Trees and Air Pollution

Ronald Reagan said they caused air pollution. Ecologists say they cool the air locally.  Realtors say they increase housing values. Divergent views on trees!

Considered alone, there is some basis to each of these statements. Trees cool the environment by converting a lot of liquid water taken from the soil to water vapor in the atmosphere, which carries latent heat away from its point of origin. On a hot summer day, it doesn’t take long to drive from a shopping center to a shady street to realize this effect of trees in action.

Many trees emit volatile organic gases to the atmosphere. Often we can smell the isoprene emitted from pine trees and see the organic haze along mountains. This is why President Reagan blamed trees for air pollution. The organic gases are a precursor to the formation of ozone in the lower atmosphere. Ozone is a major constituent of air pollution that affects humans, but the organic gases from trees are not converted directly to ozone. The reaction is catalyzed by nitric oxide, derived naturally from soils and from various human sources, such as power plants and automobiles.

While they emit volatile organic gases, trees take up a variety of air pollutants, including both ozone and nitrogen oxides, which reduces the ambient concentrations that we breathe.  In the atmosphere, nitric oxides are converted to nitric acid, which trees absorb through their pores, or stomata. It is the amount of nitric oxide that determines ozone levels in many forested regions of the United States. Airborne ozone would be higher if it were not for the uptake of nitric oxides by trees.

Trees also remove particulate matter from the atmosphere, particularly small particles which are a major health hazard in air pollution.  Trees along urban roadways can reduce the presence of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere within a few hundred yards of the roadside verge.  The total area of leaves is critical: a few trees with sparse leaves are less effective than a dense canopy.  Trees with small or hairy leaves are best at removing particles.

Of course, in springtime, trees are a source of particles to the atmosphere when they emit pollen from their flowers.  The release of pollen increases when plants grow at high levels of carbon dioxide, which are expected in the future.  Pollen is annoying, but not unhealthful. Those who suffer from hay fever may disagree, but most pollen grains are larger than the size of particles that cause the greatest impacts on human health.

Taken together, there is no doubt that trees provide a net positive benefit to the environment, which is why it is almost uniformly true that neighborhoods with lots of trees command greater housing values that those without.



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One thought on “Trees and Air Pollution

  1. Trees are some of the best friends we have. They provide resting, feeding, hiding, breeding, nesting, and hibernating habitat for a wide range of forest creatures, including other plants. They hold the soil and help build it as they shed leaves branches, and bodies in death. They are central elements – leading citizens, if you like – in many or most of Earth’s biomes. Without them, the World would be much less biodiverse and stable.

    For us folks, trees are sources of a large number of products, both necessary and trivial, by which we conduct our lives. We’d be much poorer without them.

    Science can affirm all of the above, but it also suggests that we have psychological needs to be in contact with nature. I have no doubt that studies will prove, if they haven’t already, that looking at a big tree can induce relaxation and contemplation, often missing elements in our frantic and destructive efforts to achieve ill-considered goals.

    Whether or not we have the wisdom or knowledge to appreciate and protect trees, other citizens of the planet do. While working on a nature trail in Devil’s Head park a while ago, I moved a rotten log that was “in the way.” In the soft moist brown center that had been the core of an evergreen I discovered a red-backed salamander. It had found a sensible way to recognize and appropriate the contributions of a tree. I compromised by gently relocating the log in hopes that its inhabitant could continue its life journey.

    So if you feel an urge to hug a big tree and no one is looking, or a child is, by all means do it. Think of it as applied science.

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