Monday, December 5, 2011

Harvard Forest Being Eaten Alive By Ravenous Lichen!

I'm working on a long post, mostly about the Fall 2011 installment of Issues in Ecology, titled "Setting Limits, Using Air Pollution Thresholds to Protect and Restore U.S. Ecosystems", which advocates using the concept of critical loads rather than emission sources to investigate and set regulatory policy.  This is a hugely important study, not just for the implications of ozone on trees, but also other kinds of pollution, sulfates and mercury, affecting soil and water.  For now though, I want to digress and focus solely on lichens as bioindicators that the nitrogen cycle is cascading to the extent that the ecosystem is in collapse.
Any American forester you ask will tell you that lichens do not harm trees, and that typically, they grow so slowly as to be imperceptible.  I know, because I've asked quite a few of them.  There are a couple of types of lichen however, that have gone wildly rampant in just the past three years, smothering branches and tree trunks.  I've seen it on both the East and West Coast.  These pictures are mostly from a walk yesterday with the Tewksbury Foot Bassets - at the end, there is video of the hunt, and some footage of amazing lichens from California earlier this fall.
So, whether these lichens actually harm trees, or simply thrive when a tree is already dying from other causes, I leave to the experts.  But I can say definitively that, once this particular lichen appears, the tree is going to die soon - whether it is ten years old or one hundred.  If ever some professional decides to investigate this trend, I'll eat my hat if it's not related to profound, probably irreversible, potentially life-threatening disruption of the nitrogen cycle...and as we all know by now, reactive N is an essential component of tropospheric ozone, the others being volatile organic compounds and ultra-violet radiation.
This may look like a perfectly fine specimen of a tree but a closer look at the branch over the heads of these bassetters shows an alarming amount of lichen and also broken branches, and no terminal [young tips that will form leaves in the spring] growth.
This lichen is proliferating on everything from yews to sycamores, beeches, maples, spruce, oaks and boxwood.  Actually I can't think of a tree species I haven't seen it on.
It's even spreading like wildfire on wooden fences, rocks and roofs.
Whenever it appears on seemingly healthy branches, they swiftly transform to losing their bark, and then the tree dies.

This is a segment from the research:

"Biodiversity of plant communities is sensitive to N added by air pollution. Nitrogen-loving species are often favored and increase in prominence as ecosystem nitrogen availability increases. Forests and woodlands in many regions of the world show large changes in epiphytic lichen communities in response to chronic atmospheric nitrogen deposition. These lichen community impacts occur at nitrogen pollution thresholds as low as 3-6 kg/ha/yr."

The Table 3 list specifies:  "Lichen community change from oligotrophic [Oligotrophs are characterized by slow growth, low rates of metabolism, and generally low population density] and to eutrophic species dominance" [fast-growing, nutrient enriched like this one, bigger than the branch it's on!]

"Adding nitrogen to forests whose growth is typically limited by its availability may appear desirable, possibly increasing forest growth and timber production, but it can also have adverse effects such as increased soil acidification, biodiversity impacts, predisposition to insect infestations, and effects on beneficial root fungi called mycorrhizae. As atmospheric nitrogen deposition onto forests and other
ecosystems increases, the enhanced availability of nitrogen can lead to chemical and biological changes collectively called 'nitrogen saturation.' As nitrogen deposition from air pollution accumulates in an ecosystem, a progression of effects can occur as levels of biologically available nitrogen increase."

From Table 1., Nitrogen Deposition:

Did you happen to see number 3., in the 3rd column??  INCREASED TREE MORTALITY

Below is Figure 6, Lichen Based Critical Load Exceedance Map. Areas shown in red and orange received atmospheric nitrogen deposition at levels deleterious to communities of epiphytic (tree dwelling) lichens. This map shows that these effects occur in over half of the forested land area, including urban forests, of the continental U.S. Levels of certainty in the critical load exceedance estimates vary among ecoregions depending on the amount of available lichen community data.

