Friday, August 20, 2010

Morituri te salutamus!

Yesterday I stopped to talk to this very nice lady, who was painting the landscape down the road from Wit's End. She told me she had often worked in that spot.
Her painting depicted green trees across the pasture. I asked her if, as an artist, she had noticed any difference in the trees lately. She squinted at them. "They're kind of thin?" she said, quizzically.
"I'd venture they're more than thin," I said, and I pointed to the many bare branches plainly visible in the treeline (none of which were included in her painting).
She still seemed doubtful so I said, "Well, what about that one?" pointing to the totally dead one immediately behind her. She turned to look and then jumped, startled. "Oh, my!" was all she could muster. Such is the nature of denial.

ClimateProgress has a post about yet another report, this one by Maoshung Zhao, funded by Nasa and using satellite data, that plant growth is on the wane globally - once again ascribed to warming and drought, a version of which I actually read first in the Guardian. Of course, I do think warming and drought will ultimately destroy agriculture, but there is something much more immediately menacing going on.

Here's a paper from 2007 studying trees in Switzerland that documents foliar damage and stunted growth, specifically attributed to exposure to ozone. The abstract states:

"Ambient ozone exposures in the region were sufficient to cause visible foliar injury, early leaf senescence and premature leaf loss in all species. Ozone had significant negative effects on net photosynthesis and stomatal conductance in all species...Water-use efficiency decreased and intercellular CO2 concentrations increased in all species in response to ozone...mean ring width in the AA and NF P. nigra seedlings was reduced by 52 and 46%, respectively..."

Upon finding this, I immediately wrote to one of the authors, Dr. Skelly, since he was a professor at Penn State at the time of publication, and according to his webpage there he has vast experience in the study of the effects of ozone on vegetation. Here's my letter yesterday morning, interspersed with photos from the afternoon:

Dear John,

Thank you so much for writing back.
I found your name as author of a paper in the references, when I read this paper just published by U Guelph researchers. It says forests are in decline.
I'm not a scientist, but as a life-long gardener and tree-lover I have been concerned for about two years over the condition of vegetation.
I first noticed a problem in the summer of 2008 when all the leaves on the trees around my home in New Jersey abruptly wilted. Soon they started turning brown and falling off. In the fall, the conifers began dropping needles.
Since then the situation has deteriorated rapidly, and in addition, as I have traveled some, I have realized that it is the same every place I have gone - Seattle, San Francisco, Boston to Virginia, and even Costa Rica.
What is even more alarming is that this summer, the same evidence of damage is appearing on the leaves of annual ornamentals and crops. It can even be seen on indoor and aquatic plants.
Because of the widespread nature of the impacts I have concluded that only something in the composition of the atmosphere can adequately account for the empirical, visible evidence. If it was warming (as claimed by the paper above), or drought, from climate change then plants being watered in pots would be in better shape than those in the ground - but they aren't. If it was primarily long-term, cumulative damage from soil nutrient loss due to acid rain, then potted trees in enriched soils would be in better shape - but they aren't.
I believe that ozone - which is well documented to have negative impacts on growth - must be the major culprit, although the recent damage is so rapidly intensifying that it seems either we have reached a tipping point; or there is something new and unmeasured in the mix - perhaps acetaldehyde from ethanol emissions (as far as I can tell, no one has tested to see what effect that might have), or some more virulent reaction with increase in radiation from cell towers.

I started out writing letters and making phone calls to anyone I could think of who would have knowledge about this topic - from foresters to atmospheric physicists to government agencies. For the most part, it is nigh impossible to get any of them to acknowledge the existential threat that is occurring right in front of their noses. Just like coral bleaching in the sea, it appears we are willing to sacrifice the foundation of the ecosystem to sustain our habit of wantonly burning fuel as our source of energy.

I am hopeful that you have the background to look into this. As a mother I am quite frankly terrified by the rapidity of destruction because it is going to lead to severe food shortages and all the social unrest that will shortly follow. It is going to take the strenuous intervention of experts to educate the public and politicians to this ongoing threat so that we can take steps to conserve our use of energy to only the most essential purposes, and transition quickly to clean sources.

