Shortages of tree seeds worsened by drought and wildfires

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Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that a shortage of tree seed is jeopardizing reforestation efforts in the American West after so many bad wildfire seasons in a row? If so, what can everyday people do to help?

—Helen K., Barre, Vermont

Tree seed shortages, compounded by decades of drought and recent extreme wildfire seasons, mean the future of our forests could be in jeopardy. Credit: Yamanaka Tamaki, FlickrCC.

Wildfires have been a mainstay in the news lately, and in the United States and around the world, we are seeing more intense fires than ever before. With hotter, drier conditions brought on by climate change, scientists predict a 33% increase in wildfires by 2050 and a 57% increase by the end of the century. The western United States is experiencing the worst drought on record in the past 1,200 years, bringing wildfires earlier and more often.

As a result, public interest in reforestation efforts has skyrocketed. If a deforested area is left unattended, the wrong tree species could grow back, disrupting the ecosystem. Trees use carbon dioxide (CO2) as they grow, so they are essential tools in the fight against climate change, functioning as what is known as a ‘carbon sink’ by capturing and ‘sequestering’ carbon . Not only is there bipartisan support for more tree plantings, but corporations are also showing interest in mass tree plantings to sequester carbon to offset pollution. Companies are willing to invest not only in planting trees, but also in the long-term survival of trees once planted.

Increasing investment in tree planting and caring for trees as they mature is a big step forward for ecological restoration and carbon sequestration, but there is a flaw in this plan: it there is a shortage of seeds. According to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MRN), nurseries will have to more than double their production of seedlings to meet the current demand for trees. Although it may seem like a simple solution, as the climate changes, the behavior of seed-producing trees also changes.

Seed scarcity is linked to temperature increases and drought conditions caused by climate change. In periods of prolonged drought, trees respond by stopping seed production. Also, especially at lower elevations, the warmer weather brings more insects that eat away the remaining viable seeds. Seed harvesting is a delicate process; To ensure the long-term success of a tree, the seeds that are collected must come from the same geographic region as well as the same elevation that you plan to plant the tree. Wildfires are another piece of this puzzle: hotter, drier conditions exacerbate the frequency and severity of wildfires, reducing the number of seed-bearing trees in the ecosystem. This, in turn, puts more emphasis on nurseries to provide not only seeds, but also the trees themselves.

Even if you don’t have the knowledge to harvest seeds yourself, you can be part of the solution! Increasing seedling production is an expensive task, and donating to organizations like the National Forest Foundation or The Arbor Day Foundation can be invaluable in supporting reforestation. Volunteering with the US Forest Service is another way to make a difference.

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