The Rapidian

Grand Rapids trees fight climate change

Grand Rapids trees are integral to the city's climate resiliency, providing benefits that are "almost invaluable," according to the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report

For many, climate change seems a distant reality. The first thought the term inspires may be stranded polar bears and the dwindling summertime Arctic Ocean ice coverage. However, climate change effects have been observed on every continent: just scroll down and zoom in about 3,200-some miles south of the North Pole and take a look at our own Grand River. 

According to recent models, Michigan will have to contend with more unpredictable weather more frequently. Summer is the only season in this region that is projected to get drier over time. This means that floods like that of April 2013 (Grand Rapids’ third wettest month since recording began) could become more than an aberrant extreme event. “The Great Lakes region can expect more variable and volatile weather from year to year and from season to season,” the Grand Rapids Climate Resiliency Report indicates. 

Grand Rapids can expect increased precipitation in the fall, winter, and spring seasons. Heavy downpour events have already doubled in frequency over the past century. This, coupled with increased storm intensity projected in the Resiliency Report “will strain the stormwater system.” 

“Originally, stormwater systems were built just for conveyance, with a mindset of ‘get it out quick,’” The Stormwater Master Plan states. “The new mantra is ‘slow it down, spread it out, and soak it in.’ Contemporary stormwater management ... requires a paradigm shift on how we think about managing runoff.” 

The greatest champions of runoff management have been in place—working for free—for decades. We call them trees. Grand Rapids’ trees provide an economic benefit of $32 million per year. Overall benefits of tree canopy—managing stormwater, removing pollutants, sequestering carbon, improving aesthetic experiences—are “almost invaluable,” according to the Resiliency Report. Should the city lose its trees, it would need to establish infrastructure capable of holding 67 million cubic feet of extra stormwater. Grand Rapids is currently working to establish and maintain 40 percent canopy across the city, simultaneously implementing greater species diversity for a more resilient army of stormwater champions. 

Since many trees are located on private property, citizen involvement has been key to the city’s efforts. Each October, the Grand Rapids Urban Forest Project engages community members through the NeighborWoods program in tree plantings and tree care projects. Throughout the year, the Project also offers workshops and events. When it comes to climate change, trees symbolize the city’s vanguard—come pollution or high water, we owe a lot to their invisible industriousness.

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