Healthy forests are critical for fighting climate change. But climate change is threatening forest health.

Forest photo

Noah Charney at the University of Arizona is studying how climate change will affect tree growth.

He says in a few places, like the Pacific Northwest, greater warmth may make trees grow faster. But in most places, higher temperatures and drier conditions are likely to slow growth and threaten forest health.

Charney: “Our best guess is that, on average, there will be a pretty substantial decline in average growth rates.”

And those slower growth rates are bad news for the climate. Trees help protect us against climate change by pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in their roots, branches, and leaves. As much as a third of our annual carbon emissions are absorbed by the world’s forests.

When trees grow slower, they absorb less carbon, more carbon stays in the atmosphere, climate change gets worse, and, you guessed it, the trees grow slower still. It’s a cycle that’s hard to break.

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Planting fast-growing trees in areas affected by wildfire can increase the growth and resilience of forests. But in the end, the only real solution is for humans to reduce carbon pollution. Otherwise, the cycle continues.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: Courtesy of Noah Charney.

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...