Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Russia Burning (again)...Nine Boundaries...and the Columbian Exchange

The government in Russia is being blamed for another summer of wildfires, surpassing last year's  catastrophic burning.  Since it is generally not acknowledged that trees and plants are dying from mounting background levels of air pollution, it's not surprising that governments are unprepared for forests that are dry tinderboxes waiting to be ignited.  Evidence that trees are dying is everywhere to be found, once the symptoms of decline are recognized.  Following are the most recent examples I encountered in the past few days.  First, on Sunday, I went to see a matinee of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (I know, I KNOW!).  The opening minutes of the film are set in a rain forest where a chimpanzee is chased and captured.  The trees canopy is pathetically thin, and there is dead wood everywhere.  Other scenes, set in places as diverse as the quiet residential streets of Berkeley and the Muir woods north of San Francisco, reveal dying trees as well.
This photo of the redwoods which I found by searching Google images is unintentionally ironically subtitled, "...not much sun gets through that opening."  I lived for several years in a redwood forest, and it was so dark it was like being in a cave.  You couldn't see any sky or light looking up through the branches, at all.

Next I came across a local story about a thunderstorm in Kansas City where someone had left this plaintive comment, with a very good question indeed:  "...every time we have even a normal thunderstorm for the last several weeks, branches and leaves are everywhere.  Why?"
Somebody else said, "We didn't lose power, but our yard looks like a war zone with all the tree limbs down."

Next, yesterday I had to go the the Verizon store.  While waiting for my turn, I picked up their latest catalogue for business products, and I could hardly believe the back cover, reproduced below.  The really funny thing about these terribly damaged trees is that the woman in the foreground is identified as "Shelly Bovero, Owner of Marin County Arborists"!  Like 99.9% of all professionals, she is no doubt in complete denial that she is standing in front of trees that are rapidly dying from exposure to ozone.
According to an analysis from the Earth Institute at Columbia University, we already have crossed three of the nine planetary boundaries limiting the Earth's ability to absorb our impacts.  We are close to the threshold of freshwater use, land use changes, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, aerosol loading in the atmosphere, chemical pollution, and interference with the global phosphorus cycle.  We have already breached tolerance for climate change, biodiversity loss, and interference with the nitrogen cycle.  All of these of course impact each other.

The report warns:  "Many of these systems may react abruptly, so boundaries are set at a safe distance from the tipping points."

Today I just want to focus on one which I would say is indeed abruptly reacting - in that it has passed the tipping point and is collapsing - which is the nitrogen cycle (although I highly recommend reading the entire report).  This is important because complicated chemical reactions in the atmosphere turn anthropogenic sources of various forms of nitrogen compounds into ozone...and ozone, as we have determined many times, is toxic to vegetation including annual crops, and especially to trees that are damaged season after season.  This is their determination:

"...reactive nitrogen pollutes waterways and coasts, and in nitrous oxide form, exacerbates global warming. Synthetic fertilizer, leguminous crops (soybeans, peanuts, alfalfa), many types of manufacturing and fossil fuel burning industries and vehicles all produce reactive nitrogen.  The planetary boundary for the nitrogen cycles is figured in millions of tonnes per year removed from the atmosphere; the background level is 1, the boundary is set at 35, and we are already at 121."
Something is causing enormous and unprecedented numbers of mass fishkills all around the world (for those who don't follow the news in doomer sites like The Coming Crisis or Desdemona Despair), and it wouldn't surprise me at all if eutrophication from nitrogen is the reason.
UK Guardian
But since this blog is about trees, let's think about lichens instead of fish.  There are many kinds of lichen, most of which are sensitive to pollution, and are used as biomonitors for air quality.  A perverse few, however, are known to thrive in nitrogen, and these have been proliferating on tree bark, and even on stones and dead wood.  It's this flat, greenish-grey growth, that is expanding at speeds exponentially faster than it supposedly should, and in many cases is now smothering entire branches.
 Wherever it appears, splitting, peeling bark soon follows.
To a lesser extent this sort of hairy lichen is spreading, as well.
It's interesting that not only is lichen spreading like wildfire around my home in New Jersey, but it's ubiquitous in New England and California.  But then, stranger things have happened before.

So, just in time to put it all in perspective, I heard an interview on the NPR radio program Fresh Air with author Charles Mann about the Columbian Exchange, which he describes as "...a tremendous ecological convulsion, the greatest event in the history of life since the death of the dinosaurs", a sweeping and grand assertion that he supports with many amusing details.  This great cataclysm commenced in 1493, the year Columbus re-connected the continents, as it were - and countless species of plants, bacteria, insects and animals began their great invasions, disrupting delicately balanced ecosystems beyond recognition - a devastating process that is ongoing today.  There are all sorts of fun factoids to be learned, like how fire ants went berserk on the island of Hispaniola causing Spaniards to pray on their rooftops for rescue...kind of like everybody's praying in Texas and Oklahoma, right now!  But also he has documented the frightful legacy of much larger, ecosystem-altering and destroying dislocations, such as the diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans, which wiped out between 2/3 and 90% of the pre-existing human population.  Wasn't that convenient?

In addition, domesticated goats and sheep and cows decimated the formerly lush vegetation in Mexico, turning it into the dusty desolation so familiar today; swarms of European honeybees caused mass extinctions of native bees; and imported earthworms, which didn't exist in North  America, decimated the forest understory by transforming processes that formed the soil.

