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Trees Were the Biggest Climate Story of 2023

Maybe in 2024, we can give them a break.

Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Humans have a natural inclination toward trees, and to telling stories about them. Norse mythology tells the story of Yggrasil, the world tree, upon which all the realms sit. The Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, and its descendant has become a major pilgrimage site. Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning book The Overstory — itself structured in sections named after the parts of a tree — is filled with people who plant, live in, and commune with megaflora.

This year we at Heatmap heard and told stories about trees, too, and if there’s one overarching theme it’s this: Trees, like the world around them, are changing. Early in the year, researchers at the Ohio State University released a study showing that forest growing season in the Eastern U.S. had increased by a month as global temperatures rose, which is a remarkable shift over a relatively small period of time. Trees operate on timescales of decades and centuries; their growth patterns changing so dramatically is a sign of great disruption.

We saw other disruptions, as well — as my colleague Jeva Lange wrote in October, fall colors are getting weird. Peak leaf-peeping season in New England, which was once reliably awash in reds, oranges, and yellows come early October, is suddenly unpredictable. Out west, meanwhile, rain in states like Utah — Utah! — brought some much-needed drought relief to trees, and they responded by exploding with fall foliage.

Further down the east coast, in Virginia, another fall activity felt the effects of climate change: apple-picking. Drought hit the apple trees in the region hard, leaving orchards in the country’s sixth-biggest producer of apples with sad, shrunken fruits that weren’t even worth the effort to pick. When my friends plucked one off a tree out of curiosity, they found it to be chalky and tasteless.

The West wasn’t entirely unscathed, either. Last week, Jeva wrote about how the heat dome that struck the Pacific Northwest in 2021 killed “virtually every seedling” planted on Christmas tree farms in Washington that year, and browned new growth on older trees. We’re going to be feeling the impacts of that heat dome for years to come: Jeva writes that there might be a shortage of 9-foot-tall Noble firs as far out as 2032.

I find these stories particularly fascinating when held up against another tale about trees that tends to sprout back up in the discourse every now and again: their potential as climate solutions. This is something that’s found particular traction with billionaires and Republican lawmakers; Marc Benioff, who’s advocated for planting a trillion trees, got into a rich man snipe-off with Bill Gates about this in September. As I wrote back in April when I paid a visit to Washington, D.C.’s tidal basin to see a misshapen cherry tree called Stumpy, “We are so drawn to the idea of trees being older and wiser than us, we take such comfort in their leaves and branches, that we can’t help but hope they will fix our mistakes for us.”

It’s an understandable impulse — spend any amount of time under a particularly tall tree, looking up into its branches and counting the knobbles in its bark, and you can quickly sell yourself a story about its immutability. But trees, like many other organisms, are too busy adapting to the planet’s changes to be its savior. Besides, they’ve already altered the planet once — the evolution of tree roots is thought to have triggered the Devonian extinction and ushered in the period that gave Earth both terrestrial animals and coal.

Instead, I think, we should look to another tree: the banyan in the center of the town of Lahaina, Hawaii, which was devastated by a wildfire that tore through Maui in August. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, arborists rushed to save the tree, dousing its roots with water and replenishing its soil. Then they just let it be while the people around it worked to rebuild Lahaina. A month later, the tree had begun to sprout new leaves.

Perhaps, in 2024 and beyond, we give the trees a rest. We have work to do: clean energy installations to spin up, transmission lines to connect, industries to decarbonize. The trees, in the meantime, will do their thing.

Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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