Amazingly, there is a webcam at Harvard Forest, and those trees, too, have the lichen.  Here's what it looks like - all the reflective white is lichen.
As it happens my friend Susan went to Harvard Forest last week with her husband, Roger, pictured in the little museum.
They sent me these photos, depicting the condition of the woods.
The path is blocked by fallen trees, and others have split.
This is a rather dramatic way to die.
This pine tree has no needles.
Here is a terrific chart, ostensibly about how to set policy.  Point B1 is the point of a "clearly identified, ecological threshold at which a tipping point occurs."  That point is exactly where we are now.  It's too damn bad hardly anybody realizes it, and it's especially too bad that nobody in authority has the courage to say it, loudly.

This is the bleak colors of the hills and fields, which used to be so beautiful, full of magnificent trees.  Some of these cedars cling to a bit of green, but the red ones are never coming back.  By the end of the winter they will all be quite as dead as the one in the lower left corner.

This tree is sort of average if you include the many that are now totally missing.
Absurdly, the dandelions have begun blooming again.
Okay, I'm going to get back to work on the Issues in Ecology magazine.  I've enjoyed the arcane sport of Foot Bassetting for about thirty years now - I hope you enjoy a little sample!


  1. I heard a story on NPR late last week about wildfires in CA and maybe five or six other Western states. As I recall, maybe a couple of years ago it seemed that almost all of CA was ablaze; the fires reached the perimeter of LA and very expensive homes were destroyed, which is probably why the story made the news. I'm wondering whether the fires are related to pollution and global warming; I imagine that if the trees are dried out, they burn more easily.

    Re the dandelions blooming you observed, all kinds of flowers are blooming (well, kind of blooming)in NYC. People do not seem to realize that winter should have set in by now in the Northeast and are happy about the mild temperatures. At the same time, they're wearing winter parkas . . . when it's in the 60s! It seems like a real cognitive disconnect to me.

    I know that last November, the temps were at or near 70 degrees for the first nine or ten days of the month . . . insanely warm. It only got very chilly at the disastrous midterm elections of 2010 neared. I think I heard a radio announcer say that this year and last set records for being so warm, but was busy and not listening very closely, so I can't be sure.

    Re the pine trees, at least ten years ago, I went to the Adirondacks for a weekend of hiking, which I was really looking forward to. I needed the break. However, it ended up being very depressing instead. None of the trees had any foliage worth noting. Even the pine trees looked bad. I was told that it was because of acid rain.

    I believe that pine trees are unusually hardy and are one of the only trees that can grow in sand (palm trees do too, though). There is a park in the middle of Moscow that is planted entirely with pine trees because the soil is too acidic for anything but a conifer. Why is it acidic? Because it's the site of the crematorium used during WWII to burn the bodies of Muscovites who died during Hitler's siege of the city, most from starvation. Who operated the crematorium? Children, on the theory that they haven't got much of a sense of death and would be less traumatized by doing the work than adults would.

    I also heard last week on the radio that the Federal government has told transit authorities across the country to prepare for the four-foot rise in sea levels that the Federal government expects will occur.

    At the same time, I also read last week that 80 per cent of Republicans do not believe in global warming and that 20 per cent of Democrats don't believe in it either!

    BTW, I have been wondering how the term "global warming" got changed to "climate change", which sounds benign if not in fact beneficial. People in the Northeast used to talk about going south to Florida, for example, for a "change in climate" back when we had winters here. (Yes, I know, last winter ended up being really cold and incredibly snowy, but I wonder whether the extremity was a product of global warming; I believe that global warming means an overall trend towards warmer temperatures but it is being accompanied by extremes in weather as well).

    Anyway, I found the answer to my question about the terminology for global warming in a book I highly recommend called, "Life, Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back", by Douglas Rushkoff. A Republican strategist named Frank Lutz came up with it. He's done the same with other political issues, using focus groups the way advertisers do to cynically exploit people's vulnerabilities and appeal to emotion rather than reason. He also came up with the terms "partial-birth abortion" for "third-trimester abortion", and "death tax" for "estate tax".


