US cities are losing 36 million trees a year. Here’s why it matters and how you can stop it

If you’re looking for a reason to care about tree loss, this summer’s record-breaking heat waves might be it. Trees can lower summer daytime temperatures by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a recent studyBut tree cover in US cities is shrinking. A study published last year by the US Forest Service found that we lost 36 million trees annually from urban and rural communities over a five-year period. That’s a 1% drop from 2009 to 2014. If we continue on this path, “cities will become warmer, more polluted and generally more unhealthy for inhabitants,” said David Nowak, a senior US Forest Service scientist and co-author of the study. Nowak says there are many reasons our tree canopy is declining, including hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, insects and disease. But the one reason for tree loss that humans can control is sensible development. The most effective way to tackle climate change? Plant 1 trillion trees“We see the tree cover being swapped out for impervious cover, which means when we look at the photographs, what was there is now replaced with a parking lot or a building,” Nowak said. More than 80% of the US population lives in urban areas, and most Americans live in forested regions along the East and West coasts, Nowak says. “Every time we put a road down, we put a building and we cut a tree or add a tree, it not only affects that site, it affects the region.” The study placed a value on tree loss based on trees’ role in air pollution removal and energy conservation. Why you should be forest bathing (and we don’t mean shampoo)The lost value amounted to $96 million a year. 

Nowak lists 10 benefits trees provide to society:

 Heat reduction: Trees provide shade for homes, office buildings, parks and roadways, cooling surface temperatures. They also take in and evaporate water, cooling the air around them. “Just walk in the shade of a tree on a hot day. You can’t get that from grass,” Nowak said. To get the full temperature benefit, tree canopy cover should exceed 40% of the area to be cooled, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “A single city block would need to be nearly half-covered by a leafy green network of branches and leaves,” the authors wrote.

Air pollution reduction: Trees absorb carbon and remove pollutants from the atmosphere. 

Energy emissions reduction: Trees reduce energy costs by $4 billion a year, according to Nowak’s study. “The shading of those trees on buildings reduce your air conditioning costs. Take those trees away; now your buildings are heating up, you’re running your air conditioning more, and you’re burning more fuel from the power plants, so the pollution and emissions go up.” 

Water quality improvement: Trees act as water filters, taking in dirty surface water and absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil. Flooding reduction: Trees reduce flooding by absorbing water and reducing runoff into streams. 

Noise reduction: Trees can deflect sound, one reason you’ll see them lining highways, along fences and between roads and neighborhoods. They can also add sound through birds chirping and wind blowing through leaves, noises that have shown psychological benefits.

Protection from UV radiation: Trees absorb 96% of ultraviolet radiation, Nowak says. 

Improved aesthetics: Ask any real estate agent, architect or city planner: Trees and leaf cover improve the looks and value of any property. Improved human health:  Many studies have found connections between exposure to nature and better mental and physical health. Some hospitals have added tree views and plantings for patients as a result of these studies. Doctors are even prescribing walks in nature for children and families due to evidence that nature exposure lowers blood pressure and stress hormones. And studies have associated living near green areas with lower death rates

Wildlife habitat:  Birds rely on trees for shelter, food and nesting. Worldwide, forests provide for a huge diversity of animal life.