Researchers develop plant-based
water filtration system

by Christopher Horn

One billion people across the world don’t have access to clean drinking water, and waterborne disease kills millions of people, notably children, each year.

A researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is developing a potentially game-changing water filtration system from an unlikely source: trees.

Dr. Rohit Karnik, a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, is using sapwood from coniferous trees — mainly pine — to remove fatal pathogens from water. Sapwood, scientifically known as xylem, is the outer layer of plant tissue that carries water upward from a tree’s roots towards its canopy.

Credit: thisisexcellent/Flickr.

Current water-treatment techniques are rather inefficient for small towns and villages, ranging from chlorine treatment that is better used for large-scale decontamination to boiling water, which requires the use of fuel. Additionally, some procedures don’t completely remove pathogens, limiting their overall effectiveness.

The plant-based alternative that Dr. Karnik and his team are developing can remove 99.9 percent of bacteria from water by simulating a tree’s natural pressure-driven filtration process. A piece of sapwood roughly 3 cm3 can filter several liters of water per day, which can provide clean water for one person. Sapwood from conifers is also an inexpensive, biodegradable and accessible resource, making it a viable alternative to other eco-friendly filtration techniques such as ceramic filters or bio-sand systems.

One drawback to xylem filtration is the need for a constant water source, something that Karnik says could be resolved with more research. Further experimentation could also identify sources of xylem from plants other than conifers, as many regions plagued by water quality issues cannot support coniferous trees.

Trees and Weatherization

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

The end of winter doesn’t officially come until March 21, and as Winter Storm Wiley proved in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, cold temperatures and heavy snowfall can still trigger tree-related problems and fixes. This winter’s major snow events, high winds and cold temperatures have many people turning their attention to “weatherizing” their homes from the elements.

Windbreak trees at Methwold Common. Rows of trees, usually poplars, are common features on the Fens. They act as windbreaks, a type of "greening."

Windbreak trees at Methwold Common.Rows of trees, usually poplars, are common features on the Fens. They act as windbreaks, Windbreak trees at Methwold Common. Rows of trees, usually poplars, are common features on the Fens. They act as windbreaks, a type of “greening.” Credit Bob Jones/Wikimedia

Given rising heating costs, increasing home efficiency is both the cheapest and most sustainable means of doing so. An eco-friendly, low-cost way to weatherize your property is to plant a windbreak of trees around your home or, as mentioned in a previous blog post, employ a green roof of growing plants.

The different forms of insulating one’s home with plants are, fittingly, collectively referred to as “greening,” and can include efforts to reduce one’s ecological footprint, such as using rain gardens to reduce water runoff during storms or planting native species to reduce the amount of maintenance needed.

Planting trees that provide shade in summer and break cold winter winds equalizes year-round temperatures within homes, which reduces heating and cooling costs. In turn, when energy consumption goes down, less fuel is burned and carbon emissions are reduced.

American Forests has worked in certain areas to replant tree windbreaks that help reduce weather extremes. While all tree planting efforts have beneficial effects on global climate, planting tree windbreaks is a great way to create a positive feedback loop combating climate change.

It’s Back! Big Tree Madness 2014

by Susan Laszewski

Big Tree Madness Game 1It’s back, bigger and madder than ever! Big Tree Madness 2014 kicks off today, giving visitors to American Forests’ Facebook page the chance to vote for which national champion tree should be this year’s Ultimate Big Tree.

Today’s match-up, the first of the Sweet Sixteen, is between Connecticut’s “Unbelievable” Umbrella Magnolia and Virginia’s Willow “WOW!” Oak. Both trees come with an abundance of history:

The umbrella magnolia, known as the “Saltonstall Magnolia,” is the largest in a grove that was planted by the Yale School of Forestry before 1950, possibly in the 1920s or 1930s, as part of their experimentation with different species. Today, the area is protected as part of a reservoir watershed, and has grown into a forest.

The willow oak has traded national champion status back and forth another willow oak in Chesapeake. Both trees were measured in 2013, and this tree was found to be larger. It’s located within walking distance of the historic Eastville Courthouse, home of the oldest continuous court records in the nation. And as the tree is not currently endangered by building projects or highway changes, we hope it will continue to accrue history for many more years.

