Image credit: Jdoswim, Creative Commons

Women Climate Leaders: Dr. Suzanne Simard

Dr. Suzanne Simard wants to change how the world thinks about forests. Having grown up in British Columbia, she was raised in a family of Canadian loggers, and her grandfather taught her about the serenity found in nature.

When her family dog fell into a massive hole outside of their outhouse in the woods, Dr. Simard saw firsthand the fascinating world underneath the forest layer by layer. This curiosity led her to study forestry and her life’s mission to save the wilderness.

After college graduation, Dr. Simard’s first job was to mark old-growth trees for clear-cutting and replant them with fast-growing firs and pines. Traditional foresters felt these limited tree species wouldn’t compete with the older trees and be best for profit.

However, only planting one or two species causes forests to lack the necessary complexity for a healthy ecosystem. Removing other tree species did not promote the growth the foresters predicted. Simplified forests also become vulnerable to infection, and with warmer temperatures on the rise, it creates a negative feedback loop for issues like megafires and insect infestations.

As disease spread through these plantations, Dr. Simard knew there was something more profound to how forests worked, so she decided to return to graduate school, where she became engrossed in why old-growth forests are so powerful.

Her studies found that fungi play a significant role in symbiotic communication between trees and connect the plants underground. This analysis led her to discover that fungi colonizing within a birch tree could connect with a faraway fir tree using DNA microsatellites.

In her 1997 Ph.D. thesis, Dr. Simard provided evidence that trees going through photosynthesis release carbohydrates into the ground and provide the structure below energy. The underground microorganisms then connect each plant to evenly distribute supplements in what was dubbed colloquially the ‘wood wide web.’

Trees have been communicating through this underground network for 500 million years. They share information through the fungi exchanging nutrients by sending hormonal, chemical, and electrical signals and connecting their roots.

But this groundbreaking discovery also came with a problem. This specific type of fungi is the most vulnerable to temperature rise, and climate change could ultimately cut off the flow of information between trees. Without this connection, the forests would die, having catastrophic effects worldwide.

Dr. Simard asked herself how her discoveries could help fight the climate crisis. The answer she found lies in our relationship to nature. She knew the best people to consult with would be the First Nations Indigenous who rely on natural resources to survive.

Indigenous leaders taught her about ‘reciprocity,’ which is based on mutual respect and is the idea that every action ripples through our ecosystem and is connected. So, when trees are healthy, they share nitrogen from mother trees with their neighboring trees deep into the forest, which is then tied to the health of the rivers, leading to the oceans that lead back to the people, and so on.

In response to the Douglas fir forests of British Columbia still struggling to regenerate and the threat of climate crisis, Dr. Simard founded The Mother Tree Project, which investigates forest renewal.

Launched in 2015, the project aims to identify future forestry management practices that will help forests remain productive, diverse, and resilient as the climate changes. This work is vital because it will provide crucial scientific data to guide the management of the Douglas-fir forests and forests throughout the world as the planet warms.

Without such data, all forests are at risk of a substantial decline in their capacity to sequester and store carbon. It also will provide information about biodiversity and clean water supplies.

By learning how trees communicate with each other, humanity can better understand how to help nature and reverse the damages afflicted on the environment. Dr. Suzanne Simard’s efforts show that while there is much work to be done, we change the path we are on and heal the Earth. All we have to do is listen.

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