Earth restoration in your back yard: Can we really combat climate change by microclimate buffering?

Mar 2024

What are our biggest issues with climate change?

We have all heard the continuous onslaught of devastating news that world average surface temperatures have almost surpassed the point of no return according to many environmental scientists.  According to NASA,“Earth was about 2.45 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 1.36 degrees Celsius) warmer in 2023 than in the late 19th-century (1850-1900) preindustrial average. The 10 most recent years are the warmest on record.” 

The future seems bleak, with a constant barrage of drought, rising temperatures, flooding, famine, and rise in carbon dioxide and methane emissions predicted. So, in order to combat and alleviate this predicament before it’s too late, we need to be putting all our efforts into temperature regulation, moisture retention, habitat preservation, carbon sequestration and extreme weather protection.  

Global warming from 1901-2023 Image credit: NOAA

What is microclimate buffering?

Microclimate buffering, in  basic terms, is the ability of dense forest canopies and the overall water balance to moderate extreme climate conditions on the ground. By buffering, we mean that maximum temperatures stay cooler and minimum temperatures stay warmer.  The understory and ground are protected from wind, rain, and direct sunlight. Humidity and water retention is regulated, and the soil is moist. This means things are…staying alive… (cue the Bee Gees). 

And these microclimates we speak of? Microclimates are all around us and they represent a specific set of climatic conditions seen in small, localized areas close to the Earth’s surface. These environmental factors – like temperature, light intensity, wind velocity, and moisture content – are what defines a habitat and what signals what/who can and cannot live there.  

Now, the real question is, is microclimate buffering the key to cooling down the planet or is it just the buzzword du jour? Well, yes and no. It would be unrealistic to reforest the entire planet (what a cool thing to imagine though!) BUT…in places that have been deforested, heavily degraded and even in areas of the world that are getting increasingly warmer, the concept CAN benefit you and your region depending on the level of implementation. 

How does microclimate buffering work?

Let’s tackle water balance first. This is not the same thing as the water cycle, even though it plays a role. In simple terms, water balance is like saying “what goes in must come out”. The ideal “balance” of hydrology in a landscape means that the precipitation inflow must equal the water outflow and storage capacity of the soil.  The outflow is the amount of evapotranspiration occurring, ground runoff, and groundwater discharge to aquifers and watersheds. The storage capacity means how much water from precipitation is the soil holding. Precipitation can mean rain and snow, but also fog, and morning dew in dryer places.  

Forest water balance model by Silva Joint Research Unit

Here’s an example of water balance on the land that is not maintaining efficient equilibrium.  

Let’s say your land was recently flooded by a big storm. Even though the standing water has subsided, what’s left is soggy soil that squishes when you walk on it. This means that your soil is completely saturated and there is no more holding capacity. And what about outflow? Well, if it’s late autumn or early winter, and there is no active vegetation growing other than grass, there are not many ways for this water to be absorbed by the roots and transpired back into the atmosphere by leaves. There will be evaporation from the ground happening, but the speed at which it takes place will be insignificant. This means that the water stays put for longer periods of time, and the outflow is minimal. So, what happens when it rains now, for say, three days straight? Where is all that water going to go? You’re mostly likely going to get flooded again, and this time there may be bigger consequences to your land or home. There are many other examples of course, but this just gives you an idea of why water balance is important. 

Image credit: Canva

China’s Yangtze River as an example. Reuters

Now, let’s talk trees. For those living in deforested, arid, hot or desertified regions, then this might be of interest to you. Forest ecosystems are critically important in the context of global climate change. They keep ground temperature lower and keep moisture in the ground due to their umbrella-like shielding effect to the understory vegetation. It’s the same reason we sit under an umbrella at the beach. It’s just more pleasant. You may be wondering why we made a big deal earlier about the importance of water balance and evapotranspiration (and if you recall this, points for you for paying attention!). Keeping moisture in the ground is beneficial, in almost all cases. We do of course need to have some transpiration and evaporation to reenter the atmosphere to return to the clouds and repeat the precipitation process, but it needs to be regulated. The trees help slow this process down. They help keep moisture in the ground which in turn keeps our soil satiated, and our aquifers and watersheds full. And let’s not forget the CO2 absorption. If you don’t know already, CO2 (carbon dioxide) is one of two greenhouse gases that is accelerating global climate change. So, yay for trees, right?  

An efficient tree canopy provides shade and protection to forest understory and ground  
Image credit: Canva

Let’s nerd out a bit here. A recent 2019 study showed that when there is at least 50% forest canopy intact, there was a decrease of 5.3°C and 1.1 kPa (kilo pascals, a unit to measure vapor pressure) on average, compared with those areas next door with no canopy cover. This is huge when thinking of the (bleep)-storm we are in, in terms of the planet getting hotter! For a crash course in why vapor pressure is important, go here. 

Google Earth, March 4, 2024 of Ecosystem Restoration Community Mainsprings, Tanzania

Can you imagine how much cooler it is under the tree canopy on the right versus the land on the left? As you can see here from the recent aerial imagery of ERC Mainsprings in Tanzania above, there’s a radical difference in land cover, greenness and soil protection due to addition of trees and smaller vegetation/agriculture in the understory. The shade from the trees enhances water availability and protects the ground from erosion. This is, of course, not a full-fledged forest, but you get the idea! 

