Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Emperor Has No Clothes!

A pine that snapped in Sandy, already well rotted on the inside,
stands brokenly in New Jersey
Every day, I check in several times at Nature Bats Last, because even if there isn't a new post from Guy McPherson, I know I will find wonderful comments and fascinating links.  It's one of the rare places on the web where the commenters are in general agreement that our host is correct in his conclusion that Near Term Extinction has become a foregone conclusion.  There are minor quibbles about whether it is more likely to arrive from, say, nuclear plants melting down, or perhaps drought induced famine, but that's mere spectator sport.  Most such disputes are generally transcended by often intense discussions about how to live (often alone) with this unwanted and unwelcome knowledge.  Given the gravity of such starkly terrifying assumptions, it was almost comical when one of the community mentioned yesterday that she finds it difficult to visit Wit's End...because reading about trees dying from pollution is too painful!  Ha, I replied, coming from a follower of the most explicitly and deliberately hopeless blog in the world, I guess that must mean I have been given my own special corner of hell.  Of course, the recognition that trees are dying en masse IS painful, often unbearably so - but it's true.
New Hampshire photos from GWEN
Experts disagree because authoritative information has always been scarce, so estimates of the number of people who died in the "Three Bitter Years" of the Great Chinese Famine range from 20 to 43 million.  A combination of natural disasters and pig-headed government policies conspired to unleash unimaginable horror, one of which was Mao Zedong's campaign to eradicate the "Four Pests".  Commencing in 1958, it has been described as part of a war on nature...which backfired with a vengeance.  The people were encouraged to kill sparrows, because the birds ate grain, stolen from their labors.  The birds also, it was realized too late, ate insects - and so a crop-devastating plague of locusts was the result of the near-extinction of sparrows, whose nests had been smashed, and who had been tortured with the banging of pots and drums until they fell out of the sky, dead from exhaustion.  Other ecological imbalances - deforestation and pesticide use - contributed to the catastrophically dwindling production of rice.  Much of this disgraceful failure was kept hidden, disguised not only to the world, but concealed with elaborate subterfuge from Mao himself.
A reporter, Lu Baoguo, recalled:

"In the second half of 1959, I took a long-distance bus from Xinyang to Luoshan and Gushi. Out of the window, I saw one corpse after another in the ditches. On the bus, no one dared to mention the dead. In one county, Guanshan, one-third of the people had died. Although there were dead people everywhere, the local leaders enjoyed good meals and fine liquor. ... I had seen people who had told the truth being destroyed. Did I dare to write it?"
Increasingly - and especially since the Sandy rampage - trees lie wherever they fall along roads and train tracks, on lawns, in woods and parks.  There are too many to be cleaned up, even though yesterday I saw in Bernardsville that a fleet of massive dump trucks has churned a parking lot into deep mud, continuously hauling gigantic trunks and branches down from the mountain to be chopped up and sent off for grinding.  And just like the people on the bus in China, nobody dares to mention the dead.  We avert our eyes from the mute corpses, the radical transformation in the landscape is not a topic for civilized conversation...and the local leaders are enjoying good meals and fine liquor.

“Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know.”
~ Eric Hoffer
I should imagine just about everyone is familiar with the fairy tale of the Emperor's New Clothes.  It's a story that exposes such a fundamentally intrinsic human trait that it has resonated in many cultures around the globe since publication in 1837, and was itself derived from even earlier iterations.  According to wiki:

"Andersen's tale is based on a story from the Libro de los ejemplos, 1335), a medieval Spanish collection of fifty-one cautionary tales with various sources such as Aesop and other classical writers and Persian folktales, by Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena (1282–1348). Andersen did not know the Spanish original but read the tale in a German translation titled "So ist der Lauf der Welt". In the source tale, a king is hoodwinked by weavers who claim to make a suit of clothes invisible to any man not the son of his presumed father; whereas Andersen altered the source tale to direct the focus on courtly pride and intellectual vanity rather than adulterous paternity."
"Scholars have noted that the phrase 'Emperor's new clothes' has become a standard metaphor for anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial, or hollow ostentatiousness."