So, which of these incredible trees should go on to the Elite Eight for a chance to go all the way and become this year’s Ultimate Big Tree? It’s up to you. Visit our Facebook page to vote. Voting closes on the match at 10:00 a.m. on March 18th. But the fun doesn’t end then. Tune in for Game 2 to cast your vote between national champions from Utah and Arizona.

Get the full scoop on Big Tree Madness rules and guidelines at

Keeping Wildlife and People SAFE

by American Forests

By Alexandra Bower

An elk takes shelter from the blistering heat in the shade at Yellowstone National Park

An elk takes shelter from the blistering heat in the shade at Yellowstone National Park. Credit: shandysnaps/Flickr

With over 7 billion people living on this earth, it’s little wonder we would have a negative effect on our environment. Climate change is one of these negative effects that we have exacerbated by emitting high levels of carbon into the atmosphere daily, through deforestation and by altering our land-uses. In recent years, the damaging consequences of climate change have become increasingly apparent and unavoidable. Climate change has played a  part in extreme weather by triggering rising sea levels and overheating the ocean temperatures, making our communities vulnerable to the powerful storms that inevitably hit our coasts. This impact of climate change has been costly: Hurricane Katrina was one of the deadliest and priciest storms to date, taking almost 2,000 lives and causing over $100 billion in damages, and Hurricane Sandy caused similar damage along the Northeast. Climate change doesn’t just contribute to storms — droughts in other regions caused ravaging wildfires to destroy national forests and resources, homes and lives.

So, what can you do to help? Well, in response to these disasters, Senators Whitehouse and Baucus introduced the Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment, or the SAFE Act (S. 1202) in 2013 to respond to “ongoing and expected impacts of extreme weather and climate change by protecting, restoring and conserving the natural resources of the United States.” On February 25, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Oversight Subcommittee met to discuss ways to protect and preserve the nation’s lands and wildlife from climate change and hear testimonies of representatives from conservation nonprofit and activist organizations, government agencies, the White House and various scientific institutions.

Noah Matson, vice president for climate adaption at Defenders of Wildlife, testified, specifically highlighting the impacts of climate change on species, including changes in ocean circulation patterns, longer droughts and disruptions to the timing and patterns of seasonal cycles and migrations. He was adamant about resources needing to be reallocated for fish and wildlife protection, vigorous policy needing to be undertaken for mitigation and adaption efforts and the need for proper funding for the most important and sensitive regions and programs affected by a changing climate. He supported the SAFE Act because of its policies that prevent us from being “blindsided” by climate change in the future.

Christopher Brown, President of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen’s Association also testified, stating that the SAFE Act provides a “new set of eyes on the problem and another tool in the tool box” and could be the transition to ecosystem based management for fish and wildlife.

The SAFE Act protects our environment, resources and lives from the threat of storms intensifying due to the ongoing threat of climate change, while maximizing government efficiency and reducing excessive spending.

American Forests supports Whitehouse and Baucus’s efforts to pass the SAFE Act, and in the process, combat climate change and its effects on our citizens, communities and forests.  Please send a letter to your senators urging them to support the SAFE Act, too.

Badger Culls Deemed Ineffective

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

In a recent analysis issued by Britain’s Independent Expert Panel, badger culls recently conducted in the Gloucestershire and Somerset regions were deemed ineffective and inhumane. Badgers had been deemed possible carriers of bovine tuberculosis, and the culls were conducted in order to prevent the disease’s spread to local cattle. Farming groups hired contracted hunters to conduct the shootings. The IEP analysts found that between six and 18 percent of the badgers killed took longer than five minutes to die, and therefore the culls were deemed inhumane, failing the IEP standard of no more than five percent of badgers dying over so long a period.

Furthermore, the number of badgers killed was not enough to meet the cull’s target goal of eradicating 70 percent of the badger population; only 58 percent of Somerset’s badgers, and 30 percent of the Gloucestershire badger populations were culled according to calculations provided by those conducting the cull. However, the IEP’s calculations suggest an even lower amount. A series of similar trial culls conducted in the 1990’s showed that if less than 70% of the population was culled, the spread of bovine tuberculosis could worsen as wounded or distressed animals would flee the area, spreading the disease even further.
An adult badger in its den.
Originally, the IEP was formed under the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — in order to aid Gloucestershire and Somerset in evaluating the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of trial environmental programs. As the trial badger culls were deemed ineffective, as well as cost prohibitive at more than $12 million, a broader nationwide cull will not be put into effect. Should a more closely monitored program be implemented in the future, the panel suggested that the hired hunters be more closely observed, to avoid such variation in effectiveness.