And what happens when ecosystems lose the microclimate buffering effect? How does this apply to us? 

Plants and animals all around the world have adapted to live in specific places. These adaptations have taken up to millions of years to perfect. Some scientists say 2 million on average. Therefore, an ecosystem is designed to run like a well-oiled machine, and if one of those parts starts stops working, the whole system goes awry. So, what is the side effect of less microclimate buffering due to deforestation or less water availability?  Let’s take a look at what could happen after a large-scale deforestation event, for example.   

There have been two hectares deforested in early summer and the rising temperatures are sucking away most of the soil moisture because there is nothing protecting it from the sun and wind. This, along with the depleted water availability, altered this microclimate. There may be thousands of species (flora and fauna) that depend on this specific habitat with cooler temperatures and abundant vegetation that will no longer be able to flourish and will either die off or migrate to other locations.  If the animals do migrate, some may find suitable conditions and some may not. The ones that do not find suitable conditions are the unlucky who will die. The animals that find another “Goldilocks” ecosystem (an ecosystem that’s “just right”) may not be so lucky, either. 

“The ‘Goldilocks Zone’ means that an ecosystem has just the right amount of frequency and intensity of disturbances – a site is dynamic enough to keep competitive species from dominating yet is relaxed enough to avoid a total wipeout of species” Inah Balbino – Landscape architect from Manila, Philippines.  

The onslaught of new animal species in the new locations creates an increase in populations leading to a decrease in habitat “real estate”, if you will. The pressures of the growing population will also decrease food availability. And what about the predators? There will be more competition between larger predator animals to find food and will eventually decimate all keystone species’ food supplies. Next, we will see large migrations to other fragments of land or worse, species continue to die off.  

This means that soil nutrients decline because there is less biological decay and debris to replenish and feed the soil. There will be less plant life due to lack of nutrients. And there will be less and less seed dispersal from the lower animals on the food chain, and so much more. As you can see, we need species diversity. It’s all about balance.  

Now, let’s get to your back yard

So hopefully now, we can see how the concept of microclimate buffering can work in forested areas, but what about our own back yard? Well, friend, you too can also take this concept home and to your community. In the face of rising temperatures everywhere and water scarcity becoming an undeniable truth in many regions of the world, why not take simple actions to combat climate change like our mighty forests do?  This can be done anywhere. If you take the time now to create a dynamic ecosystem that helps self-regulate your microenvironment at home, you will most likely find your future a lot more tolerable. You can create your own oasis of cooler temperatures and elevated levels of water retention just by adding shade and ground cover.  

Tree placement is EVERYTHING! Image credit: ERC Mainsprings, Tanzania 

Being thoughtful about where you put your plants and what kinds are used are of course, very important. Mimicking nature is our goal, so we need to understand what plants do and do not play well with others in our region. We suggest sticking with indigenous/endemic species (trees and smaller vegetation alike). These plants will have an impact on what kind of biodiversity you attract. One thing is to always think about pollinators, so don’t hesitate to add trees and perennials that flower during the growing season. 

But PLEASE do your research about which trees can be planted next to your house or establishment. Some trees have extensive root systems that can mess with your foundation or your sewage tank, so just do your homework or ask an expert. And don’t forget that you are trying to mimic a whole ecosystem, so remember the understory! The plants covering the ground are just as important as the trees and add more biodiversity. Go ahead and add some perennials but also some garden treats for wildlife to enjoy and for you to eat. If you are looking to stay on a small budget, you can often find organizations that donate local plants or sell them inexpensively. Also, depending on where you live, you can find your own seeds and seedlings. 

Also, be mindful of what hemisphere you are in because this could help you decide what kind of trees are best to plant. For example, if you have very cold winters but your springs and summers are getting increasingly hotter, maybe opt for some deciduous trees along with ground cover to protect the soil (always protect your soil!). The leaves will provide protection from the sun and will cool down your yard and home. In the winter after the leaves have fallen, you will be able to receive extra warmth from the sun. This is not going to be the case for hot, arid climates all year round. In that case you want maximum tree cover protection all year round along with ground cover. Again, to reiterate, this ideal for cooling down your home environment. You may still want maximum sun exposure in some areas for gardening and farming.  

ERC Functional Forests Zeytinalani in Turkey is reforesting to bring back soil health and biodiversity amidst the rising temperatures and country wide land degradation. 

Is the jury in or out for microclimate buffering? 

This remains to be seen by the scientific community and environmental practitioners worldwide if this alone can halt the effects of climate change. BUT replicating this concept at home and in our communities in the face of a warming planet will have a positive impact. Remember, small changes can have BIG effects.

Every single human holds the potential to make a global impact. But we need to have the knowledge. And that’s why we are here! Ecosystem Restoration Communities support restoration around the world, in all climates, and of all sizes. Come along for the ride and get dirty for the planet with us. Together we can create a more resilient world. 

Header image: Al Qudra desert, Dubai. Credit: