COCONUT GROVE, Fla. — From the arid deserts of Arizona to the lush foliage of Florida, trees can make a big difference in the world around us.
“Trees are crucially important for our urban environments,” said Ariane Middel, an assistant professor at Arizona State University.
Trees also make a big difference in the places people to choose to live.
“One of the reasons we love certain neighborhoods and value them is the urban canopy cover,” said Chris Baraloto, associate director of the Institute of Environment at Florida International University in Miami.
Baraloto and a team of researchers are mapping the urban canopy of trees to see what benefits they have to the areas where they are located.
“One way we look at the trees is how much carbon they store from the atmosphere,” Baraloto said. “Another very important aspect that we're also measuring in a complementary project is the cooling effect of trees.”
Both carbon capture and shade are two major arguments for planting more trees to help offset climate change impacts. Yet, not all trees are created equal.
“I think it's important to consider which services we value, in which locations before we make an assessment of what type of tree is appropriate,” Baraloto said.
Some of the trees increasingly under reconsideration include palm trees.
“It's not about, “Is a palm tree good or bad?’ It's about, ‘Is the palm tree an appropriate tree to provide the ecosystem services that are important in this location?’” Baraloto said.
In a rapidly warming world, cities from Los Angeles to Miami Beach and West Palm Beach are looking into whether palm trees are really the best trees for the cities to continue planting.
“Many appreciate the feathery look, but they don't cover as broad an area generally,” Baraloto said. “And, so, some of the actual carbon in the canopy, the cooling effect of the canopy is a little bit different.”
With hotter summers – and a growing number of days above 90 degrees in the South and Southwest - that cooling effect is becoming even more critical.
“Shade is really the number one design feature that you can use to keep people comfortable outdoors in the summer,” Middel said.
In communities all over, which trees work best to provide shade remains a big question, and it's one that researchers are working to answer.
“We've actually put weather stations underneath different types of trees to look at the cooling impact,” Baraloto said.
It’s an impact that climate change has now pushed to the forefront.
“The importance of trees in an urban context has accelerated,” Baraloto said. “And it's a great platform from which to discuss how trees are important in our lives and to make these decisions in an educated fashion.”
It’s a discussion that can help trees keep reaching for the skies as they help people on the ground.