A Christmas Tree-t: Our 9 favourite tree stories of 2021

Since the 16th century, we have been bringing trees into our homes around the Christmas period and decorating them with lights, tinsel, baubles and all kinds of tacky decorations.

But here at Cosmos, we know that trees are amazing year-round. We’ve collected a few of our favourite tree science treesearch stories from 2021 that reach beyond festive spruces, firs and pines.

1. Tree-D modelling: Scanning the savanna with 3D imaging

The award for best punny tree title is awarded to this story, which delves into a new 3D imaging technique that allows researchers to calculate the carbon storage capacity of individual trees.

Linda Luck, a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University, is using 3D modelling to estimate the amount of carbon in trees across the Northern Territory savanna, to get a better picture of how our woodlands store carbon, and how this can be lost following fires and storms.

Trees are fantastic storers of carbon and are necessary for mitigating climate change. They act like a sieve, absorbing carbon and leaving the air cleaner. Knowing the quantity of carbon they can store gives a good indication of what the climate might look like in the future.

Read more.

Trees on a plain blue background. The trees are illutrations and are rainbow coloured
3D models of trees, compiled from LiDAR scanning data. Credit: Linda Luck.

2. Paddock of dreams

At Currency Creek Arboretum, an hour south of Adelaide, Dean Nicolle has planted 10,600 individual eucalypt trees, representing eight Angophora species, 100 Corymbia and fully 872 Eucalyptus species or subspecies: some 97% of all known members of the Eucalypteae tribe.

It’s a taxonomic tapestry compressing 45 million years of evolution from across the continent into a single point in time and space. By attempting to grow every Australian eucalypt species in the one place, under uniform conditions, Nicolle has not only created the largest single collection of living eucalypts in the world, but a remarkable natural experiment.

In Cosmos 93, the summer edition of our print magazine, writer Danielle Clode visits this incredible arboretum to learn about how it might hold the key to the gums’ future.

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Pictures of different eucalyptus foliage
Pictures of different eucalyptus foliage from Currency Creek. Credit: Ian Connellan.

3. Satellite mapping is preparing Australian cities for a warming earth

Imagine you’re an urban planner, worried about your city’s resilience in the face of the growing threat of climate change. You’ve seen research that shows urban environments – particularly neighbourhoods without tree canopy cover – are up to 10°C warmer than the surrounding area, so you’re trying to plant more trees and expand green spaces.

But how do you know where to focus your attention? And how do you know your efforts are working?

Now imagine if you could receive weekly or monthly reports, containing tailored information from satellites that are regularly mapping your city. As you browse through, the report tells you about how the tree canopy cover has changed and where; how healthy the vegetation is; and the locations of the hottest and coolest neighbourhoods.

When you combine this data with on-ground monitoring, you can start to see the big picture of how your city is adapting – and what decisions you need to make next.

Read more.

4. Batt-trees? Cellulose in solid-state batteries shows promise

Trees aren’t just useful for their carbon storage capacity and their shade. Fibres from tree wood could also advance lithium-ion power, according to new research.

Solid-state lithium-ion batteries are a hallowed goal in energy: they’d be more powerful – and safer – than current commercial liquid-based models. But researchers are still looking for solid materials that can conduct electricity well and integrate with the rest of the battery.

One such substance has been found by a team of US materials scientists, and has an unlikely source: cellulose, taken from trees.

Read more.

5. More megafires loom in Australia’s future

Australian bushfires are getting worse and it’s being driven by climate change, according to a massive analysis of 90 years’ worth of fire data specifically focused on forests.

Not only has the number of megafires in Australia spiked since 2000, but a greater expanse of land is being burnt, and they’re happening more and more in autumn and winter.

Even the cooler La Niña seasons don’t offer much respite – in fact, the data shows that fires tend to be worse directly after La Niña years.

The researchers, led by the CSIRO’s Pep Canadell, warn that we should prepare for another severe fire season in the summer of 2022/23.

Read more.

Bushfire in the blue mountains.
Bushfire in the Blue Mountains. Credit: Andrew Merry / Getty Images

6. Native logging to end in Western Australia

Positive news this year out of WA: the state plans to phase out native forest logging in the southwest by 2024, and logging all native forests by 2033.

The move is divisive, and emblematic of a much bigger, nationwide struggle between the native logging sector – which maintains that logging can be carried out sustainably – and environmental campaigners and scientists, who want to see all native forest protected, especially after the devastating bushfire season of 2019/20.

We delved into whether this decision lines up with the science.

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7. Go figure: new fig species identified on Uluru

In more good news, this year botanists identified a fig from Australia’s desert as a new species.

Figs are extensively used by First Nations peoples in Australia, but until recently only one species was known to botanists to grow in central Australia. Now, a new species of desert fig – Ficus desertorum – has been classified as a distinct species growing on Uluru.

The desert fig appears to favour elevated places as it also grows on Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles).

Read more.

A plant with long green leaves and small yellow round fruit
The plant has been described as Ficus desertorum, or the desert fig. Credit: Australian Institute of Botanical Science

8. Pompeii of prehistoric plants

Nearly 300 million years ago, a volcanic eruption in northern China smothered a nearby swamp under half a metre of ash. Though cataclysmic for the plants living there, it was a boon for palaeontologists, who uncovered the exquisitely preserved specimens millions of years later in 2006.

Now, a new analysis of these spectacular fossils has yielded evolutionary insights, revealing that some of the preserved trees – called Noeggerathiales – are the ancestors of the seed-bearing plants that dominate the Earth today.

Read more.

9. Rewilding: How to build a forest

There is art and science in building a forest.

Earlier in the year, Cosmos spoke to Brett Krause – a self-described “forest builder” – about his reforestation work in the Cassowary Coast region of Tropical North Queensland, Australia.

Krause is the president and co-founder of Brettacorp Inc, a not-for-profit building forests in collaboration with the international SUGi project. We asked Krause about his forest-building projects, and in particular the benefits of the “Miyawaki method” of afforestation he uses.

Watch here.

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