Forests are a vital component in the system of life on Earth, with almost all creatures relying on them in various ways. However, within a forest exists a hidden world with countless secrets. In honour of the international day of forests, let’s discover some of the benefits forests provide and highlight a few species of trees that are significant within Canada.
The Benefits of Forests
Forests around the world play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gases by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a process known as carbon sequestration. As stated by Peter Wohlleben in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, a single tree can ‘store up to 22 tons of carbon dioxide in their trunks, branches and root systems’ throughout its lifetime. Despite reforestation efforts, a tree’s ability to sequester carbon increases with age, and unfortunately trees are often felled long before they provide any real benefit.
Old-growth forests sequester the most carbon, however, there has been a significant decrease in these forests within Canada over the past few decades. There once stood 5.5 million hectares of old-growth forests on the southern coast of British Columbia, today 26% of these old-growth forests remain, with only 8% protected in parks and old-growth management areas. On Vancouver Island, it is estimated that only 10% of the largest old-growth trees remain. Old-growth forests are one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet. If we want to work towards reducing greenhouse gases, protecting these old-growth forests must be a priority.
Forests also play a significant role in the water cycle. After rainfall, water evaporates from the forest canopy, and water stored in trees transpires as water vapour. This vapour creates new clouds that distribute water inland in the form of rain, traveling large distances from the coast. If forests did not exist, ‘life would be possible only in a narrow band around the edge of continents; the interior of land masses would be arid and bleak’.
The intricate root systems and close proximity of trees within forests aid in preventing erosion, landslides and avalanches, and as a result, forests are often protected in areas that may be subject to these natural hazards. In addition, as water passes through a forest ecosystem, the soil filters out pollutants, before becoming runoff ending up in lakes and reservoirs. Two-thirds of Canadians rely on this surface water as their source of clean water, the majority of which filters through forested areas.
Uncovering Secrets of the Forest
We know less about life under the forest floor than we do about the depths of the ocean or the surface of the moon. ‘There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet’, so let’s explore some of the processes and organisms surrounding trees that allow forests to thrive.
Forests are classified as ‘superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies’. Individual trees of the same species within a forest are connected through their root systems to exchange nutrients and water. Aiding in this exchange is mycelium, a fungus that grows into the root hairs of a tree, spanning entire forest floors. The tree and fungi work together as partners, expanding the reach of the tree’s roots, allowing trees to exchange nutrients and absorb water at a rate much higher than if the tree were to exist independently.
Certain tree species have a special defensive compound known as phytoncides that have antibiotic properties. It is said that ‘the air in young pine forests is almost germ free’, and trees have the capability to disinfect their surroundings. It has been discovered in a laboratory that a pinch of crushed spruce or pine needles added to a drop of water can kill protozoa, a malaria-causing organism, in less than a second.
While taking a walk in the forest cannot get rid of coronavirus, spending time outdoors has proven benefits for an individual’s wellbeing. The practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, comes from Japan. The concept is to spend time in nature, taking in the forest atmosphere. Studies have shown that this practice can counter illnesses, boost the immune system, and reduce anxiety and stress. Whether it is a walk in the forest or sitting in your local park, slowing down and appreciating the beauty of nature has the potential to provide more benefits than you may think.
Canada is home to a diverse variety of tree species, making up 9% of the world’s forest area, each playing a significant role in the ecosystems they inhabit. One of the most widely known species, which holds national symbolism within Canada is the Maple tree. The Maple tree is native to Canada and grows from coast to coast. Before the leaves open up in the spring, the water pressure inside a tree is at its highest. It has been said that if you place a stethoscope against a tree at this time of year, you can hear the water moving up the trunk. This phenomenon makes the harvest of syrup from Sugar Maple trees possible, and it can only be done just as the snow is melting.
Sitka spruce, one of the ancient trees of Canada’s west coast, play a significant role within the forest ecosystem. If you look up at these old-growth trees, which can live up to 800 years of age, you will notice moss growing on their branches and in the regions where the branches fork in different directions. There is a blue-green algae existing on this moss which captures nitrogen from the air, turning it into a fertilizer that is carried down the tree’s trunk during rainfall to the forest floor, providing nutrients to the tree’s offspring and root systems below. Inside the needles and bark of a spruce tree, there are essential oils, which act like antifreeze in the winter, allowing the tree to keep its needles year-round.
There are individual trees within Canada that have gained recognition. The largest tree in Canada, known as the Cheewhat Giant, is a Western red cedar that exists protected in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island. A Sitka spruce tree near Port Renfrew, known as the San Juan Spruce, was the largest Sitka spruce tree in Canada until 2016, when a lightning strike caused the top of the tree to break off. The oldest known tree in Alberta is the Whirlpool Point Limber Pine, located near Cline river, estimated to be between 2500-3000 years old. You may live close to one of these ancient giants, but if you do decide to visit them, please be aware of the delicate ecosystems that have supported these trees for hundreds of years.
Each province within Canada has its own arboreal emblem. This link will tell you which tree is your provincial or territorial emblem. There are many ways to celebrate the international day of forests. Practicing shinrin-yoku, finding the arboreal emblem where you live, appreciating the countless benefits trees provide us, or learning more on what we can do to protect and sustain forests.
There is more to a forest, and each individual tree, than one might think, and it is ultimately a human responsibility to maintain the forests and keep our climate and environment in alignment.