Redwood forests have survived only in the Pacific Northwest. But these carbon suckers will grow almost anywhere with a little land and a lot of love.

A path cuts through a second growth redwood forest in Arcata, California.

A path meanders through the Arcata Community Forest in Humboldt County, California. (Credit: Marcy Burstiner)

This article is the twelfth in a series of decoders examining critical aspects of climate change. They are part of a project, funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ program and managed by News Decoder and the Climate Academy at the European School Brussels II, that will create innovative resources and strategies for schools to integrate climate science into their teaching.

The bigger and older a tree, the more carbon it will capture.

That’s what a study by 38 researchers across 15 countries found back in 2014. And that makes the redwood tree a climate champion.

The Sequoiadendron, or Giant Sequoia, is the biggest tree in the world and the Sequoia Semperviren, or Coast Redwood, is the tallest tree in the world. We’re talking trees so wide that in California they’ve carved tunnels in them that I’ve driven my car through.

More important, these trees can offset a lot of the carbon cars produce.

“They’re a really powerful terrestrial carbon sink,” said Lucy Kerhoulas, a professor of forest ecophysiology at California State Polytechnic University, where I teach courses on journalism. The campus in Northern California is surrounded by second-growth coast redwoods, trees that have regrown on land previously logged.

 “They take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, and they store it in a very rot-resistant wood,” Kerhoulas said. “So it’s like long term carbon storage.”

Sequoias for carbon sequestration

There are redwoods in California that first sprouted more than 2,000 years ago. Those trees have been storing carbon a very long time.

Until recently, you might find a redwood tree here and there in different parts of the world planted in someone’s backyard maybe, but whole forests were confined to the Pacific Northwest. And what exists there now is just 5% of what once covered the western coast of the United States.

But the thing is, with a little nurturing of vulnerable saplings, redwood trees can live just about anywhere.

Kerhoulas said her university operates a demonstration farm where redwoods don’t naturally grow.

“But we planted like a ton of redwoods and they’re all doing fine,” Kerhoulas said.

Dreaming of thousands of redwood groves

Once the sapling survives 10 years or so, there is almost nothing short of a wildfire or logging that will kill it, as they are largely invulnerable to rot or parasites, said Sean McGinnis, of Ecoplan Forestry of Offaly, Ireland.

McGinnis manages the Giant’s Grove, a 25-acre forest of redwood saplings on land donated by the owners of Birr Castle, whose family has owned the land continuously for 400 years.

McGinnis started planting redwood saplings at Birr Castle in 2016. The grove now has 800, each sponsored by an individual donor, with the goal of more than 1,000 trees in all. It is estimated that when mature, this small forest will store as much carbon as 250,000 average trees.

The idea is to create the largest redwood grove outside of California. But if McGinnis had his way, that designation would be short-lived.

“We don’t want to be the largest redwood forest outside of the United States,” McGinnis said. “We would love it if there were a thousand Giant’s Groves around the world.”

A second growth redwood tree in the Arcata Community Forest in Arcata, California.

Second growth "stems" surround an old growth redwood stump.

Second growth “stems” surround an old growth redwood stump. Credit: Marcy Burstiner

 Offsetting one’s carbon footprint by planting a tree

Across the Irish Sea, Henry Emson realized that if he planted a giant sequoia he could offset a lifetime’s worth of his carbon footprint.

So he planted one for himself and each of his children. And then he decided to find more land to plant more of these trees and let other people offset their carbon.

The result was The Great Reserve, a plan to buy enough land to plant 100,000 giant sequoias in small groves throughout England and Wales. The group has already planted almost 2,700 of these trees in four locations.

Back in Northern California, the Turtle Island Restoration Network is on a mission to plant 10,000 new coast redwoods on deforested land in Northern California.

Once a redwood grove has matured, trees no longer need to be planted. While they are conifers, few healthy trees grow naturally from the cones that drop on the ground, Kerhoulas said. Instead they will sprout like weeds from the root system of the established trees.

Planting native trees to protect newcomers

A redwood grove just behind Kerhoulas’ office has been logged multiple times in the past 150 years, but some of the second- or third-growth “stems” that grow out of the roots of stumps are are now so wide you can’t wrap your arms around them.

While the trees themselves will live another 2,000 years if left unlogged, the root system is much older, maybe tens of thousands of years old, Kerhoulas said.

The root system is the part of the forest that is difficult to replicate for those who want to recreate these carbon sinks from scratch.

That’s because redwoods are shallow rooted and are vulnerable when young if not protected. In a mature forest the roots intermingle to support the trees.

At the Giant’s Grove in Ireland, McGinnis is trying to replicate that by planting native trees — oaks, birch, hazel, for example — in between the redwoods so that the roots of these trees can mix with those of the young redwoods.

“Redwoods are what we call exotics now,” he said. “We are trying to keep it as natural as we can. These are the biggest and the tallest trees in the world. They aren’t native to Ireland. We are trying to make it as natural and as gradual as possible.”

A sapling at Giant's Grove in Offaly, Ireland.

A sapling at Giant’s Grove in Offaly, Ireland. Credit: Giant’s Grove. Credit: The Giant’s Grove.

From saplings to carbon sinks

The funny thing is that if you go back far enough, to before the ice age, redwoods covered Ireland. McGinnis just hopes the young trees will soon cover the small patch he manages.

It isn’t easy. People who donate €500 a tree expect giants.

“My hardest job is managing people’s expectations because they are disappointed that these trees are only babies now,” he said. “They are not giants yet.”

At least one party who visited their tree — each has a GPS locator and is marked with the name of the sponsor and or the person the tree is dedicated to — was so disappointed they tried to swap the sponsorship label with another tree that looked maybe just a wee bit taller.

“I thought, what a horrible thing to do,” McGinnis said. “I felt bad for the tree. This tree was just a tiny baby and people thought, ‘You aren’t good enough to be my tree.’ For a tree that matures after 1,200 years, give it a chance.”

questions to consider:

  1. Why would someone plant redwood trees in places where the trees don’t naturally grow?
  2. What challenges do people face in trying to start a non-native redwood forest?
  3. If you were to create a redwood forest, where might you do it? What would you need?

Marcy Burstiner is the Educational News Director for News Decoder. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and has taught journalism for more than 15 years at the California Polytechnic University, Humboldt. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication

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Climate decodersDecoder: Seeing the forest for the trees
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