Sunday, October 3, 2010

Zawacki is a Verb that Means "I Told You So"

It has been a turbulent week in terms of weather, with heavy downpours mixed with interludes of clear sunny skies.  First Daughter and her unruly stallion Somer took the Championship for her dressage class at Devon (***Contratulations!***), so this post is a collection of photographs from that event, and the usual trees with thin crowns and bare branches, their leaves tattered and marred, their bark smothered in lichen and splitting apart.
Thanks to some stellar sleuthing on the part of the intrepid youthful commenter Highschooler (whose links are now pasted on the "Basic Premise" page) I stumbled upon a college course taught by Dr. Patricia Muir, a professor of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University.  Thank you so much, Highschooler!
This is unequivocally the most momentous source I have discovered for information about the effects of tropospheric ozone on trees and other vegetation.  There is also a wealth of detail about the impacts on human health for anyone who wants to pursue that aspect (and a page about UV-B radiation) - but for the purposes at Wit's End, let's stick to plants and ozone.
I came upon this syllabus while googling for information about the National Crop Loss Assessment Network (NCLAN) a study which is the basis for much subsequent policy and research, and was referred to in one of Highschooler's discoveries.  Apparently the funding for this project ended in 1987, which is a pity - but one that is more than mitigated by finding Dr. Muir's notes.
Dr. Muir is the sole expert I have found currently working on the topic of ozone impacts on vegetation to essentially corroborate everything I have been attempting to document on this blog - that ozone is the underlying cause for vegetation to be dying at a rapidly accelerating rate.  (There have been others but they have retired.)
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this!  The complexity of scientifically proving causation is at the heart of the reason most experts refuse to grapple with this issue even though it presents an existential threat - but Dr. Muir takes it on in language anyone can understand.  Following are excerpts from her webpages.


Plants are generally more sensitive to O3 than are humans, with damage to some sensitive species occurring at concentrations as low as 0.04 ppm.
Ozone injury can take several forms:
1. Alterations in physiology, particularly decreased rates of photosynthesis in some species and altered carbohydrate allocation patterns. A common alteration is decreased allocation to roots and increased allocation to shoots, which makes the plant more vulnerable to drought.
2. Injury to membranes. Once inside the plant, ozone causes the production of secondary products, such as OH- radicals, organic free radicals, H2O2, and singlet O. All of these are oxidizing agents which appear to be responsible for its toxic effects.

Secondary consequences of ozone exposure then result somehow from #1 or 2, above. These secondary consequences include:

  • reduced growth and yield of fruits, vegetables, trees

  • increased vulnerability to insects and pathogens

As we'll see below, we know from field and laboratory investigations that ambient levels of ozone in the US (and elsewhere too) are injuring both native and crop plants.
Scientists have known for quite some time -- since 1958 -- that O3 is phytotoxic. As early as 1944, there was a report of visible injury to vegetation following a smog episode in the Los Angeles basin, but it wasn't known what compound or compounds in the smog were injurious. However, in 1958 it was reported that ozone --known to be a part of smog -- caused injury to grape leaves in CA, and the next year it was reported that the mysterious speckling that ruined tobacco leaves in the Southeastern US after some thunder storms was caused by ozone (resulting from stratospheric intrusions). There followed a spate of studies demonstrating that O3 was responsible for injury to many plants, both crops and natives.


Ozone is by far the most important air pollutant in terms of damage to crop plants. Globally, ~ 35% of cereal crops are grown in areas where O3 levels are high enough to decrease yields!! In the US, O3 accounts for 90% of all pollution-induced crop yield losses.
Based on experiments described below and on knowledge of ambient O3 concentrations, the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) estimates the following yield reductions attributable to O3, all expressed as averages across major growing areas. Losses are higher in hotspot areas, with yield decreases ranging from 0-56% depending on crop, location and exposure. Average losses (compared to yields expected if O3 were present at natural background levels) across major growing regions for the US are:

