Saturday, March 27, 2010

That Was Then and This Is Now

There will be two inter-related topics on this extended post, let's label them Fugue I and Fugue II. Both have to do with scientists rather stubbornly not factoring in the changing composition of the atmosphere when they make their analyses and predictions.

I have been away on a trip to Cambridge, MA, from which I just returned. I was a bit sad to leave spring behind even for a few days, but as it turned out, Cambridge was actually ahead of New Jersey in terms of flowering, probably due to milder temperatures from being nearer the coast, and the urban heat island effect.

However, as we shall see, the plants are just as chaotically out of sequence as they are at home.

I rarely travel anymore because I have become excruciatingly aware of the consequences from the emissions of every action I take. When I shower, I can't help but visualize CO2 and mercury from burning coal, billowing out of huge smokestacks, to produce the electricity to pump the water that pours forth so abundantly from the well at Wit's End...and the nitrous oxides and sulphur dioxides escaping from the propane heater that make showering such a steamy pleasure.

Nope, it's not as relaxing as it used to be! Years ago when the copious emissions from burning coal were killing everything in the local vicinity of mid-Western power plants, in dramatically graphic and embarrassing hard-to-explain-away fashion, the power companies very cleverly built much higher smokestacks so the noxious invisible poisons would rise high into the stratosphere - only to be deposited, eventually of course, further away. But I digress...

Anyway, I had to take the trip, so I approached it as a good field foray to compare the condition of trees and other plants between my home and regions north. The short answer is, it's just about identical. Rhododendron leaves shrivel in extreme cold and they should open up when it becomes warm, but whether in New Jersey or like these in Massachusetts, they aren't recovering even with the outrageously high temperatures.

In fact, I can report without any hesitation or caveat that the trees all along the way, and within the city itself, are in similarly appalling, rapid, and universal decline...thus proving that with rare exception, people in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut are as idiotically ignoring the collapse of the ecosystem as do the vast majority of New Jersey residents and, no doubt, just about everywhere else in the world where direct impacts have yet to be felt.
Among the rare exceptions are this charming couple, Roger and Susan, (who I first met as founding members of's Romm'n Legions) - thank you for dinner, your pleasant companionship, and for being islands of sanity in a world gone mad!
They were kind enough to bring me to a place that has memories from their student days, just outside Harvard Square.
We discussed the intriguing theory that perhaps because CO2 encourages abnormally fast growth in vegetation, it could account for an unprecedented and explosive expansion of tissue that is at least partly responsible for splitting and shedding the protective layer of bark...which then causes trees to lose vital this one, seen in early morning light on Massachusetts Avenue:

Which brings us to Fugue I of That Was Then and This Is Now:

I received this reply from an eminent scientist to my query: "But after 30 years of work on the effects of air pollutants on plants, it is clear to me that if a problem is observed, the first question to ask concerns the weather, then pests/pathogens, and then air pollution."

All I can say is, that may have been perfectly valid 30, 20 or even 10 years ago, but it simply ISN'T any longer. Now, when symptoms appear, scientists should start looking first at underlying causitive toxic atmospheric components, and secondarily at weather, pests, and disease - those "sharks that smell blood in the water" when trees are compromised by direct exposure to greenhouse gas emissions.

Thursday was very warm, and I was able to wander around the neighborhoods of Cambridge, snapping pictures along the way.

Not surprisingly in this elitist liberal bastion of arugula-consuming intellectually snobby socialists, I came upon this hybrid Prius covered with environmental stickers, replete with bike rack mounted on the trunk.
Almost all of the large, older trees remaining have been severely pruned - so clearly their branches were considered to be dangerous.
The bark is falling off to one degree or another on just about any and every tree.
This is just as true for mature trees and those that are young and newly planted.
Evergreens are thin and holes abound.
The light brown color is where bark has fallen off.
Many trees were actively seeping liquid.
It's a terrible sight. Better to focus on the flowers!
It is the season for witchhazel.
Roger and Susan confirmed that in Massachusetts they too have noticed that bulbs are emerging early,
and for the most part are smaller in size than normal - just as in New Jersey.
This jaunty scilla is peeking out through a wrought iron fence from a front-yard garden,
but the ivy around it has turned from green to black.
I am expecting to see as the season progresses that flowering trees have fewer, diminished blossoms, most of them having exhausted their reserves of energy in last spring's (overly) spectacular displays. We are witnessing remnants in the final season of spring glory.
Because there are more young, recently planted trees along the streets and on the university campus
than large trees, I can only surmise it is because many older specimens had to be removed and replaced.
I was impressed that there are so many side streets with their rows of delightful original houses still intact, each with a small garden.
Perhaps strict zoning has prevented developers from razing single family homes to replace them with condos and McMansions.

