5 Things I Learned From Talking to a Forest Scientist

On a blustery day in Vancouver, my sister and I hauled lighting equipment and a video camera into the UBC Forestry Building. Inside a third floor conference room we filmed a meeting with Dr. Tongli Wang, a learned scientist and programer who specializes in the climate modelling and saving the future of forests. You can watch the video above!

Behold, the top 5 lessons I took away:

5. Things are happening now.

While the rest of us are twiddling our thumbs, driving our SUV’s and occasionally throwing apple stickers into the compost; scientists are preparing for irreversible damage. It’s a harrowing thought that while environmental activists are fighting their battles and articles are circulated boasting titles like “10 Easy Things You Can Do to Save the Planet” some of the smartest minds have leapfrogged over unwavering hope and have quietly begun to brace for the worse.

4. Tree Experts are really expert.

How many people do you know that can identify the tree genus of a paper craft? Dr. Tongli Wang can! It’s thrilling to be in the company of someone who has invested thousands of hours into one topic. These people have superseded “basic human” status and double as a golden vessel of knowledge. Google is cool, but if I want to know about tree health and climate modelling, I’ll be able to get a more concise and human answer from Dr. Wang. Hearing an enlightened mind in action makes me wish that everyone, especially policymakers, considered the opinions of experts more seriously.

3. Diversity is essential within a population.

Dr. Wang showed me a chart where the X-axis along the bottom was climatic conditions, and the Y-axis was population diversity represented by different heights of trees. He explained that as the climatic conditions shifted most trees were pushed out of the picture, leaving only a few behind. The image of one small tree remaining in the chart stuck with me. It's as a powerful visual for resilience and our best chance to keep nature as we know it. In BC, planting only one type of tree has risks of its own. Fast growing species may be favoured by loggers, but come forest fire season those same trees will burn where other slow-growing species stand a chance. One small tree survived the shift, only because we had a variety of options, to begin with. We owe survival to diversity when disaster strikes.

Population diversity of tree heights vs climate conditions

Population diversity of tree heights vs climate conditions

2. The forests we have today will be different from what we’ll have tomorrow

Don’t spend years saving up for a vacation to California. In years California will be coming here! To adapt to BC’s warmer temperatures in the south trees from the likes of the sunny state will be trialled up on the Canadian Coast. So go take a long walk around the woods, what you see is a legacy built over a millennium, and one we must protect before it becomes a museum exhibit.

1. Scientists help each other.

I was surprised that Dr. Wang’s climate modelling program named “Climate BC” had been shared with Alberta. It seems natural that we should share helpful technologies with those that want them. Maybe I was taken aback because the name “Climate BC” evokes an image of local pride. I’m used to hearing stories of institutions that are notorious for pride and competitiveness harbour their secret weapons instead of sharing them. That's not the case with the scientific community. Imagine if we treated our fellow schools, businesses, and countries like colleagues who are collaborating on a single project. That’s a world I’d like to live in, and one we will need to create to survive and thrive in the coming century. Climate change knows no borders.

Emily Kelsall