Sunday, September 26, 2010

Scenes of Desolation

This field of soybeans has turned a garish searing yellow.
The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the EPA's proposed changes to the regulation of ozone levels.  It's too bad that the focus is solely on the danger to human health - and the cost to business - when scientific studies show that ozone is even more of a threat to plants.  After all, we all need plants to eat.  The maps they included are fascinating.  At first glance it appears as though only certain urban areas, concentrated mostly on the coasts, have levels in violation of current and potentially tighter regulations...but you have to understand that the vast white areas simply DO NOT HAVE MONITORS.

According to Wikipedea, there are 3,140 counties or their equivalent in the US.  Of those, only 675 have monitors, and of those 675, 96% would be in violatation the more stringent standards!  And then there is the small matter of whether cumulative, long term exposure to levels much lower than the proposed stricter 60 ppb pose an existential threat to all forms of life.

The Journal reports:
"Ms. Jackson wants to set the nation's air-quality standard for ozone at between 60 and 70 parts per billion, compared with 75 ppb currently. The EPA says that could save as many as 12,000 lives a year and save the U.S. as much as $100 billion annually in 2020 by reducing spending on health problems associated with excessive ozone, such as asthma and bronchitis."
This farmhouse is in the middle of a vast nursery - acres of boxwood, arborvitae, and other evergreen shrubs.  Those are thinning and turning yellow - but what's worse is the big deciduous trees on the property that are dying.

They are rotted in the center.
All that remains of this long row are the stumps.

They fell victim to BALDing - Bark Atrophy Lichen Decline.

Rolling Stone had a revealing profile "The Eco Warrier" about Lisa Jackson back in January.  She is one of Obama's best appointments, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.  The article essentially validates what I have discovered:
"To shift the agency's culture, Jackson has moved swiftly to restore top career staffers who were shunted aside during the Bush years. "We call them 'cryogenically frozen,'" says a top aide to Jackson. "We've reactivated a lot of people who were known to disagree with the Bush administration's politics and were hung up in closets." Veteran staffers who have gotten their old jobs back say privately that they spent eight years under Bush "trying to do something good under the radar" — even as they were forced to design programs that "we all knew the courts were going to throw out."
Under Jackson, the agency is once again basing decisions on science rather than politics. "The science is not something the Obama administration feels they have to guard themselves against," says one clean-air staffer who was sidelined under Bush. "Because they are not trying to protect their industry buddies from environmental regulations."
"They have freed up agency employees to do what they're supposed to do: protect public health and the environment," says Jeremy Symons, the EPA's former climate-policy adviser. "And God knows there's a lot of pent-up work behind the dam that needs to be unleashed."

 These leaves are from a hedge of evergreen azalea.  Each one is speckled from stomates damaged by exposure to ozone.
Much of Jackson's first year at the EPA, in fact, has been eaten up by reversing the worst of the Bush legacy. "It requires that we use our time and resources to look back," she says, "when we absolutely need to be moving ahead."
In one of its final acts, the Bush EPA effectively barred new oversight of oil refineries with a regulatory trick: It covered up the overall impact of a refinery's pollution by measuring every smokestack separately, as if each were operating in isolation. "Imagine if you had 10 smokers in a room and a baby in the middle," says Schaeffer, the former enforcement director. "You're trying to figure the impact on that baby's lungs, but you model the smoke from each cigarette and assume that's all you have in the room. There wasn't any science behind it."
Jackson summarily revoked the oil-friendly rule in October. She also jettisoned lax smog rules set under Bush that flouted the unanimous recommendation of independent scientists and allowed higher pollution levels — effectively sentencing hundreds of people a year to premature death. "This is one of the most important protection measures we can take to safeguard our health," Jackson said in sending the rules back to the drawing board. In January, the agency proposed strict new smog limits that are expected to be finalized later this year.
Iris leaves with necrosis.  Once upon a time there were plants that were considered "sensitive" and others, "tolerant".  Not any more.
Another typical example, lily of the valley.

