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Should we cut down all the oak trees?

Should we cut down all the oak trees

At the forefront of environmental discussions at Michigan State University, Tom Sharkey, a University Distinguished Professor at the Plant Resilience Institute, posed a provocative question: “Should we cut down all the oak trees?” While he wasn’t advocating for a literal deforestation of oaks, this theoretical question emerges from his team’s recent discoveries about the role of trees, especially oaks and poplars, in air pollution dynamics. Sharkey’s research delves into the intricacies of isoprene — a compound released by certain plants, particularly oaks and poplars. This research reveals a paradox. On one hand, with global temperatures rising, these trees emit more isoprene which, when interacting with pollutants like nitrogen oxide, exacerbates poor air quality by contributing to particulate matter and low-atmosphere ozone. On the other hand, isoprene bolsters the plants’ resistance against environmental stressors such as insect attacks and high temperatures. This double-edged sword leads Sharkey to ask, “Do we want plants to make more isoprene so they’re more resilient, or do we want them making less so it’s not making air pollution worse? What’s the right balance?” Despite isoprene being the second-largest emitted hydrocarbon on Earth — trailing only behind methane emissions from human activities — its significant impact on the environment remains relatively unknown to the general public. Sharkey, who has studied isoprene since his doctoral days at Michigan State in the 1970s, sheds light on its importance and the challenges it presents. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time trees have been implicated in air pollution discussions. In the 1980s, then-president Ronald Reagan controversially claimed that trees produced more air pollution than cars. This statement, although exaggerated, contained a nugget of truth regarding the role of isoprene. As Sharkey explains, “There’s this interesting phenomenon where you have air moving across a city landscape, picking up nitrogen oxides, then moving over a forest to give you this toxic brew.” Original Article

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