Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Here's the latest letter I've sent to various researchers and foresters:

Dear Scientists,

I am writing you because I have found from reading various studies that you are knowledgeable about the chemistry of the atmosphere, and its impact on the environment.

Recently I have begun documenting the current effects of climate change in New Jersey - as well as up and down the East Coast of the US, here - - where the vegetation is in such rapid and universal decline that only a very significant agent, such as climate change, can explain it. It is frankly astonishing to me that it is not yet a matter of public discussion that every species of tree, shrub, perennial, and annual, of every age, is showing the unmistakable signs of terminal distress, since it is easily discernible in a cursory inventory. But I guess most people don't bother and those who do, don't make the connection between dying trees and the atmosphere.

The decline I am observing from week to week is worse than my worst imaginings when I first became concerned last year. Trees are the foundation of our ecosystem. They are in peril and without them, society will be endangered as well. There are many tragic aspects to ponder, but the most basic may be the loss of their ability to absorb CO2, and the inevitable amplifying feedback of the contribution they will make to rising CO2, as they rot or, even more destructively, burn.

For the past year I have been trying to learn what is causing such widespread and dramatically sudden damage, and I have come to the conclusion that it can only be something in the composition of the atmosphere.

I have considered other possible agents such as long-term, incremental drought, vastly increased in the past two summers - and lack of snowpack in winters - which certainly still could play a significant role. Drought symptoms often show up one or more seasons after the event, and certainly the trees exhibit all the symptoms of drought. Their leaves are scorched, or wilted, or falling off, or showing early fall color, or bleaching out. Branches are bare and breaking, bark is covered with lichens, and the presence of completely dead trees is becoming commonplace.

However, this doesn't explain why trees and shrubs in nurseries, irrigated settings, bordering streams, and water plants in ponds would be just as adversely affected - their leaves and needles losing chlorophyl even though they receive a continuous supply of water.

Acid rain could also be a factor because it is known to deplete the nutrients in soils. However, the effects of acid rain are not so uniform, and there is no reason for it to cause widespread mortality abruptly. This time last year was the first nearly universal, wholesale wilting and shriveling of leaves, whereas nutrient depletion from acid rain has been an ongoing process for decades. Furthermore, plants potted in enriched soil are no better than those planted in the unfertilized ground.

Finally, as it turns out, it is irrefutable that ozone is plant poison, an effect that has been demonstrated conclusively in many published peer-reviewed scientific studies. Logically, at a certain threshold, it has to become lethal. We know the level is ever-increasing and so it seems that we have reached a point, at least here on the east coast of the US, where the vegetation simply cannot tolerate the toxic composition of the atmosphere.

Another clue is to be found in this study: which finds that elevated ozone mimics the effect of drought.

Thus my conclusion is that there is either a buildup of ozone to a critical point suddenly causing extensive irreversible damage to trees, shrubs, perennial plants and annual crops - or there is another agent involved of more recent origin.

I am very interested to find out if anyone has considered the possibility that emissions of biofuels could actually create more adverse effects than ozone, and I direct you to this blog entry:

Now, I had been under the impression that you had to have a special car and go to a special gas station to obtain ethanol, but apparently, it is already being added to regular gas in varying proportions. This came as quite a surprise to me and so I started looking up ethanol and what sorts of emissions might ensue from its combustion (practically nothing, according to industry organizations).

I found this excerpt on a Canadian site which is corroborated in many other documents too numerous to link to - but you can always google for more:

"Based on the current state of knowledge in this field, it can be safely concluded that the use of E10 (ethanol) would result in a 5-15% reduction of CO; a near-neutral effect for NO2 emissions; a fairly neutral effect for ozone in smog events; small increases in aldehydes during smog events; possibly large increases in longer-term average aldehyde (e.g., acetaldehyde) levels; small increases in longer-term average levels of peroxyacetyl nitrate; and a small effect on benzene emission levels, dependent on fuel formulation."


ACETALDEHYDE (possibly large increases)! Hmmmm, here's an entry in Wikipedia, linked below. But I want to copy this part in full because it gives me the chills.

Peroxyacyl nitrates, or PANs, are powerful respiratory and eye irritants present in photochemical smog. They are formed from a peroxyacyl radical andnitrogen dioxide, for example peroxyacetyl nitrate, CH3COOONO2:
Hydrocarbons + O2 + NO2 + light → CH3COOONO2
The general equation is;
CxHyO3 + NO2 → CxHyO3NO2
PANs are both toxic and irritating, as they dissolve more readily in water than ozone. They are lachrymators, causing eye irritation at concentrations of only a few parts per billion. At higher concentrations they cause extensive damage to vegetation. Both PANs and their chlorinated derivates are said to be mutagenic, as they can be a factor causing skin cancer.
PANs are secondary pollutants, which means they are not directly emitted as exhaust from power plants or internal combustion engines, but they are formed from other pollutants by chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Free radical reactions catalyzed by ultraviolet light from the sun oxidize unburned hydrocarbons to aldehydes, ketones, and dicarbonyl compounds, whose secondary reactions create peroxyacyl radicals, which combine with nitrogen dioxide to form peroxyacyl nitrates.
The most common peroxyacyl radical is peroxyacetyl, which can be formed from the free radical oxidation of acetaldehyde, various ketones, or the photolysis of dicarbonyl compounds such as methylglyoxal or diacetyl.
Since they dissociate quite slowly in the atmosphere into radicals and NO2, PANs are able to transport these unstable compounds far away from the urban and industrial origin. This is important for tropospheric ozone production as PANs transport NOx to regions where it can more efficiently produce ozone.


I would greatly appreciate it if anyone who is qualified to understand the chemistry (that doesn't include me!) would look into the possibility that ozone and/or other products of emissions could have reached a level in the atmosphere that is killing plants. SOMETHING is killing them, that is readily verifiable, and it would be a terrific idea to figure out exactly what it is.

Please feel free to write back and/or visit my blog where I have many pictures of the destruction I describe. Also, I would be very grateful for any information you can send me, about how and where the composition of the atmosphere is being monitored, and where to find the results of such testing (to the extent that I might be able to comprehend it!)

Thank you so much for your attention.


Gail Zawacki

Oldwick, NJ



  1. Hi Gail,

    Your letter makes some good points and I hope you'll accept some tips on composition.

    State your request for information at the beginning of your letter. e.g. I am looking for research concerning the possible effects of ozone pollution on plants and trees in New England and Mid Atlantic states.

    Use each individual's name in the salutation.

    Stay on topic. The paragraphs on ethanol and PANs are a distraction from the purpose of the letter. You want to find out what is stressing the trees.

    I hope you get some responses to your letter.

  2. Hi Paul Kelly,

    I welcome suggestions. If I was doing this right, this story would be a headline on the front page of the NYT every day by now, and people wouldn't be mowing acres of lawns with 2-stroke engines, blowing the remnants of clippings with gasoline-fueled machines, and rickoshaying around with giddy abandon on powerboats and quads, for fun.


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