Sunday, April 25, 2010

SERC du Soleil

On the way home from Earth Day in Washington DC, I stopped at the 2,650 acre Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. It contains a large forest that is bordered by marshes and water, with hiking trails open to the public. The woods are home to a variety of trees.
While I was there I chased this butterfly around the parking lot.
It's very hard to catch them in a picture, they fly very quickly and change direction unexpectedly.
I also saw a bald eagle, high in the sky.
It started to descend
and then suddenly dove into the water.
It emerged and had to flap its wings very hard to go aloft
and was carrying something in its talons.
I can't tell what it is.
But it carried it high into the trees and then disappeared.
Even before I arrived at the Center I knew the trees there would be dying from the landscape along the way.
This huge stump next to the sign at the entry was the perfect foreshadowing for the rest of the property.
It's clear that perhaps even just recently, this was a natural treasure. I love beech trees, their smooth bark and muscular roots.
Unfortunately this magnificent woods has all the expected indications of BALDing syndrome (Bark Atrophy Lichen Decline) that are rampant elsewhere on the East Coast.
The bark is splitting, peeling, and falling off of trees old and young.
Holes into rotted trunks are easily found on many specimens.
And lichen is spreading at unprecedented rates.
Anyone who wants to claim that lichen is not indicative of a dying tree should examine this piece of branch that fell to the ground.
And of course strange fungal growths and cankers are readily located.
One of the saddest losses is the virtual obliteration of the beautiful understory of mountain laurel.
The bushes are now almost invisible, they have so few leaves left. This would have once been a solid mass of glossy evergreen, with lovely flowers.
Now the branches are rotting and the few leaves that still cling from past years have the characteristic stippling and singeing from exposure to caustic compounds in the atmosphere. Click the picture to see the detail and contrast between older leaves that have suffered through exposure to toxic greenhouse gases, and the new growth.
Even the roots are rotted, and are being consumed by moss and lichen.
There isn't a single healthy conifer to be found. Many are completely bare.
Those that have any needles left have only a badly miscolored few at the top.
Broken branches stick out awkwardly from the trunks.
And the protective layers of bark are peeling off, revealing brighter red tissue from the interior.
There are several dying pines along the water's edge in this photo.
I could not find a single native cedar that wasn't in terrible shape.
Their bark is peeling off as well, in curly strips.
This silhouette reveals how thin the tree is, and it's actually one of the better ones.
In many cases they have hit the ground.
This forest must have been lush and dense even in winter before the evergreens started dying, like this holly, which has only a remnant of leaves.
This tree with bare branches in its crown is right next to the Administration Building. One of the first things I learned when I became concerned about trees is that once their crowns are thin and branches are leafless, the tree is unsalvageable. It's not a question of whether it will die completely, only how long it will take until it is leafless, or topples over.
Interspersed with the following pictures of dead and dying trees, I am going to paste correspondence with a post-doctoral researcher who recently published a study claiming these woods are increasing their growth because of warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, and higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. I took all of these photos and perhaps a hundred more in the space of a one-hour walk.
My emails will appear in blue; Dr. McMahon's in grey, and my remaining observations for this post will be green.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Dear Dr. Parker,

Today I read this report of your research indicating that trees are growing faster because of higher concentrations of CO2.
I do not doubt this and in fact the FACE project in Wisconsin supports your findings. However, my observations that trees are in decline and in fact dying in Eastern forests at unprecedented rates does not seem to be reflected in your study.
I am very interested to understand why this should be. How recent are your measurements - does your analysis include the past 18 months? I date the onset of an obvious, widespread and rapid decline to late summer of 2008.
Is there any other way that your study could be set up so that it would not reflect tree decline? Do you exclude dead trees from growth measurements, for example?
I look forward to corresponding with you and as I live in Northern NJ I am hopeful I will be able to come to the Smithsonian Center to tour your plots. It would be a great pleasure to meet you and get more details about your project, if your time permits. In any event I look forward to seeing your forests first hand.
I have been posting photos of trees and links to research This post in particular has a video of the FACE CO2 and ozone projects.

Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ

Dr. Parker never answered. After resending, I got a reply from his colleague:
From: McMahon, Sean <>
Subject: RE: Message for Dr. Parker
To: "Wit's End"
Date: Tuesday, April 6, 2010, 1:44 PM

Hi Gail,
I'm afraid I don't quite understand this 'dieoff' you're talking about. I see no evidence of massive die-offs in eastern forests.
(I added the red because this statement is important and I will come back to it.)
Leaves (and fruit) naturally get pretty beat up over the course of the year, and synchronized leaf (needle) fall is not unheard of. Are the trees you're referring to not leafing out this spring? Or budding, as it's still a bit early?
The mechanisms that cause large die offs are usually species-specific, such as pests or pathogens, unless it's an obvious disturbance. I doubt that any atmospheric characteristics would cause a large die-off, as trees on the whole are so tough and resilient.
If trees can live in industrial zones in China, central park, or in Chernobyl, I'm sure that northern NJ is not presenting them with anything they can't handle.
It's true that ozone can damage leaves and reduce photosynthesis, but again, this would be seen in places like mountain tops or road sides, but not forest-wide.
Please continue to monitor the forests around you. If hectares of NJ forest fail to produce leaves this spring, I'd call the EPA and check for something very nasty in the soil.



