Monday, November 8, 2010

Billion Year Old Carbon Caught in the Devil's Bargain

On Friday I went to Philadelphia, for middle daughter Sophie's White Coat Ceremony at the UPenn Veterinary School.  On the trip home, I took a circuitous route which winds along the banks of the Delaware River, with charming old farmsteads along the way that hearken to an era long ago, before the modern frenzy for oil and coal.  So this post has photographs mostly from that trip, and links to various perspectives on the effects of the emissions of burning fuel.

Highschooler forwarded a website, titled Vanished in the Haze, which is now at the very top of my favorite sources depicting the impacts of ozone on trees.  It was published by a group called "Hikers for Clean Air" so it isn't original scientific research but WOW, it is one of the most explicit descriptions I've ever seen, even though it hasn't been updated since 2005.  I suspect the authors, who clearly were working hard to affect policy, may have given up in disgust at the futility.  Some excerpts:
In the last five years, scientists learned that the acid rain puzzle was more complex than first believed. While sulfates were thought to be the chief agent of acid rain, it’s now known that nitrogen oxides (NOx) – emitted from smokestacks and autos – play a huge role.

"Until recently, scientists thought increased nitrogen was beneficial to plants," explains Orie Loucks, an ecologist at Ohio’s Miami University. "Farmers typically add nitrogen to soils to spur growth." But, Loucks says, there comes a point when nitrogen saturation of soils threatens vegetation.
Nitrogen oxide—converted to nitric acid in the atmosphere—falls as acid rain and bonds with the earth’s natural calcium and magnesium. It flushes these vital nutrients out of soils, denying them to plants. The acid also leaches aluminum from rock and soil. Toxic aluminum destroys root hairs; it prevents trees from absorbing water and minerals.
Trees weakened by acid rain may be more prone to blowdown, insect and disease damage. Loucks contends that nitrogen saturation and leaching of bases causes increased limb breakage and tree snap-off. "Less calcium means weaker cell walls, which means weaker wood," Loucks argues. "For trees, it’s like having a pack-a-day cigarette habit for fifty years." The degradation is gradual, cumulative and eventually fatal. In time, it may cause Appalachian Mountain forests to come crashing down around our ears.
Some long-time Appalachian Trail maintainers feel that Trail-blocking blowdowns are already increasing. Bob Proudman, ATC Director of Trail Management Programs, worries about a recent rise in "hazard tree" incidents—the number of trees reported to have fallen on lean-tos, bridges, and even hikers. While such anecdotal evidence can’t be tied directly to acid rain, Orie Loucks agrees that severe damage to sugar maples during New England’s devastating 1998 ice storm may have been intensified by pollution-sapped trees.
The loss of soil nutrients and a lack of forest growth were conclusively linked to acid rain in 1996 at New Hampshire’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Investigators studied three decades of data. They found that the annual accumulation rate of forest biomass—the total plant material added to the forest—dropped to zero in 1987 and has remained static ever since.
"The hypothesis is that when nitrogen depletes soils, overall biomass stops increasing," explains Bruce Hill. "In a sense, the forest stops growing."
Acid deposition also diminishes the number of organisms which help decompose organic matter, so plant nutrients stay locked in unrotted leaf litter. "At a pH of 6.0, soils are rich in earthworms," Loucks reports. "In soils acidified to a pH of 4.0 by pollutants, only one earthworm per square meter survives."
This lovely brick house is now parkland.
Hikers who are also anglers have reason to resent acid rain. The golden glint of native brook trout is disappearing from mountain streams. In the Adirondacks, where the problem was first detected, twenty-five percent of lakes and ponds no longer support life. Only fifty percent of Virginia’s 304 trout streams are now rated "not acidic," compared to eighty-two percent in pre-industrial times. If acid deposition levels stay the same, thirty-five percent of Virginia trout streams could be dead in forty years.

