No, I do not think humans can help themselves from indulging in cheap energy. We fly and ride in cars despite the risk of accidents. Even people who claim to know better make excuses to continue to travel, to use electronic technology, and purchase items manufactured from plastic.
"I have a message for future generations. That is, Please accept our apologies. We were roaring drunk on petroleum...The only fun most humans beings have ever had - any feeling of power or respect - has been driving automobiles. And so they're not about to give that up." ~ Kurt Vonnegut, at the Connecticut Forum in 2006
Following is the transcript from my segment on Extinction Radio which airs Sunday, August 16 (click to listen to the live broadcast at 3pm EST). The embed to listen to the archived podcast will be added at the end of this post. Photographs unless otherwise noted are taken from an online article about industrial agriculture, waste, and habitat destruction. Transcript:
Thanks Mike, it’s great to be back with the 9th Dispatch from the Endocene. Let’s start with a new overview paper about the rate of extinctions now occuring on Earth. I’ll read from the University of Leeds article announcing the publication, which says in part:
“Widespread species are at just as high risk of being wiped out as rare ones after global mass extinction events. …There have been five mass extinction events in the Earth’s history, including climate change caused by volcanoes and an asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs. In general, geographically widespread animals are less likely to become extinct than animals with smaller geographic ranges, offering insurance against regional environmental catastrophes.
…However, a study published in Nature Communications has found this insurance is rendered useless during global mass extinction events, and that widely distributed animals are just as likely to suffer extinction as those that are less widespread.
Note, he said “all organisms” so that presumably includes you and me.
Another important overview study has emerged, published in the journal Conservation Biology, which warns us that the 6th extinction is proceeding far faster than had been previously estimated.
One article about the research explains that, “Hawai'i has been called the "extinction capital of the world." But, with the exception of the islands' birds, there has until now been no accurate assessment of the true level of this catastrophic loss. Invertebrates (insects, snails, spiders, etc.) constitute the vast majority of the species that make up Hawai'i's formerly spectacularly diverse and unique biota.
…The team focused on the most diverse group of Hawaiian land snails, [a family] of which 325 species have been recognized - all known only from Hawai'i. The researchers determined that only 15 of these species could still be found alive, and estimated that the rate of extinction may have been as high as 14 percent of the fauna per decade.”
The Dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is larger this summer than it has ever been, about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. One of many articles on this record-breaking status tells us that “These areas are also referred to as hypoxia areas and occur when there is nutrient runoff, largely due to the fertilizer used in fields near the water. This accelerates algae growth, which compromises the oxygen levels in the water when they decompose.” It’s thought that heavy rains in spring may have added to the nutrient overload, making this the worst episode ever.
Numerous reports are surfacing about rampant seaweed clogging beaches everywhere in the Carribean. One begins “It smells, it’s ugly, and it’s killing wildlife. From the Riviera Maya of Mexico to the shores of islands like St. Martin, St. Thomas, and Anguilla, once-pristine beaches are being inundated by massive amounts of thick, brown seaweed that refuse to go away and are wreaking havoc on the ecosystems. …On Antigua, seaweed piles have reached 4 feet tall in some areas. On Barbados, 42 turtles recently died after getting caught in the seaweed and suffocating. Shocking photos from the island of Tobago emerged this week, showing boats trapped in a bay blanketed in seaweed. Making matters worse, the seaweed — which harbors sea creatures — emits a pungent scent when it begins to rot.”
The Al Jazeera version of this disaster reads: “The toxic algae blooms in the Pacific Ocean stretching from southern California to Alaska — already the largest ever recorded — appear to have reached as far as the Aleutian Islands, scientists say. “The anecdotal evidence suggests we’re having a major event,” said Bruce Wright, a scientist with the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, the federally recognized tribal organization of Alaska’s native Aleuts. “All the populations [of marine mammals] are way down in the Aleutians.” While algal blooms are not uncommon in the Pacific, 2015’s blooms appear to be the largest on record, scientists say. Stretching from Southern California to Alaska, the blooms are responsible for unprecedented closures of fisheries and unusual deaths of marine life up and down the Pacific coast.” Meanwhile, humanity has not slowed the deliberate and ruthless slaughter of wildlife, killed for supposed medical purposes, food, sport, and the ultimate ridiculous purpose, collecting souvenirs.
