We Asked an Ecologist How to Plant Trees that Fight Climate Change
As you may already know, we plant all of your trees right here in the United States. We do this because we know that if we want to make real change, we need to start right here in our own backyard.
One of the nerdy-perks of doing this is that we work with US-based foresters and ecologists to figure out where to plant the trees so they have the greatest chances of successfully enduring climate change.
This strategic approach ensures trees grow to maturity and continue to remove carbon from the air for decades to come. But it also means that we get to spend time with the professionals on the front line of climate change here in the U.S. And for a group whose passion is learning about climate change, that's pretty much the equivalent of Christmas Day (but with a little more existential dread).
One of the professionals that we work with is Leander Anderegg. He is an Assistant Professor of Ecology, Evolution & Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He goes by Lee.
Lee studies how natural ecosystems respond to climate change—particularly forests.
We recently sat down with him to discuss his job and the important work he and other ecologists are doing to help ecosystems fight climate change. Check out our interview with him below.
CarbonForest: Can you explain what you do and what your research hopes to accomplish?
Lee: Totally. I broadly study how natural ecosystems respond to climate change, particularly forests. The overarching goal of my research is to improve our predictions of the future structure and function of ecosystems in a rapidly changing climate. My work is focused on trying to improve our knowledge of how ecosystems work so that we can make them more resilient in the 21st century because they're going to need it.
CarbonForest: How did you end up in this kind of work?
Lee: I grew up in a rural town in Southwestern Colorado, but I hadn't heard of climate change until I went to college. I was driving home over Thanksgiving break one year to visit my parents and saw miles and miles of dead forest in Northern Arizona. The area had experienced a major drought in 2002 that had caused a mass mortality event of all of these forests that I grew up hiking and fishing in. I remember thinking, "Holy cow, this is what climate change looks like. And I really, really don't like it."
CarbonForest: What does that resiliency look like, and how do we build resiliency into ecosystems?
Lee: I think that's the million-dollar question! I think that some of the tools for building resilience are the same ones that conservationists and restorationists have been using for decades.
My research mainly works on trying to identify what makes an ecosystem resilient or what makes it vulnerable. We look at what is it about ecosystems (particularly forests) that makes them likely to be more impacted by a drought, a heatwave or some extreme climate event, or a long-term climate trend. And we also look at what makes forests really robust to climate change. Is it the diversity of how many species live there or the diversity of the physiologies of the species that live there?
And then the question becomes, what do we do to try and alter these trajectories? For example, we can make a forest or grasslands healthier by removing pollution stresses, managing invasive species, and proactively managing extractive use. All of those things are critical for making something resilient to climate change because the more stressed out a system is, the less likely it will be able to deal with the added stress of a shifting climate baseline.
CarbonForest: Can you explain the kind of work that you're doing with us? (CarbonForest)
What we're looking at with CarbonForest is, given that we need to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, how do we do that in a way that keeps that carbon out for a long time and that actually works? We're really focused on how we can maximize the probability of sequestering carbon in living organisms for a long time and minimize the probability of that carbon going away in a disastrous ecological surprise.
I think there's a huge potential for a holistic approach to tree planting that yields many benefits—not just capturing carbon. Being strategic about what and where you plant can help moderate the local climate and create habitat for many other plant and animal species. Planting a tree as this holistic action, rather than just building a carbon sequestration factory, is a really powerful action.
CarbonForest: Why should people care about doing it this way?
Lee: We want to do climate mitigation that's not just going to fail. We want to do it in a way that is durable—we want to do something that is meaningful and long-term. We don't just want to be greenwashing and patting ourselves on the back.
CarbonForest: Is there any climate technology that you feel most excited about that gives you a little bit of hope?
Lee: I get glimmers of hope from a lot of corners. I'm definitely most excited about the idea of managing healthy ecosystems and human-natural systems since, at this point, we can't remove ourselves from ecosystems. There probably are no silver bullets, but thinking about being really good land stewards, is maybe as close as we can get.
CarbonForest: How do you stay positive in this kind of job?
Lee: That's a great question because you're right: it's often difficult not to just get super depressed. But I take a lot of encouragement from observations of the natural world—even though I study how vulnerable it is. When I take a step back, I'm often profoundly impressed by how resilient it actually is.