I have been doing my best to document the visible impacts by posting photographs on my blog, where I also have a list of links to any research I have been able to find, at the top of the page where it says "Basic Premise."

Here is the post where I discuss the paper from U Guelph. I recently discovered that gardeners from all the world over are posting videos on youtube of their damaged leaves, so I embedded some of them here. I am certainly no longer alone in noticing what is happening, although very few attribute the source to ozone. Some people think it's fallout from the Gulf and others think it is contrails, while I see no need to seek conspiracies when we already know that there is a ubiquitous toxin in the air, the levels of which are inexorably rising.

I would appreciate any help you are inclined to offer, including if you know of any other scientists who are active in this field. Already the streets and sidewalks are littered with dead leaves, and it's only August. I fear we do not have much time left to understand this vast threat, let alone solve it before all the trees are gone - and with them, all the forms of life that depend on them for food, habitat, shade, lumber, and beauty.

Please write back! I am not sure where you relocated to, since you left Penn State. I would be very interested to see what you observe if you are traveling for your vacation. Thank you so much for reading.



The post at Climate Progress received two comments on a topic that requires investigation - whether CO2 levels in and of themselves can adversely impact certain types of plants:

Steve H says:
  1. Ah, it seems that some scientists have forgotten Bio 101 (with a little bit of graduate level anthro), and did not take into consideration that C3 plants like low levels of C02. And C3 plants, while comprising less than 5% of biomass, are the predominant species used for food by humans. As CO2 rises, C3 plants cannot thrive as well.

    Please put this in your quiver of facts, irregardless of global warming, supporting low carbon energy solutions.

  2. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Steve at 50 -

    Very good point indeed – though I’d apply it to promoting the need of a stringent treaty, without which any fossil fuels displaced by ‘low-carbon energy solutions’ are being and will be bought and burnt elsewhere.

    There’s also a further aspect to the C3/C4 issue – The north flank of the ridge on the far side of the valley here, comprising around 1,000 acres, was photographed in the ’50s with mountain pasture all along it.
    It is now almost entirely covered by dense bracken tall enough to hide the hill ponies we use for shepherding.

    And bracken, as you may well know, is a C4 species. – We’ve lost ~1,000 acres of grazing to CO2 pollution just in this one valley.



To which I replied:

And by the way, Steve H, your comment is fascinating. The very first avenue of inquiry I pursued was higher levels of CO2, since that is the major change, but I was told very firmly by the Real Climate scientists and others that there was no way on earth CO2 could adversely impact plants. Hm. If you have any links please post them here or on my blog!

Then Dorothy left a link to a Duke University study indicating the there will be other nutrient constraints on growth increases from CO2. I'm not sure that is just a leveling off of increase, or an actual decrease though. She also provided this information about different types of photosynthesis that make different sorts of plants more or less sensitive to CO2 levels, heat and light. Who knew!?

Visiting Dorothy's site, WestCoastClimateEquity led me to this article from Reuters, "Extreme Weather Plagues Farming", and the following quote which simply enrages me!

"'The effects of extreme weather on crops are only beginning to be understood. Many scientists had projected that climate change's rising global temperatures would help countries in the North produce more food.

For decades scientists studied the effect of global warming on crops by simply raising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in greenhouses. They did not take into account the effects of floods and droughts, or reduced yields that result from higher temperatures.

"There's been a severe failing of the scientific community. on that," said Gulledge. "Climate science proceeded amazingly over that period, but this topic was handled poorly.'"

When in the HELL are they going to factor in ozone??? Talk about a "severe failing of the scientific community" - this borders on criminal negligence at this point, because I personally have written to dozens of scientists and government agencies and they CONTINUE to ignore the issue.