The Daily Mail notes that:
“Seahorses could be extinct in 30 years: Trade in dried wildlife souvenirs could see the marine creatures wiped out” “Seahorses will be wiped out within three decades by the illegal sale of dead wildlife as curiosities, according to a conservation charity
…The majority of seahorses found for sale in the UK come from the Far East and some are sold here for as little as a few pounds. Official figures show that 64 million seahorses are taken from the wild every year and used in traditional Chinese medicine and the curio trade.
But another charity, Save Our Seahorses (SOS), carried out undercover research that suggests this is grossly underestimated and in fact more than 150 million seahorses are killed annually.”
“Sweden’s sharks heading towards extinction; populations are not recovering despite a long-standing fishing ban” - and this is because, according to the article, that
“…sharks have a long life cycle. Females do not become sexually mature until 10-15 years of age, have a 24-month gestation period and only give birth to a few young. This makes sharks particularly susceptible to extinction.
...According to Mikael Svensson, the future of Swedish sharks remains gloomy, after years of hard fishing and trawling activity that destroyed their habitat. ‘No one sees what happens in the ocean. If this kind of species destruction had happened on land, people would have shouted themselves hoarse long before it had gone this far.’”
Of course, we all know this isn’t actually true, because the same kind of species destruction IS happening on land, and most people are completely nonchalant about the carnage, if they even know it is occuring - especially if it is the mass die of non-charismatic big mammals, like, well, vultures.
“Across Africa, vultures are electrocuted by power lines or crushed by wind turbines. Their brains are ground to snuff by witch doctors who believe the substance has magical powers. They die after eating pesticide-laced carcasses intended for lions and other predators.”
It’s predicted that particularly due to the poisoning of animals they feed on, vultures will go extinct in the near future, thus upsetting the entire ecosystem when they no longer provide their scavenger services. Of course, there may be nothing to scavenge by then, anyway.
Other than Wilbur’s famous ally Charlotte, spiders are not generally any more popular than vultures, but their demise should serve as a warning - if not a source of mourning.
A new approach to quantifying the effects of insecticides has demonstrated that they may be worse than previously imagined, for spider populations. An article reveals that “Insecticides that are sprayed in orchards and fields across North America may be more toxic to spiders than scientists previously believed
…A McGill research team reached this conclusion after looking at changes in the behaviour of individual Bronze Jumping Spiders both before and after exposure to Phosmet, a widely used broad spectrum insecticide. It is a finding with far-reaching implications for agricultural production and ecosystem health.”
We are poisoning ourselves, too. In addition to the recent determination that cancer is almost entirely the result of exposure to various modern toxins, as mentioned in a previous Dispatch, a series of studies indicate that neurological diseases and deaths are increasing in not just the elderly but young people too.
The research reveals that for conditions like dementia and Parkinson’s, “the speed and size of the increases in just 20 years points to mainly environmental influences”.
One news account reports that “Physicists at the University of California, Berkeley, calculated that about 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems because of incredibly polluted air.”
Since we are on the topic of air pollution, I feel obligated to make the usual segue into the damage it does to trees. In the grand scheme it doesn’t matter, because of the onslaught of existential threats. But, certainly the accelerating die-off of trees contributes in many ways to the rapidity of the demise of many other species, including ours. We lose shade, and nuts and fruits, we lose lumber and paper, we lose oxygen and precipitation, we lose beauty, and a crucial CO2 sink…and an enormous, incalculable number of wild animals and understory flora lose habitat. It seems impossible to me to exaggerate the importance of trees to the rest of the life on this planet.
One thing I have noticed is that very often when news articles mention trees falling and are accompanied by photos or videos, it’s quite obvious that they were deeply rotted inside. Rarely is this remarked upon. On my blog, Wit’s End, I will post some examples of recent pictures illustrating this, along with today’s transcript and links to articles for this Dispatch. Here are some of the highlights.
In July, a rough weather system tore through northern Michigan and elsewhere in the upper midwest.
Photos from around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan posted to a blog revealed the poor health of the trees that blew over.
'Obviously, the condition of the tree had a lot to do with it. We didn’t have any higher winds than normal this morning,” Wilmette Fire Lt. Robert Brill said. 'The tree has been decaying for some time, and apparently let go this morning.'"