  2. Here's a funny video with Frank Luntz:

    and an article deriding his advice to Republicans on how to respond to Occupy Wall Street,-Luntz-Losing-It

    I've noticed, too, how odd it is that people (even me!) are wearing clothing too warm for the actual temperature. Every morning when I go outside I'm shocked how warm it is. Today, I saw forsythia in bloom.

    It's going to heat up far faster than the models predict, because not one of them is factoring in the rapid death of trees, a major carbon sink. Also, as far as I know, no one is connecting the effects of nitrogen deposition in the oceans, which could be killing phytoplankton, which also have to photosynthesize to absorb carbon and make oxygen.

    Aaargh is right!

  3. One result that I see:

    The woods in Georgia are now as open as the woods in Upstate NY used to be 50 years ago. I think that with the efficiency of photosynthesis lessened, the effect is the same as a SHORTENED GROWING SEASON.

    I've notice this gradual clearing of the woods which started at the very ground and has worked it's way up, during the past 15 years, but it's really dramatic this year. I can see hundreds of feet into the woods, where 15 years ago I couldn't see 10 feet.

    Plenty of trees are covered with lichen. Smaller trees are dying everywhere, but no one is counting.
    The big ones get noticed, at least.

  4. Hey Catman -

    I was just thinking that this afternoon. I can see through the woods to houses and fences and distant roads and the tops of hills that used to be invisible even in winter. At night, I can see lights from neighboring farms that I never saw before. In just the past month pines have lost so many needles, it's quite dramatic. And the noise of traffic from far away is louder, too.


  5. I am getting as ready as one can be to die. Forgiving everybody that I have had disputes with, cleaning my soul (cannot clean my body in this filthy chemical world), asking forgiveness from the children to who I gave birth, and mostly from all the forms of life who (from what I can judge)did not participate in the destruction. This is a very fast collective suicide and i really don,t know what else to do than love, breathe and sing. My thoughts are with you Gail.

  6. The reactions to this environmental catastrophe of "Sigh." and "Aargh!" (which I must admit was mine) are, to my mind, symptomatic of the almost total disillusionment of the liberals and what few leftists there are in this country to powerlessness. In 2009 and 2010, I worked as an activist (or tried to) and felt completely frustrated as there simply was no way to affect "the political process". Obama completely capitulated to the moneyed interests in this country and in an extremely cynical way, by trumpeting his concessions (on Guantanamo, on torture as state policy, on health care) as necessary evils in the first two cases and as a triumph in the case of health care when in fact that, too, was a victory for the Right although you'd never know it from the Obama propaganda that called it a win.

    Personally, I gave up on early on because it was totally disorganized and cooperated overmuch with the DNC. Instead, I turned to civil disobedience on my own. At one left/liberal event held shortly before the 2010 midterms, I was in a group of maybe 500 people who heard a columnist for The Nation say that the problem was that in the beginning, Obama was "naive about the Republicans". Generally, I'm a very shy person, but at that comment, I actually yelled out, "Yeah!" and clapped loudly, and then clapped again, and with each clap, more of the audience joined in and within two minutes, the noise was loud enough and the expression of outrage was so palpable that the speaker started to say something but faltered. It was astonishing, and, in the context of a group of 500, a mass movement. I don't think that the speaker was baffled and did not grasp that I, at least, was angered not just Obama's naivete (when it is more his cynicism that is the problem) but also by the *speaker's* naivete and his absurdly simplistic analysis (not that it deserves that term) of the problem. Eventually, the clapping died down, I think out of sympathy for the speaker.

    That experience, and a couple of others that little old me sparked, scared me silly. I was very well aware of the incredible disparities in wealth that have arisen during the last thirty years of essentially unbroken neoconservative policies nationwide, and that historically speaking, countries characterized by such extreme wealth inequalities experience great social unrest if not revolutions. Since the Tea Party was already up and running (funded by the Right, of course, and I believe I've also read that the TP was created by it), I felt that the social unrest on the Right was underway and wondered about when and where the left/liberal version would appear and gain traction.

    And now we have OWS. I agree with its grievances, but am terribly concerned about what will happen if it continues.

