You may have heard by now that the Amazon rain forest has been burning this summer. The internet quickly filled with quotes about the Amazon being the lungs of the earth, providing the earth with 20% of its oxygen. This article by PBS Newshour does a good job of explaining why oxygen production and loss is not a primary concern when addressing the Amazon fires. In short, we have a huge reserve of breathable oxygen which is barely impacted by the oxygen output of plant matter. The most significant threats posed by Amazon fires are much more significant and dire: regionally the loss of biodiversity, and globally the destruction of massive carbon sinks.
Trees, and more broadly forest ecosystems provide countless ecosystem services, but the most notable are carbon sequestration, natural habitat, oxygen production, and water management. In healthy forest ecosystems trees ‘sink’ carbon, meaning they absorb more than they produce. The total of carbon processed during photosynthesis is more than the amount released through fires and decomposition. Carbon can be stored more permanently in wood products (think wooden houses, furniture, and more), but also in the soil, and the biomass of the forest itself (plants and animals). Healthy forests can have forest fires, even significant ones, and still, sequester or sink more carbon than they release. The problem in the Amazon, and other forests, however, is that fires reduce the capacity for carbon storage. When a large tree burns, a certain amount of carbon is released, but the tree also becomes incapable of photosynthesis and stops sequestering carbon. In our National and State forests, trees reemerge naturally or are replanted, giving the land a chance to store carbon again. In the Amazon, these burned areas are likely to be replaced with pasture or cropland, significantly reducing their capacity to sequester carbon. Even in areas where trees are replanted, young, immature trees sequester much less carbon than large trees. Using the PA treemap we can see that a 20-inch London planetree (Platanus acerifolia) sequesters 630 pounds of carbon per year and has sequestered 1900 pounds over its lifespan. A 40-inch London planetree, however, sequesters 1400 pounds per year and has sequestered 11,350 pounds in its lifespan. In short, the 40-inch tree sequesters almost as much in one year, as the 20-inch tree sequestered in its life to that point. For greater perspective, the trees we typically plant are 2 inches in diameter and sequester less than 20 pounds of carbon in their first few years.
If you repeat that millions of times over, replacing large trees with seedlings, or in the case of the amazon with no trees at all, huge amounts of carbon go un-stored. This is the opposite of the math in a recent study which showed that planting millions of trees could be a long-term solution to climate change. By replacing unplanted and unused areas with trees we can create long-term carbon sinks in more areas. Of course, the study didn’t account for the loss of the Amazon rain forest, and like all tree planting efforts it will take years, and millions of dollars in maintenance to bring enough trees to maturity to begin to see impacts. It is still most beneficial to preserve the remaining large trees we have, but we can always increase planting efforts.
On a chilly Saturday morning in Swissvale, NMR staff and volunteers set out to plant a dozen trees in and around the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh. After enjoying hot coffee generously provided by Coffee Tree Roasters in Squirrel Hill, NMRWA’s very own tree expert, Jared Manzo, demonstrated the intricate process of preparing and planting young trees. Once trained, the volunteers and staff broke into teams to plant on the Academy grounds and on Hampton and Columbia Avenues.
The teams worked cooperatively to snugly plant each tree individually. This involved cutting twine off of the bundled branches, positioning the trees in the pits, and staking for support. Planting a tree is hard and diligent work but the volunteers rose to the task enthusiastically. By noon we were able to plant 12 trees which included Eastern white pine, tulip poplar, hophornbeam, and hawthorn.
Once the work was done and the teams returned to the Academy to enjoy a tasty lunch donated by Al’s Fish and Chicken and Veltre’s Pizza. The conversations continued as everyone basked in their hard work. The principal of the Academy, Ibrahim Yousef, and Al Aqra, Academy board member and owner of Al’s, expressed deep gratitude for the hard work from the volunteers. These 12 trees at the Academy and surrounding streets will be enjoyed by the generations of the school and neighborhood to come.
UPDATE (7/14/16) – We received the following message from Al Aqra, board member of the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh:
Nine Mile Run Watershed Association is leaving a great impact in the East End of Pittsburgh. NMRWA has been planting hundreds of trees in the watershed area where it had changed the landscape. On the 14th of November NMRWA and volunteers came to Universal Academy of Pittsburgh and planted 6 trees which will help with water preservation, beautify the school grounds, provide shade in the hot summer days, and add a colorful background to our school.
A tree planting event is such an educational opportunity to learn about Nine Mile Run, different types of trees, and a quick tutorial on how to plant and care for trees. Trees are very important part of our environment, landscape, and ecosystem, that’s why, we should plant more and care for existing ones.
On behalf on the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh’s community, parents, staff, students, and board of directors I would like to thank Nine Mile Run Watershed Association for their great work for the community and the environment. We look forward to working with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association on future possibilities such as Rain Gardens, Rainwater Management, and Educational opportunities for our students.
Board of Directors
Universal Academy of Pittsburgh
Volunteers and Nine Mile Run staff set out this past Saturday morning to weed and mulch over two dozen trees along the Port Authority’s Busway Linear Park along Edgewood Avenue in Swissvale. Armed with gloves, shovels, and wheelbarrows, the group got right to work improving the tree pits after a brief overview from NMR staff member Jared Manzo.
