Fighting climate change by planting trees from airplanes & watering forests from the sea

Of all the carbon sequestration technologies available to us for taking greenhouse gasses back out of the atmosphere, the best by a mile are trees. Forests are nature’s carbon sinks, and instead of trying to improve on them with something man-made, savvy inventors have turned their technological know-how to cooking up new ways to reforest the earth.

A former pilot in the British Royal Air Force has invented a way to adapt military airplanes and munitions originally invented for burying land mines for mass tree planting. By putting the sapling inside a metal projectile that biodegrades on contact with the soil and firing it out of a canon mounted on a decommissioned C-130 transport aircraft, up to 900,000 trees a day can be planted. (Compare this to a single human’s 1,000 trees per day maximum planting rate.)

“There are 2,500 C-130 transport aircraft in 70 countries, so the delivery system for planting forests is widely available – mostly mothballed in military hangers waiting for someone to hire them.

“The possibilities are amazing. We can fly at 1,000ft at 130 knots planting more than 3,000 cones a minute in a pattern across the landscape – just as we did with landmines, but in this case each cone contains a sapling. That’s 125,000 trees for each sortie and 900,000 trees in a day.”

The tree cones are pointed and designed to bury themselves in the ground at the same depth as if they had been planted by hand. They contain fertilizer and a material that soaks up surrounding moisture, watering the roots of the tree.

Testing shows that this scheme actually works, and a company has been set up to commercialize it.

The limiting factor for most reforestation efforts isn’t planting rate, though, but water availability. Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong wants to solve this problem by taking water from the ocean and using solar power to desalinate it. Wong plans to use this water to plant 3 billion acres — an area that’s over one fifth of the planet’s 16 billion acres, or about the acreage of the US plus Mexico.

Wong is starting in Hawaii, on the big island in North Kohala, where a prototype reverse osmosis-based plant uses 128 kilowatts of solar power to produce 34,000 gallons of freshwater a day from the sea.

If the trial is a success, Wong hopes to expand across the billions of acres that the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has identified as a candidate for reforestation. Maybe he can plant all those trees by dropping them out of airplanes.