Trees, leaf friends, big ol’ broccoli bois, whatever you call them, you’re probably aware that they’re pretty darn important. But why exactly? What happens when you plant a tree?
I’ve always wanted to play ‘Bill Nye The Science Guy’ and now’s my chance.
Turns out that what’s going on when a tree starts a growin’ isn’t understood super well, so when We Are Explorers decided to partner with Keep It Cool to plant 6,000 of the things, I knew it was my time to shine.
Jump aboard my Magic School Bus, it’s learnin’ time.
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Photosynthesis, It’s Lit
Photosynthesis looks like this:
– Trees take in carbon dioxide from the air, and water (generally from the ground through their roots)
– They then use the energy of sunlight to turn the mix into sugar and oxygen
– The oxygen is released back into the air while the sugars become part of the tree
What most people don’t realise though, is that most of the sugar (glucose) that a plant creates from a mix of carbon dioxide and water isn’t used right away by plants for energy. Unlike humans, who burn sugar right away in a hyperactive burst, plants use a process called ‘dehydration synthesis’ to combine the glucose into cellulose (a plant structural material) and starch (for energy storage).
It looks a bit like this:
On a chemical level, the carbon atoms are being pulled out of the air. Carbon dioxide (or CO2) is a carbon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms. Plants use photosynthesis to incorporate that carbon atom (C) into their makeup, while releasing the oxygen (O2) for us to breathe. Yum!
Still a bit confused? This video should help!
So Plants Are, Air?
Yeah! Kinda! Air is roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 0.04% carbon dioxide.
What? 0.04% CO2? That’s only 400 parts per million (ppm), doesn’t sound like much right? But it is! Dr Karl explains why:
If you’ve watched David Attenborough’s new film, A Life on Our Planet, you’ll know that less than 100 years ago CO2 levels were only 300ppm, and that most of that increase has happened in our very recent history.
But what’s this have to do with trees?
Well, there’s a lot of air out there, and it turns out that trees are just big ol’ carbon sinks. Mature trees can sequester (or ‘draw down’) 22kg of carbon each year, and as we know, there’s a dual benefit to this. Trees split the two oxygen atoms off of the carbon atom and give them back to us fresh, clean, and ready to breathe.
And they’re ruthlessly efficient at it too. In the same way that you might climb over a mountain fuelled by a few cookies, the wonders of biology mean that trees are one of the most cost-effective ways to yoink carbon out of the atmosphere.
But the benefits of planting trees go far past carbon drawdown.
The (Re)Wild Thing
We’ve set out to plant 6,000 trees in the Snowies, which is a mighty huge task, especially when you factor in things like ‘making sure they all survive’ and ‘doing anything in Australia is expensive’.
We’re not kidding ourselves, the world’s gonna have to plant a helluva lot more trees if it wants to tackle climate change for good, but that’s precisely why we partnered with Keep It Cool to work on a tree-planting project right here in Australia. The benefits of planting trees go well beyond simply storing carbon.
‘We’re trying to plant a mix of species that will add to the local ecology and not just create a new ecology.
– Lucas Wilkinson, Keep It Cool Founder
Trees help to rewild and protect the landscape, and the Snowy Mountains is a landscape worth protecting. We’ll be planting them ourselves, from a selection of native species that contribute to the local ecology. As Keep It Cool Founder Lucas Wilkinson says, ‘the co-benefits of planting trees include the creation of habitat for native wildlife and beautification of the natural environment.’
The resulting forests (which we’ll be sure to check on as they grow), will provide habitat for native animals and rejuvenate the soil of cleared agricultural areas.
If you join our crowdfunding campaign we’ll even invite you to come and plant some trees yourself! Just make sure you add on two trees to cover your trip to the Snowies.
Every $5 donation means a native, locally-sourced tree will be planted in the Snowy Mountains region and meticulously cared for to be given the best chance of survival.
Photos by @boenferguson