The parable is useful for Ozonists and Ozonistas who try to understand how it is that foresters persist in downplaying the pivotal role of air pollution, which underlies the tree decline.  Plants are subsequently siezed upon by voracious insects and other pathogens, which should be considered secondary and opportunistic - but that would require a very uncomfortable admission that modern lifestyles of egregious consumption - and our exponential population growth - are jointly to blame.

The concept of collective denial was also thoroughly engaged in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in 1841, which stated:  "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."  Amazingly, the more ridiculously absurd the reality, the deeper and more entrenched the denial becomes!  It's true.  We need go no further than the latest government publications to see how even the scientists drink the koolaid (an expression which, everyone no doubt recalls, derived from the Jonestown "revolutionary suicide" of almost 1,000 brainwashed idiots).

An old dead oak and transparent woods that have lost all understory growth
I've been meaning to thank John G, who confesses to reading Wit's End and was kind enough to send greetings over the holidays...all the way from New Zealand.
By way of appreciation for the 2013 calendar - with enticing photos of lovely New Zealand scenery - the rest of this post will be illuminated with photos from a local NZ history site of the iconic and imperiled Kauri tree, most dating from around 1915, up to 1932.  Some, alas, are portraits of loggers with their trophies, but others are still magnificently standing.
There are so many reports pouring earnestly from our sincere government agencies, with so much overlap and no relationship to each other, that as far as being informative they almost work at cross purposes and cancel each other out.
There are excerpts (with most of the footnotes removed) from three that follow - briefly, because they are enough to instigate a nasty headache.

The first is a chapter from the Federal Advisory Committee Draft Climate Assessment Report.  Chapter 15, Interactions of Climate Change and Biogeochemical Cycles (which of course is separate from Forestry, which is Chapter 7,  or Agriculture, which is Chapter 6).  The chart of the nitrogen cascade gives a chilling sense of how broadly the environment is affected.  It's on p. 522 of the draft if it's hard to see where it is copied below.
If there is any collaborating going on about ozone between the people who wrote those various chapters for the Climate Change Assessment, or between any of them and the folks that worked on the EPA - or USDA report - it escapes me...but maybe I'm just out of the loop.  Still, it's enough to ensure that absolutely nothing is done about any of it.  Is that the purpose, or just a random consequence?  Who knows, but the result is the same...

Notice all the amplifying feedbacks, the trend towards more pollution, and the references to ozone's threat to both food security and the CO2 sink represented by vegetation.

p. 523
"Methane is the most abundant non-CO2 greenhouse gas, with atmospheric concentrations that are now more than twice those of pre-industrial times.  Methane has direct radiative effects on climate because it traps heat, and indirect effects on climate because of its influences on atmospheric chemistry. An increase in methane concentration in the industrial era has contributed to warming in many ways.  Increases in atmospheric methane, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are expected to deplete concentrations of hydroxyl radicals, causing methane to persist in the atmosphere and exert its warming effect for longer period. The hydroxyl radical is the most important “cleaning agent” of the troposphere, where it is formed by a complex series of reactions involving ozone and ultraviolet light."
"Nitrogen and Phosphorus
The climate effects of an altered nitrogen cycle are substantial and complex. CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide contribute most of the anthropogenic (human-caused) increase in climate forcing, and the nitrogen cycle affects atmospheric concentrations of all three gases. Nitrogen cycling processes regulate ozone (O3) concentrations in the troposphere and stratosphere, and produce atmospheric aerosols, all of which have additional direct effects on climate. Excess reactive nitrogen also has multiple indirect effects that simultaneously amplify and mitigate changes in climate."
"The strongest direct effect of an altered nitrogen cycle is through emissions of nitrous oxide 
(N2O), a long-lived and potent greenhouse gas that is increasing steadily in the atmosphere. Globally, agriculture has accounted for most of the atmospheric rise in N2O. Roughly 60% of 
agricultural N2O derives from high soil emissions that are caused by nitrogen fertilizer use.
Animal waste treatment and crop-residue burning account for about 30% and about 10%, 
respectively. The U.S. reflects this global trend: around 75% to 80% of U.S. human-caused N2O emissions are due to agricultural activities, with the majority being emissions from fertilized soil. The remaining 20% is derived from a variety of industrial and energy sectors."