I walked all around the grounds, where the big old tree trunks are losing their bark.
On summer days when visible haze is at its worst above the Appalachian Trail, the invisible pollutant called ozone also peaks. "Ozone may be the eight-hundred pound gorilla no one notices," Loucks speculates. "While public attention has focused on acid rain, ozone is having extreme impacts on forest ecology."
The top of this pine snapped off.
Ground-level ozone (not to be confused with the high altitude "ozone hole" over the Antarctic) forms when NOx combines with natural atmospheric gases in the presence of heat and sunlight. Ozone acts like a powerful bleach: it discolors clothing, drapes, and wallpaper, and decomposes rubber. It hampers human breathing and kills plant cells.
It's bark is also breaking off.
A 1998 AMC study showed that ozone harms hikers. "On summer days in the White Mountains, the air gets dirtier the higher you climb," says Bruce Hill. "Air atop Mount Washington can be one-third dirtier than at its base." Small doses of ozone, even at levels below the national health standard, caused a two percent decline in normal lung function, and a seven to eight percent decline in asthmatic hikers.
A tall hickory next to a shed.
"Smoky Mountain ridgetop monitoring stations have recorded the highest cumulative ozone levels in the Eastern U.S.," Jim Renfro adds. "On bad ozone days, people find themselves wheezing, or with scratchy throats."
It has an advanced case of BALDing syndrome - Bark Atrophy Lichen Decline.
At least hikers with pulmonary disease or asthma can stay indoors on bad ozone days. That’s a choice not open to vegetation. Ozone disrupts plant photosynthesis, producing ugly dark blotches of dead cells on foliage—an effect called "stippling." Some leaves are so injured they change color as early as June and drop off.
A click on the photo and it will expand to reveal a woods of lichen.
"We tested forty-six plant species and found that thirty showed symptoms," Renfro says. "In some test plots, ninety percent of trees exhibited visible injury." Black cherry, tuliptree, and sassafras are among the most sensitive plants. Sixty more plant species show ozone-like symptoms, he said, but funding cuts prevent researchers from being sure.
The full extent of ozone damage is unknown. Loucks suggests that reduced photosynthesis hinders the healthy growth of tree diameters and roots. He worries that since the plants produce fewer carbohydrates, they also generate fewer secondary metabolites, the defensive chemicals made by trees to inhibit insects and disease. Ozone may, in a sense, disable a plant’s immune system.

Representatives of the automobile and energy industries deny that air pollution harms people or trees. They say there is no smoking gun implicating acid rain and ozone in human or forest health impacts.  Bruce Hill disagrees.

"Air pollution is like AIDS in the forest," he counters. "Forest ecosystems are complex. So, determining precise cause and effect will always be difficult. But you can draw a strong connection between air pollution and forest decline."
This trunk is exploding in slow motion.
"We need to recognize that we’re in the midst of a major forest health crisis," asserts Orie Loucks. "Some of my younger colleagues, who are in their forties, say that the tree growth we see today is normal, but I point out that they’ve never really seen a healthy forest." Loucks fears the gradual decline in ecological stability that he has observed and documented may continue leading down toward the edge of a cliff, beyond which forests will not recover.
Jim Renfro is more optimistic in outlook, but no less convinced of a need for action. "The National Park Service is charged by Congress to protect natural resources for future generations. We need to respond promptly to adverse pollution impacts before the problem worsens." In other words, the time to clear the air over the Appalachians is now.
One of the pages on Vanishing led to a report by the National Parks Conservation Association, titled, "Turning Point."  This is actually a replacement for the original report linked to by Vanishing, and is probably a much softened version because it contains upbeat language that isn't justified by the facts.  Even so, there are passages such as this:

In each of the four major categories described in this report, our national parks show the dire effects of decades of air pollution. More than 30 species of trees found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park show some signs of ozone damage, and not sur- prisingly this same park has experienced nearly a year’s worth of unhealthy air days since 1990. In the national parks of northwest Alaska, some of the most remote of the park system, toxic air pollutants contaminate vital foods for native peoples. And pollution has cut summertime visibility at Blue Ridge Parkway by a whopping 80 percent.
On a chart on page 5, they identify the effects of nitrogen oxides in clear and stark terms: "Ozone weakens and kills plants and trees."  As an aside, for those who wonder why bats are dying in droves, perhaps this might have something to do with it:

Researchers have found that mercury levels in the hair of endangered Indiana bats collected from the cave are two to three times EPA’s recommended limit for humans.14 They believe that the mercury contamination is likely the result of emissions from coal-fired power plants.

