Critical to the Air We Breathe
Trees are generally defined by their woody trunks and branches. Some are capable of growing to heights that are not achieved by any other free-standing organisms in the world.
Trees play an essential role in our environment by adding oxygen to the atmosphere and taking in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants, thereby helping to moderate the climate. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, in just one year, an acre of mature trees absorbs the amount of CO2 produced by a car driven 26,000 miles. Although carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring chemical compound, it is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the warming of the Earth; increasingly high levels are contributing to climate change, adversely affecting ecosystems around the globe.
With more than 80,000 species around the world, trees also provide food, medicine, shelter and nesting places to humans, wildlife and numerous other organisms, thus supporting biodiversity and facilitating the health of the ecosystem. Reciprocally, greater biodiversity also benefits the trees. Insects and animals help to disperse seeds, pollinate plants and grow more trees. Various wildlife helps to control insect and animal populations that, unchecked, could be detrimental to the health of the forest. Even rodents and worms do their part by aerating the soil and recycling nutrients. Different species of trees each support their unique microclimates and habitats.
Everything from the roots to the canopy work together with the rest of the ecosystem to benefit the specific environment where those trees grow. For example, a tree will absorb an ideal amount of water from the ground, helping to prevent severe flooding, runoff of soil nutrients or landslides. By absorbing pollutants and adding organic matter back to the soil, trees also help to keep our drinking water clean.
Trees also play an integral role in our world economies and development; we process them for logging, construction, paper and numerous wood products, and various pharmaceutical industry products. The removal of trees — particularly through deforestation, which eliminates an estimated 46 to 58 thousand square miles of trees every year — is one of the greatest issues impacting global land use today.
Tree Science 101
Like most plant life, trees use photosynthesis to absorb sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, and produce carbohydrates to continue to fuel growth. As a byproduct of the photosynthesis process, they also release oxygen back into the atmosphere.
For example, a fully-grown oak tree can absorb up to 369 gallons of water a day through its roots. The water is transported to the tree's hundreds of thousands of leaves via its trunk and branches. As a green substance called chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs light energy from the sun, tiny holes on the underside of the leaves, called stomata, collect carbon dioxide from the air. The energy from the sun is used to turn the water and carbon dioxide into the carbohydrates that fuel growth. Oxygen is created as a byproduct of that process and the stomata release it back into the air.
Trees help to maintain the temperature of the Earth by absorbing CO2, and the oxygen they produce helps create the conditions necessary for life on this planet.
Doing Our Part
One of the simplest ways to ensure we all experience the numerous benefits of trees is to reduce the impact of deforestation. Reducing demand for paper and wood products by reducing consumption of them is perhaps the easiest way to do this. Try to avoid buying or using unnecessary paper products, such as paper plates, cups, napkins and bags. When you must use printer paper, make the most of it by printing on both sides and expanding the margins. When you must buy paper and wood products, make sure they're made from responsibly sourced materials. Look for products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified, which means the products are made from wood sourced from sustainably managed forests. Reuse your paper and wood products as much as possible. If you must discard something, recycle it, rather than throwing it away.
Reducing demand for agricultural products that come from largely deforested areas — palm oil, soy, and coffee are some prime examples — is another good way to make a difference.
Lastly, you can support organizations and initiatives that plant trees and replenish and protect forests responsibility. The Arbor Day Foundation, American Forests and the U.S. Forest Service are just a few organizations that support sustainably managed forests and offer ways to plant various species of trees in habitats where they will be most beneficial.