our homes, schools, hospitals and factories.

In the wild, our forests provide massive watersheds all throughout Western North America that support 55 million people. Those mature subalpine forests help retain snowfall in the winter and slowly release meltwaters in the springtime that recharge reservoirs. Trillions of tree roots provide the most effective form of water filtration known to humankind.

Trees provide scrumptious spices including cinnamon — known to lower our blood sugar. Trees grow incredible fruits like apples, with apple-skin being one of the highest recognized natural fibres that helps prevent colon cancer. Sugar maple trees give us maple syrup with over 20 compounds promoting good health including several anti-oxidants that have anti-cancer, anti-bacterial and anti-diabetic properties.

In California, with the help of the bees, trees provide lemons, oranges and grapefruit; and more almonds than anywhere else on the globe. Almonds are an excellent source of protein and fibre keeping our intestines healthy. California is also a world leader in avocado production — rich in Omega-3s that help preclude coronary disease.

Trees produce potent medicines. From the South American cinchona trees, the drug quinine was derived to help fight the mosquito-borne disease malaria. From coastal British Columbia the yew tree yields Taxol, the billion-dollar blockbuster that offers hope to those afflicted with breast, ovarian and lung cancers, coronary disease and even AIDS. From Chinese Camptotheca trees, camptothecin is being trailed for breast, prostate, pancreatic, ovarian, leukemia, and lymphoma cancers, as well as malignant melanoma. Interestingly, scientists have known for at least the past couple decades that old trees are particularly important.

In fact, the largest single stemmed tree — General Sherman, a Sierra Nevada Sequoia — holds several astounding records including the fact that it’s still the fastest growing tree on the planet, adding the equivalent volume of wood in a tree a foot-and-a-half thick and 60 feet tall every year. Incidentally, the tannic acid present in its near-fireproof bark is the same chemical used in fire extinguishers.

Along the Bruce Peninsula former and retired University of Guelph scientists Peter Kelly and Doug Larson recorded Canada’s oldest trees, white cedars, with one in particular estimated to be over 1,890 years old. These ancient trees, just like the American bristlecone pines, exhibit no signs of aging. Gerontologists are awed that there is no evidence of any chromosomal changes, including shortening of their tips as trees age. They, like the near immortal Great Basin bristlecones pines of California out-grow the ground beneath them — the sedimentary rocks break down before the trees die.

The world’s oldest single stemmed tree, a Great Basin bristlecone pine named Methuselah, lives in east central California on the White Mountains almost 2 miles above sea level in an extreme environment bombarded by ultraviolet radiation, blasted regularly by 80 mph winds and a growing season of about six weeks a year.

It’s over 4,700 years old and witnessed more than 1.7 million sunrises. The tree rings it lays down almost every year are a living window back in time assisting climate scientists as they grapple to comprehend how life is attempting to adjust to rapid climate change.

Some groundbreaking work at Oregon State University in Mark Harmon’s lab found that the conversion of Pacific Northwest old-growth to young, fast-growing forests did not decrease atmospheric carbon as compared to old-growth forests, which capture and store vast amounts of CO2.

It took those low-elevation, second-growth forests at least 200 years to accumulate the CO2 storage capacity of the existing old-growth forests. In other words, old-growth forests are invaluable, massive living carbon warehouses that unequivocally require protection from being harvested. In fact, for every metric ton of wood created, 1.5 metric tons of CO2 is absorbed and one metric ton of oxygen is released.

Urban trees also play a crucial role in our towns and cities. In one year’s time one mature tree gives off enough oxygen for a family of four while, at the same time, urban trees help suck the rising greenhouse gas CO2 out of the air.

This spring please consider making it a family day and planting at least one fruit tree in your yard.

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Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished biologist. His latest books are The Insatiable Bark Beetle and The Incomparable Honeybee

Contact Earth Dr Reese Halter

Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.


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