Maybe I should make a list of all the scientists I have contacted that refuse to acknowledge an existential threat...or maybe just call them up and ask them...WHY??? Don't you have children too?
Here is yet another study, from a journal that is new to me, Tree Physiology, (where I expect to spend much of the weekend), titled
"Growth responses and related biochemical and ultrastructural changes of the photosynthetic apparatus in birch (Betula pendula) saplings exposed to low concentrations of ozone" with the following observations in the abstract:
"Based on the observed biochemical, physiological and structural changes in chloroplasts of clone B in response to low concentrations of ozone, we conclude that the increasing concentration of tropospheric ozone represents a risk to natural birch populations."

I don't know WHY scientists insist on saying "represents a risk" rather than "will kill" - or "in decline" instead of "dying".

Here is Maoshung's reply to my query, and a second message in response to a request for further clarification:

"Dear Gail ZawackiOldwick

I saw your webpage, and it is very interesting. Because we also used satellite radiometirc information in our calculation, which provides us information on how much green leaves in a one square kilometer pixel of each vegetated land on earth, the amount of leaves will be less if ground vegetation experinced damages, regardless of the causes of damages, such as deforestation, insect outbreak, pollutions, etc. But in most cases, we don't know if the reduced leaf amount observed by satellite either caused by climatic stress or human activities at a given pixel without further analysis. Therefore, reduced leaf amount will cause decreased calculated NPP, and ozone effects have been accounted for. But over large scale, a reduction or increase of plant growth generally is caused by climate fluctuations. In our paper, we have mentioned this in the second paragraph (attached)."

my followup:

Hi, it was very kind of you to reply, thank you so much especially for attaching the whole paper! But I confess I am still confused. The second paragraph you refer to I read as being:

"Between 2000 and 2008, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion continued to increase at a rate consistent with the average of the highest- emissions family of scenarios, A1FI, used by the IPCC in the Fourth Assessment (1). Carbon-budget meth- ods show that the land is becoming a stronger carbon sink, whereas large uncertainties exist in the partitioning of ocean and land carbon-sink components (1, 4). Satellite data can generally provide realistic information on vegetation dy- namics, including land cover change (5, 6), dis-turbances, and recovery (7), which may help to reduce uncertainties in carbon-budget estimates. In this study, we investigate terrestrial NPP and climate variability over the past decade (2000 to 2009) by analyzing satellite data from the Mod- erate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer(MODIS) on board NASA’s Terra satellite and global climate data."

It is not clear to me how that accounts for ozone. Do I have the wrong paragraph? Or do you mean that measuring leaf loss automatically accounts for ozone damage, and if so, how do you separate ozone damage from losses due to higher temps and/or drought? Sorry to be a pest. I really want to understand this! thanks,Gail

His response:

"Gail The word "disturbance" covers this. Also in scientific field, using satellite data, currently we have low capability to tell the specific cause of damaged vegetation (except wildfire and large scale deforestation), such as distinguishing ozone damage from insect attacks from space. [empasis added]

But these negative effects from these "disturbance" will low leaf amount as observed by satellite, and hence low NPP. On the other hand, after the disturbances, there is also recovery, as showed a increased leaf amount, which also can be captured by satellite.

So I am still wondering, if scientists have low capability to tell the specific cause of damaged vegetation, why is it being attributed to warming and drought??
This question led me to stop at the nearest body of water, which is a reservoir behind Verizon headquarters.
You would think that trees whose roots are alongside water would be in better condition than those far off in fields or woods, assuming drought is the main reason trees are dying.
And you would expect the foliage to be a nice normal green, as well.
Except, they exhibit the identical damage.
Trees and other plants along the water, and even the plants that are always in the water, like these lilies, are just as singed and burnt as everywhere else.
I would like to say thanks to Maosheng Zhao for taking the trouble to answer my questions...Thank You!


  1. Gail, this is a superb posting. Thanks so much for all that you do. You have many, many fans and followers...

  2. Perhaps many of us technological types have a tendency to spend too much time looking at screens of computed data and telemetry and too little time just looking around.

    Looking but not seeing.

    Not seeing the forest for the trees.

    --Lee Rust


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