"While N2O currently accounts for about 6% of human-caused warming, its long lifetime in the atmosphere and rising concentrations will increase N2O-based climate forcing over a 100-year time scale.  Excess reactive nitrogen indirectly exacerbates changes in climate by several mechanisms."
Human Activities that Form Reactive Nitrogen and Resulting Consequences in Environmental Reservoirs. Once created, a molecule of reactive nitroge has a cascading impact on people and ecosystems at it contributes to a number of environmental issues.

Oh, those funny quirky scientists.  For a slide presentation to demonstrate the lethal menace of excess nitrogen, normally an essential component of life, Dr. Galloway chose an even more droll illustration:

"Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) increase the production of tropospheric ozone, which is a 
greenhouse gas. Elevated tropospheric ozone may reduce CO2 uptake by plants and thereby reduce the terrestrial CO2 sink. Nitrogen deposition to ecosystems can also stimulate the release of nitrous oxide and methane and decrease methane uptake by soil microbes."

p. 528
"Similar concerns – and opportunities for the simultaneous reduction of multiple environmental 
problems (known as “co-benefits”) – exist in the realms of air pollution, human health, and food 
security. For example, methane, VOC, and NOx emissions all contribute to the formation of 
tropospheric ozone, which in turn is both a greenhouse gas and has negative consequences for 
human health and crop productivity. Rates of ozone formation are accelerated by higher temperatures, creating synergies between rising temperatures and continued human alteration of the nitrogen and carbon cycles."
"Rising temperatures work against some of the benefits of air pollution control. Some changes will trade gains in one arena for declines in others: For example, lowered NOx, NHx and SOx emissions remove cooling agents from the atmosphere, but improve air quality. Recent analyses suggest that targeting reductions in compounds like methane that have both climate and air-pollution consequences can achieve significant improvements in not only the rate of climate change, but also in human health."
Next, an article in Grist points to an EPA draft Climate Change Adaptation Plan, and states:

"...the EPA needs to accelerate scientific research to indicate how increased ozone and other pollutants 'will affect ecosystem growth'".

Naturally I had to leave a comment about this, which more or less said:

The science, and the EPA, are behind the curve as usual. Ozone is ALREADY affecting "ecosystem growth" which is a cute way of stating the rather more alarming and plainly observable fact that TREES ARE DYING from absorbing pollution. ALL of them, all over the world.

A much longer explanation of this was recently published at Greg Laden's science blog.  
This topic is about as popular as the ongoing, global trend in sperm reduction, because the implications are unimaginably dire. Only the infinitely powerful capacity of humans to deny the obvious can explain why it isn't being discussed in polite company.

Following is all the EPA had to offer about ozone - with nothing about its impacts on trees or other vegetation, or crops - and their photo:
"Studies project that climate change could increase tropospheric ozone levels over broad areas of the country, especially on the highest-ozone days."

"Climate change also has the potential to lengthen the ozone season (the months of the year when weather conditions, along with pollutants in the air, can result in the formation of ground-level ozone in particular locations around the country), and may increase individuals’ vulnerability to air pollution."

"EPA is working to reduce the number of areas in America that do not meet air quality standards.  
Increases in ozone due to climate change may make it more difficult to attain or maintain ozone standards.  This will need to be taken into account when designing effective ozone precursor emission control programs."

Meanwhile, the USDA released a report "Effects of Climate Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems; a Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the US Forest Sector".

At first I was thrilled to see that the scientists who wrote it are giving a bit more ink to the pernicious effects of ozone, but then I began to suspect they are just trying to cover the bases as the ecosystem collapses and they really, truly, don't want to be the ones who have to point out that it's a direct response to the pollution from industrial civilization.  In fact, it's so delusional it's quite a howler, with ludicrous pronouncements like the following, which wouldn't be true even if ozone weren't killing trees:
p. ii
"Although increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, higher atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), and higher nitrogen (N) deposition may change ecosystem structure and function, the most rapidly visible and most significant short-term effects on forest ecosystems will be caused by altered disturbance regimes. For example, wildfires, insect infestations, pulses of erosion and flooding, and drought-induced tree mortality are all expected to increase during the 
21st century. These direct and indirect climate-change effects are likely to cause losses of ecosystem services in some areas, but may also improve and expand ecosystem services in others."

