A recent Fox News article makes the stunning claim that scientific research shows that pollution is good for the environment. The article titled "Answer to speedy tree growth lies in air pollution" seeks to justify pollution.
The Fox News article claims that while the scientific community worries about greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming, a new Auburn University study suggests that carbon-absorbing forests are growing faster in Southeastern U.S., thanks to carbon from air pollution.
The article quotes Hanqin Tian, a professor at Auburn's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and lead author of the study published in the journal Ecosystems, saying: “Our study actually showed that Southeast carbon uptake is much faster than other regions.This area has trees that are very young and the growth is very fast. So, they uptake more carbon from the atmosphere.”
According to the Fox News article's interpretation of the scientific study, a computer model of the environment set up by the researchers that takes into account natural and man made variables such as land use, climate and pollution in the past century, shows that moderate amounts of air pollution in the form of carbon and nitrogen had a "short term" fertilizing effect on young forests. In other words, pollution is good for the environment because “In the short term, it could increase the carbon uptake," and lead to faster forest growth. The article then notes casually "But that’s not guaranteed for long.”
Following the misleading article title "Answer to speedy tree growth lies in Air pollution," the Fox News article writer delays presenting the core conclusion of the study, that:
"The Southeast is approaching a 'tipping point.' The region’s urban areas are growing. And, despite the temporary fertilization effects of atmospheric carbon and nitrogen, Tian said increasing levels of other pollutants, such as ground level ozone, threaten to do more harm than good to the environment in the long-term."
The article then quotes as "take-home passage" the conclusion that what we really need to do is an "urban/land use planning and also air pollution control to help the Southern U.S. forests to become maybe a sustainable carbon sink."
Grist.org comments on the Fox interpretation of the study in disbelief: "Not that it’s a HUGE surprise that Fox News has beliefs about the environment that are the opposite of true, but just FYI, they are now apparently telling viewers that pollution is good for forests. That means the REAL pollution is CLEAN AIR! It’s like you environmentalists don’t even WANT trees to grow."
MSN Now also comments sarcastically: "Fox News has a reputation for making claims that can be politely described as 'outrageous,' but this one takes the cake. Last week, the program 'America's Newsroom with Bill Hemmer and Martha MacCallum' reportedly aired a segment which said high levels of carbon in the atmosphere made trees in south-eastern regions of the U.S. grow faster. Therefore: Yay, pollution! "
What the Auburn study really says
The research team led by Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences researchers found that the southeast region of the United States could be close to a turning point in terms of its carbon footprint.
Tian comments: "What makes the findings so important and relevant to policy is that it is the first study to look at multiple factors affecting regional climate and carbon storage over an extended period of time."
Hanqin Tian and Solon Dixon, Professor at the Auburn University's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, developed a computer model that makes it possible to study the intricate ways that climate change, atmospheric carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrogen and land use changes work together.
The Fox article interpretation of the Auburn study is in sharp contrast to the Auburn University information website. The title of the study by the original authors, "Southeast may be headed toward tipping point with carbon footprint" reveals the primary concern of the authors with the detrimental effects of pollution. The study authors observe that over time, the Southeast has been transformed from a source of carbon emissions to a carbon sink. That is, the net effect of the Southeast forest growth is that it removes carbon from the atmosphere. But the researchers are at pains to emphasize that this is only a transient effect because the environment is very close to a "tipping point" at which the detrimental effects set in.
Once the short-term "fertilization effect" scales its tipping point, the regional ecosystem will begin experiencing harmful effect. Tian warns about complacency in the face of the short-term fertilization effect, saying: "For the last few years, people haven't worried about this region. They think it is not an immediate problem."
The study warns that there is need for alert because the situation could change very soon with ongoing changes in land use causing a major shift in carbon storage dynamics.
The study authors concluded that urban and air quality planning is needed to address how and where our cities grow. The study researchers said: "Although the Southeast leads the nation in carbon storage at present, the switch could flip sooner than anyone expects without thoughtful preparation for the future."
The Auburn University researchers was awarded $1.8 million by the U.S. Department of Defense to help develop a plan for sequestering carbon in longleaf pine forests in military bases, and help in bringing about a reduction in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
According to Professor Lisa Samuelson, director of the Center for Longleaf Pine Ecosystems in Auburn's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Forests are capable of offsetting greenhouse gas emissions by sequestering carbon dioxide in tree biomass, understory vegetation, forest floor litter, debris, soils and wood products. The carbon sequestration effect can be potentiated by sustainable forest management, but it must be balanced with other resource management objectives
According to Samuelson, longleaf pine forests can help in sequestering carbon and mitigate carbon dioxide emissions because longleaf pine is a long-lived tree species. Samuelson explains that, "the Department of Defense is focusing on restoration and protection of longleaf pine ecosystems."
According to the Center for Longleaf Pine Ecosystems, military bases in the South have large tracts in longleaf pine that provide terrain and cover for mission training. The Department of Defense manages longleaf pine forests for those purposes and is working to offset its carbon emissions while managing for threatened and endangered species.