Over the last 40 years, carbon dioxide has been getting sucked out of the atmosphere in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - and perhaps for the entire northeastern United States - at rates not seen for a century, thanks to the U.S. Congress.
What caused this prescient bit of climate policy? Were lawmakers four decades ahead of their time in recognizing global warming?
Although scientists did know about the possibility of human-induced climate change by 1970, most politicians certainly had no idea that the planet was already warming. No, the law passed by Congress was in response to something much more immediate: mercury, sulfur, and other air pollution spewed out by America's industrial powerhouse.
1970 was the year the Clean Air Act went into effect, drastically reducing air pollution emitted in the midwestern U.S. Downwind areas like Pennsylvania and New Jersey benefited hugely from the law, as acid rain deposition and soil contamination plummeted.
Trees rebounded in kind, finally free of nearly a century's worth of crippling industrial toxins.
Now in a new study just published in the journal Chemical Geology researchers have found that the bounce in tree growth has had a lovely knock-on effect. Measurements of cedar and oak tree rings in the two states showed that growth rates have picked up dramatically since 1970. As a result, the authors estimate cedars have sequestered 26 percent more carbon and oaks 66 percent more from the atmosphere since the air cleared up.
Is this enough to save us from the effects of global warming? No, not even close. The authors do not estimate how many tons of carbon the trees have soaked up over the last 40 years, but I'm sure it will hardly even make a blip against America's carbon-emitting habit.
Still, the study is important for two reasons: 1. it shows quite clearly how legislative action can positively affect not only our natural resources, but greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (even when it's unintended), and 2. it's a subtle reminder that natural ecosystems - and trees in particular - are strong allies in the fight to control rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, so long as we keep them healthy enough to function properly.