Six Ways Trees Improve Our Lives

A hiker stands on a trail surrounded by trees.

Trees are often treated as mere lawn ornaments, but in reality they’re far more. They offer benefits to air quality, topsoil, climate, wildlife, and human health. In short, they improve our lives in ways most people neither appreciate nor understand.

Sunset over Hillsborough, NC

Trees Provide Oxygen

In the process of photosynthesis, trees absorb water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight. From these ingredients, they produce glucose, which is their primary energy source.

But because both water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) contain oxygen, there’s a surplus which the tree has no need for. As a result, this surplus oxygen is released back into the atmosphere and helps to keep all of us breathing.

Upward view of chestnut oak tree

Trees Sequester Carbon

Another benefit trees provide is carbon sequestration–or, more simply, removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

As most people know by now, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, acting as a kind of atmospheric insulation and increasing global temperatures. But when trees perform photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, break it apart, and store the resulting carbon in their cells.

So what would have been a problem suddenly becomes a solution.

Trees line the Riverwalk in Hillsborough, NC.

Trees Prevent Erosion

Topsoil is necessary for life. It gives nutrients to plants, which give nutrients to animals, which give nutrients to all of us.

But topsoil can be eroded very easily, especially by wind and rain. And in the absence of trees, this process can become so extreme that an entire region becomes desert–something which is happening as we speak with China’s Gobi Desert.

But when trees are clustered together in forests, they stop erosion in its tracks. They do this primarily in three ways: 1) by catching rain in their leaves and branches, 2) by storing water in their roots, and 3) by providing windbreaks.

Trees line the Eno River.

Trees Support the Water Cycle

Because trees are composed of as much as 67% water by mass, they are understandably very thirsty. As such, they absorb large quantities of water through their roots, up to 11,000 gallons for a mature tree in a single growing season.

When trees grow together to form a forest, the effect is increased. One way in which this happens is by the accumulation of organic material in the soil (dead leaves, branches, bark), all of which acts like a sponge as it decomposes, increasing the soil’s water retention.

Once trees are done with water, they do something else of immense value: they release water vapor in a process called transpiration. At the same time, they release mineral salts–potassium in particular–which contribute to the formation of clouds, increase rainfall, and help to ensure that all of us have water to drink.

Immature fruits of a persimmon tree.

Trees Provide Food and Shelter

Whether feeding on leaves and fruit, preying on forest-dwelling animals, making nests out of hollow logs, or consuming nectar and pollen, many species of wildlife would not exist without trees and forests.

Here are a few examples: the American beaver (Castor canadensis) feeds on the wood, bark, leaves, and stems of maple, willow, poplar, birch, oak, and ash, among others. The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) feeds on small mammals–especially rabbits, mice, and voles–and other birds, most of which derive some or all of their nutrition from forests. The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) feeds on the leaves, twigs, and stems of birch, willow, alder, and occasionally spruce.

And beyond that, trees provide basic materials for humans: wood, rubber, aspirin, chocolate, syrup, sponges, wax, gum, and latex, to name a few. And though all of these may have synthetic counterparts, they originated first and foremost with trees.

A hiker stands on a trail surrounded by trees.

Trees Absorb Pollutants

Most people recognize basic ecological services that trees provide homeowners and city-dwellers alike: beautification and shade foremost among them.

But perhaps the greatest contribution trees make to human health is in reduction of atmospheric pollution. Whether mopping up sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5), trees help to keep our air clean and breathable. In fact, it’s estimated that in one year alone, trees in the continental US absorbed 17,400,000 tons of air pollutants, saving $6.8 billion dollars and more than 850 human lives.

And that’s all the more reason why we should be shutting down industries that contribute to our planet’s deforestation. Because a world without trees is a world without human life.

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References:

Benefits for Wildlife.” National Wildlife Federation. Accessed July 30, 2021.

Energy and the environment explained.” US Energy Information Administration. Accessed July 30, 2021.

Hayek, Jay. “What Percentage of the Mass of a Tree is Water?” University of Illinois Extension. Accessed Aug. 6, 2021.

Nowak, David J., Greenfield, Eric. “Trees Improve Human Health and Well-Being in Many Ways.” US Forest Service Northern Research Station: Research Review, No. 26, April 2015. Accessed Aug 6, 2021.

Perkins, Sid. “Amazon Seeds Its Own Rain.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, Aug. 30, 2012. Accessed Aug. 6, 2021.

Rechtschaffen, Daniel. “How China’s Growing Deserts Are Choking The Country.” Forbes, Sep. 18, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2021.

Somvichian-Clausen, Austa. “7 Everyday Items Made from Trees.” American Forests, March 1, 2016. Accessed July 30, 2021.

Trees Increase Water Retention and Quality.” Urban Forestry Network. Accessed Aug. 6, 2021.

Water and Forests: The role trees play in water quality.” Educational in Nature, Vol. 1:2, 1999. Accessed Aug. 6, 2021.

What is carbon sequestration?” US Geological Survey. Accessed July 30, 2021.

What is Photosynthesis.” Smithsonian Science Education Center., April 12, 2017. Accessed July 30, 2021.

Winston, Fan. “Your First Garden: What You Need to Know About Topsoil.” Gardenista, Sep. 6, 2018. Accessed July 30, 2021.


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