Oh is that government regulation?
It's ridiculous that peonies are out so early. This is due to unseasonably balmy temperatures - followed I might add, only two days later, by lows dipping to 28 degrees F.
Tender Oriental poppies should not be out in March.

These rhododendron leaves have the classic loss of pigment and prominent veins indicative of an inability to produce chlorophyll, due to stomata damaged from exposure to ozone.
Evergreen shrubs generally are thin, and many leaves remaining are brown.
I could have photographed hundreds of trunks like this one.
It's a terrifying prospect to have virtually every tree breaking apart.
And it gives me a very strange sense of sleep-walking through a waking nightmare when most people either don't notice and/or couldn't care less that we will soon lose all nuts, fruit, and shade!
Don't they realize our very existence depends on products we receive from the natural world?
I don't want to seem Biblical but to be honest, based on the velocity of tree collapse, I can see the beginning of the end, and it's uncomfortably near.
Cankers, lichens, and rot characterize the old and the young.
These trees are not aberrations - they are perfectly typical and to be found on every city block.
Wounds like these are fatal.
Stains like the black streak indicate this tree too has been losing its "precious bodily fluids!" (That's an attempt at humor for fans of Dr. Strangelove.)
This Japanese Andromeda has been losing leaves, and those that remain are brown - oh, and did I mention the bark is splitting?
Here is a stately white birch.
It too has lesions.
Cankers are increasing in frequency and size.
They are caused by a fungus that is usually ultimately lethal.
This topiary is quite representative of yellowing needles.
Nobody has gotten around to clearing up this fallen branch yet.
High in the crowns of trees, damage is ubiquitous. It is soul-crushing. I can remember when nature was stunningly glorious to behold, and it wasn't that long ago.
I truly do not understand how sights like this have become the norm and yet it is unremarked upon.
Hardy bamboo has turned brown - and it's not from the cold.
The branches of this tree must have posed an imminent hazard because they have all been lopped off.
Maples are blooming but their trunks indicate this will probably be the last spring they leaf out, or close to it. I anticipate an exceedingly hot, dry summer punctuated by a few terrifically violent storms, followed by an even earlier leaf drop than last autumn, when leaves fell off weeks prematurely without ever turning color.
I wandered most of the afternoon and there was never any lack of representative specimens of dying trees.
No dearth of falling bark!
I accidentally crossed the elegant and traditional Radcliffe Yard.
The venerable trees still standing have had branches removed, and those that remain have ominous lichens.
There are plenty of holes and cankers.

No tree can live for very long with this degree of interior rot.
So many are detaching from the ground, their roots must be severely impacted.
The University is trying to replace the old trees, but the new ones are rotting at the base anyway.

