Hold on to your Christmas trees – climate impacts on the season’s favourite plant

Hold on to your Christmas trees – climate impacts on the season’s favourite plant

By Elisa Jiménez Alonso

Christmas trees, most commonly firs, pines or spruces, are a beloved staple during the holiday season. Behind all the fragrant green needles, colourful baubles and sparkling fairy lights lies a billion-dollar industry that produces tens of millions of live Christmas trees each year. The demand in Europe alone reaches about 50 million every year and in the US trees were sold at a retail value of over $2 billion in 2016. Due to climate change this massive industry is now facing some serious challenges from pests to frost.

Ironically, as our globe warms, trees are getting cold feet. In Scandinavia, Norwegian spruces are missing the insulating blanket of snow that helps protects their roots from sub-zero temperatures penetrating the soil. The frozen soil takes longer to thaw in spring, which in turn can stunt the trees’ growth and affect its overall health. Several snow-scarce years in a row can significantly impact production. In 2010, a tree shortage followed very harsh winters in Europe and led to a 25%-price hike – Christmas tree demand outstripped supply by 70 million trees.

Warmer temperatures also work in favour of Christmas trees’ biggest nemeses: pests. In Canada, the Balsam twig aphid loves sucking sap out of the popular Balsam and Fraser firs. While it gorges on the sap, the insect secretes a substance that makes the trees’ needles swell and curl. As the infestation increases, trees grow less needles and they start experiencing stunted growth. Southern Québec has seen a temperature increase between 0.8 °C and 1.6 °C since the 1960s and at current emission rates, temperatures could increase up to 4.6 °C above average in the 21st century.

As climate change progresses, Christmas tree producers will have to start thinking about ways to adapt their business to changing conditions. Solutions can range from moving production areas to higher altitudes for better weather conditions to diversifying the tree species in order to discourage pests from spreading. Given the long cycles tree farms go through, early adaptation measures are very important to ensure the businesses’ bottom line – and to save a beloved holiday tradition.

Photo by Diogo Palhais on Unsplash

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