June 2016 — What are Ecosystem Services?
We use ecosystem services provided by nature in our everyday lives, and without much thought. Ecosystem services are characteristics of environmental processes that enable humans and living organisms to survive, and thrive. Ecosystem services inherently provide natural solutions to purify water, clean air, filter soil nutrients, and manage stormwater – to name a few. The benefits of ecosystem services come with the upfront capital cost and (minimal) maintenance of natural solutions, such as planting trees. Trees provide many environmental benefits, and they exemplify how one natural component can harness several environmental and social benefits.
Trees provide the following ecosystem services:
- Regulate temperature and provide shade
- Filter air pollutants
- Sequester carbon
- Manage and filter rainwater
- Stabilize soils
- Maintain soil health
- Provide food and shelter for living organisms
- Improve occupant’s mental, physical, and well-being
- Improve recreation and aesthetics
Seems like you should put trees on your to-do list this summer.
Ways to Let Trees Work Their Magic
Regulate temperature and provide shade
Planting trees can reduce local temperatures by providing shading and releasing water through evapotranspiration. Lowering local temperature reduces the urban heat island effect, which occurs because of concentrated, non-vegetated surfaces. The heat island effect heightens energy use, air-conditioning costs, green-house gases, and health-related issues from poor air quality (https://www.epa.gov/heat-islands).
Additionally, planting trees in specific locations around your building can maximize energy savings. Planting trees around cooling equipment, transformers, entrances and exits, and exposed south-facing windows will utilize the trees’ temperature-regulating abilities, especially in warm climates.
Planting deciduous rather than coniferous trees opposite south-facing windows provides shade and reduces summer energy usage. During the winter, the bare branches will still allow solar rays to provide solar heat gain to the interior of the building.
Summer-time temperature reduction lowers a facility’s energy use and reduces carbon emissions. A well-placed tree can save 100 kWh of electricity annually. Assuming the electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, the tree can reduce 200 pounds of CO2 emissions per year (https://www.itreetools.org/streets/resources/Streets_CTG/PSW_GTR202_Northeast_CTG.pdf). Think about the multiplied impact a row or even cluster of trees could have on your facilities.
Employing trees to cut your facilities’ energy use and carbon emissions will soften your energy bill, and also add social benefits to your occupants’ experiences. Research shows that seeing vegetation improves mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. Plants have been shown to improve concentration and productivity, reduce stress and risk of depression, and even foster better relationships among people and their communities. (Check out http://ellisonchair.tamu.edu/health-and-well-being-benefits-of-plants/#.V1CHxb4rK8p).
Bottom line: Supporting a “green” image by planting trees decreases temperatures, energy use, carbon emissions, and increases worker productivity and occupant happiness.
Filter Air and Manage Water
Air pollution like smog, sulfur dioxide, and ground level ozone poses serious health threats. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors six criteria air pollutants because they can significantly increase risk of asthma, lung susceptibility to infection, respiratory disease, and cancer (https://www.epa.gov/criteria-air-pollutants, https://www.caufc.org/documents/enertrees/NortheastTreeGuide.pdf).
Trees can improve our health by minimizing such criteria air pollutants. A tree’s leaves take in gaseous pollutants like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ground level ozone. Their trunks capture particulate matter such as pollen, ash, and dust. Filtering and capturing pollutants is part of a tree’s ecosystem services that notably protect our health on a daily basis.
At a larger level, trees help mitigate climate change. They sequester carbon in their trunks by taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Trees reduce the most common greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, and your investment in trees thereby helps preserve the environment. If your facility is conducting a carbon assessment, you can count the carbon sequestration from the trees on your site as a carbon offset.
Below ground, trees slow downward water flow through root uptake. This reduces the risk of flooding by delaying peak rainwater levels and allowing water to infiltrate into the ground rather than pooling on streets and sidewalks. Trees, and the soil surrounding their roots, purify infiltrating rainwater while simultaneously facilitating groundwater recharge. These combined services reduce flooding while cleaning and replenishing groundwater supply.
Planting trees for a specific purpose, to mitigate flooding for example, is referred to as ‘green infrastructure’. Green infrastructure is extremely important due to climate change’s predicted increase in local precipitation intensity. Planting trees can therefore serve as a resilience strategy by naturally managing the stormwater on your site.