I suspect this corpse in front of Harvard's Reginald Lewis International Law Center was formerly a grand beech, a venerable presence that softened the harsh lines of this ugly building.
The white pines behind it are dying too.
It's pretty clear that whether you are in the country or in the city, the effects of the current composition of the atmosphere are widespread and evenly distributed. It makes me wish even more to know what exactly the mechanism is that is driving the decay.
Andy Revkin is right - if anyone survives the collapse, they will live a hermetic existence, in a sealed container with filtered air and water, devoid of connection to what was once the natural world.
If only somebody with a degree or two in atmospheric physics, chemistry and botany - or a bunch of individuals who collaborate - would figure out what precisely is causing vegetative dieback on steroids - and explain it to me!
Somebody thought pruning a dead limb off this tree would save it.
With the bark shredding off in this manner, I seriously doubt it will do any good.
This engraving of First Church is from almost 100 years ago.
First Church Exterior Prior to 1938
It is tragic that this centuries-old beech is suddenly succumbing to poisons it cannot tolerate.
It has the BALDing syndrome - Bark Atrophy Lichen Decline.
You can see the rotted holes,
and the bleeding of sap.
This tree was added after the engraving was made, but it has the same symptoms.
A chunk of bark popped off the advanced canker at the base, and lies on the ground.
Susan observed that grass is dying back, exposing bare earth, and being replaced by moss.
Light is shining through from the other side through this hole.
Next thing you know on my perambulations, I took a detour and found this fruit tree, which is covered with the same growths recorded on an earlier post of an orchard back home. A farcical exchange ensued that approached opera buffa as the owner of the house rushed out rather agitated, to ask me if I was taking pictures of the tree, or the "black fungus". It took me a minute to respond because I was stumped momentarily, wondering why the hell anyone would take pictures of this bare tree unless they were interested in the bizarre growths all over it? I answered with a question. "Is that what it is - Black Fungus?"
"That's what they call it," he replied and frantically reassured me, "But it doesn't hurt the tree! Actually," he explained unnecessarily, "it had been overproducing - and now this has come along to set it back." He pronounced this convenient and ludicrous conclusion a bit anxiously. I felt sorry for him, he seemed like a nice fellow and avid gardener.
Still, I could hardly contain my hilarity - since as we all know, the "overproduction" whether of flowers, fruit, cones or seeds, is actually a response to extreme stress - an attempt to concentrate energy on reproduction when a tree is on the verge of death. Instead, to be polite, I said to him, "That's one interpretation. Is it a crabappple?" "No," he said a bit desperately, "come back at the end of the summer and I'll give you a plum!"
Friday I awoke to snow.
All day the sky was grey and overcast. I walked outside only briefly, it was bitterly frigid.
This magnificent old beech is enormous, but sap was bleeding from its trunk.
This I believe is a wisteria. There is an identical specimen on the opposite side of the front walkway.
One or more devoted gardener has been keeping them so neatly under control, as they must be very old to have such large trunks - both of which are, alas, in terminal condition.
And check out the lichen - keep the size in mind for later if you make it through this lengthy compilation to Fugue II.
Of course pine trees are often sticky with sap.
But they're not supposed to have bark popping off.
They shouldn't be literally dripping with such prodigious excretions,
so much that it spatters onto the ground.

On such a dreary, damp afternoon, it is better to go indoors.
The Science Museum in Boston is a popular destination when the weather is inhospitable.
They have a butterfly garden where visitors can mingle with several varieties.
At a symposium this week Sir David Attenborough, described as Britain's leading conservationist, announced that butterflies are in decline.
They are disappearing on every continent.
In the article the loss is blamed on disappearing habitat and climate change.
So, we can add butterflies to bees and bats and frogs and fish and birds...oops the list is voluminous, and ends with us.
Why pollution and pesticides are so rarely on the list of threats to biodiversity is a mystery to me.
Could it be because our international corporate masters produce and rely on pesticides and toxic emissions for their obscene profits?
It seems an impossible task to protect any significant level of biodiversity in artificial environments like zoos and greenhouses.
The interactions and interdependencies of species on each other and on climate are just too complex to replicate - look at how impossible it has been for anyone to figure out how to develop just the precise combination of temperature, light, soil nutrients and microbes, and water, to grow the delicious morel commercially, despite how lucrative the gourmet market would be.
I have been hesitant to state categorically that indoor plants in buildings and greenhouses are being impacted by ozone...but I'm getting very close to that opinion.
There are so many other problems that could produce mottled foliage. If the plants aren't watered consistently, or their soil is depleted, that could produce similar symptoms such as loss of pigment, ruffled leaves, and brown foliage. And while insects tend to run rampant in closed environments, the pesticides used to control them can damage leaves.
Although with butterflies around I suppose the Science Museum doesn't use harmful chemicals. And you'd think they know enough to water regularly, and feed the soils. So, I have to say, I have no good explanation for why the plants in the butterfly garden look so, well, exposed to ozone.
Now, get ready for Fugue II where we come upon a really REALLY thrilling exhibit, which contradicts every forester, nurseryman, and scientist who has insisted that lichens don't harm trees. Thus I wonder, why does this laminated notebook say, "They help break down rocks and trees?" Is the Science Museum lying to the children?
Some smart-aleck left a comment on a prior post on this blog, telling me to calm down because lichens grow incredibly slowly - to which I replied, precisely the point! They are NO LONGER growing slowly! That was then and this is now.
And my question is, WHY are they no longer growing at a constant rate? There is an entire little red wooden schoolhouse at the center of the lichen exhibit. In the laminated notebook is a quiz for the children to calculate the minimum age of the structure by measuring the dimension of a lichen found growing on its foundation and collected 10 years ago...since lichens are supposed to grow at a constant rate, and this particular species advances 1 mm per year.
This is the very lichen, Flavoparmelia caperata, that is growing so rapidly now you can practically watch its progression day by day.
According to the Science Museum, this particular specimen at 130 mm was thus 130 years old when discovered in 2000. That makes no sense however, since they are measuring the entire diameter and it should be half that, from the center to the edge, I should think.
Leaving that aside as simple sloppiness, however, if it were still the case that this lichen grows at a predictable rate of 1 mm per year, then those trees around Wit's End, which boast lichens that completely smother the surface of their bark, wrapping around trunks and branches, must have the distinction of being hundreds if not thousands of years old!!! Of course that is ridiculous and besides, as of two years ago, there weren't hardly any lichens around at all. They existed, but certainly didn't dominate entire stands of trees as they do currently.
This particular example, growing on a lilac branch last summer, is at least 40 mm in diameter, and therefore must be a minimum of 20 years old...which predates the lilac! Amazing!!
There is another type of lichen, occurring less frequently than the Common Greenshield, but also growing faster than its host.
This "Old Man's Beard" purportedly grows at a steady rate of 10 mm per year.
That's .39 inches and so frankly I don't see how this specimen can be growing on the tip of a twig, as seen last August in Newport, Rhode Island.
I'll grant it's pretty, but impossible! The new growth on the high branches of this locust, seen a few days later in Wellfleet, MA, were covered with Usnea far larger than .39 inches!
Ah, the tenacity of trees, and indeed all life. Incredible how this tree trunk has grown right around the fence.

