Washington forests are burning. Will climate change keep us from saving them?

Put a pin in it. No offense. It’s true that Washington’s population is about twice as dense as the national average, but the Post’s Philip Bump points out that Washingtonians are still planting trees….

Washington forests are burning. Will climate change keep us from saving them?

Put a pin in it. No offense.

It’s true that Washington’s population is about twice as dense as the national average, but the Post’s Philip Bump points out that Washingtonians are still planting trees.

And by tree, we mean the kind of native trees that form the backbone of urban ecology, like pines, oaks and aspen. These trees are good neighbors: They absorb carbon dioxide, they protect human settlements against insects and disease, and they thrive in Maryland summers. But it’s not enough to buy trees on the cheap: In 2013, each acre of forest in Washington state’s Buchanan County replaced 200 metric tons of carbon dioxide. In nearby Garrett County, the equivalent is about 700 metric tons. The loss of the trees — and the huge carbon dioxide emitted in the process — is staggering: “1,870 metric tons of carbon are lost each year” in the 7,400 acres of Washington state forests that have burned in the past 30 years, said Jeff Trumble, former executive director of the Washington State Forest Foundation. “The loss of forests has cost the state over $1 billion.”

It’s worth noting that while these forests are burning, the climate in many of those forests is changing. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a hotter world, trees grow less vigorously and put out less carbon.

There are various reasons for these forests’ loss, and no one seems to have figured out what’s causing the forest fires.

There is the drought that has dried out central and western states, and the federal government says that rising temperatures will cause rain to fall in stronger and more intense bursts — and thus that most of the precipitation that once fell in torrents will soon fall as small, intense downpours.

Lack of moisture in the midwest is also pushing up wildfires that choke the ecosystem with smoke, which contains small amounts of sulfate that act as natural fertilizers and atrophies the wood, hurting its ability to grow. (The smoke also adds to the air pollution, of course.)

According to the USDA, back in the 1960s, 37 percent of Washington State’s forests were burned. By 2013, that figure had jumped to 71 percent.

There’s also the problem of climate change: As warmer temperatures melt Arctic ice and plant more carbon, more carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere.

The forestry industry isn’t the only one that will feel the impact: Across Washington and Maryland, some 728 square miles of forest have been “cleared,” meaning uprooted trees put in the ground and not replanted.

But it’s not just the environment that’s being damaged. Many of these “insect farms” also tend to spread disease and are reliant on insects that are suffering from extreme climate conditions, as well.

And farmers in those areas are seeing their crop prices suffer: “Warmer conditions caused temperatures that allowed root diseases to become more aggressive and more resistant, which resulted in fewer — and often smaller — plants which were easier to mow down,” according to The Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Not all of this destruction is foreseeable: The lack of irrigation, the micro-drainage created by trees clogging up drainage systems, the ability of fire to strip the plant of foliage — there’s a lot that forest managers can’t control, and it can only get worse as climate changes.

For now, though, it’s trying to keep up with nature.

And that seems like a good place to be.

Leave a Comment