When we make a mess in the kitchen, many of us reach for paper towels without sparing a thought for where those crisp white sheets originated.
If you’re in North America, some of the fiber in your paper towels (and other tissue products like toilet paper) probably started off as a tree in the boreal forest of northern Canada, one of the last big, intact forests in the world.
Boreal forests stretch across Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Northern Europe, and, together, they form a giant reservoir that stores carbon dioxide. That’s important, because that carbon would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Collectively, boreal forests lock away about 703 gigatons of carbon in woody fibers and soil. Tropical forests, by comparison, store about 375 gigatons of carbon.
These are tough times for forests, though. Because of climate change, they’re highly susceptible to wildfires, like the ones in Australia, and pest infestations. So, anything we can do to keep them intact is good.
Trevor Hesselink, director of policy and research at the Wildlands League, a Canadian conservation organization, said it’s important to weigh the value of paper products against the value of intact forests. “If you are thinking through a carbon lens, those single-use products are very short-lived,” he said.
Canada is generally seen as being good at forest management. In logged areas of the boreal forest, trees are replanted and allowed to regenerate, and the country boasts a very low official deforestation rate of just 0.02 percent (though that has been disputed by some environmental groups).
The bad news is, even if actual deforestation is low, planting a young tree to replace a mature one is not the one-for-one carbon scenario many people imagine, Mr. Hesselink said.
For a long time, scientists believed older trees stopped absorbing carbon as they aged. But recently, researchers have that found older trees continue absorbing carbon dioxide for decades or even centuries longer than originally thought, said William Moomaw, a physical chemist and lead author on five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
Leaving existing forests to grow will be more effective at mitigating climate change over the next 80 years than reforestation or planting new forests, Dr. Moomaw and his colleagues have said. A tree planted this year won’t make much of a difference in terms of carbon sequestration over the next decade, a period many scientists say is critical for climate action. “They just don’t absorb enough carbon dioxide,” Dr. Moomaw said. “They aren’t big enough.”
Furthermore, boreal forests support a diverse array of plant and animal species. They’re also central to life for hundreds of indigenous groups.
There is some debate over the degree to which pulp and paper products, like the disposable towels in your kitchen, drive logging activity in the boreal forest.
Tony Lemprière, senior manager of climate change policy in the Canadian Forest Service, pointed out that industry can use waste from timber production to make paper products. But the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 44 percent of the pulp produced in Ontario comes from whole trees rather than byproduct.
Regardless, it’s easy to reduce the amount of single-use paper products you buy.
Reusable cloth towels are a great alternative, said Shelley Vinyard, who heads the boreal forest program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. For those moments when you really do need a paper towel, she recommends one made of recycled content. The council’s consumer guide has recommendations for paper towels, toilet paper and facial tissues.
We really need to be thinking about forests in a different way at this “critical junction,” Mr. Hesselink said. Instead of soaking up spilled milk, those trees can help us tackle a much larger mess.
Intense fires have been burning across southeastern Australia for months, encroaching on major cities, threatening popular tourist destinations and scorching forests that are home to millions of animals.
The state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, the country’s largest city, is experiencing its worst fire season in at least 20 years. More than 12 million acres of land have burned across the state since September, according to the Rural Fire Service, an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Also hard-hit has been the state of Victoria.
This year’s fire season started early and has been disastrous, experts said, even for a country accustomed to burning. Wildfires have ravaged areas much closer to the densely populated southeast coast than in previous years.
The fires have been fueled by years of drought, record-breaking temperatures and strong winds.
Government records made public shortly after the New Year confirmed that 2019 was the country’s hottest and driest year on record. The map above, based on data from the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology, shows record-low rainfall across large swaths of southeastern Australia over the past three years.
Crystal A. Kolden, a wildfire scientist at the University of Idaho, said those conditions were “fully consistent” with the extremes expected in the era of global warming. In our interactive feature tracking the fires, she called the blazes both “a harbinger of what is to come” and a signal that we’re already feeling some of the effects of climate change.
You might have seen my article this week about marine labs and climate change. It’s a story three years in the making.
In January 2017, I was in Louisiana to investigate the effects of climate change on the Gulf Coast. It’s a topic I’ve been writing about for nearly 15 years. (I like to joke that some of my colleagues have been to all 50 states; I’ve been to one state 50 times.)
At a public meeting sponsored by the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, I met Alex Kolker, a researcher who studies coastal land loss. He invited me to visit him at his lab at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium down in Cocodrie, a speck of a place at the end of Louisiana State Highway 56, where spiffy vacation homes and battered trailers perch on pillars that elevate them 12 feet or more above the ground to get through hurricane flooding. I had some flexibility in my schedule, so I drove down the next day.
When I got there, the building was dark. I made my way up to the second floor and found Dr. Kolker’s office. He explained that the power had been flickering for days and, with a boom, had just gone out. It was inconvenient, but with a hazardous edge: computers and equipment that run experiments are endangered by blackouts.
We walked out to the parking lot, where workers had removed an access panel in the ground and were looking down into a junction box with electrical lines running through it. The junction box was full of water.
The rising waters, a hallmark of climate change, had done their work. And that sounded like the kernel of a story to me: a science facility built like a fortress against hurricanes was under attacked from climate change on a separate front.
After my visit, I went back to work on a major project on climate change and South Louisiana with my colleague Kevin Sack and journalists from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Dr. Kolker and his lab were not a part of that project, but I held on to my precious nugget of a story.
A few months ago, he got back in touch and asked whether I’d be interested in heading back down to his lab. I was, and I did. You can read the article here, complete with video of a swarm of fiddler crabs.
If climate change is stopping the people who study climate change from doing their work, well, that’s a problem for us all.