Way way back in 1994 this webpage - ominously titled "The Carbon Bomb:  Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests" - was published by some folks at Greenpeace.  They make dire predictions about rising levels of CO2, climate change, and the impact on the boreal forests, which they describe as "under siege".  How quaint!  They knew back then we were going to kill all the trees.  This is what I mean by quaint:
"GREENPEACE BELIEVES that climate change and severe forest decline can only be halted by:
* A planned and orderly global phase-out of fossil fuels and their replacement by the efficient use of renewable and clean energy sources, including the immediate reduction of greenhouse gas levels by at least 20 percent by 2005.
* An end to global deforestation and the introduction of a programme of ecologically-based reforestation.
* The immediate phase-out of CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs, and their replacement by chemicals which do not damage the ozone layer or contribute to the human-induced greenhouse effect."
Can you see how this made me laugh till I cried?  The report is a good and extensive primer for the role of forests in regulating climate as a carbon sink, and the various factors that affect forest health, from fire to insects to precipitation to clear cutting.  One interesting fact I hadn't known is that the frequency of tornados and speed of wind, which of course can be so damaging to trees, had increased dramatically even by 1994:
"METEOROLOGISTS REPORT A recent sharp increase in tornados in the U.S. and Canada. Canadian tornado frequency was four or five times higher than two decades earlier.[68] Average wind speed in the Experimental Lakes Area in the central boreal forest of northwestern Ontario has increased by 50 percent.[69]"
At this time of year it is not unusual so see this contrast between green, newer leaves with the  lower, older leaves that have lost the ability to produce chlorophyll after a season of exposure to ozone.

This potted begonia, which spent the summer outside, also has healthier young growth above the damaged older leaves.

Of course, ice storms instead of snow from warmer temperatures and consequently greater moisture content in the atmosphere are another threat with which trees must contend...and all that just from climate change without even considering ozone, the most drastic and urgent threat to trees and to all plants, our source of food!
Maples are turning color and dropping leaves well ahead of schedule.
Perhaps what is even more astonishing is the bark.
It is popping off in trunks leaving raw wood exposed.
There's no way on earth a tree in this condition can survive very long.
I was browsing through last September's pictures for comparison purposes this morning, and came across a link posted by a commenter that I had forgotten about.  It didn't work when I first tried, so now with my ever-more sophisticated intertube skills, I googled a portion of it and came up with this fabulous source, a study from the journal Plant Disease, from 2001, succinctly titled, "Ambient Ozone and Plant Health".  So it's a bit dated but has very lucid information from experts in the field, and it also leads to a number of more recent studies, which draw upon its conclusions.  Another day wasted!!

It starts with this quote that has become my new motto, cited as being from C.B. Fox, in 1873:
"To the philosopher, the physician, the meteorologist, and the chemist, there is perhaps no subject more attractive than that of ozone."
I guess that makes me a philosopher since I certainly don't qualify as any of the others.  This comprehensive overview begins with the history of the discovery of ozone, which naturally occurs at much lower levels from lightening and plants - and the earliest studies of its consequences to vegetation:

"One hundred years had elapsed since those first measurements before Richards and coworkers (39) showed in 1958 that O3 was a constituent of smog causing foliar injury to grape in California. During the following year, Heggestad and Middleton (18) reported that O3 was responsible for flecking on tobacco leaves in the eastern United States. Similarly, Daines et al. (7) identified O3 as the predominant air pollutant affecting agriculture in New Jersey. Since those early investigations, it has become evident that O3 is by far the most important air pollutant toxic to plants worldwide. Ozone causes foliar injury and reduces growth and yield in many agronomic and horticultural crops, deciduous trees, and conifers (26). As population, urban centers, and industries have grown, an increasing number of reports have appeared during the past 25 years regarding O3-induced foliar injury on sensitive plants in many countries. These include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Peoples Republic of China, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and Ukraine."

I guess scientists studying ozone are a still bit behind the curve of climate scientists, most of whom for so long assumed that all they had to do was study the science and report the results, and then the people and the politicians and the polluting industries would say "OH.  Fuel emissions are very very bad for all forms of life so we had better undertake a gigantic effort to switch to clean sources of energy post haste!"  NOT.

