Carbon and Trees

By Jeneen Wiche

Macolin surBienne by Jean-Daniel Echenard
Macolin surBienne by Jean-Daniel Echenard

Carbon is #6 on the Periodic Table. Carbon is half of the dry weight of wood. Carbon dioxide (carbon and oxygen) helps to trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere- which is a good thing until the scale has been tipped- and the scale has been tipped! The good greenhouse effect of CO₂ becomes a more complex heat-trapping effect when other atmospheric gases rise along with CO₂. The result is climate change under the rubric of global warming; when CO₂ emissions go up, so too does the heat.

Carbon Sequestration

So what is carbon sequestration? Simply put, trees are recyclers of CO₂ and of carbon. Trees are expert at breathing in CO₂ (carbon sequestration = the storing of carbon) and converting that into carbon (half of the tree’s dry weight) and exhaling oxygen. The cycle does not end there because CO₂ is released back into the atmosphere by decaying organic matter at the end of the woody plant’s life. This proved to be the perfect symbiotic relationship because the carbon cycle means the tree can feed itself the CO₂ generated by the decay of other organic matter.

Tipping the Scale

When we burn coal and petroleum (ancient carbon sequestered in the earth’s crust) we are tipping the scale of how much CO₂ can be recycled in our atmosphere and our Nation’s canopy of trees cannot keep up. But do recognize the important role that woody plants and trees have in maintaining atmospheric conditions suitable for human life! The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation explains in How Plants Run the Carbon Cycle:

Hanging smog by Craig Nagy
Hanging smog by Craig Nagy

“More than 400 million years ago the earliest land plants lived in a very high CO2 atmosphere, enduring what must have been brutally high temperatures, high ultraviolet radiation and violent weather. By the time land plants achieved tree size, they had begun to change the atmosphere, ultimately making it habitable for land animals. CO2 levels dropped almost tenfold and oxygen levels rose dramatically during the first great spread of forests on Earth, a process that took place over many millions of years.”

Carbon Neutrality

So, trees and wood burning are considered carbon neutral because the tree will eventually rot and release CO₂ while another living tree will consume the Co₂. Coal and oil are not carbon neutral because this carbon sequestration took place eons ago and is not cycling. Additionally, fossil fuels are being burned and released in very short order compared to the millions of years it has been stored as coal and petroleum in the earth’s crust. Trees are one part of slowing global warming so take care of them and consider them as an investment that goes well beyond the aesthetic beauty they offer to the landscape.

If you have any questions about trees and their effect on the environment, please call Limbwalker at 502-634-0400.