The challenge of reforestation | Sunday Observer

The challenge of reforestation

5 January, 2020

This year, countries around the world will be planting millions of trees in an effort to save the environment and hence, the Earth itself. Just what is a forest? According to the UN, an area greater than 1.25 acres, populated by trees 16 feet or taller, with more than 10 percent canopy cover can be termed a forest.

Forests are vital because they’re filled with vegetation, fungi, and microorganisms that draw carbon dioxide from the air and store it. Healthy, mature forests support a broad variety of life forms, giving and taking nutrients, habitat and shade. They catch, store, and filter water. They improve air quality by removing pollutants. They provide a source of timber, food, medicine and jobs for people.

Indeed, the United Nations recognized this value when it launched its REDD Program, which gives developing countries funds to protect forests. But the existing forests, which are fast dwindling due to deforestation and burning, may not be sufficient. Hence, the need to identify areas where we can grow new forests.

The latest data has uncovered that there is potentially an excess of six billion hectares of land on the planet that could be used to plant trees and vegetation to tackle big global issues such as carbon emissions, the food crisis, and damaged ecosystems. Of the six billion usable hectares of land, two billion have fallen victim to the consequences of human activities, including deforestation, abandoned agricultural efforts, pollution from varying sources, burning fossil fuels, exponential population growth and urbanization, as well as forest fires.

There are two billion hectares (equal to the combined land sizes of the US and China) of spoiled land that, if fixed, could support a large-scale reforestation effort that will help to lower carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as well as support a whole ecosystem. Scientists estimate that repopulating an area this size with trees could remove two-thirds of the emissions that currently remain in the atmosphere due to human activities.

A recent article published in Science, entitled ‘The global tree restoration potential,’ presents what it calls ‘the most effective solution at our disposal to mitigate climate change.’

It reports the results of a study in which Bastin and collaborators used remote sensing and modeling techniques to estimate that forest restoration in areas totaling 900 million hectares worldwide could store 205 gigatonnes of carbon. That may be only around one fourth of the 600 gigatonnes of carbon that we’ve already released into the atmosphere by land clearing and fossil fuel burning, activities that have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels from 280 ppm to over 400 ppm in just a few decades.

But how can we grow a forest quickly? Manual planting on any scale takes days, if not months. Enter the Drones, then. A team of Canadian science and engineering graduates is pitching a dream to plant a billion trees by 2028 using drones. The ‘Droneseed’ project is dubbed Flash Forest and combines the use of drones with specially-designed pods and an accelerated seed germination process. According to Flash Forest, its technology can plant trees 10 times faster than a single worker and at a cost that is 80 percent cheaper than traditional tree planting methods.

“We merge technology, software and ecological science to surpass traditional tree-planting efforts and rapidly accelerate global reforestation efforts. With our ambitious goal of planting 1 billion trees by 2028,’ the Company says. Flash Forest incorporates the use of a heavy-lift drone that is equipped with a pneumatic firing device, allowing it to insert the planting pods into the soil at an ideal depth.

Each custom-made tree pod contains a minimum of three pre-germinated seeds, mycorrhizae, fertilizers, and additional plant-loving ingredients. The Flash Forest pods use less water than traditional planting methods and can be created in mass quantities within just 30 days. This allows the team to plant trees much faster and at a huge economical savings, compared to the use of seedlings that often require 12 to 24 months in a nursery before they can be planted successfully.

The seeds are already sprouted before they’re inserted into the ground, promising a more successful growth pattern and robust rooting system. Following the planting, the team will follow-up the process with a spraying drone to provide nitrogen and other nutrients to the seedlings. An additional mapping drone is used to keep an eye on the process of the plants’ growth. The team hopes to plant eight different species to generate healthy ecosystems.

LandLife is another company active in the reforestation sector with the hope of planting trees in unused arable land. At the beginning of any project, the LandLife team assesses the land to be planted on. To do this, they analyze images from drones and satellites, and assess data from climatic and soil samples. The team also gains information from local landowners to offer a full picture of the land they are working on, enabling them to design a bespoke plan for recovering the land.

The team then uses cutting-edge agricultural technologies to plant the trees, relying on the precise data collected from drones and satellites to indicate where the trees should be planted.One essential piece of technology LandLife has innovated for use in the reforestation project is the Cocoon. It was created to enhance the chance of a planted seedling making it to a fully grown tree. Over the first year after planting, the device waters and shelters the seedling. It also stimulates it to develop healthy, deep root structures. By using the Cocoon, trees don’t have to rely on external irrigation and are better positioned to survive difficult conditions. Testing has shown that between 75% and 95% of seedlings planted with the Cocoon survive. Drones and Cocoons represent the cutting edge of reforestation.

In the meantime, we do not have to wait until these mega high-tech projects take off the ground. Everyone can plant a tree. Those who do not have space in their houses can do it in a public space. For example, if every Sri Lankan planted just one tree this year, that will be around 22 million trees. If we keep at it every year, we will have 100 million trees in just five years, which is a substantial amount. Imagine everyone around the world doing the same – that will be over seven billion trees. A tree is for life – and for future generations. You may not even live to see its fruits, literally. But that is the whole purpose of tree planting and reforestation – benefitting the future generations who will inherit the Earth.