Every time I think I have found the definitive guide to all things ozone, I find another!  It's as though scientists keep doing more studies, and writing more reports, over and over, refining the results and gaining deeper understanding but basically saying the same thing over and over:  OZONE IS BAD.  MORE OZONE IS WORSE.  But not ONE of them will say, if we don't stop releasing toxic greenhouse gases into the atmosphere we are going to kill all the plants and STARVE.  The passage repeats the mantra:  More Study is Needed.
"By the early 1970s, it was well accepted that ambient O3 was an inter-regional problem of concern for crop and forest productivity. Thus in 1972, after reaching its initial goal, NE-56 ceased to function. Subsequently project scientists expanded their objectives beyond the use of indicator plants to include the effects of O3 on plant physiological processes, growth, and yield. After a series of 5-year cycles of study, the project was designated NE-176 in 1990.
Current research activities in NE-176 include studies on the biochemical and molecular mechanisms of O3 injury and sensitivity or tolerance in plants; impact of O3 on carbon allocation, carbon/nitrogen relationships, and secondary metabolism as they affect pathogen and pest relations, decomposition rates, and nutrient cycling; joint effects of O3 with other factors influencing growth and yield, such as increasing CO2 concentrations, and changes in temperature and water availability; yield responses of crops and growth responses of trees, and effects of O3 on plant community structure and species diversity. Additional research activities relate to modeling cause-effect relationships, including ecosystem processes. Overall, these efforts are continuing to serve target audiences ranging from individual homeowners to large industrial corporations and state and federal governmental agencies (Table 5)."
So basically, they figured out decades ago that ozone is toxic, and since then they have been studying JUST HOW BAD.  Really useful.  They investigate designing crops that are more resistant to ozone.  What's that going to do for the trees?
I have no idea what happened here.  Perhaps there was a flood - a small river runs along the treeline on the left - and hardly anything germinated afterwards.
Another vantage of the wasteland.
Some of the same authors published an article in February 2009, with the abstract:

"Exposure to elevated O3 typically results in suppressed photosynthesis, accelerated senescence, decreased growth and lower yields. Various approaches used to evaluate O3 effects generally concur that current yield losses range from 5% to 15% among sensitive plants. There is, however, considerable genetic variability in plant responses to O3. To illustrate this, we show that ambient O3 concentrations in the eastern United States cause substantially different levels of damage to otherwise similar snap bean cultivars. Largely undesirable effects of O3 can also occur in seed and fruit chemistry as well as in forage nutritive value, with consequences for animal production. Ozone may alter herbicide efficacy and foster establishment of some invasive species. We conclude that current and projected levels of O3in many regions worldwide are toxic to sensitive plants of agricultural and horticultural significance. Plant breeding that incorporates O3 sensitivity into selection strategies will be increasingly necessary to achieve sustainable production with changing atmospheric composition, while reductions in O3 precursor emissions will likely benefit world food production and reduce atmospheric concentrations of an important greenhouse gas."

This elephant ear leaf is over three feet long.  It has been nicely watered, all summer, in its pot on the patio and the leaves  represent an excellent sample of chlorosis and necrosis from exposure to ozone - NOT DROUGHT!
And in the paper there are a number of statements along these lines, followed by explanations of the chemical means by which ozone causes foliar damage, decreased nutritive value, and early senescence:
background levels have doubled since pre-industrial times, (that from a 2004 citation!)
Ozone is the most phytotoxic of the common air pollutants, and its widespread distribution presents a risk for considerable plant damage. Visible foliar injury under ambient conditions is reported from more than 20 countries in Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North and South America
East Asia, India, Pakistan, many countries around the Mediterranean, Europe, parts of Mexico and Brazil are likely experiencing reductions in crop and forage production due to ambient O3
Ozone poses a critical threat and a challenging problem to world food security, fiber and timber production, conservation and genetic diversity of natural plant communities
Growers may not be aware of yield losses due to O3 when sensitive cultivars are no longer grown near resistant ones, when distinctive symptoms do not occur on more resistant cultivars and particularly when yield losses on adapted, O3-resistant cultivars are not identified because there is no clean-air control for comparison under commercial production conditions. Yield losses due to O3 exposure have been reported in cases where no visible injury symptoms were observed (Reich 1987US EPA 1996). Powell et al. (2003) observed altered foliar chemistry and decreased forage nutritive quality in the absence of foliar injury.
You might think this birch has lost its leaves because it's  normal for this time in September.