"...the most rapidly visible and most significant short-term effects on forest ecosystems will be caused by altered disturbance regimes."  ALREADY the most visible and significant CURRENT effect is that trees are dying from ozone.

"...likely to cause losses of ecosystem services in some areas, but may also improve and expand ecosystem services in others."   It's almost impossible to think of a rejoinder to such maniacal drivel.

p. viii

• Stress complexes are especially important in northeastern forests, where climate interacts with nitrogen (N) deposition, tropospheric ozone, land use, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, insects, pathogens, and fire".


• Red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis [L.] Carrière), already declining in some areas, are projected to be extirpated from the southeast by 2100 as a result of the combined stresses of warming, air pollution, and insects.

p. 44
"Overall, in the Eastern United States, productivity or forest C storage is expected to increase with projected changes in climate, N, and CO2. This is because the increased precipitation projected for many areas in the Eastern United States allows more photosynthesis under increased temperature and CO2."
"For example, upland oak forests in Tennessee are projected to increase their current C storage rate by 20 percent for the climate and atmosphere predicted for 2100 (CO2 concentration of 770 ppm, ozone concentration 20 ppb higher than today’s level, 4 °C temperature increase, and 20 percent more November–March precipitation)."

More photosynthesis?  Increased C storage rate?  This is sheer insanity!!

p. 45
"Effects on Eastern forests where precipitation is currently in excess—
In the next 30 years, projected changes in CO2, temperature, and precipitation are not likely to change forest C storage and uptake from current levels or may even increase them, if tropospheric ozone levels are managed to remain at or below current levels. Changes in species composition through time will probably remain driven by competition between plants and interactions with pests and pathogens, except for sites with shallow or coarse textured 
soils that increase the effects of drought."

Okay first of all, ozone levels will not be managed "to remain at or below current levels" unless we stop emitting precursors, which we're simply not going to do, so it's moronic to suggest that C uptake levels may increase.
"Toward the end of 
this century, net C gain by Eastern U.S. forests will probably be reduced by a warming-induced increase in seasonal 
water deficits, but the effects will not be large.  The beneficial effects of elevated CO2 
and the extended growing season length will allow ample opportunity for C gain, even though the probability of water stress occurrence in the summer months will increase. On coarse-textured or shallow soils, the forest will show reduced annual C uptake."

 The "effects will not be large".  Uhh...only catastrophic!  "Beneficial effects of elevated CO2" and "the extended growing season" are a parody of the "CO2 is good for plants" climate change denier's playbook.  It's so egregiously nuts I wonder if I'm being punked.  It's too much for my brain!

Notice that not only has it not been getting drier in the northern part of the country, it's been getting wetter and will continue to get wetter.  So where's the drought?  Oh wait, drought and temperature are the reason aspen are dying...in Colorado.

p. 38  "In the context of the effects of climate change on ecosystems, sensitivity to disturbance interactions is extended to environmental drivers not usually identified as disturbances.  For example, extreme temperatures, drought, and air pollution put forest ecosystems under stress, which may increase their vulnerability to “true” disturbances such as fire, insect outbreaks, and pathogens. Following McKenzie et al. (2009), we refer to interacting stresses as stress complexes and present three brief conceptual examples, from California, Alaska (both drawing on McKenzie et al. 2009), and the Southeast."

Come on! If air pollution puts forest ecosystems unders stress increasing vulnerability, then I would say that is the "true" disturbance, since it is the only common variable amongst all the other stressors - pathogens, drought and fire - which are all species and location specific.

