Saturday, June 29, 2013

Another Reason Not To Cut Trees In Anchorage - Trees Keep Cities Cooler

[Some alternative titles:  "Heat - the biggest weather killer of human beings" or  "One football field worth of ancient forests are cut every 2 seconds in the world so we can eat off of paper plates."  This is clearly one of my meandering posts.  Go with the flow, everything is connected. ]

I've complained about tree cutting in Anchorage before.  I've tried to emphasize that this is more than an aesthetic issue.

In an earlier post I cited biologist E.O. Wilson who writes in his book The Future of Life how nature performs many earth maintenance functions for free if we just let it.  He cites a 1997 study that estimated the annual value at $33 trillion.  I quoted him last time: 
Ecosystems services are defined as the flow of materials, energy, and information from the biosphere that support human existence.  They include the regulation of the atmosphere and climate;  the purification and retention of fresh water;  the formation and enrichment of the soil;  nutrient cycling; the detoxification and recirculation of water;  the pollination of crops;  and the production of lumber, fodder, and biomass fuel. [p. 106]
Trees are one of the major players in this system.  Here and Now had a segment Tuesday that adds another benefit of the trees, especially in cities: cooling the temperatures.   You can listen to as you read this.

It's disturbing to think how we're dismantling these 'ecosystems' (in the sense of actual infrastructure that performs an important role in keeping our planet's air, soil, water, and temperature in balance) in our mad rush for resources to stoke our economy.  It's like being on a boat in the middle of the ocean and taking it apart piece by piece to build fires to roast marshmellows.  The trivial short term benefit results in the long term perishing.*

I'm reminded of this issue right here in Anchorage because I go by a spot at Laurel and 40th fairly often and see the mindlessness of not understanding the value of these natural processes.

Here's a picture of the spot in September 2010 when there was a public notice about action to be taken on this property.

Here's this same spot today.  The trees were clear cut in the meantime.  The thickly forested hill that rises hidden by the trees in the first picture was mostly removed.  It's for sale.  And to make E.O. Wilson's point the smaller sign announces a Storm Water Prevention Plan.  The work that the trees and undergrowth did for free, the builder is doing now has to pay to do, and the water filtering function is completely gone.  The sound muffling of the hill and vegetation is gone.  So is the air filtering.  The land belongs to the Alaska Mental Health Trust.  It was cleared on speculation.  Rather than wait until they had a buyer, they just went in and tore everything down.   What an irony that the Mental Health Trust has to cut trees to raise money to help people with Mental Health problems.

Heat Islands

Brian Stone of Georgia Tech, is the guy  on Here and Now audio above.   He talked about something called a heat island, (I'm paraphrasing him now) a localized climate affect caused by changes in cities.  He listed three causes of the warming of cities:
  1. When we lose vegetation it tends to heat up the land surfaces - trees provide a natural cooling mechanism 
  2. We pave over those trees and build roads and houses where the trees were and those surfaces absorb heat 
  3. We emit a lot of waste heat - vehicles, air conditioning 
All this  elevates temperature in a city 2 to 20 degrees overall. (I'm sure he meant Fahrenheit.)  In Atlanta, where he works, he said it could affect the temperature by 5-8 degrees on a single day. The tree part of it tends to be the major driver of it in the regions that are naturally forested. Cutting down trees has a major effect, it reduces the amount of moisture available in cities.

I know, people will say, why would you want to cool down Anchorage?  But anyone who has been in Anchorage for the last couple of weeks knows that cool is nice.  And the global climate change caused by carbon emissions is going to warm up Anchorage (and other cities) enough.  The trees are one more form of protection we can keep.  Not just to cool us down on hot summer days, but also for the ecosystem benefits they provide, and the mental health benefits having trees nearby provides.  The list of benefits is growing.  

Another point made on the show - a surprising one:  heat is the biggest weather caused killer of humans.  Because it's not as dramatic as tornadoes and floods, the media doesn't scare us with heat headlines.

Sugar Shack Coffee Stand After Fire
One more example of a speculator clearing land on spec.    The land where the Sugar Shack stands today was all birch trees when we moved here in 1977.

A few years later a developer bulldozed them all down.  It's been sitting there with heat generating surfaces and no trees every since - that's 30+ years without those trees and the benefits they bring.  The Sugar Shack didn't need a whole lot denuded.

Eyes of Gaia's website says that a football field \ of ancient forest is cut every two seconds around the world.  That's why what seems like a small lot full of trees, is really important.  It's cumulative small plots all around that add up.

It's not hopeless unless you decide it is.  Eyes Of Gaia says:
"Ensure you use only FSC marked wood which has come from sustainably harvested forests and commit to using recycled paper.
Say 'NO' to paper cups, plates and napkins and join an organisation who is working to protect the last of the planets ancient forests."
There are things you can do.  I know,  your todo list is already full.  See if you can do without paper plates next time you have a barbecue.  You can buy extra plates and cups at a thrift store and let your guests know that you are doing this to save the world's ancient forests.  A half a million families getting rid of paper plates and cups goes a long way, and the more people do this, the more others will copy them.

You can talk to your Assembly member and ask what our Anchorage tree policy is and show them this EPA heat island reduction page that shows projects and strategies from cities around the US.

*I know the mantra - we need the oil and we need jobs for the economy.  These are the words of those who most benefit from the status quo and/or have no imagination. Somehow humans lived on earth for a couple hundred thousand years.  In some cases they have seriously damaged parts of the planet - such as ancient Greece.  But most of the humans lived in relative harmony with the planet - they had too.  There are alternatives to how we live today, ones in which a larger percentage of the population would be happy.  But that's a few more posts.  We were desperately running out of oil recently and now fracking is changing that forecast.  There's no reason why we can't develop sustainable energy sources as unthinkable today as fracking was ten years ago.  

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