Trees: September 2009 Archives

Why Leaves Change Color in Fall

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Trees and bushes colored bright shades of orange, yellow, red, and brown are a familiar sight in fall. They light up the hillsides for a few months, until the leaves fall from the trees. But why does this happen?

When maple trees' leaves are green, they are absorbing sunlight and carbon dioxide. The chlorophyll in the leaves enables them to turn those two ingredients into glucose, a kind of sugar which gives them energy and helps them grow, using a process called photosynthesis. When the photosynthesis stops, the glucose is trapped in the leaf. Sunlight and cold weather turn the glucose red. Oaks turn brown because of the wastes left in their leaves, but the brown leaves don't actually drop from the tree. Instead, they stay on the branches until late winter or early spring, when the new leaves replace the old ones. Other pigments found in leaves called carotenoids are yellow-colored, which is why aspen and larches turn golden. You can't see the colored pigments in summer because the chlorophyll's green coloring is stronger than the others. It is only when the chlorophyll fades out of the leaf that the others are visible.

Later on, in late fall or winter, the deciduous trees lose their leaves because, although their trunk and branches will not freeze, the leaves cannot endure such frigid temperatures. Also, because winter has less sunlight than the other seasons, the leaves cannot make very much energy. It is more efficient for the tree to live off of the energy it stored, just as many hibernating animals live off of the food they ate in the warmer seasons.

Evergreen trees have their own system of coping with winter so that their needles don't freeze. They have a waxy coating on the needles and their cells have fluids that prevent freezing inside them. So while the deciduous trees aren't producing any oxygen, the evergreens take over. This is yet another reason why it's important to conserve these valuable resources.

This is how trees produce the colors commonly termed "fall color" before shedding the leaves, a beautiful annual phenomenon.

The Road To Aberdeen

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The notorious metallic monsters of the sci-fi movies are fictitious. At least, that's what they're supposed to be. But they're real. For if not monstrous, what are the machines used to cut the logs of Washington State into boards or reduce them down to a sticky pulp? These gigantic tools of destruction are both awful and scary, for they look like horrible monsters with fangs (possibly dripping poison), trying to inflict indescribable pain on things. We had to drive past a factory from the house that we were living in every time we wanted to go to Target or Wal-Mart, but no matter how many times I saw it, it remained a very distressing sight. The plants manufacture boards and planks that are either used locally, in other parts of the United States or shipped abroad. British Columbia, Canada, even manufactures chopsticks for Japan! As you read this, destruction is reigning as the trees, old and new alike, are being sawed down without regard to size, age, or any other category that they could fit into.

Yet that factory was not the worst factory we'd seen. Compared to the most horrible one that any of us had ever seen, that one could have been called environmentally-friendly!

Just outside of Olympic National Park, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, an almost unbelievable tragedy was -and is still- happening. Whole hillsides are getting completely destroyed, not to return for over a lifetime. Magnificent old-growth forests are being turned into devastated graveyards with unwanted trees strewn on the barren hillsides. As you drive through Olympic National Park, overwhelming numbers of 18-wheelers hurtle past, bearing loads of cut logs, many with clumps of moss still clinging to the mottled bark, to the factories where they are cut into boards or pulped into paper while the smokestacks are polluting in great puffs of smoke. And if you look across some lakes to the private property on the other side, the park border is marked by straight lines of trees. The private property is completely barren, having been clearcut by loggers. I found it disappointing when the Obama Administration, even though it is doing many things to help protect the environment, including a recent statement saying that no more roads could be built in national forests, recently approved a logging contract in a roadless Alaskan national forest. George Bush was going to build roads in several national forests to log, but I do not think that the national forests should be cut down, even to provide jobs. Some states use their forests as tourist attractions, generating jobs and money, and if they log it is very seldom and very little at a time. When we were driving towards Aberdeen, the hills were an awful shade of brown. Vast, depressing, and uninhabited, these hills hardly look like what they once were: shady forests where squirrels frisked and owls once swooped down from their perch in the high branches of firs, hemlocks, and spruce, in the soft, dusky evening light. This scene is now uncommon, found only in state and national parks. Now what is left of that landscape is a carpet of broken branches and wood chips with an occasional tiny tree, sprouted from a pinecone left behind or missed by the logger's chainsaws, still standing.

Yet the worst was still to come.

Just outside of Aberdeen, we saw it. We were on a concrete bridge spanning a river adjacent to it, and when we looked down we saw one of the most terrible sights possible to see in the entire state. We'd gotten used to seeing logs that were decaying into "nurse logs" in the rainforests all around the state, but most of those had fallen naturally. And they were only one at a time. What we saw was incomparably different. Huge piles of logs, the bark unevenly stripped off of them, sat in the largest lumberyard any of us had ever seen. To prevent shrinking, the logs had been misted with dirty water, staining them gray in irregular splotches. It was so atrocious that I could not bear to look at it any longer than I had to. It was the worst thing I'd ever seen. It still is.

In American folktales, loggers are made heroes by legend. Paul Bunyan, the famed "lumberjack," is actually considered a good guy because he could cut down hundreds of trees with one swing of his axe. But by destroying the trees, people are destroying themselves. These giants are the source of oxygen and without them we will not have so many renewable sources of fresh air in the world. As if to prove this point, many trees are endangered. The Bigleaf Mahogany, found in Central America, is number eight on the Top Ten Endangered Species list. This species of mahogany is very valuable-one square meter is generally 1,300 dollars.

This is an important issue and species will continue to lose their habitat, resulting in many going extinct. Every second, an area of the Amazon rainforest the size of one and a half football fields is burned to make room for farmland. People must react to this ongoing injustice, or we will have a plain, ugly, and lifeless world. Today millions of trees are being sliced up into useless furniture that no one needs, into wood pellets for wood-burning stoves, and into a thousand other things that are unnecessary.  Having a little wood furniture is not terrible, but buying more than you really need is. Instead of wood-burning stoves, which not only use wood but also pollute, electric heaters or, even better, wearing sweaters are much better alternatives. Even pencils use much more wood than buying mechanical pencils and refilling them, in which case the only wood is in the cardboard packaging. (If possible, buy things with the least packaging possible.) It is very important to conserve this resource, for if this devastating logging continues, the hillsides will be gray, global warming will not end, and millions of animals, both known and unknown to science, will become extinct. Because today we are headed down the infamous road to Aberdeen.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Trees category from September 2009.

Trees: January 2010 is the next archive.

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