Lemurs and Ecotourism

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

A lemur and her twin babies

A lemur and her twin babies. Credit: sannse/Wikimedia Commons

Lemurs are one of the most endangered groups of primates — even vertebrates — in the world, with over 90 percent of lemur subspecies listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN. There are 101 species of lemur, found only in Madagascar, further divided into 15 genera and five families. The species are especially threatened by habitat loss from illegal logging and the illegal bushmeat trade, which have both been increasing after a political coup in 2009 left the current government with inadequate resources or power to devote to forest conservation. There may even be, as of yet, an undiscovered species hidden in Madagascar’s forests.

Recently, a team of conservationist researchers, in a proposal published in Science magazine, suggested that the best chance of saving critically endangered lemurs is through ecotourism and increased conservation efforts. The research team outlined a roughly $7.6 million plan to set up ecotourism and conservation efforts such as tour guide training and organizational oversight of forested areas. The team of researchers go on to state that the funds brought in by ecotourism in Madagascar’s unique forests will aid rural communities that would otherwise turn to illegal logging to earn money, noting similarly successful programs observing mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. However, the researchers pointed out that an increase in tourism in the area might have ecological consequences as well. In 2008, only eight tourists came to the area, while in 2011 there were 208, a number which will only rise given a concrete program.  Ultimately, the researchers noted that the only thing standing between them and implementing their conservation plan is a lack of funding.

American Forests has worked in many high biodiversity areas, with several projects in Kenya, as well as a series of reforestation efforts in Texas, with the potential for ecotourism. We support community based efforts, such as the Madagascar proposal, which aid both forest and biodiversity preservation.

Climate Change and Crime

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

While the famed rule of thumb in statistics is that “correlation does not imply causation,” a recent article published in the LA Times suggests some very interesting correlations, citing a study in this week’s issue of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management conducted by Matthew Ranson, a researcher from Cambridge, Massachusetts. The study is based upon a noted statistic from the FBI that crime rates and warmer weather have a positive correlation, possibly due to the fact that cold weather deters activity, while warm weather encourages people to spend more time outside. Based on this, the study suggests that “between 2010 and 2099, climate change can be expected to cause an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape, 1.2 million aggravated assaults, 2.3 million simple assaults, 260,000 robberies, 1.3 million burglaries, 2.2 million cases of larceny and 580,000 cases of vehicle theft.” The cost of these crimes alone is estimated to be between $38 and $115 billion, which includes the need for an “immediate and permanent” four percent increase in the United States’ police force. The study draws upon analyzed data from the FBI, covering three decades and 891,000 month-by-month observations of crime patterns from individual countries. The study also draws upon the National Climatic Data Center’s projections of future temperature rises related to climate change, based on 15 models of global weather.

While none of these statistical projections are certain, they raise an important point: the consequences of climate change will be much farther-reaching than a simple spike in temperature, change in weather patterns or even a loss of crops and water. The sociological effects of these changes will also be far-reaching and as difficult to predict as those in global weather.

American Forests has done much to combat climate change as a whole, with replanting efforts across the globe. Any number of our Global ReLeaf programs involving the replanting of trees will also involve carbon sequestration, helping combat emissions and climate change.

A dog on a hot day

A dog on a hot day; Fae/wikimedia

Stopping Deforestation, Helping Business

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

A recent interview published in E&E News suggests that practices which prevent deforestation may actually be good for business. Unilever, an international umbrella corporation headquartered in London, recently joined the 2013 Commitment to Development “Ideas in Action.” CEO Paul Polman, in the same E&E News interview from February 12, argues that such sustainable practices are in fact beneficial for both the environment and the economy, as destruction of global forests is irreversible, and will cause harvests to crash, causing catastrophic losses for both the economy and the environment. As the third largest consumer goods multinational and one of the oldest in the world, this commitment carries no small weight. Parent company behind such U.S. brands as Dove and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever has already begun using entirely sustainable palm oil. As consumer of three percent of global palm oil, this is no small feat. This may well set a business trend throughout the consumer goods sector worldwide, and Unilever has already been credited with pressuring Wilmar International, controller of roughly 45 percent of the global palm oil market, into adopting a no-deforestation policy in areas with a “large conservation value.” Wilmar has similarly pledged to end deforestation worldwide.