"A striking feature of mixed-conifer forests in southern Sierra Nevada and southern California is ambient air pollution, particularly elevated ozone, which affects plant vigor by reducing net photosynthesis and therefore growth and is often concentrated at middle and upper elevations. Air pollution exacerbates drought stress from warmer temperatures, which amplifies biotic stresses such as insects and pathogens. The stress complex for the Sierra Nevada is represented conceptually in fig. 2.12; interacting disturbances form the core of drivers of ecosystem change, modified by climate, management, and air pollution."

So, based on the paper by McKenzie et al, "Global Warming and Stress Complexes in Forests of Western North America" from which this figure is derived (the ozone was added in the modification), ozone is recognized to exacerbate mortality.  However, it is simply completely left out as in influence in many other regional studies of mortality.

Figure 2.12—A conceptual model of stress complexes in Sierra Nevada and southern Californian mixed-conifer forests. The effects of insects and fire disturbance regimes (red box) and of fire exclusion are exacerbated by global warming. Stand-replacing fires and drought-induced mortality both contribute to species changes and exotic invasions. Modified from McKenzie et al. (2009).
Similarly I can't explain why the USDA report changed the caption of this photo to read "Air pollution in the Sierra Nevada foothills from the Central Valley in California" when the author of the paper originally identified it as reproduced below...maybe they don't want to remind people that our National Parks are polluted?
Photochemical haze over Sequoia National Park, California, in October 2003.
(Photo by Don McKenzie.)
p. 108
"The structural value of the urban trees (e.g., cost of replacement or compensation for loss of trees) in the United States is estimated at $2.4 trillion.  Urban trees provide many additional benefits, such as air pollution removal and C storage and sequestration. Annual 
pollution removal (fine particulates, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide) by U.S. urban trees is estimated at 783 000 Mg ($3.8 billion value) (Nowak et al. 2006)."

Here's what Nowak et al had to say in a more recent 2010 publication: laughably titled, "Sustaining America's Urban Trees and Forests":

"Air pollution—Forest ecosystems can be substantially affected by air pollution, especially from regional deposition of ozone, nitrogen, sulfur, and hydrogen. Ozone has been documented to reduce tree growth, reduce resistance to bark beetle, and increase susceptibility to drought. Beckett et al. (1998) reviewed several reports and surmised that pollutant particles can have a wide variety of effects on trees and that heavy metals and other toxic particles can accumulate in urban soils, causing damage and death in some species."

In the midst of all their insouciant projections that Eastern forests will thrive with more precipitation and higher CO2, the authors then blithely assert, on page p. 43, the following:

"Atmospheric concentrations of CO2, currently about 390 parts per million (ppm), are expected to rise to 700 to 900 ppm by 2100, depending on future anthropogenic emissions and any changes in atmospheric uptake by terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems."
This should make anyone shriek with horror and disbelief.  According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the last time the earth had around the 900 level was "...about 30 million to 100 million years ago, when global temperatures averaged about 29 degrees Fahrenheit (16 degrees Celsius) above pre-industrial levels."

It boggles the mind that USDA publishes a report with that projection while simultaneously attempting to maintain that anything resembling current ecosystems will survive.

But some brave souls fight on for the moment.  I'd like to introduce Miranda Gibson for those who don't know that she has been tree-sitting to save old-growth trees in Tasmania for quite some time now - since December 2011.  Please send love and hugs and support to her at The Observer Tree or on facebook.


  1. Thanks for reminding me of the great Chinese famine, and elaborating on the causes; in our lifetimes, no less. How like this will be to the future, with the insouciant rich over-consuming, while the poor are starving. For, as you have stated many times, as go the trees, so goes our food production.

  2. The video reminds me of Luna and Julia Butterfly Hill...


    Truly amazing & beautiful...touches me cause of all the time I spent camping alone (sleeping bag only) in Los Padres Nat'l Forest so long ago. Though I never got up that high...at least not literally.

    Jacob Horner

  3. Thanks Jacob! I am watching the Apocalypse video right now. Did you know Luna was attacked later on? They propped her back together with steel and as far as I know she is doing well.

  4. Gail, I find it painful to read too. But impressive!

  5. Here's a new one to me: hydrogen sulfide. Do you know http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/


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