The boreal forest, or taiga, extends across Canada and Russia. Conifers dominate this cold ecosystem. The evergreen needles allow the trees to photosynthesize all year.
While conifers grow well in the frigid taiga, they don’t decompose very quickly when a tree falls. In other habitats, trees that die release their carbon as they decay. The pines, firs, spruce, and larches of the taiga soak in carbon from the atmosphere, add that carbon to their mass, and hold it in their bodies even after they die. One study suggests that the boreal forest sequesters twice as much carbon as tropical forests and six times the amount held in temperate forests (1).
For now, the taiga is helping us combat climate change. As temperatures warm, though, stored carbon can break down and release into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, exacerbating the issue. The more we limit carbon emissions now, the more the boreal forest can help us into the future.
As Obi-Wan Kenobi explained, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” These sage words constituted my first exposure to an ecological idea: Energy.
Jedi are no fools. Every drop of energy we use (and rely upon) comes from outer space. Solar energy reacts with carbon dioxide and water inside those wondrous Earthly chemists, plants, to build the most amazing molecule of all – sugar. Sugars combine to form building blocks of plant bodies and, when eaten by an animal, these components break apart to release energy. We use this energy to power our bodies.
Life forms even store energy by combining sugars into fats or oils. The oil saved up by an unfathomable number of plants, buried millions of years ago, power our machines today. We call these ancient plant oils “fossil fuels.” Breaking apart those molecules releases the energy (and carbon dioxide) made long, long ago.
In a sense, that energy does surround and penetrate us; it flows through us.
May the Fourth (be with you) is Star Wars Day. Enjoy it by appreciating the energy of all living things that bind us together.
The bane of many a Southerner’s existence is springtime pollen. All that yellow dust swirling on the breeze and coating your car, that’s pine tree sperm.
The male cones of a Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) look like a bunch of tiny bananas growing from twig tips. If you’re thinking, “wait, that’s not a cone,” the woody cone we use to hot glue decorative wreaths or smear with peanut butter for DIY bird feeders is the female cone. Its spirals of woody shingles (or bracts) protect the tree’s eggs and, after fertilization, the developing pine embryos inside.
Male cones are much smaller and shorter lived. They release pollen for a couple of weeks each spring. And it’s a LOT of pollen: 3-5 pounds per tree. Why so much? Pines transfer pollen from male to female cones by wind. It’s not a very efficient system. More pollen increases the chance of fertilization.
With Climate Change, pollen’s gonna get worse. Ladeau and Clark (2006) found that pines growing in an elevated CO2 environment produce more pollen cones, and more pollen, at younger ages.
p.s. If you ever wondered what a pine pollen grain looks like, it’s a microscopic Mickey Mouse logo!
Ladeau SL, Clark JS. 2006. Pollen production by Pinus taeda growing in elevated atmospheric CO2. Functional Ecology. 20(3) 541-547.
The most amazing aspect of the human species (Homo sapiens) is our power to change our environment. Using this capacity, we’ve created societies in almost every corner of the Earth. We construct islands, create inlets and waterways, and move dunes to secure a coastal view. We cut tremendous forests and construct remarkable dams. And we eliminate entire mountains in our search for ores and coal. We even change the temperature and weather patterns of our planet.
This may sound bleak, but I don’t see it that way. With so much influence and ingenuity, we can protect our planet. We have the power to reduce and repair environmental impacts. It all begins with awareness, resolve, creativity… and responsibility.
Mind the wisdom of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “with great power comes great responsibility.”
See that tiny bump on the branch? You’re looking at a mom protecting hundreds of babies. Well, actually, the mama Oak Scale insect (Parthenolecanium quercifex) is dead now, but her exoskeleton is still harboring those little eggs underneath. When those baby Scales hatch around the end of May, the tiny darlings will move out to the oak leaves and begin to SUCK THAT POOR TREE DRY. They sniff out the precious sugar-water flowing through veins in leaves, insert their straw-like mouth parts and drink up. As the year progresses, Scales grow and mate. Mama lays her eggs beneath her and dies, making way for next May’s new generation.
(These are the eggs… um, on my kitchen table. Didn’t realize they’d pop out like that when I lifted the mama Scale off. Oops.)
In the insect’s defense, healthy trees can resist Scale infestations. Some leaves and twigs may fall off – that’s all. But trees that are weakened (by physical damage, drought, chemicals, etc.) can be killed by the insects.
Cool Climate Change research recently found that densities of Oak Scale are up to 13x higher in warm urban areas! (1) Since things are getting toastier here on Earth, we may want to get more familiar with the life & times of the Oak Scale.
1. Meineke EK, Dunn RR, Sexton JO, Frank SD (2013) Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059687