But the wild species in our ecosystem are no match for the voracity of humans. Roger compared our current prospects to bacteria living in a closed jar. The population grows on a rapidly increasing curve, peaks, and then just as rapidly dwindles to nothing when the food supply is completely consumed. That's us. Big, smart amoebas on a fast track towards extinction, according to the sage RPauli.

Going home on the Saw Mill Parkway through New York, workers had shut a lane to cut and chip all the fallen trees that are spilling onto the roadway. The landscape is very close to approximating those photos of flattened trees in the aftermath of a nuclear blast.
This lone tree at the epicenter survived Nagasaki:


  1. Looks like you're having a somewhat similar winter as we had a couple of years back. Might it be that the bark falling is because of the temperatures see-sawing between positive and negative celsius? Cue the pine sawflies, possibly.

  2. Hello Oale! Where are you located??

    I had been thinking that perhaps the extreme swings between high and low temps could be causing sap to flow, then freeze and expand, thus cracking the bark. I haven't ruled that out but I'm starting to think it is a more fundamental problem because it is becoming near impossible to find any tree that doesn't have bark peeling off. There must have been occasions with diverging temperatures in the past. But the bark situation is new, and worsening by the day.

  3. Hello, I'm in Southwestern Finland, we had Scillas coming up Feb/Mar-2007 (then April was somewhat cold) and the sawflies attacking pines next summer (outbreak hopefully fading now with this quite snowy and cold winter).

  4. Weather extremes are predicted by climate change models and will no likely worsen, unfortunately. I expect tornados to be a particularly nasty consequence of temperature disparities. One fellow who comments regularly at explains it as more energy in the system (from burning fossil fuels that were sequestered for millions of years) = more energetic storms.

    I went to Finland once! Almost 30 years ago, to Helsinki. It was beautiful. We took a boat to an island in the harbor that had a restaurant situated in a cave and I still remember the delicious grilled salmon and morels.

    Do you see any tree damage not inflicted by insects?

  5. Hello Gail!
    I'm more of an insect guy, so I'm not a good judge on that, should ask the arborists or foresters on that...

    but not very scientifically, I've seen nothing as extensive as in your photos. Trees had some bark fall off after that warm winter. This winter appears to have been somewhat nasty for apple trees. Then we had this fungus (Inonotus ulmicola) enter the country recently (10? years ago) and this has killed many old elms (including about half of the Turku Cathedral park), no Dutch Elm's disease here yet. I have been of the opinion the added lichen growth was a consequence of diminishing sulfuric oxides in air, but not so sure about that anymore. Then there are the gall mites on limes who have been smelling especially bad during recent summers, don't remember such foul (like rancid butter) smell from the childhood. We discussed last summer with a biologist friend of mine about studying these if there's been some change in their biochemistry induced by the environment. Last bit of changes that comes to mind is that an arborist acquaintance said the speed of growth has increased recently on some tree species, don't know if it's a result of warming or dimished sulfuric pollution. I must keep in mind you have links to some good studies, might become useful sometime.
    Bye for now.


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