That same month, in Mobile, Alabama, two women and a puppy were rescued after they narrowly missed death when this giant tree fell:
Just this week in Hoover, Alabama, a arborist crew attempting to remove a dead specimen lost control and it landed on the adjacent house.
In April, a tree marked for removal fell and killed a woman in Bond Hill, Ohio.
On July 10, a mother of three was driving to work in Millburn, when a tree fell on her car and killed her. An article about that incident noted it wasn’t the only one in recent days: “10 days ago, 21-year-old Michelle Mian of New Milford was crushed when a tree snapped as she walked to her car in her driveway. Police blamed the weather for that tragedy."
not windy at the time, it had rained the night before.]
a reporter says "One look at the rotted tree trunk says a lot."
July 9, a dashcam caught a tree falling on the Bronx River Parkway in July 15, while back in May, a large tree fell in the night crushing cars in Mount Vernon, New York. Residents said it should have been removed four years ago. A driver was killed in Great Falls, Virginia on July 17 by a tree that witnesses said had been showing "obvious signs of decay". You can see that some of its leaves had turned brown and shriveled up, which unfortunately is true of practically every tree you look at now.
Usually, drought and warming from climate change are the preferred cause, but that explanation doesn’t hold up to scrutiny for the many places on earth that haven’t had droughts, or for trees that are being watered.
As I was chronicling these tragedies I learned that two sleeping youngsters, as yet unidentified, died while camping in Yosemite on Friday morning the 14th of August at 5 am, when a limb from an oak fell on their tent. I cannot imagine the grief of their parents.
This frame made from a video provided by KFSN-TV-abc30 shows a portion of an oak tree that split away, falling to the ground and killing two young campers in a tent at the Upper Pines campground in Yosemite National Park, Calif.
“Across the state, 12 million trees died over the past year due to lack of water, according to the U.S. Forest Service. While the bulk of those deaths occurred outside urban areas, conservationists and officials are now focusing on cities, where mandated water reductions are becoming visible in drying limbs and scorched leaves.”
“Fears that parched trees could pose a danger were heightened this week when a 75-year-old, 75-foot-tall pine tree fell on a group of kids from a camp at a Southern California children's museum, leaving a boy and girl hospitalized with serious injuries. An independent arborist and another from the city of Pasadena are conducting an investigation into the cause, which has not been determined to be drought-related.”
“Green visited the site of Tuesday's tree collapse and said it appeared unlikely the drought was to blame because the area around the tree looked well irrigated and its root system appeared compromised — a sign of rot, decay or injury, not necessarily the drought.
“Green and other arborists said they have seen an increase in the number of diseased trees in the city. As they get less water, they become more prone to illness caused by pests. In addition to bark beetles, Green has seen a newer pest drilling tunnels in the trunks of ‘dozens and dozens of trees.’”
Another explanation from the LA Times emphasized the lack of roots, which is according to scientific literature, the very first injury that exposure to ozone causes.
“Prolonged drought, a lack of strong roots and a burst of heavy rain were the main reasons an 85-foot pine toppled and injured children in a Pasadena park last month, an arborist's report said Thursday…The arborist found that, despite its 42-inch trunk and 60-foot canopy, the tree did not have wide-spreading anchor roots."
The bewilderment of city officials is common across the country; indeed the world. Reno is typical. One article chronicles the loss in dour terms:
"Reno was designated a Tree City by the Arbor Foundation nearly 33 years ago — a distinction held thanks to its healthy, mature canopy. But the city’s tree population is disappearing — by as much as 20 percent over the last two decades. The city now has 20,000 trees, a net loss of about 5,000”.
"Every year over the last decade and a half, the U.S. Geological Survey has descended on Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in California to give 17,000 trees a physical. But in a growing number of cases, what's starting off as a check-up is turning into an autopsy."
"USGS ecologist Nick Ampersee chops into a tree in order to find out what killed it. (Kim Brunhuber) The cause of death is usually insects or fungus, but researchers suspect it's almost always because of one culprit: lack of water. Normally, only about two per cent of the trees in their study areas die. But this year, that number has grown to 13 per cent.
"That's a really severe uptick," says U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Nate Stephenson. "We've never seen anything like it before." Stevenson bends the branch of an incense cedar. Most branches are covered with dry, dead orange needles. The rest are bare.
"I used to call them 'the immortals,' because they just never seemed to die," he says. "In the fourth year of drought, they've started dying by the bucket-loads. So they're no longer the immortals."
