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Lakhani: Trees and tornadoes reflective of larger global climate issues

By Raina Lakhani

There is nothing in this world so inscrutable or evanescent, yet so instrumental, as life itself. The sole attribute that sets Earth apart from any other celestial body in our solar system is that it can sustain life on a global scale. Countless factors have aligned perfectly on the surface of our planet, such as a favorable position relative to the sun and an atmosphere of optimal thickness. Life may very well be the most precious thing in the universe for this exact reason: The sheer statistical likelihood of its existence is near zero because of the balance it requires between Earth and its surroundings. In turn, Earth contains numerous ecosystems that themselves must maintain a balance.

The ecological systems of Earth have been designed perfectly: Energy is constantly transferred from one trophic level to another, allowing for myriad flora and fauna to survive at predictable and sustainable populations. Despite there being countless environments on Earth that vary in climate, elevation and other factors, each is populated with numerous species that are uniquely adapted to it. Carbon, oxygen and other elements essential to life are cycled through the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere to ensure a healthy balance.

Of course, that was until humanity decided to interfere. During the humble beginnings of the industrial age, it could be argued that we didn’t have the scientific knowledge to understand the effects of pollution, fossil fuels, deforestation and more on the environment. In 2023, however, there is no excuse for perpetuating this cycle of planetary abuse, short of greed and cruelty. The consequences are tangible and manifest themselves in endless ways.

In the neighborhood I grew up in, each house had several rows of towering pine trees behind them as a natural soundproofing system. Any attempt to harm them, including a simple trim of the branches, would result in fines because of how crucial they were to our community. These creatures felt like benevolent guardians watching over me as I played in the yard or read on the porch. It appeared like nothing could harm them. At least, it appeared that way until 2020.

One seemingly ordinary August day was interrupted when tornado watches flashed on the news, followed by tornado warnings. Having lived in Delaware since birth, I was quite used to false alarms. The forecasters would claim a tornado, the result of a distant hurricane, was crashing through, but the tornado never came. So my family sat in the central room of the house rather nonchalantly. Soon enough, the surprisingly quiet, yet intimidating, sound of large objects being plucked from the ground tore through our surroundings. After all was still, my parents and I rushed to the balcony and folded away the blinds. Startled by the sight before us, my mother threw open the door and stepped out. My father and I followed to find the entire row of fencing at the back of our property destroyed. Far more concerning was the state of the trees behind it.

My dear companions were absolutely desecrated. Most of them had been brutally decapitated, revealing the orange-yellow flesh within their trunks. Branches larger than my entire body lay strewn across the lawn and the road behind it, sap sticking to the ripped ends of them like lifeblood to a grave wound. To most, this may be seen as fairly insignificant, but the harrowing scene still lives within me today.

Weeks later, I sat on the porch watching them be put to rest. Only three of the trees were deemed healthy enough to live; the rest needed to be put out of their misery. Each of the survivors looked haggard and frail; one had lost every branch on its left side, indicating the path of the tornado’s attack. A team worked with their machinery to pluck the trunk of each tree out of the ground for disposal. To my surprise, I found a tear sliding down my cheek. The workers simply saw these trees for what they were — trees. To me, though, they were beings with life, with sensation, with souls as deep and feeling as our own. I pictured them facing the storm as a group of soldiers facing an enemy with weapons far superior to their own. They fought bravely to stand their ground, as was evident by their roots still within the ground. The tornado proved to be too strong for them, and the three trees left standing were faced with the memory of pain and fear deep within them. And that isn’t even including the numerous other creatures, from invisible insects to looming turkey buzzards, that died or were rendered homeless and maimed by the incident.

When I picture those arboreal creatures, helpless in the face of danger, I feel overwhelmed by the identical situations that occur across the world every single day, caused by these fierce storms. Hurricanes have become more and more severe over the past few centuries, and that trend will likely continue over time. This means greater deaths for plants, animals and even humans. When the storm hit my friends, several fell backward onto the houses behind my own. One smashed straight through a baby’s nursery. Fortunately, that family was away at the time, but the tree could have killed the newborn. Similar incidents kill numerous people yearly; more than 1,700 people around the world lost their lives to storms in 2020, for instance. While many of these tragedies are unavoidable, scientists have attributed the recent uptick in frequency to a product of our own design: climate change.

Many will argue that climate change is not happening or that, if it is, its consequences are not as immediate as destructive storms. Anyone who claims this has clearly not studied climate sciencebeyondabasiclevel.Asairlingersabovethesurfaceofawarmtropicalocean,itrisesto create a low-pressure zone. Cooler air naturally rushes into this zone to alleviate the pressure on it, then repeats this cycle until a hurricane has formed from the resulting clouds whirling endlessly.Asglobaltemperaturesrise,thetemperatureoftheoceansincreasesdrastically.

Water has a very high specific heat, meaning that it takes a lot of energy to heat water, but it holds onto that heat for long periods of time. That excess warmth is the perfect fuel for tropical storms, as the rush of warmth transforms water droplets into whirling clouds of destruction. The planet’s temperature, like every other aspect of it, is reflective of the delicate balance Earth hangs in to support life. If nothing is done to prevent global warming from tipping that balance, these destructive storms, as well as other weather disturbances, will continue to arise.

Now, as I sit on my home’s balcony, I can see our rebuilt fence, as well as three battered, yet resolute, trees. I feel a sense of sorrow for them because of the stress they must endure during every serious storm in the area. While they are not conscious as a person is, they must feel, deep in their heartwood, a rekindled sense of dread from what came before.

As I gaze lower to the ground, though, a glimmer of hope returns to me: A row of healthy young pines cheerfully sits behind the mature trees, just barely rising over the fence. Behind them is another row, and all along the street, our neighbors have also planted new saplings to slowly repair the miniature ecosystem of our development.

Scenes like these remind me that, while humanity has made many mistakes in the past, there is hope of correcting them. By doing something as simple as planting a tree, we are helping to restore the balance we disrupted. Just imagine this on a larger scale — young people lobbying for the use of renewable energy, biodegradable products and sustainable farming practices. While not all of the damage done to Earth’s network of ecosystems can be reversed, ending the constant cycle of human selfishness by acting more environmentally considerate on a global level could bring that perpetual deterioration to a grinding halt.

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