The weather was chilly and traffic along the road was a bit intimidating but the volunteers were not deterred! Volunteers assiduously removed weeds that compete for soil nutrients, and spread mulch at an even depth making sure to pull a few inches back any mulch from around the trunks of the tree.
By the end of the event, we had tended 24 of the 28 maple trees. NMRWA staff finished the final four trees the following week. Thank you to Veltre’s Pizza in Swissvale and Coffee Tree Roasters in Squirrel Hill for the donated refreshments for volunteers.
NMRWA is extending their effort to benefit these trees by undertaking a tree pit expansion project. One of the greatest challenges for street trees is a lack of adequate soil volume. With Port Authority of Allegheny County’s permission, we are removing a strip of concrete to connect existing tree pits in pairs. Thirteen sites have been identified. Six will be completed in the remainder of 2015 with the other seven completed in 2016. The purpose of the project is to create more area for water infiltration and rooting space. Hopefully, this work will equate to larger, healthier, and longer lived trees.
If you are interested in helping trees in Swissvale, we will be planting trees this coming Saturday, November 14th, 2015 along Columbia Avenue, Delaware Avenue, and the Universal Academy of Pittsburgh. This will be our last tree event of the year so please come out and help us finish strong!
After the spring tree planting season, Greenlinks was busy with tree care events to remove weeds and add mulch to young trees in Wilkinsburg this summer. To prepare for the opening of Wilkinsburg Thursday Open Market, volunteers worked to touch up the 18 trees planted in the Borough parking lot along Ross Avenue in June. As part of our lead up to the Summer Storm, event sponsor Sweetwater Brewing Company gave out free pints to volunteers as part of their “tap takeover” at D’s Six Pax and Dogz. It was hard work that was well rewarded.
On July 21, we worked with Wilkinsburg Youth Project’s Garden Team to clean up the weeds for the 50+ trees on or around Turner Elementary campus. These kids spent a long day steadily moving from one tree to the next without losing any momentum. We really enjoyed working with the kids and were proud of their top-notch work!
Finally, we welcomed 26 volunteers who were part of the Office of PittServes student orientation service day. The volunteers helped remove weeds, and add mulch to around 30 older honeylocust trees along Wood Street between Franklin Ave and Wallace Ave. Many hands made the work go quick. We even had time to visit other tree pits in the area before students had to go back to campus.
Removing weeds and adding mulch is important; especially during periods of drought (like what we experiencing right now in the watershed). Diligently removing weeds by the roots removes competition for water resources. Adding mulch helps retain soil moisture.
Do you have trees showing early autumn color? Consider giving them a drink of water once a week during the month of September water by slowly releasing water within their root zone (1 gallon/ 1inch diameter of trunk). If you are also applying mulch, please no volcano mulching!
As you may have seen in our Spring newsletter, since 2013 we have been working with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC) on a grant received from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Five Star and Urban Waters Restoration Program. One of the goals of our partnership on this grant was to develop a culture of stewardship for the Nine Mile Run watershed by engaging a wide range of ages in citizen science and stewardship activities. One way we approached this was to implement PPC’s Mission Ground Truth (MGT) program at Wilkinsburg Middle School.
MGT is an interdisciplinary ecosystem assessment program mapped to PA state academic standards for 7th and 8th grade students that includes in-class discovery activities as well as a field trip to Frick Park. During the field trip, students get to be ecologists for the day, and have the opportunity to use the same tools and sampling methods that scientists use to evaluate the health of forest and stream ecosystems.
Recently, NMRWA staff worked for two days in Frick Park with Environmental Educators from PPC to help lead the Wilkinsburg Middle School students through the field day programming.
We began each morning by discussing goals for the day, then broke into small groups. During the morning session, the groups each explored a section of the Fern Hollow stream while discussing questions such as “how can ecologists detect and measure pollution in a stream?” and “what benefits do humans and animals get from streams?” Then the students recorded data on physical and chemical water quality characteristics, such as temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, conductivity, and velocity. Next, we explored the benthic macroinvertebrate populations by carefully overturning rocks and collecting samples using a net. To wrap up, we would discuss how everything tied together by asking questions like “based on the data we collected, is the stream healthy or unhealthy?“and “how does the quality of Fern Hollow affect the health of Nine Mile Run?”
After a break for lunch, the students got to venture into the forest for a deeper look at the complex forest ecology present in Frick Park. We identified different tree and plant species and talked about the various ecosystem services that forests provide to animals, streams, and people. We asked questions like “why is biodiversity important in forests?” and “how is the health of this forest related to the health of Fern Hollow and Nine Mile Run?” Then the students used forestry tools to collect data on the location, size, and type of trees, and we looked for evidence of Asian long-horned beetles. To wrap up, we asked questions similar to the morning session, like “is this section of the forest healthy or unhealthy?”
Over the course of the two days, we had a wonderful & enriching experience working with the students and with the PPC staff. Thank you to Mike, Taiji, Steve, and Chelsea for their expertise & enthusiasm in implementing the MGT programming!