Deforestation from an Indonesian palm oil plantation

The last batch of sawnwood from the peat forest in Indragiri Hulu, Riau Province, Indonesia. Deforestation for oil palm plantation. Wakx/Flickr, aidenvironment

Globally, the growth of palm oil plantations has devastating impacts for tropical forests, particularly in Southeast Asia and Indonesia. Roughly 85 percent of global palm oil is harvested in this area, as palm trees producing the oil grow well in tropical climates; however, this has caused massive rainforest deforestation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service reports an eightfold increase in plantation size in Indonesia alone and states that roughly 10 percent of worldwide carbon emissions are due to deforestation. Palm oil itself is used for a massive range of purposes, from biodiesel and soap manufacture, to food filler and cooking oil.

American Forests supports several replanting efforts in Southeast Asia and Indonesia, such as the Orangutan Habitat Restoration and Protection in the Dolok Sibual Buali Nature Reserve and the Forests for the Future program.


A Stitch in Time

by Susan Laszewski
Flooding in Iowa City.

Flooding in Iowa City. Credit: Daniel McDermott

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? That saying resonates with many of us; we’re a species that likes to procrastinate. But there may be more wisdom in the old adage, “a stitch in time saves nine.”

It might seem like common sense that prevention is better than trying to fix problems after they happen, but a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has quantified just how much better it can be when it comes to flooding — particularly the increased flooding we can expect as sea levels continue to rise.

The researchers found that it’s more cost effective for most coastal area economies to use flood prevention strategies — including green strategies like buffer islands — than it is to repair damages after a flood. “The global costs of protecting the coast with dikes are significant with annual investment and maintenance costs of U.S. $12–71 billion in 2100, but much smaller than the global cost of avoided damages,” which vary by area. Climate change-fueled sea level rise is coming, they say, and we must adapt, not wait and see where the cards fall. And there is a lot at stake here. It is estimated that as many as 1 billion people currently live in at-risk areas.

The study addresses both grey and green flood prevention infrastructure — grey such as levees and green such as coastal forests and wetlands. Last year, another report showed us just how many Americans these coastal buffers are protecting. Taken together, these studies say a lot about the benefits and potential benefits of our hardworking coastal buffers. It’s why many of our American Forests Global ReLeaf projects are working to protect buffers like wetlands and mangroves.

Reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect

by American Forests

By John-Miguel Dalbey

Green Roof in Ontario

Green Roof in Ontario – Photo Credit sookie/Flickr

The urban heat island effect, in which darkly colored construction materials such as asphalt and tar shingles absorb heat and make their urban surroundings warmer, has been well documented for years. However, a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that refitting buildings with white-painted roofs or green roofs (those with planted trees) can negate this effect. This stands to reason, as white or green colors absorb less heat energy than darker colored materials. Furthermore, green roofing could even go so far as to sequester carbon and reduce warming. This effect is furthered by plants’ process of evapotranspiration, in which plants absorb water in the soil through their roots, and release it through their leaves, adding moisture to the surrounding air. In a city, this increased moisture reduces ambient heat, as water vapor can absorb large amounts of heat energy. Green roofing strategies will also combat warming indirectly, as their direct effects on city temperatures will reduce air conditioning and heating usage. However, the study notes that white roofing only increased winter cooling, as white paint does not insulate as well as plant material and soil, leading to an increase in heating usage.

This study points out that the beneficial effects of green or white roofing may vary between different areas. According to E&E News,Cool roofs in Northern California had a small impact on rainfall compared to Arizona, while other parts of the country faced stronger effects.” This is most likely due to variances in regional weather patterns and ambient heat. But, in total, both green and white roofing are viable, easily implemented means of combating rising city temperatures. Green roofs in particular seem to be a more beneficial solution, as they provide insulation while absorbing carbon and are more aesthetically pleasing.

To learn more about the benefits of green infrastructure like green roofs, check out our book, “Urban Forests Case Studies: Challenges, Potential and Success in a Dozen Cities.”