staff, April 24, 2015

It?s National Arbor Day, and people across the country are taking time to acknowledge the importance of trees and forests. However, the University of Maryland celebrated the holiday a bit early this year for a couple of reasons.

First, the state?s official Arbor Day is always designated as the first Wednesday in April (also the first day of the month this year).

The second reason was that Maryland was among a select few institutions recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation?s Tree Campus USA program for its commitment to urban forest management and engaging staff and students in conservation goals in 2014. To commemorate that achievement, a willow oak tree was planted on the university's McKeldin Mall on April 2.

Maryland_trees2The school achieved that honor by meeting all of Tree Campus USA?s five standards. Those include maintaining a tree advisory committee, a campus tree-care plan, an annual budget for maintaining that plan, an Arbor Day observance and student service-learning project.

But the university?s advocacy for trees extends beyond College Park. One of the best examples of that is the ongoing research being conducted by University of Maryland professor Safa Motesharrei and his colleagues. Their recent paper, published in Nature Communications, argues that global deforestation is having a negative impact on climate change and agriculture.

Previous deforestation studies focused on the biophysical effects of forests by way of climate models. While the goal of Motesharrei?s research is the same - examining the biophysical effects of forestry on climate - it?s notably different in that the data is coming from satellite tracking. The satellite results show dramatic temperature swings as a result of clearing forests.

?The Earth is losing roughly 3 percent of its forest coverage a year, [an area] roughly the size of West Virginia,? Motesharrei said.

According to that research, clearing swaths of trees can alter the temperature of a region, which may mean more rain or snow in some cases, and less in others. Depending on the crop, a fluctuation in precipitation could ultimately lead to a much lower yield.

An illustration of that can be found in California, which produces 82 percent of the world?s almonds. Historically, the water tables in that state have been renewed by melting snow from the previous winter. However, abnormally warm winters in the Sierra and Rocky Mountain ranges over the past four years have meant less snow, and the water tables aren?t being replenished.

Both public and private entities are resorting to a backup supply of groundwater. As a result, state-mandated restrictions are now in place for cities and towns. And though commercial agriculture is exempt from those restrictions, the water isn?t free, and almond trees consume a vast amount of the now-scarce resource.

Since almonds are not an annual crop but rather a permanent one, depriving these trees of water would negate the investment of time and money. (It takes three years for an almond tree to produce nuts after it?s been planted.) Consequently, many farmers have uprooted several of their trees because they can?t afford to water them. Fewer almond trees mean lower yields, and lower yields mean higher prices.

Problems like California?s can be addressed in a proactive way by raising awareness of land- and forest-management principles among government and private-sector stakeholders before it?s too late, Motesharrei said.

[btn-post-package]Beyond that, he hopes the public?s understanding of the connection between deforestation, climate change and agriculture will positively impact the ongoing discussion surrounding this topic. Acquiring a basic understanding of those interconnections will not only aid in stewardship for the environment and maintain the balance needed to combat climate change, but also help sustain commercial agricultural production - providing winning outcomes for all involved.

?We need to think about connections in a holistic way,? Motesharrei said. ?Making the right decision is more cost-effective to deal with today than down the road.?

?We?re trying to help everyone,? he added.

By Lyletta Robinson