I bring this up because part of the dislocation he describes has to do with the rise of modern agriculture, which is dependent on fertilizer, much of which these days is...tada! nitrogen - although way back when, it was guano mined and then transported across the ocean.  Without further ado, following are some segments from the transcript, (interspersed, for fun, with staggering images captured by professional photographer Roger Hill, who said this year's tornados - having killed 546 people so far - are the worst he's seen in 25 years of storm chasing) starting with the incredible story of guano, which

"...came from these islands off the coast of Peru, the Chincha Islands, which had been the homes for seabirds for millennia. And the seabirds had built up these enormous kind of mountains of guano...some of them two or 300 feet deep. And effectively, what they set up was guano mines, complete with the mining carts and people with pick and shovels. Now, this is just about the most awful work you can imagine. And so, of course, no Peruvians wanted to do this. So what they did was they brought over Asian slaves.

 Thousands of them were essentially abducted in southeast China and brought over, thinking they were going to go to the California gold fields. And lo and behold, they ended up being probably the most awful place on earth digging this stuff. And the mining conditions for the guano were just - I mean, no matter how ghastly they are, the more you read about it, the more ghastly than you imagined. You know, each part of it is worse than the next, no matter which order you take it in."
"And so, for instance, my favorite little sort of horrifying detail is that in the guano are little crystals of ammonia. So when your ax was, you know, whacking into this, you know, the cliff wall of guano, there's little bomb bursts of - tiny little minute bomb bursts of ammonia going off, and then you would load it into these carts and dump it down this long shoot several hundred feet into the hold of waiting ship. And there were - more slaves would be down there, more Chinese slaves. And this stuff would just explode, and they would be completely naked, with cloth wrapped around their face, trying to shovel out this stuff. It was just horrifying."
"...the way that a modern farm works is that the land is kind of like a Petri dish, and you pour in nutrients in the form of high-intensity fertilizers, and you plant in the crops you want to grow, and then you spray on the pest protection that you need. And it's a scientific way of farming that was really invented in the 1840s, and it's totally dependent on high-input fertilizers on heavy fertilization, to get these fantastic yields.
And there's just no question about it, modern agriculture has been this tremendous boom. And famine is basically - compared to what it was -you know, it's almost eradicated in the world. Obviously, there's still very many hungry people, but it's just absolutely nothing like what it was two or 300 years ago. But it depends on this system that was invented in Peru and brought over to the Americas in the 1840s, and it has serious pitfalls."
" of the things that happened was that Peruvians brought over the fertilizer and [it] was spread all over European fields. And with it came some Peruvian potatoes. Potatoes are, you know, from Peru, and they were infected with a fungus-like organism - it's called an iowae MYCIT - that causes potato blight. And in 1845, we had the first shipment of the first guano, we had the first modern agricultural disaster when the potato blight exploded over Europe and, you know, sort of wiped out the potatoes in a 2,000-mile range from Ukraine all the way to Ireland...
Anyway, there were - 40 percent of the people in Ireland, or something like that, ate nothing but potatoes for solid food. And all that vanished in a matter of weeks, and there was massive starvation. It was horrifying. And about a million Irish people died, many, many more fled the country.
And as a result, Ireland - it was such a huge disaster for Ireland that the country still hasn't recovered today, 150 years later. And Ireland today has fewer people now than it did 150 years ago. And it's got to be the only country in the world that's in the same borders that has fewer people now than it did 150 years ago."
"...I would wish that students were taught what a tremendous landmark in human history 1493 was. was the beginning of the modern world, and that two huge things happened as a result of it, to the human race itself. The first was that the things we've been describing, there was this tremendous die-off of native people. And it's been estimated that one out of every five people on the planet died in the next hundred years as a result of this unintentional bringing over of diseases."
"And the second thing is that what happened after the Europeans came was not so much that Europeans came, but the Africans came. The number of Africans who came to the Americas up till about 1840, 1850 far outweighed the number of Europeans. They were three Africans for every European that came to the Americas in those first couple hundreds years.
...Because of slavery. And so the Europeans who came, many of my ancestors in the later part of the 19th century came to landscapes that had been radically changed, but they had - into new cities. But those cities had been built African hands, the landscapes had been reworked by African hands, the boats that were going up and down the rivers were piloted by African crews. And so that - there was a tremendous change in the very distribution of the human race on the planet as a result of Columbus."

"...if Columbus in an island of America had not caught the disease, which poisons the source of generation, and often indeed prevents generation, we should not have chocolate and chocineal..."
- Voltaire, Candide


  1. Exceptional photos, Gail.

    Did you happen to hear any of this interview with Charles C. Mann, author of the book, '1493'. I only caught about 10 minutes of it, but it sounded interesting.

  2. Hey Dion, yes that's the same one I heard. The quotes are from the transcript. It was one of the more fascinating perspectives on the history of ecology I've ever heard - I am going to buy the book. Also he has a quirky humor which is good considering how awful the subject of invasive species - especially humans - often is!

  3. Nah, it is a great honor that you read Wit's End at all!

  4. Those photos scare the crap out of me! This is not the world I want my children and grandchildren to inherit.

  5. I'm glad you presented a cogent review of Mr. Mann's book (1493) and Terry Gross' interview. This is new and it's hot. Makes a joke of the invasive species folks. Makes us all realize that this 'world' is constantly changing at all sorts of scales. "There were no domesticated animals in the New World (except llamas). No cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, horses or cows." Like never being able to step into the same river, we can never experience exactly the same natural world. But I like trees (can't live without them!) and I hope they stay with us.

    Maybe we need to study up on this nitrogen problem. It may interact with ozone to create the damage to trees that we see everywhere.

    I'm still looking for a perfectly healthy white oak in my area.

  6. Example of the exchange the other way, Physocarpus opulifolius (mountain ninebark)observed in southern Finnish mixed forest yesterday (well the nearest gardens having it are about half a mile away, I'd guess). Took a while to identify!

  7. A photo of a much better looking specimen of this species:


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