The year in trees in review

The year in trees in review

On Sunday night, Tu b'Shvat begins, marking the New Year of the trees. In celebration, we look back.

A NASA image taken on September 24, 2015, from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite shows smoke from fires in Indonesia over the coasts of Borneo and Sumatra.
A NASA image taken on September 24, 2015, from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite shows smoke from fires in Indonesia over the coasts of Borneo and Sumatra.

Put on your party hats. It’s another new year celebration.

Sunday night is Tu b’Shvat — the Jewish new year of the trees.

Do trees make new year’s resolutions?

Probably not. (Several area trees declined to comment for this story.) But trees do make the news (in addition to making the raw material for this newspaper’s paper edition.) So we’re celebrating the treeish new year in a newspaperly way with a looking at some of the past year’s worth of tree news.

Perhaps the biggest news was the publication of the most thorough tree census ever. “Mapping tree density at a global scale,” published in September in the science journal Nature, tried to count how many trees there are on earth.

The answer: three trillion.

That’s a lot of Tu b’Shvat party invitations.

It’s about 422 trees that have at least a five-inch diameter for every person on earth — and more than seven times more trees than earlier estimates had guessed. (No one is even thinking about the smaller trees. Forget the sapling totally.)

The new study combined measures of forest density on the ground with satellite imagery. It also examined maps of forest loss over the past decade. It estimated that more than 15 billion trees are cut down each year. Overall, it said, the number of trees worldwide has fallen “by approximately 46 percent since the start of human civilization.”

Crews plant saplings as part of the Armenia Tree Project. (ATP)
Crews plant saplings as part of the Armenia Tree Project. (ATP)

But the rate of that loss in forests has dropped by more than half in the past 25 years, according to another report released in September, this one from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The U.N. report also quantified the financial importance of forests, saying that the forest sector contributes about $600 billion annually to the global economy and provides employment to more than 50 million people.

The Nature survey began with a question from the organizers of the Billion Tree Campaign, a project that the United Nations launched in 2006. By 2011, it reported that more than 12 billion trees had been planted. But how many trees had there been to start with?

In a world of 3 trillion trees, it might seem that even 12 billion trees don’t matter. The truth, though, is that it doesn’t take a billion trees to have an impact.

Look at the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund, which has planted a quarter billion trees in Israel on a quarter million acres since it was founded in 1901.

It plants an average of three million trees a year, according to Adam Brill, director of communications for the JNF’s American branch. Not all will grow up to have a five inch diameter (the minimal size of a tree counted in the Nature census). Last year, however, was a sabbatical year in Israel, so there could be no trees planted, even on Tu b’Shvat. Still, 420,000 people did attend Tu b’Shvat events across Israel last year.

Outside of Israel, other tree planting initiatives reported good numbers.

The Armenia Tree Project, modeled on the JNF, reported that it planted 229,322 trees, bringing the total to 4,952,642 trees planted since the organization began in 1994. Ten new forests were planted last year to mark the Armenian genocide of 1915.

In South Africa, the nonprofit Living Lands has even brought an insurance company on board for reforestation efforts, which have led to 3.7 million trees planted since 2008.

A Raspberry Jewel pluot, before and after cutting (Wikipedia)
A Raspberry Jewel pluot, before and after cutting (Wikipedia)

“This is a business imperative for us. The likelihood of our sustainability is highly dependent on this,” Ray-Ann Sedres, head of integrated sustainability at Santam, South Africa’s biggest agricultural insurer, told the Guardian. She said that planting trees now will reduce claims for drought and flood damage in the future.

The reduction in deforestation in recent years has been so successful that the World Wildlife Federation has set a goal for zero forest loss by the year 2020.

In Indonesia, however, wildfires flared as farmers burned forests to clear land, removing natural growth in favor of plantations that grow trees producing palm oil and wood pulp. Those fires are illegal, and they are dangerous. Smoke from last year’s fires killed 19 people, sickened half a million, and caused $16 billion in economic damages. The Indonesian government shut down three companies for their role in the fires, and threatened to punish 14 mores.

The fires in Indonesia emitted more than 1.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, which is around four times the total average annual emissions from all of Australia.

But stopping forests from being burned deliberately may not be enough to protect them from the earth’s warming climate A study last year in Nature Climate Change warned of a “massive” loss of trees in the American Southwest.

“We have fairly consistent predictions of widespread loss of piñon pine and juniper in the Southwest, sometime around 2050,” Nate McDowell of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who led the study, told the Washington Post. The report warned of “profound impacts on carbon storage, climate forcing, and ecosystem services.”

The study predicted that 72 percent of the American Southwest’s evergreen forests would “experience mortality by 2050, with nearly 100 percent mortality of Southwest USA forests by 2100.”

“Taken together, the validated regional predictions and the global simulations predict widespread conifer loss in coming decades under projected global warming,” the study concludes.

“This isn’t entirely a surprise to some of us who study this, the writing’s on the wall, so to speak,” Mr. McDowell told the Washington Post. “On the other hand, no one had ever evaluated these state-of-the-art models for predicting tree death.

But one piece of happy news in the world of trees has been predicted for the coming year: the 90th birthday of Floyd Zaiger.

You probably don’t recognize his name, but if you’ve ever eaten a pluot, you’ve tasted his fruit. Mr. Zaiger is the father of the pluot. Or its shadchan, really. He’s the California plant breeder responsible for more than 200 patented (and trademarked) varieties of fruit. He began breeding fruit trees some 60 years ago, working under the tree breeder who invented the nectarine. Besides the pluot — a plum/apricot hybrid — he has bred most of the new varieties of white-fleshed peaches and nectarines, as well as new crossbreeds including the aprium, the nectaplum, and the Sweet Treat pluerry, which includes plum, cherry, peach and apricot in its parentage.

Zaiger’s Genetics is a family business; Mr. Zaiger’s daughter and two sons play an active role in it. Zaiger’s handles genetics the old fashioned way — manually moving pollen from one plant to another. The company has patented more than 200 varieties of fruit. It is a process that takes decades; the Royal Tioga cherry tree it patented in 2012 owed its origins to a Spanish cherry seed received 45 years earlier, which was said to bloom early and have large fruit.

So when you raise your glass of wine or grape juice to the new year of trees, take a moment to salute Floyd Zaiger — and hope that the year ahead brings only good news.

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