Bottom line: Trees come with built-in water and air purifying abilities, as well as rainwater management and flood mitigation aspects. Investing in tree’s ecosystem services means investing in a climate-resilient future.
Sustain Soil Health
Trees, surprise surprise, are great for improving soil quality. Maintaining your soil’s health supports vegetation, structural integrity of the surrounding land, and nutrient recycling. Furthermore, healthy soils will promote healthier trees and reinforce the benefits previously mentioned from tree’s ecosystem services.
The benefits of a tree’s shading abilities extend beyond providing cool areas. Tree canopy shades soil and aids in moisture retention, which can significantly reduce irrigation requirements (https://fmlink.com/articles/landscapes-that-do-more-than-look-good/). Reducing the strain on an already limited water supply preserves freshwater and can reduce your landscaping costs.
Furthermore, trees’ roots create spaces underground that facilitate water infiltration and soil aeration. This makes for healthy soil structure and improves conditions for other vegetation. Neighboring plants can share nutrients, bacteria, and resources through underground chemical networks. Investing in trees can improve the symbiotic relationships with surrounding vegetation.
Trees and supporting vegetation’s root networks minimize erosion by stabilizing the soil. Establishing such root systems now will mitigate future property damage from the predicted increase in high-winds and intense precipitation events.
To aid tree and soil health, organic mulches have many benefits which help retain soil moisture, filter water, regain essential nutrients, and also prevent weed growth and pest infestations. The best form of mulch is compost. Unlike grass clippings, chipped bark, or straw, compost comes from recycled food and organic waste and reduces the amount of waste put into landfills while naturally returning nutrients to the Earth. To produce your own compost, we recommend the US Composting Council’s “A Guide to Workplace Composting” (http://compostingcouncil.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/KCP_Compost_Guide%20%202016.pdf).
Bottom line: Trees improve soil quality and structure. Using an organic mulch to amend soils can amplify your received ecosystem benefits.
Build a Habitat
Healthy ecosystems provide advantages that are more valuable than the sum of their parts, and this cannot be created solely by planting trees—that would be too easy. Instead, you can build a full habitat for organisms that supports biodiversity—the key to any ecosystem adapting and surviving climate change.
One way to create local habitats is through planting biodiverse, native vegetation. This holistic approach to landscaping creates a community where interspecies connections can thrive and respond resiliently to a changing climate. Your state’s Department of Conservation or Natural Resources provides guides for local flora and fauna.
At all stages of their lives, trees support wildlife. Young trees provide food to foraging animals. Mature trees provide food, shelter, shade, and reproductive space to birds, insects, small mammals, lichens, and pollinators. Old and dying trees still give space for nests, nurseries, etc. for animals like woodpeckers, beetles, and bats. The tree’s ability to provide so many services to a variety of species increases a habitat’s resilience and health and enhances ecosystem services.
Honeybees, like trees, also connect many species through ecosystem services. Honeybees pollinate over 130 U.S. crops, worth $15 billion to the economy, yet their populations are rapidly declining (http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-office-buildings-that-welcome-bees-1455044158). Companies now install beehives on roofs of urban buildings to increase the pollinator population. Aside from pollinating flora, bees produce honey that can be collected and sold. Placing hives on large facilities’ roofs minimizes human contact with bees and still allows them to pollinate nearby trees and flowers. Consider incorporating bees into your facility to support a healthy habitat while reaping the benefits.
Bottom line: Trees need to be planted with supporting vegetation to enable biodiversity and resilience in ecosystems. Installing beehives can facilitate pollination, support declining bee populations, and provide honey and revenue.
Not a treehugger?
If trees are not the best option for you, there are other ways to enhance ecosystems and receive similar benefits to those mentioned above. For example, consider green roofs. They can reduce air and noise pollution, improve rainwater management, increase insulation, and increase social experience. (We recommend http://www.greenroofs.org/ for more information.)
Planting trees is not so hard (or costly) to do, and it benefits ecosystems, occupants’ experiences, and the environment while reducing energy use, emissions, flooding, erosion, etc. Whether or not you’re inclined to hug these bark-encased green giants, consider what they can do for you and your facility. Let that convince you to think about what you can do for them.