  • corn 2.5%

  • wheat 6%

  • soybeans 13%

  • peanuts 24%
Again, losses are variable across the US, depending on O3 concentrations, growing conditions, and crop varieties being planted. For example, certain cotton varieties in areas with 7 hour average concentrations during the growing season of 0.09 ppm (such as portions of southern CA) suffer 62% yield losses, with losses decreasing to 31% at 0.06 ppm. Some varieties of wheat and soybeans are nearly as sensitive as these cotton varieties.
OTA estimated that O3-induced yield losses sum to about $3 - $5 Billion per year in 1997. Such agricultural losses are extremely important and tragic, given what we now know about the ecological degradation associated with trying to feed people!
How are crop loss data like these derived?
Nearly all the O3 levels above background significantly reduced yields below those that would be found if O3 levels were reduced to normal background levels. As mentioned, the dose-response curves were quite variable depending on the crop variety and growing conditions.
Importantly, yields nearly always differed between charcoal-filtered air (charcoal filtering removes O3) and ambient air, meaning that ambient air even in a region thought of as moderately polluted (such as upstate NY) were injurious. These levels were considerably below the NAAQS of 0.12 ppm for one hour that prevailed at the time these experiments were going on; most of the areas used in NCLAN were well within compliance with that standard.

From a Case Study of Los Angeles (drumroll!):
Evidence that ozone is causal?
(1) The spatial pattern of injury coincides with O3 exposure. Injury increases with elevation (as does O3) and is worst on west-facing slopes, which are directly in the path of O3-laden winds from Los Angeles). There is also a sharp west-to-east geographic gradient in injury. In the westernmost regions, growth of ponderosa pine is down by as much as 50% and mortality over 1973-1978 reached 10%.
(2) No "natural" causes seemed to match spatially or temporally – drought, disease, etc.
(3) The temporal pattern coincided with the growth of precursor emissions from Los Angeles (that is, problems with the pines were noticed only after LA's production of pollutants increased greatly)
(4) Visible symptoms on pine needles match those produced in lab by controlled fumigations with O3, including chlorotic mottle, tip necrosis, and premature senescence.
(5) Species known from laboratory work to be most sensitive to O3 are declining the most, including ponderosa and Jeffrey pine.
(6) Known physiological mechanisms are capable of producing the observed effects.
Thus, all criteria needed to establish causation for air pollution injury are actually met in this situation (a rare case when all criteria can be met!)

What is actually killing many of the trees is bark beetles (western pine bark beetles), who are able to attack the O3-weakend trees. That is, beetles are the proximate cause of death, while O3 is ultimate - or is the ultimate factor high population density and use of fossil fuels? In addition, the trees' weakened roots are vulnerable to attack by root rotting fungi which can cause death (recall that O3 decreases plant allocation of carbohydrate to roots...).
On a separate page from the proximate cause link above, she delves further into this:

What are the causes of environmental problems, and how do scientists approach "understanding" and "solving" them?
Most environmental scientists have chosen to concentrate on "understanding" and "solving" certain of these problems. For example, take the issue of visible injury on leaves of trees in some urban and near-urban areas.
Problem: Visible injury to leaves
Cause: Uptake of the pollutant ozone by leaves
Solution: Spray leaves with a protective compound that decreases this uptake
Should scientists congratulate themselves on having "solved" the problem of visible injury to leaves?
(This scenario is, as Dave Barry would say, "not made up." I conducted a study, years ago, which was funded by a major U.S. manufacturer of plastic polymers, in which I tested the efficacy of certain compounds at protecting leaves against this kind of air pollution-induced injury!)
I argue that this "solution" really treats only the SYMPTOM, and is a relatively superficial solution.

