The Drunk Trees of Climate Change
Many trees found in northern climates are suffering what looks like too much time spent with the wine glass. Although at first glance, these “drunken trees” may appear innocuous, they are a grave indicator of the rapidly changing climate resulting from human mechanisms.
There are many reasons in northern climates for trees to be tilted vertically. Some of these include natural processes such as frost heaving, earthflows, and earthquakes. However, many trees are now falling victim to drunkenness through the melting of the earth’s permafrost. This melting affects not only the trees but also entire ecosystems and human landscapes.
What exactly is permafrost?
According to National Park Service scientists, permafrost is below ground soil or rock that has remained frozen for at least two consecutive years. Essentially, it’s an ice sheet or wedge below ground. This permafrost is characteristic in arctic tundra and sub-arctic boreal forests of Alaska, Canada, Siberia, and Nordic countries.
Permafrost has been around for over 1.8 million years since the Pleistocene epoch. With it being frozen year-round, only certain species of plants that can adapt to having a small root system can grow in these climates. Black spruce trees are a great example of vegetation without a deep root system that has been able to dominate in these boreal environments.
As our climate begins to warm, the permafrost below melts. As it melts, the ground starts to slope down in a slump. That slump or depression in the soil is scientifically known as a thermokarst. The thermokarst undercuts the tree’s root system and causes it to lean over in an appeared drunken stupor. If melting is severe enough, entire trees topple over.
A few trees can adapt and grow vertically, but this thermokarst displacement causes many trees to die eventually. Permafrost is melting at a currently unprecedented rate. Some scientists even predict that 40% of the permafrost will be gone by the end of the century. A reduction in permafrost will result in a changing ecosystem.
What else is at stake?
With thawing permafrost, we also put ourselves at an even higher risk of exacerbating the effects of climate change. As the permafrost thaws, it releases more carbon and other greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. More carbon in the atmosphere further drives the effects of climate change through global warming.
Research by some scientists for an article in the scientific journal Nature suggests that permafrost thaw releases carbon on the same scale as current deforestation rates. Scientists in the research gave a stark warning:
Our collective estimate is that carbon will be released more quickly than models suggest, and at levels that are cause for serious concern.
Melting permafrost not only speeds up our current rates of anthropogenic climate change but also affects those who call the northern landscape their home. Slumping of the land through thermokarst causes a drastic shift in lake and river hydrology, and has already drained many water bodies in arctic regions. When water hydrology changes, more sediment is found in the water. Warmer temperatures are also activating dormant pathogens in the water — killing caribou, muskox, and birds.
People and cultures are also affected by melting permafrost. Northern villages and infrastructure are consistently being damaged from landscapes sinking into the ground. The Alaskan village of Newtok had to relocate the entire town due to unstable ground beneath caused by a changing climate. Other arctic and sub-arctic communities face the same issues, often with not enough funding for entire relocation projects.
The melting of permafrost affects people, wildlife, and entire landscapes. The tilt from a drunken tree is just one clear indication of how rapidly a changing climate is transmuting earth. Clear measures and action will be needed if we want to save the ethereal landscape of the boreal and arctic ecosystems.
If you saw your friend was a little too drunk to drive home, you’d do the right thing and offer him/her a ride or an Uber. Let’s keep that “do the right thing” mentality when it comes to reducing these drunken forests and the effects of anthropogenic climate change as a whole.