Trees live a long time. There are trees alive on Earth today that were sprouting during the reign of England's Henry VIII. There are trees alive on Earth today that could have sprouted when the Great Pyramids at Giza were ascending in construction. Even the common sugar maple can live to 300 years.
It's this longevity that makes trees a rich trove of environmental data. As the environment changes, the trees react. And researchers, with enough years of tree-observation data, can see the effects of climate change unfold.
Forest researchers in Europe have recently determined the growth rate of trees has been accelerating in the age of climate change. Using data from plots of trees planted in the 1870s in central Europe—the oldest available source of data on forest dynamics—their analysis has determined tree growth has accelerated from 30 to 70 percent (depending on the species studied) since the 1960s.
The study notes that in Europe, as CO2 concentrations rose from 295 parts per million at the turn of the 20th century to 390 ppm recently, and as the average temperature in Europe has risen 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit over a similar time period, average growing seasons increased 10.8 days. That, compounded with more nutrient resources in the soil, is the impetus behind the tree growth spurt, the researchers surmise. Basically, more energy in the environment and more food for trees means more growth in trees.
Why does this matter? Because the faster growth can upset the environmental balance of the forest.
"The accelerated tree growth and forest ageing requires conformance of all associated organisms, including humans," the authors write in the study's conclusion. "Plants and animals inhabit these habitats, and depend on special phases in stand development and structure; faster growth means interference in species living conditions, and demands for higher mobility."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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