The cause, on a deeper level, is excessive ozone pollution, which is, in turn caused by large numbers of people driving cars and supporting industrial processes that produce pollutants that interact to create ozone pollution.
Typically, traditional approaches have treated symptoms of larger, more fundamental and general problems but may not necessarily have gotten at their root causes.
Further, the "solutions" are usually technological "fixes", rather than being rooted in more fundamental changes.
If this isn't a "real solution," what is, what are root causes of our environmental problems, and why do we fail to recognize and address them, choosing instead to apply "bandaids"?
Another report, linked to at Desdemona Despair, reiterates that bear attacks are up - no surprise there!  The biosphere is shrinking, the ecosystem is in collapse, trees aren't producing nuts, plants aren't fecund with berries and grains...there is nothing for wildlife to eat!
Freedom Guerrilla posted a link to a local tale of woe from Georgia, of the dieoff of hemlocks:
"After tracking changes over a three-year period the scientists were surprised to discover adelgid-infested trees declined as quickly as girdled trees."
Scientists seem to be continually surprised by dying trees - maybe because they aren't even considering the underlying agent.
Even better was this link from the NY Post about "killer trees".  People in the city are blaming the Central Park Conservancy for not pruning limbs that have fallen, injuring and even killing pedestrians. In order to prevent that they are going to have to remove every single tree.
new study reports that one in five plant species is in danger of extinction - and that's without even factoring in ozone!
And now for my own pure self-referential pleasure I am going to paste portions of Richard Brenne's submission to the Climate Progress contest, to describe Canada in 2050:
Canada in 2050 is a very different place from the bold country that politely asked England for their own constitution in 1982 “if it’s not too much trouble, really. . .sorry.”

The Great Global Oil Crunch of 2015 with The War including attacks on the oil tankers that shipped 25% of the world’s oil through the Strait of Hormuz meant that Canada, like essentially every nation (the ones with oil were at the center of The War), had very little access to oil. Their attempts to ramp up Tar Sands production further ramped up global warming and led to a, uh, let’s say conflict with their southern neighbors, who, well, how do I put this – let’s just say the American flag now has 51 stars.

Agricultural zones didn’t neatly march north in lockstep because the soils under glacial ice during the last ice age are different from soils like in Iowa where the wind and glacier-carried soils were deposited. More than crops, pests migrated north into Canada, and 300 million of them had guns.

The forest fires in BC and other northern boreal forests that had exploded upward after 2000 continued that trend until precious few forests were left, and those were scavenged for firewood when people could no longer access oil, natural gas and electricity to heat their homes.
All the problems of Anthro-Earth were like a firing squad facing humanity and some weren’t as bad as feared, but others were far worse, including several factors that no one saw coming. Chief among these was the global die-off of most trees and plants including crops due to ozone, or the cumulative soup of all pollution. The primary early hero alerting us to this was Gail Zawacki, also known as Wit’s End (and a chick). She was so right when so few scientists had the generalist’s, big-picture view to see what was happening that “Zawacki” became a verb for “I told you so.”

The entire world is wracked by storms you couldn’t imagine just decades ago. That’s because for every degree Fahrenheit increase (the 51st state now returned to Fahrenheit, miles, etc – Americans don’t like being stupid alone), 4% more water vapor is added to the atmosphere. Since we’ve added 4 degrees Fahrenheit here in 2050 (since 1970), this trend is sadly accelerating.

That means 16 per cent more water vapor in the atmosphere than there was in 1970, and the result is simply breathtaking. The storms that rack Canada with 100 mph winds are now commonplace, and due to permafrost melt, logging, ozone, pine beetle deaths, forest fires and windstorms the boreal forest that covered Northern Canada is far more horizontal than vertical, where it exists at all.

Rainstorms and snowstorms are just as bad, and just as the forests hadn’t evolved to handle 100 mph winds (as the tropical trees in coastal areas often faced during hurricanes), the landscape and infrastructure hadn’t evolved and been developed to handle 10-inch a day downpours, sometimes lasting three days or more.

Much of this was because of the loss of Arctic sea ice during the summer and then well into the fall months, that cold but open water creating much more moist cold fronts drifting south and violently colliding with increasingly moist and warmer warm fronts migrating north. The amount of energy fueling storms went from being like the earliest atomic bomb to corresponding to the largest hydrogen bombs.

Europeans originally came to North America looking for the Northwest Passage, then decided to create it by burning sufficient fossil fuels. But the highest levels (outside China) of civilization didn’t migrate from the Mediterranean to the Indian, then Atlantic, then Pacific then Arctic Ocean because in the latter the methane explosions were regularly lethal to ships and anyone near shore.

All of this is sad beyond belief. We should have listened to Hansen, McKibben and Romm, and it gives me no pleasure to say this but here it is: Zawacki.

