Massive planes, once used to blanket the earth in land mines, could soon be dropping a very different kind of bomb—pointed containers with saplings inside. “There is renewed interest in massive reforestation and shrub planting,” says Moshe Alamaro, an MIT researcher. “Aerial reforestation is the way to go.”
Alamaro collaborated with U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin in the late ’90s to replace the tedious and back-breaking work of manually planting trees by dropping saplings from the sky. The idea, which could see nearly one million trees planted per day, was based on research done at the University of British Columbia in the 1970s. The concept involved using a small fertilizing plane to drop saplings in plastic pods one at a time from a hopper. But it wasn’t very fruitful—most pods hit debris during pilot tests and failed to actually take root.
“It was pretty crude,” says Dennis Bendickson, a forestry professor at UBC, who was a student when the first tests were conducted. He says the upgraded idea, which is meant to create new forests on empty landscapes instead of debris-strewn cuts, “could get success rates of probably 90 per cent.”
The process Alamaro advocates places trees in metal pods that rot on contact with the ground, instead of the low-tech and less sturdy plastic version. He says the process can be adapted to plant shrubs, and would work best in places with clear, loose soil, such as sub-desert parts of the Middle East, or newly habitable Arctic tundra opened up by global warming. “What is needed is government policy to use old military aircraft,” he says, adding that thousands are in hangars across the globe. Although the original pitch failed, Alamaro says the growing carbon market is creating new interest, and he hopes to find funding for a large-scale pilot project soon. Once Alamaro gets planes in the air, the last step, says Bendickson, will be to simply “get people out of the way.”