But if that were the case, this birch across the street would be leafless as well.  Instead, it just isn't quite as dead yet.
One study, "Adverse Effects of ultraviolet (UV)-B radiation and ozone (O3) on crop growth and productivity" concludes:
"Perhaps the most pressing need at the moment is to obtain field information about the effects of UV-B and O3 that are clearly identified with one or more of the different scenarios outlined in Table 7.7. To such studies should be added elevated levels of CO2 in view of the preliminary observations that indicate significant interaction with the effects of O3 While such information is needed for direct effects on crop species, the studies must also include information about the possible long-term effects on growth, joint effects with other pollutants, incidence of pathogens and insect pests, intra-species competition, and crop-weed relationships (Krupa and Kickert, 1993; Runeckles and Krupa, 1994)...
In view of the urgency of acquiring information on the potential impacts of the various components of climatic change, including UV-B and tropospheric O3, that can be realistically envisioned, every effort should therefore be made to avoid wasting research effort and resources on studies that will do nothing to reduce the uncertainties associated with our present information, and which fail to recognize the potential importance of the interactions among the various components (Runeckles and Krupa, 1994)."
Instead of becoming the beautiful colors of autumn, the leaves are turning brown.
Upon closer inspection it is surprising to see that many are actually torn.
These authors provide all sorts of long handy charts which detail the percentage of crop reductions under different levels of exposure, for instance, for ozone alone:
"a 26-42% reduction in weight of dry beans at 38-50 ppb...
a 36 and 45% reduction in shoot and root growth in radish at 70 ppb...
a 50% reduction in wheat seed weight/head at 96 ppb...
a 45% reduction of shoot dry weight for Timothy grass at 55 ppb..."
And there are other charts examining lowered yields due to (UV) - B radiation, which might explain why, according to this article, the apple crop is diminished in Massachusetts due to "sunburn!"

Chinese scientists are studying whether ascorbic acid will innoculate rice against rising levels of ozone...I wonder why?  They are also investigating effects on wheat, and found
"The results of meta-analysis indicated that elevated [O3] decreased grain yield, grain weight, grain number per ear, ear number per plant and harvest index by 26%, 18%, 11%, 5% and 11%, respectively, relative to ambient air. The decrease in leaf physiological characters was much greater than that in yield when wheat was expose to elevated [O3], while light-saturated photosynthetic rate (Asat), stomatal conductance (Gs) and chlorophyll content (Chl) decreased by 40%, 31%, and 46%, respectively."

From a comment by Catman, I found these lyrics to Jackson Browne's "Rock Me on the Water" - one of many songs prescient about ecosystem collapse and the failure of humanity to prevent it, that he is compiling on a youtube channel.

Oh people look around you
The signs are everywhere
You left it for somebody other than you
To be the one to care

You're lost inside your houses
There's no time to find you now
Oh your walls are burning
And your towers are turning
I'm going to leave you here
And try to get down to the sea somehow

Rock me on the water
Sister won't you soothe my fevered brow
Rock me on the water
Gotta get down to the sea somehow

The road is filled with homeless souls
Every woman child and man
Who have no idea where they will go
But they'll help you if they can

Now everyone must have some thought
That's going to pull them through somehow
Well the fires are raging hotter and hotter
But the sisters of the sun are going to rock me on the water now

Rock me on the water
Sister won't you soothe my fevered brow
O-oh rock me on the water
I gotta get down to the sea somehow

Oh people look among you
It's there your hope must lie
There's a seabird above you
gliding in one place like jesus in the sky
We all must do the best we can
And then hang onto that gospel plow
When my life is over, I'm going to stand before the father
But the sisters of the sun are going to rock me on the water now

Rock me on the water
Sister will you soothe my fevered brow
Rock me on the water, maybe I'll remember how
Maybe I'll remember
Maybe I'll remember how

Rock me on the water
The wind is with me now
Rock me on the water
Gotta get down to the sea somehow
I'll get down to the sea somehow


  1. What should the ozone limit be? 30 ppb?

  2. I took a look at sitemeter and on saturday visits jumped. Were they from my area? Maybe because I told my class? :) If you look at the long term chart visits are going up.

  3. Hi, Highschooler! I don't think anyone knows what a safe level would be, or even what the preindustrial background level was.

