Trees Are Climate Change, Carbon Storage Heroes

Mature trees like this Elm can sequester more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide in a single year. Photo by USDA Forest Service

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, once wrote, “I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war.”

If climate change is a battle for Earth’s survival, then trees will be a vital army holding the line. When Tolkien imagined trees marching to war, he couldn’t have foreseen how relevant those words would one day be.

Trees are a bastion against climate change.

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Research in Progress – Combating Climate Change through Sustainable Wood Products

Copyright atelierjones. Used by permission.

Like a raging forest fire, climate change has many fronts. And it won’t be fixed by a singular solution. Heroic systemic changes throughout all sectors are needed in order to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Cars, factory smokestacks, and coal are primary sources that easily come to mind when thinking about GHGs.

But turning a key on a brand-new home, whether apartment or single family? Could that really account for nearly a quarter of CO2 emissions?

A 2018 study titled, “Carbon Emission of Global Construction Sector,” found that global construction in 2009 produced 23% of CO2 emissions. That is 5.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide. And the hunger for new construction has only increased in the years since.

However, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researchers are on the frontlines of sustainable solutions.

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Termites of the Frozen Tundra: How Do They Survive?

One look at our snowy landscape in Wisconsin and it would be easy to assume termites couldn’t survive here. These wood-destroying critters are a common concern for people living in warmer climates, but amazingly, certain species of subterranean termites have been introduced and become established in the northern United States and Canada, as well.

map for termite distribution

Simplified map showing distribution of eastern subterranean termites along its northern range. (Only selected populations are shown to highlight major zones of activity.)

Termites’ ability to adapt to a colder climate was studied in the 1970s and 1980s by Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researcher Glenn Esenther. Today, FPL entomologist Rachel Arango is still fascinated by the phenomenon.

“Insects are poikilothermic, which basically means that body temperature is determined by the external environment,” explains Arango. “So, temperature is a major factor in species distribution.”

Figuring out how certain populations of subterranean termites can tolerate lower temperatures is important for predicting the potential spread and economic impact of termites, as they are already responsible for billions of dollars in damage to structures annually in North America.

Arango and her termite team will directly compare northern and southern populations of eastern subterranean termites in hopes of better understanding how some are able to survive in colder regions. Concurrent tests between Wisconsin and Mississippi populations will include studying basic differences in cold tolerance, behavioral investigations, and research into genetic differences.

“We hope to identify some of the physiological changes that might increase cold tolerance,” says Arango.

Arango expects the research will be beneficial not only for understanding termites, but for broader research into invasive species, as well, particularly as global climate conditions change.

Results are expected by May 2019. For more details on the study, see this Research in Progress report.

Watch This: USDA Secretary Discusses Climate Change, Sustainability

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress (CAP) to discuss climate change and sustainability practices.

Vilsack and fellow panelists detailed efforts by the USDA and other organizations to increase sustainable crop and animal production and decrease greenhouse gas emissions and food waste on a domestic, as well as international, scale. He also reviewed recent innovations in sustainable building construction across the United States and around the globe.

Vilsack spoke about goals like reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030 and planting 100,000 trees throughout urban areas in the coming years. The USDA expects the incorporation of more trees in these areas will lead to lower crime rates and energy costs and increased property value.

The Secretary focused on recent accomplishments in green building practices through the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other forest products. According to Vilsack, construction of CLT buildings such as the high rises in New York City and Portland, Oregon, provide timber industries opportunities for growth.

CLT has been studied here at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) from many angles, including fire performance, possibilities for use in earthquake-prone regions, and the effects of moisture on CLT.

FPL researchers also played a role in the development of the U.S. CLT Handbook, which provides technical information for the design, construction, and implementation of CLT systems and illustrates applications adapted to current codes and standards.

“[CLT] is going to change the face and appearance of landscapes across the U.S.,” Vilsack said. “It’s going to create jobs in rural areas, and it’s helping to fuel, already, the decline in unemployment in rural areas.”

Vilsack discussed the benefits of building with CLT with Weyerhaeuser Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Timothy Punke.

Punke said in an attempt to “keep working forests as forests”, it’s important to make sure there is a market for forest products. In this way, sustainable building construction can help conserve forests.

Building with wood also uses less energy.  According to Punke, wood creates 26 percent less greenhouse gases than steel and 31percent less emissions than concrete.  Construction with wood also stores carbon in the wood, thus continuing the  cycle that keeps forests breathing. Punke mentioned the introduction of the Timber Innovation Act, which was proposed to accelerate research and development of buildings made of wood.

Other topics Vilsack discussed include renewable energy conservation efforts, drought adaptation strategies, and sustainable production of animal feed.  To learn more about what was discussed at the panel, see it for yourself:

Blog post by Francesca Yracheta