Sunday, May 3, 2009

Effects of Climate Chaos

Pasted below is a letter I have recently sent, with varied results, to researchers, foresters, and conservationists all over the globe.  It kind of sums up my concerns so I will reproduce it.  If anyone stops by to read my new blog, please feel free to comment, email me, or leave a message on facebook.  I am very interested to compare impressions as the spring turns to summer and an objective assessment of the effects of climate chaos becomes more likely.

In the course of reading blogs I came across a comment which was essentially that even among people who do believe climate change is happening, they still are certain it is happening somewhere else and/or in the distant future.  I was one of those people (and I sure miss being one of them!) until late last summer.  In my letter I explain why.

Here it is:

I am writing about what I believe it is already a long-term and widespread catastrophe that is receiving far too little attention in the discussion about climate change.  I sincerely hope you consider what I have to say without dismissing me as an alarmist (my kids think I am!)  

Since last summer I have been searching for information about possible causes for the tree decline that I am lately finding ubiquitous around my home in western rural New Jersey.  In recent months I have been as far north as Cape Cod through NY, CT and RI, as well as around Pennsylvania, as far south as Virginia, and have corresponded with scientists as far off as Michigan and North Carolina.  The conditions in those states appear to be equally appalling, as is the western US, by all accounts.

I began noticing that the deciduous trees were losing leaves by last August, or they were scorched, or brown.  Soon thereafter the coniferous trees began bursting with cones (a rather poetically tragic sign of impending death) and more recently have begun a wholesale shedding of their needles.  Some are already completely bare, most are visibly thinning, and virtually none appear intact any longer.  In just the past three weeks, evergreen shrubs such as boxwood, holly, rhododendron and andromeda have begun turning yellow, a sure signal of irreversible damage.

I am not a scientist myself, just a life-long nature lover and avid gardener, and I find this threat to trees profoundly disturbing.  It also astonishes me that few professional foresters or conservationists acknowledge what is plainly visible if only you go outside and take a cursory inventory.

At first I attributed it to an overall warming and drying due to climate change, particularly because this past summer and 2007 were exceedingly dry.  And of course we get very little snow cover anymore to gradually permeate the soil, and the past few seasons, trees and shrubs have bloomed prematurely.  When the leaves fell off this fall (some never did, as if petrified in place) I began to notice that this revealed seriously injured limbs, trunks and bark.  It appears the trees are rotting from the inside out.  Also now that it is possible to see deeper inside the woods, it is clear many have toppled over and those that remain are becoming smothered by a pale green lichen that is spreading by the day, others, covered with a creeping black fungus.

According to many studies acid rain has created the conditions leading to this rapidly accelerating damage by changing the composition of the soil and depleting the nutrients required for growth.  Absent any improvement in pollution, or global warming, it would appear that we are poised for a mass extinction of trees and ultimately, all the species dependent upon them.  It has already been documented that the populations of frogs, birds and various mammals are greatly diminished due to pollution, and mycologists have observed reduced yields of mushrooms over the past 20 years.  At, studies show that even with cleaner air standards, the soils are not recovering.

In hindsight I believe, having lived on the same small farm for over 25 years, that the loss of trees has been going on for perhaps decades and I simply did not recognize it as more than isolated incidents as opposed to a trend.  However there is no question remaining that it was and is in fact a trend, which is suddenly much, much radically more extreme.  Because trees of every age and species are affected equally, it seems there must be some universal cause rather than any one pest, disease, opportunistic invasive, or deer damage to saplings to blame.

I fear it is too late to save trees now living and even perhaps the shrubs.  From what I have read and observed, once the symptoms of decline become visible, such as thinning crowns, rotting limbs, and dropped needles, it means the roots have lost their ability to absorb water and there is no way to save an individual specimen.  It would be like throwing a bucket of water on a person who died of thirst already.  I do not think that most people realize "decline" is actually a technical forestry term which means the tree is in the process of dying, whether immediately this season or they stagger on for a few more.