    The 2001 paper ( linked to in the post says this:

    "Because of these natural sources, there is a background average O3 concentration of roughly 20 to 30 nl/liter (ppb) everywhere (10). It is highly questionable whether there is any place on earth that has not been influenced by modern-day human activity, and therefore background values will vary with location. Natural sources consist of lightning during thunderstorms downward intrusions of O from the 3
    upper atmosphere....and

    During the growing season, stagnant air masses, varying in duration from one to several days, will result in high surface O3 concentrations on a regional scale. Thus, crops and forests are exposed, for a few hours to days, to relatively high O3 con- centrations (e.g., >80 nl/liter), with other periods of relatively low concentrations (e.g., <40 nl/liter). The average lifetime of O3 is about 16 h, and once produced, it can be transported long distances to rural agri- cultural and forested areas (Fig. 3). Thus surface level O3 is an inter-regional (in the eastern United States, California) and even a continental (Europe) scale problem. Ta- ble 1 provides a comparison of maximum daily O3 concentrations measured in differ- ent regions.
    Toxicity to Plants
    Plants are subjected to acute and chronic exposures of ground-level O3. An acute exposure consists of relatively high O3 concentrations (e.g., >80 nl/liter) from a few consecutive hours to days. In compari- son, a chronic exposure consists of rela- tively low O3 concentrations (e.g., <40 nl/liter) for the entire life of a plant, with periodic intermittent or random episodes of high concentrations. Both acute and chronic O3 exposures can result in symptoms of foliar injury on sensitive plants (Table 2, Fig. 4A to D and 5A to D).
    and downward intrusions of O from the
    upper atmosphere."

  4. regarding traffic - sitemeter is quite inaccurate but you can choose location form the left hand side and get a vague idea of where people are coming from. The referrals selection gives a good picture of where the major jump came from - 2 sources, comments on palingates and climateprogress, and a few from because she put up links.

    I also get more and more hits from people googling things like: trees dying, bark splitting, etc.

  5. It looks like its chronic where I am. How much would shutting down coal plants help?

  6. Does posting links help? How long do you think we have?

  7. I put a few comments on climateprogress. Maybe if romm adresses o3 people will notice?

  8. Shutting down coal plants is critical - #1 according to Jim Hansen. Also important are emissions from transportation.

    Good for you posting on CP - I'll go check for them! Maybe you can get JR to be interested - I've had no success. There are peak oil types, CO2 types, and environmental types (pollution and habitat destruction). They rarely come together although as far as I'm concerned they are so inter-related, it's basically all the same thing. JR is primarily concerned about CO2. Ozone is trickier because although there is plenty of proof it is toxic, just about no one has taken the leap to direct causation of dying trees.

    How long do we have till what? Disasters are already happening, if you are unlucky enough to be in the direct path of a flood or a tornado or a wildfire, the time is now. I think for predictive purposes it's going to be totally random. As for a more or less, all-encompassing breakdown of civil society, I think it will be fairly soon, personally. As soon as it becomes clear that food is scarce, panic will be not be far behind. Then what may happen is governments will become very authoritarian - which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

    Being mentally prepared will enhance your survival skills, as will making relationships with other people who are also preparing. For now, read, ponder, gain basic skills, and put up those links!

  9. Hey Highschooler,

    You asked the important question: How long do you think we have?

    That is a pretty important question no matter what the state of the world is currently.. or even what it is predicted to be.

    I read lots of science blogs talking about that... their language usually uses terms like climate models and scenarios. And even though they all say it will be progressively destabilizing it is not something happening tomorrow. Weather is tomorrow - which is transitory, Climate is the greater change that could be progressing over many decades. Most of the studies you can find will predict to the year 2100. And they are pretty clear at describing the changes. So you can get a decent overview of the next 90 years - but nothing is specific. And it is MOST important to know that so much change will be REGIONAL... that means that different places will be affected differently. Most places in the US are reasonably fine for a while... certainly with regional problems like heatwaves and drought. But places like Pakistan and Russia are still tough places to live. Mostly the problems will be brief and we will adapt. Like LA is doing in their heat today. Depending on where you live, like close to sea level -- sometime in the future it may be important to relocate somewhere else... maybe just for the summer, maybe all year round. But that will be very clear to you at that time. And much can change if we change what we are doing now. That is the mitigation part. Let's not make it worse.

    The message is to stay healthy and smart and calm and be ready to change... and always demand change. No matter what, you have an exciting future ahead. And you still get to shape much of it.


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