I can't embed this video, but I highly recommend a click on the link to the immortal and transformative song, "All We  are Saying, is give Peace a Chance"...I think we should chant it with the lyrics slightly altered:  "All we are saying, is give Earth a chance."
Via email I received a talk by Kathryn Blume about Transition Towns.  How I wish there was interest in that movement in Oldwick!  She's kind of hopey...but her observations are acute:
We’ve been so fortunate to have lived through this petroleum interval.  It’s brought us enormous adventure and freedom and unprecedented novelty and wealth.  It’s been a fantastic party.   And I don’t think anybody ever intended to trash the planet along the way.  
But we have, and that’s enough to crack your heart.
Know, though, that when your heart cracks, you can either die of grief, duct tape it together and solider on, or you can let all those cracks and open spaces get filled up by love.  It’s like cracks in cement.  Water gets in there, and things start to grow.  Life happens in those cracks.  The same is true for us, and it’s an amazing thing to see.
And lumpy and syncopated as the process is, it’s happening.  Everywhere around the world, people are startled and scared by the truth that we’re just a bunch of critters living on one tiny, miraculous rock in space and we have absolutely nowhere else to go.
We’re realizing how much we love our little rock, and we’re deciding that it’s worth being unstintingly selfless and creative and courageous in order to save it.  And ourselves.


  1. Gail - this is an excellent post. Thank you. And congratulations to the lovely daughter and her magnificent stallion. I am thinking about making up business cards for your web site, so I can hand them out. I keep having conversations with perplexed plant lovers trying to figure out what the heck is going on. It is more than a little scary. BTW, I hated "No Pressure" but will never forget it, kind of like "Guernica." It is going to be quite an exciting decade coming up.

    I predicted a lot of this in the 60s and 70s, so am not surprised. The trouble is, it took so long that people got tired of "preparing" and many of them jumped on the yuppie bandwagon in the 80s. What I never imagined is the dying of the trees, and plants and crops. maybe the oil crash will happen soon and that will save us. It could save a few of us. It is population that will crash. It makes you wonder if any other planets in our solar system once had Earth-like atmospheres and self-destructed. Our glorious inventions destroy us by destroying our atmosphere.

  2. Thanks, Rita! - yes, it's the resolution to the Fermi paradox: where is everybody?

    "It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself
    See also: Doomsday argument
    This is the argument that technological civilizations may usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, nanotechnological catastrophe, ill-advised physics experiments,[Note 4] a badly programmed super-intelligence, or a Malthusian catastrophe after the deterioration of a planet's ecosphere. This general theme is explored both in fiction and in mainstream scientific theorizing.[40] Indeed, there are probabilistic arguments which suggest that human extinction may occur sooner rather than later. In 1966 Sagan and Shklovskii suggested that technological civilizations will either tend to destroy themselves within a century of developing interstellar communicative capability or master their self-destructive tendencies and survive for billion-year timescales.[41] Self-annihilation may also be viewed in terms of thermodynamics: insofar as life is an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, the "external transmission" or interstellar communicative phase may be the point at which the system becomes unstable and self-destructs.[42]"

  3. So is this like a major breakthrough? Like a really big deal? Im confused but is the start of this actually getting the attention it needs? What do we do next?

  4. Well Highschooler, I think it's pretty important. I've written to Dr. Muir but haven't heard back, which may be because she is on sabbatical.

    Sadly, I don't know what else to do other than what I've been doing - writing and calling scientists, politicians, and media types to get this issue the attention it should have.

    I plan to send this particular information to the folks at Real Climate, and try to get through to Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA. I also am having a few hundred handouts printed to bring to Washington on 10/10 - maybe with my zombie costume people will take note! I'm also planning to do more letters to the editor - I think the damage is getting obvious enough that people will take notice.

    Another plan is to contact organic farming organizations. Organic farmers may be a vocal advocate once they understand that they are financially disadvantaged compared to industrial farmers by this, because they can't offset the ozone by using chemicals for pesticides and fertilization.

    If you've got any more ideas please don't hesitate to let me know! (I've also considered hanging signs on trees or spray painting them with "Help me I'm dying" or chaining myself to a tree in a prominent may come to that soon!)


Blog Archive

My Blog List

Search This Blog