Trees in the forest are connected by an underground network that spans miles – with the oldest trees acting as guardians or parents to the young. Scientists are just beginning to understand how trees form families, share resources and even warn of attack from pests through a complex underground network of fungus that undergirds miles of forest.
Like something from the movie Avatar these “mother trees” look out for their neighbors – a subversive thought that tweaks Darwinism and shows that the oldest living systems in the world rely on cooperation. In Canada, these trees under attack. Canadian trees are being cut down at an unprecedented rate – faster than in Brazil, Indonesia or Russia. And, surprisingly, much of that logging includes old growth. In this Global Reporting Center virtual reality feature, we will put viewers at the centre of this environmental crisis. Viewers will travel through the forests and underground to witness first-hand the forest’s information superhighway and what’s at stake when our last remaining pristine forests are clear-cut.
Big Lonely Doug
Off the coast of British Columbia lies Vancouver Island. Almost half the size of California, this area is famed for its old growth trees and lush coastal rain forest. We begin this VR feature swooping over forest canopy from a bird’s perspective. Suddenly the lush green treetops disappear and we are flying over a clear-cut forest. The devastated landscape is featureless, but at its center one enormous tree towers over the wreckage. Nicknamed Big Lonely Doug, this towering tree may have been spared by loggers because it is Canada’s second-largest Douglas Fir. At nearly 300 feet tall and as thick as a truck, it’s a spellbinding contrast to the decimation around it.
“Industry only see forests as a resource that can be sold in parts, but you have to look at it as part of a larger life support system – the planet’s,” says forestry scientist Suzanne Simard. Clear-cutting remains standard practice, despite new scientific research about the interconnectedness of forest ecosystems. “The model that we’ve used for over a century is still agricultural,” says Simard. “It’s not as simple as chopping everything down and replanting.”
That has been largely the model since George Vancouver discovered this pristine coast of British Columbia. Timber fueled the development and settlement of B.C., and still drives much of its economy today. The result of those decades of logging: Only 3 percent of the old growth – centuries-old trees that define the ecosystem – remains standing.
For years, it was assumed that planting new trees – which become second growth – was sufficient to cover the damage. But in recent years, Simard has brought science up to speed with insights that read like science fiction: trees communicating via a complex network just below the forest floor. “Mother trees – these massive old growth trees – are the hub for communication, carbon transfer, even warnings about threats from pests,” says Simard. “When a forest is clear-cut and the big trees are taken out, it’s like its central nervous system is cut. It’ll never be the same.”
Virtual Reality Experience
We know trees are vital because they suck up CO2 and keep it out of the atmosphere. The larger the trees, the more carbon they sequester and the longer it stays out of the environment – even after they die. But that benefit reverses when you cut them down and release a massive pulse of carbon – a quantity in British Columbia greater than the combined emissions from cars, trucks and industry.
We experience a pristine ancient stand of Western Red Cedars deep in untouched forest. The viewer hears why this ecosystem is especially potent as a carbon sink, packing away nearly twice the CO2 of a second growth forest. As the viewer explores the forest a computer graphic emerges under the trees highlighting the invisible system of fungal connections. A counter at the bottom of the image indicates how much carbon these giant trees absorb, the numbers spinning by quickly in green.
Next, we travel underground through the use of computer graphics and animation. The connections between trees are highlighted, as we witness the transference of information between the trees. Like a spider spinning an intricate web, we are able to see the complexity and size of these underground systems.
We see rows of spindly second-growth trees evenly spaced in a forest that is striking for its lack of diversity. A narrative explains how this mono-crop approach to replanting is more prone to blight and other natural threats. We hear how the older “mother trees” have been clear-cut, and how the younger trees have no network to fall back on if they face a shortage of nutrients or other threats. “It’s a little depressing to stand here,” says Simard. “It’s an impoverished version of nature. Even after a hundred years, this forest won’t have the richness or diversity of the original old growth.” She explains that the second growth still retains carbon, but at a much slower rate than intact old growth. We see the carbon counter at the bottom of the image moving at a snail’s pace.
We’re standing in a decimated landscape and hear the sound of heavy machinery as logs are loaded and cut. “Some of the forest practices that we have done pay no attention to the huge impact they have on climate change,” says Simard. “If forestry continues the way it has over the last decade in Canada, our forests will become even bigger net emitters of carbon, when they should be putting it back in the ground.” We see that the carbon counter at the bottom of the screen is spinning quickly backwards into the red.
WE NEED YOUR HELP
With support to date from the Mindset Social Innovation Foundation and the Ford Foundation and collaborations with broadcast, digital, and print media outlets, the Global Reporting Centre seeks committed partners who value journalism’s role in contributing to a more nuanced, solutions-oriented understanding of the environmental crisis.
Your support will ensure that the Centre has the capacity and resources to produce robust and powerful reporting. Your support will bring these stories to light and highlight the hidden costs of the logging industry, drawing attention to the global environmental impacts. We sincerely look forward to collaborating with partners and supporters.