In the course of puzzling over the phenomena I see wherever I travel, and reading every research paper I can find on the topic, I am lately wondering (but am obviously unqualified to test the theory) whether perhaps we have suddenly reached a "tipping point" where the trees are being smothered by a threshold level of ozone.  I feel there must be some overriding trigger among the many, to explain what looks to me like a total ecosystem collapse.  I also wonder what implications this will have on annual plants that provide food crops.

It has also been proposed that trees and shrubs need the cold winters we no longer have in order to hibernate, and when they cannot they become exhausted - and further that because they are not dormant when we do have a cold snap, which still occurs, they also suffer damage.  Shortly after the two periods of extreme cold this past winter, when temperatures were in the teens for several days, was when visible signs of stress appeared on the evergreen shrubs, and tree trunks looked black as though streaked with water even though they weren't wet.  It has occurred to me that sap freezes and expands and then bleeds through the bark when it warms up again.

As it is now the beginning of April, I have been seeing cracked bark, dead buds, and yellowing leaves of evergreen shrubs.  Even the ivy and pachysandra are diminished.

In any case, whether it is due to climate change or acid rain from pollution or some combination of them or other factors, I thought it might be important for the public and policy makers to understand what is at stake.  For too long the concept of a "loss of biodiversity" has referred to a tragedy involving rare orchids or monkeys from obscure and remote places like Madagascar.  Partly that's because so much conservation effort has deliberately concentrated on these exotic hotspots.

When Americans realize that losing the trees in our backyards, towns, and parks will, in addition to impoverishing the landscape, result in wildfires, extended power outages, crushed buildings and vehicles, and enormous economic losses - not to mention killing all the birds and other creatures that live in woodlands - perhaps the cost of remedying climate change and controlling pollution will seem less onerous.

It's astonishing to me how many groups and scientists I have managed to locate that are well aware of the immediate gravity of extinction, global warming, and pollution - from a seed bank in London to major activist organizations like Greenpeace, and many many academics at every university, doing studies in biology, soil ecology, chemistry and physics.

In a way it's wonderful that so many are concerned and working on these issues, but on the other hand, I'm starting to feel that we must collectivize under one giant umbrella to really make the global impact we need in order to fundamentally shift the discussion from, say, economic growth, to survival and fairness.

It's hard to describe how distressing this discovery is for me, although I should have known sooner, I suppose.  I was brought up without any religion, which I don't regret, but absent that culture, I found it has been the rhythm and beauty of nature, and the human celebration of it through art, music, and literature, which gave meaning to my life.  Now that I see it dissolving, I am full of regret for the world I am bequeathing to my children.  I am so afraid they are going to wind up in hand-to-hand combat for the last cup of water.

At best, they are going to be in a world without so many of the things that make life on earth splendid - birds, nuts, peaches, apples, raspberries, maple syrup, and a swing hanging from the big old oak.  Instead of predictable seasons, each with their own traditions - the picnics and thunderstorms of summer, the arrival of spring flowers, the colors of autumn, the quiet of a winter snow storm - they're going to have extreme and dangerous weather.

Of course, I feel guilty for my luxurious western way of life, and I also (forgive me for inserting partisan politics here) blame every Republican since Reagan, who immediately as the new President removed the solar panels from the top of the White House that Jimmy Carter had put there.

Sorry.  As you can no doubt tell, I am not very optimistic.  Any hope I do have rests in a new direction with Obama, who seems to understand the science, and the idea that through innovation, we will be able to save many species - maybe in giant biodomes with enriched soil and filtered air and water - until such time as the magnificent trees and other flora and fauna can be once again propagated around the earth.

I think that every variety of tree should legally be put on the endangered species list forcing government to mandate clean energy, by restricting emissions and funding alternatives.  I hope some scientists will undertake to reveal the true scope of the problem so that people will wake up before we humans are next on the list of endangered species.  Perhaps emphasizing - or investigating - the impacts on the East Coast (where many of the influential actually live) might bring the issue home.

Thank you for reading,

Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ

Here is an article in with a link to the report by the US Climate Change Science Program.  I believe the "abrupt change" that global warming "may" trigger according to the conclusions is in fact, already happening HERE and NOW.

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