From: Wit's End <>
Subject: RE: Message for Dr. Parker
To: "SeanMcMahon" <>
Date: Wednesday, April 7, 2010, 3:05 PM

Dear Sean,
It was very kind of you to reply. I still would like to know the date when your last measurements for the study were taken, and come to think of it, I have a few other quick questions.

1. Did you measure the height, girth, or both of individual trees? Did you include the understory in your inventory?
2. Are your measurements ongoing?
3. I would like to visit the Institute on Friday, the 23rd of April. Can I see the plot where you did your study - is it marked?
4. Can you send me a link to your study or a pdf?
I do not think it is something in the soil, by the way, although certainly the nutrients are depleted by acid rain. However that cannot account for foliar damage sustained by annual plants in good soil in pots last summer.
I do agree with you that trees are resilient, and that is precisely why it is so alarming that every single species, whether coniferous or deciduous, and most importantly, trees of all ages, show evidence of drastic poisoning.
I just went to Maryland this morning and their condition is exactly the same there, and all along the way. Conifers have lost needles and a large percentage is completely dead. Deciduous trees are losing branches and, incredibly, bark is peeling and falling off the trunks.
Healthy trees ward off disease and insects. When their systems are compromised by exposure to the inexorably rising background tropospheric ozone, they are attacked by pathogens and fungi.
I have read many studies indicating that ozone is rising, and travels thousands of miles. Even our national parks have terrible air quality.
Something extremely toxic is in the atmosphere and I would very much like to know what it is.

I look forward to your answer,

Thanks again,

I received no answer to that email, so I sent another.
On 4/19/10 6:53 PM, "Wit's End" <> wrote:

Hi Sean, I don't think I ever got an answer to my last email, below.
I am still planning to go to the DC area on Thursday, for an
Earth Day rally - and would really like to visit the plot on the way home to NJ on Friday.

I gather the center is open to the public but any direction you can offer towards the particular area that was the plot of your studies would be a helpful guide.
Also I still have a few outstanding questions,

1. what was the last period of time that you included in your data for the study and

2. can I have a link or a pdf of the actual study and

3. how did you perform measurements? and are they ongoing?



This was his reply - an answer to only one question, no reference to my visit, and a link to the paper.

Hey Gail. Last data are from 2007. Here's the paper. It will have more details.
Here is an online link to the pdf I have posted on google docs
Dear Sean,
Thank you so much for sending me your paper! I actually waded through it. I would love to read this reference because I am always looking for old growth forests and 800 years is pretty old!
Will you be following up with new measurements? 2007 makes sense to me - I didn't see leaves wilting and branches falling until midsummer of 2008.
And can I visit any of your specific plots? Are they marked?
I never got a response to that email and when I arrived on Friday I left phone messages for both of them - neither called back. Thus, I was unable to take photographs of their specific areas of study.
However, it is inconceivable that they aren't in the same condition as the woods I did photograph while hiking through the premises.
I came away extremely impressed with the enlightened hiring policies of the Smithsonian which obviously makes every effort to employ the handicapped - since their researchers are clearly blind.
Remember this statement?
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand this 'dieoff' you're talking about. I see no evidence of massive die-offs in eastern forests."
I was willing to give these guys the benefit of the doubt that their research was honest, especially after I finally ascertained that their data collection ended in 2007.
I personally did not see evidence of mass die-off until 2008, so it is quite possible that up to that point forests in fact were gaining biomass.
And besides, it's deeply troubling to think that scientists connected with the prestigious Smithsonian Institute could be deliberately ignoring the facts in order to present a rosy picture of the benefits of rising CO2.
Even if they did receive funding from HSBC, a notorious greenwashing corporation.
But to state that there is "no evidence of massive die-off" when that is precisely what is occurring
and is readily confirmed in a cursory inventory
well, that is JUST A LIE.
Why are the scientists at the Smithsonian lying?
Oh well this enormous ant nest is chewing up the evidence.
This elderly pair of birdwatchers left dejectedly, having told me they found far fewer birds than they had anticipated. Their faces looked stricken. Aside from the eagle, I saw only one other bird, and heard perhaps 4 or 5. Our ecosystem is collapsing, and species are disappearing in plain sight. Meanwhile, I like to think these two fellows out canoeing on a delightful warm April afternoon are Dr. Parker and Dr. McMahon, who were too busy doing research out on the water to answer my calls.


  1. I have it on good authority that this comment was left, although, in its mysterious complexity doesn't allow viewing, so I am reporting it:

    David B. Benson has left a new comment on your post "SERC du Soleil":


  2. Oh! Suddenly blogger has decided to cooperate. Thank you BLOGGER.

    And David BB, you might enjoy this if you haven't run across it before:

    Grab a glass of wine or bourbon, first...


Blog Archive

My Blog List

Search This Blog