...Their research has found that no tree seems to be immune, including the toughest, most drought-resistant trees in this forest: giant sequoias. Some of the trees in Sequoia National Park were a thousand years old when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Last year, Stevenson spent a few days crawling around the forest floor examining sequoia seedlings, convinced they'd be affected by the heat and the drought.
..."They all looked really happy," he says. "I sat back, scratched my head and looked up, and there was a huge adult giant sequoia that had a lot of foliage die-back in it. That really got us interested, and we figured the drought was probably the cause of that. And that created a cascade of studies."
..."Ten per cent of the trees had 25 to 50 per cent die-back," says Koren Nydick of the U.S. National Park Service. "This is the first time that this kind of foliage die-back has been observed since this has been a national park."
Well, that kind of foliage die-back HAS been observed since the 1950’s, and has been attributed to pollution. And Sequoia National Park “…garnered the top spot, with nearly a quarter of the year, or 87 days, recording dangerous smog levels”.
It says, “The Sierra Nevada forest that is home to the biggest and oldest living things on earth -- the giant Sequoia redwoods -- also suffers a dubious distinction. It has the worst air pollution of any national park in the country.”
...“Ozone also is to blame for weakening many stands of the park's Jeffrey and ponderosa pines, leaving telltale yellowing of their long needles. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, they soak up ozone through the stoma in their needles, which inhibits photosynthesis. Ozone also stresses young redwood seedlings, which already face challenges to survival.
...Although weakened trees are more susceptible to drought and pests, the long-term impact on the pines and on the giant redwoods that have been around for 3,000 years and more is unclear.”
“Catching our breath: next steps for reducing urban ozone”
From chapter 4 p. 81
“Ozone-induced injury in trees shows up primarily as foliar injury, including leaf or needle discoloration and premature loss. In advanced cases, needles or leaves and then branches of injured trees die back….Reduced growth rates may precede or follow foliage injury. Increased susceptibility to diseases and other stresses may result from reduced photosynthesis and decreased allocation of carbohydrates to tree roots. Ultimately trees may die prematurely. All of these effects have been observed in forest of the San Bernardino Mountains as a result of exposure to high concentrations of ozone originating from NOx and VOC emissions in the Los Angeles basin. In addition to trees, ozone injuries a variety of other plants that occur in forest ecosystems.”
So how come all these stories about dying trees never, ever mention anymore the pernicious effect of ozone that predisposes trees to falling over because they are rotting and their roots have shrunk? What happened to the research program the report is based on, the NCLAN - National Crop Loss Assessment Network? Why did all the trees at the FACE experimental fumigation station get chopped down, and why was a Forest Service study that was investigating the “…interactive effects of environmental stressors on trees, in particular increasing atmospheric CO2, ozone, drought stress, and insect damage” terminated in 2008 - just as trees were starting to topple over in earnest?
“Of the air pollutants that the [Clean Air] act covers, ozone has been the most difficult to bring under control; it may well be the most expensive…One of the key findings of our study is that, once again, we cannot achieve the ozone standard in all areas with currently available technology.”
So basically what happened was that it permeated the regulatory agencies, the corporations, and the greenwashing corporate-funded environmental groups that there is simply no way to reduce ozone, and maintain modern civilization. So the consensus was, and is, to ignore it.
And that tacit agreement was made without even considering, at the time that report was written, the colossal increase in emissions in Asia. Yet another paper, by no means the only one but just the most recent, traces the movement of pollution across the Pacific to the Americas. “Atmospheric chemistry: Ozone pollution from near and far” published in Nature Geoscience just a few days ago traces the movement of pollution across the Pacific to the Americas and notes that despite reductions in precursors the background level has barely budged.
But don’t take my word about trees. Go out for yourself and look at them. You will find signs of serious decline - peeling bark, thin crowns, scorched leaves, yellowing needles, holes and broken branches, swelling cankers and leaking sap. Please send me pictures, with dates, species if known, and location - if I get enough I will post them on the blog. Thanks for listening.
Heat Advisory 9/2010
A Holiday Greeting 12/2010
The Root of the Matter 12/2011
Something Wicked This Way Comes 2/11
...and There Goes the Neighborhood, a 2014 post with rotted fallen trees, and beetle damage in CA