Baseball players, stock up on your wooden bats, especially those of the ash variety. In a few years, maple bats may be the only option you have. A bat factory in northwestern Pennsylvania has drawn up a three to five year emergency plan if the white ash tree is diminished, and a plant in Michigan has started collecting ash tree seeds for storage in preparation of extinction of the species. So what’s going on with the ash tree, and is climate change to blame?
The number of ash trees is rapidly decreasing throughout the United States, and while the most immediate threat is the emerald ash borer, a nasty winged beetle responsible for 20 to 25 million ash tree deaths in the Midwest alone, climate change is setting up a flank attack using the beetle as a diversionary tactic.
Native to Asia, the emerald ash borer arrived in the United States in the 1990s most likely in wood products, and in 2002 scientists found evidence in Michigan and Canada that ash trees were suffering because of the effects of the pest. Because of the wide range of temperatures found throughout Asia, it is doubtful that there is any link between climate change and the emerald ash borer; however, some scientists believe that a warmer climate may put more stress on the ash, aiding in the borer’s invasion, which could result in a quicker reproductive cycle of the beetle and a more rapid disappearance of the tree.
But climate change also poses more direct threats to the preservation of the ash tree. Baseball bat manufacturers have chosen ash because of its dense yet flexible consistency, characteristics mainly found in the white ash in the northern part of the United States. Ash in the southern states is considerably softer because of a longer growing season, and doesn’t have the needed density component that bat makers are looking for. As a warmer climate creeps northward, the growing season will begin to mimic that of the south. This leaves the ash softer, less dense, and out of the market for future bat material.
Perhaps more importantly is the possibility that white ash numbers could rapidly decline over the next few years because of habitat changes caused in part by a warmer climate. Ecologists from the United States Forest Service forecast that 134 species of trees could be affected by the end of the century. A worst-case scenario suggests that the number of white ash would be diminished greatly and would move farther north.
While we are bombarded daily by suggestions of global warming and all of its implications, we rarely take the time to dissect the bigger picture and see the smaller parts. The ash is a piece of that bigger picture. Let’s help keep it there.