Managing Ecosystems
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Managing Ecosystems, Adapting to Climate Change

More Effective Than Planting Trees

Americans and Canadians planted about 2.2 billion trees in 2020. This progress in planting trees was countered by commercial timbering and natural disasters, with North American wildfires burning over 8.8 million acres of forest in 2020. Fortunately, the USA and Canada have seen slow net growth in forests since the early 1900s, meaning we are growing slightly more trees than we lose each year. But the same is not true for the rest of the world, where a third of the countries see regular annual declines in their forested areas. Growing trees is an admirable environmental endeavor, but the truth is we are working hard to break even. Depending on significant growth in the world’s forests to fight climate change is a dubious bet.

Perhaps our focus should shift to more effectively managing our ecosystems. Forest management aimed at reducing the occurrence of monster wildfires would provide clear and immediate results. Fires would not add gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere, and the trees saved would continue sequestering carbon.

Ecosystems are the basic building blocks of our global biosphere, and within individual ecosystems, a web of intertwined and interdependent life exists. Forests are often the anchors around which ecosystems build, and the types of trees growing there influence how other species of animals and plants share food and shelter. Forests adapt to the regional environmental conditions, with tropical, temperate, and boreal forests thriving in their respective latitude ranges.

Managed Change

An ecosystem is a group of interdependent biotic and abiotic components functioning together as a sustainable unit. Importantly, ecosystems are often nested. The Tongass temperate rain forest forms an ecological community intimately connected with the marine ecosystems of the Pacific Ocean. Together these two ecosystems form a larger coastal ecosystem. The Cascade Mountains of Oregon are home to temperate rain forests on their western slopes and high deserts on their eastern side. These two distinct ecosystems connect at the hip via a high mountain range, which controls rainfall.

Our planet’s surface is an interconnected web of life — a master ecosystem with multiple smaller systems nested inside. At the smallest scale, individual ecosystems are the basic units of our environment. Therefore, we measure environmental health in a region by the health of its component ecosystems. At a fundamental level, climate change presents itself as changes in local and regional ecosystems.

One way to counteract the destructive effects of climate change on our planet is to actively support our local ecosystems. Effectively managing change allows these systems to adapt to new climatic conditions and transform in ways that maintain a healthy balance of life. Forests have a natural tendency to migrate as an adaptive mechanism. In the northern hemisphere, as local temperatures warm, tree species from warmer southern regions will gradually start to appear farther north, replacing the existing trees. These new trees will attract different animal and plant species, slowly transforming the entire ecosystem.

Since trees are an anchor species for many ecosystems, we have the opportunity to ensure that newly planted trees are suitable for a changing environment. Tree planting is only effective when done in harmony with the environmental changes occurring in the local ecosystem. Managing change requires humans to work with, not against, critical ecosystems.

Confrontation Versus Adaptation

The stark reality behind Earth’s environment is that change is inevitable. The Anthropocene reality is, global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate, and our children’s future holds a warmer planet. Two clear imperatives arise from climate change: a need to confront and slow the rate of change and proactive adaptation to a warmer Earth.

For those who grasp the role of ecosystems in adapting to climate change, the process starts close to home. Reduce the use of fertilizers and toxic herbicides in your lawns and gardens, so each plot of land becomes more environmentally friendly. Work with local municipalities to revive green belts, maintain small park forests, and treat runoff through rain gardens. Then the water entering our rivers will be beneficial, not detrimental, to species below the water and on the river banks.

Perhaps logging can be directed so needed fire breaks develop in areas where dense forests are prone to explosive wildfires. This process also creates transitional forest-edge habitats supporting a diverse range of plant and animal species. Forest floors can be thinned through selective burns during damp seasons, eliminating the fuel required by large fires, and communities should establish fire-break barriers around homes.

We are all dependent on the ecosystems surrounding our local communities, and we need to work towards managing their health. Aiding our existing ecosystems as they transform to a warmer world is the first priority for adaptation. Planting trees is trendy, but managing ecosystems is smart.

Related Articles:

Lawns, Gardens, and Environmental Protection (by WM House; Medium) 

Let’s Not Focus on Planting Trees (by WM House; Medium) 

Ecosystem Migration and Evolution (by WM House; ArcheanWeb) 

The Rain Garden, an Incremental Solution (by WM House; ArcheanWeb) 

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2020 North American Wildfire Season (Source: Center for Disaster Philanthropy) 

How Many Trees Are Planted Each Year? (Source: Green and Growing) 

Minister O’Regan Launches Canada’s Plan to Plant Two Billion Trees (Source: Government of Canada) 

In North America, we grow many more trees than we harvest (Source: Two Sides) 

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.