By Degrees: How Forests Can Improve Health And Slow Climate Change | New Hampshire Public Radio

By Degrees: How Forests Can Improve Health And Slow Climate Change

Jul 20, 2020

Lindsey Rustad walks through the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest
Credit Joe Klementovich

Scientists from New England and Canada are working together to launch a new project called Your Forest, Your Health.

The coalition of medical experts and ecologists want to learn more about how forests can help keep us healthy, especially during the Coronavirus pandemic. And they want to make people more aware of how forests contribute to a healthier climate too. 

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As part of NHPR’s new climate change reporting initiative By Degrees, NHPR's All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke to research ecologist Lindsey Rustad about Your Forest Your Health.

What are the goals of Your Forest, Your Health?

We're working with a coalition of US and Canadian forest scientists and health experts to look at relationships between forests and human health. Healthy forests, equal healthy people. And I guess if you're a cup half empty kind of person, you could say sick forest, equal sick people. So our premise is that there are certain properties of forests, or if you're in a city, a park or a green space that have measurable benefits for human health. So just like we manage our forest for timber, or our parks for recreation, we can also consider managing them for human health. We think, in “scientist,” we say we hypothesize, that if we can harness technology on forests and human health and provide people with real data in real time from real forests, as in an app on your smartphone or tablet, people will make smart choices on how they use their forests and how they would like their forests managed.

So if I'm looking for a particular health benefit, like let's say I want to go on a nice hike and I want to maybe maximize the reduction of stress. There's a way that I could choose, maybe a hiking trail based on the intended effect I wanted to have for my health?

Yes. And for example, if you were asthmatic, you could go and you could look for a forest or a park that had the lowest levels of particulate matter. We know those fluctuate on day by day basis. So that's why having this real time data is like, “Oh, you know, a cold front came in. It's cooler over there. There's been a breeze. Particulate matter is low. Now, that's probably a good place for me to go.”

Let's talk a little bit about the connection between forests and climate change. New Hampshire and Maine are two of the most heavily forested states in the country. What role do our forests play in dealing with climate change?

Forests provide an ecosystem service that we call carbon sequestration. And that basically means that forests, as they grow, they absorb the gas, CO2, that's carbon dioxide, like a giant sponge, and carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. So as our forests absorb this greenhouse gas, they're taking it out of the atmosphere and reducing the overall impact of climate change in general, and global warming specifically.

And how are forests threatened by climate change?

If it gets too warm, some of our forests, some of the species in our forests, may be outside their comfort zone and may actually be more stressed and less healthy. And you can imagine if they're outside their comfort zone, they can't just pick themselves up by their roots and march north towards Canada, or up higher in elevation. Those changes happen on the scale of hundreds or even thousands of years, whereas our climate is changing on the scale of tens of years.

How do forests impact the lives of someone living in a city versus someone living in a more rural area?

Forests and again, green spaces or parks, provide certain benefits for human health. And as I said, they’re physical, mental and social. But we also recognize that the benefits that are most important in cities may not be the same ones that are most important in more rural areas. So, for example, think of yourself in a city on a steaming hot summer day, and you have all that concrete and all that pavement and then you have this nice, cool forest. So cooling may be an extremely important service that forests do in urban areas. Whereas if you're way out in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you have lots of forests. You may not need that cooling effect as much, but you know what? You need jobs. Right? And you need forests to be there to support the economy. And having a solid job supports your mental health.