Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Appeal to Bill McKibben

On our last day on Cape Cod, we passed this fanciful windmill.
A pretty sight...but every tree is compromised, upon close inspection.
Leaves are turning brown and shriveling up.
Many branches are bare.
These morning glories look just as bad as those in New Jersey, even though, presumably, they have been watered on a regular basis.
The flowers in the pots are in poor shape as well.
Trees are rapidly losing their leaves.
At the rate trees are dying, soon the sky will have nothing but wires against the blue.
We can say goodbye to their cooling shade.
Tasha had never seen the ocean before.
She just wanted to lie on the sand and stare at it!
For Cape Cod, there was some impressive surf from the last storm.
Above is a picture of degraded oil reproduced at DesdemonaDespair, that had turned up in the Mississippi Sound, which tested positive for chemical dispersants.
When I went to the Jersey shore for a week at the beginning of August, I was repulsed to see brown foam in the water - but I thought, well, that's the Jersey shore for you, which smells not of bracing salty ocean air, but kerosene and sulphur.
So I was shocked to see the identical goop on Cape Cod!
When the waves recede the sand is stained, and the birds run through the puddles, perplexed. Is brown foam a natural occurrence? I don't know...
The dunes are badly eroded and the scrubby trees are bare of leaves.
All sorts of vegetation is dead, not just where it has been exposed along the top of the cliffs, but far off in protected areas that are fenced from foot traffic.
This is a zoom of a distant crest, with large patches of bare branches.
In a column at the New York Review of Books, the author and climate activist Bill McKibben wonders why people haven't become just a tad more alarmed about the 40% decline of phytoplankton in the ocean - which happen to be at the base of the food chain, which in turn happens to produce most of the oxygen we breathe.
One of the comments, by a Geoff Roberts, reads as follows: "The problem with these kinds of reports is that they often deal with phenomena that are marginal to most people's experience," which echoes precisely what youngest daughter said to me - people don't see themselves as being affected by climate change, so they don't care.
In response to Geoff, I left this comment (but I don't think the moderator let it go through!) "EXACTLY. So, Bill McKibben, WHY don't you start talking about the disappearing trees and other vegetation from ozone pollution?? This IS in people's back yards, and on their dinner tables. It is the only thing that is going to motivate them to demand our corrupted politicians and government agencies stop shielding the fuel industries and invest in clean energy.
If we are to have a prayer of survival, we have to ration fuel consumption and restrict it to only the most essential purposes as we transition to clean sources of energy. Speak up, Bill! For God's sake, you have a forum!!
I called Jane Wilson, who is the proprietor of Sunnyland Farms, my favorite source for nuts, with 1400 acres planted with pecan trees. I wanted to ask her about the harvest this year. She said she was confident it would be a good one.
There were two points that were interesting to me about what she said.
First, 2008 was the largest crop ever not just for Sunnyland, but in the history of the pecan industry.
That would fit in with the tendency for declining trees to put all their energy into reproduction, which first became familiar in conifers producing cones, and later in trees reflowering at the end of summer, and deciduous trees brilliant with unprecedented amounts of seeds this past spring.
Second, she volunteered that, because it is so hot and humid, they spray with fungicides - and insecticides to control aphids. This brought to mind two things - 1. research has shown that fungus and insects proliferate when ozone levels are high and 2. one forester wrote me that yes, ozone is a problem but unfortunately, he said, people tend to "throw fungicides and pesticides at the problem" rather than deal with the real source.
Susan Shamel shared some pictures from Manchester, Vermont, where she had gone to hear a talk by Bill McKibben. She added some passages from his book, Eaarth: "The biggest trees, the largest living things on earth, are disappearing."
And this one: "referring to the pine beetle infestation out West, but applicable everywhere, 'The resulting widespread tree mortality reduces forest carbon uptake and increases future emissions from the decay of killed trees...converting the forest from a small net carbon sink to a large carbon source.'"
Given the numerous reports I have posted here from all over the world that trees are dying from arid weather, it is interesting that he had quoted a Yosemite study "'These large, old trees have lived centuries and experienced many dry and wet periods, one researcher said. 'So it is quite a surprise that recent conditions are such that these long-term survivors have been affected.'" It's a surprise if you don't factor toxic fuel emissions into the equation!
"We know, definitely, that the old planet worked. That is, it produced and sustained a modern civilization. We don't know about the new one."
Regarding climate change: "This is the biggest thing that's ever happened."
By which I take to mean, there has been climate change before - but never this fast. No one has any idea exactly how fast it is changing, only that reality is exceeding predictions on every front - but here's a hint from the University of Copenhagen, with a drawing depicting predictable (bifurcation) and unpredictable (noise-inducd transition) shifts:
Never mind, back to Bill McKibben and the trees!
In his column at the NYRB, he wrote:
"Since 1950, the study found, the oceans have lost 40 percent of their phytoplankton. As these organisms account for the production of half the earth’s organic matter, this is not good. It’s like finding out that there’s half as much money in all the earth’s banks as we thought there was. But of course it’s worse than that. No one knows for sure what happens when the oceans are diminished like this—that’s the point. We’re in a new and dangerous place, without a clue."
Bill, instead of comparing it to money the bank, how about saying, "It's like finding out that there's half as many healthy trees in all the earth's forests as we thought there was!?" Because THAT'S TRUE.
I called Dr. Gretchen Smith, who is a scientist at UMass, and designed the Forest Service's ozone biomonitoring program, which collects and analyzes samples of foliage from over 1,000 sites annually since 1994.
She has promised to send me the data, and said, "Ozone is a very significant stress factor for trees," but ascribes to the idea that trees are somewhat protected because ozone is highest in hot weather, which is when leaves close their stomates to retain moisture. I don't see how this is going to work for them in the long run, with the "inexorably rising" levels even in cooler temperatures.
I asked her whether there is any sense of urgency and concern about the trees being affected by ozone, and she answered: "Yes. The Forest Service wouldn't be spending money for this program if there wasn't concern."
So then I asked something to the effect, well then why aren't foresters making a ruckus about it?
And she said to look at the report about climate change from the EPA, because the Forest Service information was instrumental in the EPA decision to tighten regulations about ozone. She said she would send me a link to that as well - I haven't been able to find it myself - but then there are reams and reams of ink being spilt...and I forgot to ask her, did the EPA tighten regulations enough??
From his homestate Vermont, Bill McKibben went to speak in Lexington, MA, where Susan documented that the trees are in distress there as well:
And the first thing I saw when I got home in Oldwick was the dismemberment of this tree, right in the center of the village:
But looking across the street at the General Store, it's clear this one needs to be removed too!
And come to think of it, this one behind the General Store looks a wee bit hazardous as well! Are there any trees that aren't in danger of falling? NO. Because, their roots are at least as shriveled as their crowns, if not more. There are going to be many downed trees from Hurricane Earl, and power outages as a result.
Back at Wit's End, the lotus leaves have the usual chlorosis.
This is important, because it belies the notion that drought is causing leaves to turn early fall color.
The lily pads, a different aquatic plant in the pond, have similar damage.
On either side of the little bench are cut-leaf Japanese Maples, a red and a green.
The leaves are shrunken, their tips are burnt...
And you can see through the cover to the branches inside.
Remember the magic fungicides that stave off symptoms of exposure to ozone?
Here is yet another story of dying trees, this time it's macadamia nut trees in Kenya. The cause? Root rot and stem cankers from a fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi. A researcher says, "This means we can easily tackle it based on the existing knowledge."

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