On the Waterfront: Requiem for a Tree

By Michael Parker

A beautiful, large 50-foot beech tree in the Navy Yard was completely uprooted and fell due to the winds accompanying the devastating coastal storm. While I am sure that multiple trees met the same fate throughout the region, it is instructive to reflect on what was lost when this particular tree met its maker, the soil of Shipyard Park. 

Besides serving as a home and ecosystem for numerous birds and other animals, the tree provided beauty, a sense of tranquility and much more. The tree captured dust and pollen and acted as a natural buffer to the ambient urban noise we hear every day (e.g., the Tobin Bridge traffic).  When viewing the heat index map of Boston, most of the city shows up in hot red color, while the infrequent cooler, green areas are areas resplendent with trees (Franklin Park, the Arboretum, the Public Garden and Common, parks like Shipyard Park).  Besides providing shade, trees are nature’s air conditioner, the evaporation from this single tree produced a cooling effect of 10 air conditioners operating 20 hours a day. The difference in temperature between red and green areas on the heat index map can be up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That is a big deal considering that the amount of days where the temperature exceeds 90 degrees is expected to rise from approximately 13-15 per year to a staggering 90 days per year by the end of the century. 

This tree was an important warrior in the fight against climate change.  It absorbed carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide from the environment and supplied a day’s worth of oxygen for four people and stored 15 pounds of carbon each year.  We are increasingly worried about sea level rise and its potentially devastating effects on our waterfront city. Well that tree was an important part of our first line of defense. Tree systems naturally store flood waters, slowly releasing them back into the waterbodies from where they came instead of bluntly blocking and re-routing flood waters at higher, more destructive speeds into neighboring buildings and streets.

This tree protected the city’s critically important wetland resource areas.  It reduced storm water runoff and screened out pollutants and sediments from the surface water that reaches Boston Harbor and other wetland resource areas – a natural filter more effective than the best engineered filter systems.  Healthy wetland resource areas mitigate flooding in a big way, if the areas around New Orleans had adequately protected its natural wetlands, the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina would have been significantly less destructive.

Ok, now that we know all this, what do we do?  The Parks Department works hard to plant street trees and increase the urban canopy, but with approximately 50,000 trees spread throughout the city, there are not enough resources to take care of them all.  That means we need to take care of the trees once they are planted. Many individuals are doing just that, getting out and watering, mulching and aerating newly planted street trees.  In the Navy Yard, students at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Professions are aiding their neighbors in this effort by adopting trees and caring for them.  A new tree needs 20 gallons of water each week to survive, more during drought. If you have a tree near you and it looks dry, throw some water on it.  Better yet, have your kids do it, you will be saving a tree and teaching them a valuable lesson.  Once you do that, tie a hammock to your tree, relax and watch it grow.

(Michael Parker chairs Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard and Boston’s Conservation Commission.  Anyone interested in becoming a tree steward can contact [email protected])

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