They produced another report, Dark Horizons, about the predicted effects of building new coal plants on the parks (and, by extension of course, everywhere else!)
There is also a link to a report to Congress, a New Source Review, by the National Academy of Public Administration from 2003, which had this to say:
...NSR has not been as effective in reducing air pollution when changes at existing sources are likely to increase emissions. Instead -- contrary to Congressional intent -- many large, highly polluting facilities have continued to operate and have expanded their production (and pollution) over the past 25 years without upgrading to cleaner technologies. This avoidance of NSR requirements has delayed the reduction in emissions that Congress expected to result eventually from the NSR program. The result: thousands of premature human deaths, and many thousand additional cases of acute illnesses and chronic diseases caused by air pollution.
The fruit trees lining the drive to this beautiful stone house are not long for this world.
Has anything changed??  Or is the EPA still fighting industry to get information about emissions? hmmm.  Let's take a look at an article about football!  Maybe Americans will pay attention to ozone if they understand their favorite stupid game is affected!
Ozone toxicity affects both human and plant life. Ozone on ground level is an air pollutant with harmful effects on human lungs and the entire respiratory system.
Likewise, this traditional clapboard house is surrounded by dying trees - the close cedar is turning yellow, and the large deciduous tree on the right lacks terminal growth.
"New statistics from the World Health Organization show that in the United States, air pollution annually kills nearly twice as many people as do traffic accidents and that deaths from air pollution equal deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer combined."

Ozone can cause coughing and tightness in the chest. Football athletes retch and have difficulty breathing. Breaths might be more rapid and shallow, hallmark signs. Symptoms may last hours after exposure. Pre-existing asthma is aggravated, making asthmatics more sensitive to allergens that cause asthma attacks and can aggravate chronic lung diseases like bronchitis and infections.
What is most telling is what is no longer here.
The inflammation and damage to the epithelial cells lining the entire respiratory system and lungs can be silent and rapid for certain groups of football athletes. Often there is no warning. Football athletes initially might not manifest symptoms, but as ozone continues to cause lung damage, the athlete might suddenly collapse. Pulmonary damage can be irreversible in some football athletes.
Acute respiratory distress syndrome is the most serious result when oxygen cannot be exchanged with circulating pulmonary blood.  After oxygen deprivation, death is almost certain. Even steroids are ineffective.
Scientists are researching ozone's long-term effects. Youth football athletes repeatedly exposed to high levels of ozone may sustain lung damage, absent an acute attack. Studies suggest that ozone may also harm resistance to respiratory infections and later in life cause lung cancer.

Is it any wonder that the terrible effects of pollution from fuel emissions are a sleeping tiger that is being tiptoed around?  Bill Moyers has a comprehensive and boggling lecture about the power of money in politics, the concentration of wealth, the dreadful Supreme Court decision to give personhood to corporations, and the deliberate transformation of our democracy into a plutocracy.  The transcript and a link to the video "Welcome to the Plutocracy!" are here.  It's quite entertaining!  A couple of choice paragraphs:
We’re talking about slush funds. Donors are laundering their cash through front groups with high-falutin’ names like American Crossroads. That’s one of the two slush funds controlled by Karl Rove in his ambition to revive the era of the robber barons. Promise me you won’t laugh when I tell you that although Rove and the powerful Washington lobbyist who is his accomplice described the first organization as “grassroots”, 97% of its initial contributions came from four billionaires. Yes: The grass grows mighty high when the roots are fertilized with gold.
This is closer to home, in Far Hills.
Come now and let’s visit Washington’s red light district, headquarters of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the front group for the plutocracy’s prostitution of politics. The Chamber boasts it represents more than three million businesses and approximately 300,000 members. But in reality it has almost nothing to do with the shops and stores along your local streets. The Chamber’s branding, as the economics journalist Zach Carter recently wrote, “allows them to disguise their political agenda as a coalition of local businesses while it does dirty work for corporate titans.”
This closeup reveals that most of the bare branches are actually those of dead or dying pines.
Meanwhile, a question popped into my mind in the middle of the night:  As the oceans are absorbing CO2, might they also be absorbing ozone, and if so, what would that mean?  I googled it first thing in the morning and sure enough, it is!

photo found here
I found a project called "Ozone and the Oceans," a collaborative effort by scientists sponsored by several agencies.  Following are some portions of their website:

Ozone in the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere, acts differently than ozone in the stratosphere.  High levels of ozone can be harmful to people, animals, and plants.  Ozone is a main ingredient in smog, where it causes eye irritation and worsens the conditions of some people suffering from asthma, bronchitis, and heart disease.  Ozone damages plant tissues in crops and forests. It can break down some materials like rubber and nylon.
Ozone also contributes to climate change. Ozone is the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane, even though ozone is a much smaller component of the total atmosphere.
Some tropospheric ozone is produced naturally by downward flux from the stratosphere or during lightning strikes.  But most of it is formed by the interaction of sunlight with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides produced in car exhaust, fossil fuel power plant emissions, and other combustion processes.  Human activities have doubled the level of ozone in the troposphere over the last century. 
It is anticipated that ozone from human activities will continue to increase over the coming decades.  To assess the effects of future ozone levels and to develop ozone control strategies, we need models of how ozone works in the atmosphere that are as accurate as possible. Finding out how the atmosphere works is like putting together a puzzle with thousands of pieces - many teams of researchers will work on various parts until the whole picture becomes visible.  Scientists have found out a lot about how ozone acts, but a few pieces are still missing.  The Ozone and the Oceans team is working on the piece that describes how much ozone is absorbed into the ocean.

From another page on the website:

The scientists suspect that the amount of plankton may be especially important to how much ozone the ocean absorbs. They think that when plankton dies, the decomposition process changes ozone into other chemicals. So the more plankton there are, the more ozone gets absorbed.

Plankton are tiny—it usually takes a microscope to see them. But they are present in such massive numbers that together they form most of the life in the ocean. Plankton exist throughout the world’s oceans, but they are concentrated in colder regions near the poles. If the tiny plankton have a big effect on ozone absorption, the scientists believe, then more ozone is absorbed near the poles than near the equator.
The research team hopes that plankton will be the key to measuring ozone fluxes in the future. Ocean voyages cost too much to repeat more than a few times - just enough to prove that the concepts the scientists are using work. The researchers want to tie their results to something easy and less expensive to measure, such as remote sensing data from orbiting satellites. If they can do that, it will be easier to incorporate their work into global climate models.
The team hopes that chlorophyll maps might serve as a proxy for ozone fluxes. In remote sensing images, we can see where plankton are concentrated by measuring chlorophyll, which many kinds of plankton use to convert carbon dioxide and water into food energy.
If ozone flux measurements correspond with the presence of plankton in the water, and plankton can be detected by measuring chlorophyll, then the scientists can rely on chlorophyll maps to tell them where ozone fluxes are concentrated.
My question is, how do they know which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Do the plankton absorb ozone after they die?  Or does the process of absorbing ozone kill them?  Ominously, scientists have discovered a massive die-off of phytoplankton, which they attribute to climate change.  But could it be ozone?  Phytoplankton have to photosynthesize to produce chlorophyll, just like terrestrial plants.  And we've seen what ozone is doing to trees!
Phytoplankton are microscopic marine organisms capable of photosynthesis, just like terrestrial plants. They float in the upper layers of the oceans, provide much of the oxygen we breathe and account for about half of the total organic matter on Earth. A 40 per cent decline would represent a massive change to the global biosphere.
"If this holds up, something really serious is underway and has been underway for decades. I've been trying to think of a biological change that's bigger than this and I can't think of one," said marine biologist Boris Worm of Canada's Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He said: "If real, it means that the marine ecosystem today looks very different to what it was a few decades ago and a lot of this change is happening way out in the open, blue ocean where we cannot see it. I'm concerned about this finding."
Youngest daughter is swinging in a tree!
Clive Hamilton has written a brilliant and terrifying article about the prospect of governments attempting to geoengineer our way out of a warming and destabilizing climate.  This makes me furious because, aside from the insanity of the unknown unknowns - the totally unpredictable and most certainly horrible consequences and repercussions - deflecting or absorbing heat will do zilch for reducing ozone!
I came upon a child of God
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, I said, "Where are you going?"
And this he told me...

I'm going down to Yasgur's farm
I'm gonna join in a rock and roll band.
I'm gonna camp out on the land.
I'm gonna try and get my soul free.

We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well then can I walk beside you?
I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel to be a cog in something turning.

Well maybe it is the time of year,
Or maybe it's the time of man.
I don't know who I am,
But you know life is for learning.

We are stardust.
We are golden.
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And Everywhere there was song and a celebration.

And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation.

We are stardust
Billion year old carbon
We are golden...
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

(To some semblance of a garden.)


  1. Oh Gail, your posts are a multimedia delight: Great essay and your photography is an outstanding treat to explore. Great to see them full size.

  2. Thank you. Very insightful and alarming

  3. Gail, this is marvelous work, perhaps the best yet.

  4. Its terrible that we can see a train wreak happening before our eyes and yet seem powerless to stop it!
    Oh well the earth will re-organize itself without humans one day...but it will take all the other biota too......very sad...the devil's bargain


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