Guest Column

Forests and Wood – Nature’s Solution to Extreme Weather 

Substituting wood in place of steel, concrete, aluminum, and plastic avoids the release of carbon into the atmosphere

By Dave Atkins

Extreme weather events – floods, fires, tornados/hurricanes, and droughts – are magnifying. Climate science tells us they will increase and worsen in coming years, bringing greater health costs, water shortages, bad ski seasons, more “hoot owl” restrictions on our rivers for fishing, more smoke-filled skies, and huge economic damage. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks extreme weather events by cost. In the 1980s extreme weather events causing more than $1 billion in damage averaged 3.3 per year, and the average total cost was $21.4 billion a year. From 2020 to 2022, these events averaged 20 per year at an average cost of $152 billion a year. The total cost for those three years was nearly half a trillion dollars. Mind boggling!

We regularly hear about the importance of clean energy: solar, wind, enhanced geothermal, nuclear, hydro, batteries, and hydrogen. What doesn’t get much press are natural carbon solutions: forests, wetlands, peatlands. The most significant one is forests, according to research led by The Nature Conservancy. Montana’s forests, if managed sustainably, can help lessen extreme weather events.

The International Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly identified the importance of forests and wood products in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is accomplished through the three S’s – Sinks, Storage and Substitution.

Forests provide a carbon sink through photosynthesis, by using solar energy to combine carbon dioxide from the air, and water from the ground to create tree trunks, branches and leaves. The more trees grow, the more carbon is sequestered. Wood is 50% carbon. However, this doesn’t go on indefinitely. There is a limit to how much forest the soil will support before some disturbance releases the carbon back into the air through fire, insects, diseases, wind damage or often in combination. The soil carrying capacity of forests is changing because of longer drier summers in Montana. The management of forests must adapt to these changes. Harvesting some trees leaves the remaining ones healthier.

Using the harvested trees by Montana manufacturers to make wood products stores carbon in buildings, furniture, books, bridges, cardboard, etc. It reduces the number of trees in the forest giving the remaining trees access to the soil, water, and nutrients to grow larger and more resistant to insects, diseases, and fire. 

Substituting wood in place of steel, concrete, aluminum, and plastic avoids the release of carbon into the atmosphere from these fossil carbon intensive products and microplastic pollution into our waterways. Given the urgency of addressing greenhouse gas emissions, the avoidance of carbon releases is an immediate benefit. 

New innovative products like cross laminated timber that uses smaller pieces of wood to make large beams, posts and panels; sawdust and woodchip residues can make wood fiber insulation, biochar, clothing and medicines which helps us shift from a petroleum-based to a bio-based economy.

The combination of sinks, storage and substitution through sustainable climate smart forest management and use of wood products can contribute to sequestering a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and to reducing the huge and growing economic costs of increasingly extreme weather events.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act make important investments in our forests and wood manufacturing; the Farm Bill is a current legislative opportunity for more investments in natural carbon capture and storage, as well as resilient forests. Ask Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines and Reps. Ryan Zinke and Matt Rosendale to support these investments. 

Dave Atkins is a Forester, Forest Ecologist, member of Citizens’ Climate Lobby and President of Montana Forest Owners Association.