  7. Posted my last comment prematurely, will finish when and if it appears.

    And yes, noise pollution is getting to be a real problem in NYC given police helicopters going back and forth over the Brooklyn Bridge literally constantly, along with nonstop chopper flights down the East River and then up the Hudson (yesterday I was treated to the sight of what must have been two military copters flying north along the East River . . . I saw a total of 7 choppers during 5 minutes, and remember that those are just the ones going north-south.

    Friends who live near Central Park say that the noise of the helicopters constantly patrolling it are also making it impossible for them to sleep or read and are otherwise driving them berserk.

    It's insane and it's terrifying for a number of reasons, one of them being the prospect of how much worse things could get if OWS continues. First, we'll get more militarization of the state. Last week, the Senate passed a bill giving the police power to arrest anyone they please whether or not that person has broken the law, and also to hold such people in detention indefinitely and without informing them of the reason for the arrest, much less giving them any form of due process or a trial. There was almost NO comment on the measure in the usual media, and what I heard on NPR was nothing but disinformation.

    Secondly, if by chance the military and police (and the public-private police force in downtown Manhattan that is paid for by Goldman, Citigroup, Chase and the SEC . . . although of course, many of the costs of the enterprise are externalized to the taxpayers) do not succeed squashing OWS and it grows and actually does topple the government, what will happen then? Historically speaking, revolutions generally turn very violent even when there was little violence needed to overthrow the prior government. When the Russian Revolution happened in 1917 and topped the last of the Romanovs, neither Lenin nor Trotsky was in Russia or anticipated that turn of events.

    I could continue but I think this is off-topic for this site. I'll just reiterate my starting point, that the helicopter noise is incredibly disruptive and is very frightening, and has gotten worse since Bloomberg cleaned out what I remember as Liberty Plaza.

  8. Hah, Italy protesters rally against Berlusconi

  9. my bet to answer Anonymous (?) is that things are assuredly going to turn violent very, very fast, and because there will be no food, no power, no water, no sewage, it will not last very very long

  10. Thanks for the links to the Lutz videos. Haven't yet braced myself to watch them but will.

    Re how people dress for the calendar instead of the weather. last week I wore a coat that wasn't necessary given that it was in the high 60s and the T-shirt and pretty light sweater I was wearing under the coat were plenty warm enough, and when I had to walk a fair distance due to a subway breakdown, I felt overheated so I took the coat off and carried it.

    At least three people said very hostile things to me or about me in voices that were loud enough for me to hear, I think deliberately so. One woman said, "She's carrying her coat over her arm!!!" in a tone of outrage and disgust, I think.

    I guess people interpreted my action, which was motivated by nothing other than my preferring to carry my coat rather than wear it because it was too warm, as not just a challenge, but a threat to their denial of global warming as sartorially and symbolically expressed.

    I agree with the previous poster's comment about how this is essentially collective suicide, and hope I'm not misinterpreting his or her post.

    Re Gail's comment that warming will happen faster than anticipated because none of the models take tree death or the effects of nitrogen in the ocean, I agree, and there are other things that are left out as well.

    Several years ago, Werner Herzog made a very interesting and troubling and beautiful movie about Antarctica, which required him to interact with all kinds of scientists. In the narration of the film, he notes that every single scientist he had talked to believed that the human race was headed for extinction, by its own hand, and that the process was irreversible. Around the same time, The New Yorker published an article on an older scientist who was one of the first to warn about global warming. He had run up against so many walls in trying to work within the political system that, at an advanced age, he had decided to take what OWS would call "direct action", by taking his cause to the streets and engaging in civil disobedience.

    I thought it was a really sad state of affairs that even though both the movie and the story of this scientist were so dark, I was happy to see them, because everything else I read or saw talked about the "risk" of global warming when as far as I could tell, it was no longer a "risk" but a certainty. And I didn't think that it was just a certainty for the future, it seemed to me that it was already going on, which the science now shows is indeed a fact.

    But facts? Who needs facts in America? Ratings, those are the key here now. I don't think we had some kind of halcyon past or anything like that, but I do think that the news media used to do a better job of providing information than it does these days, when all people want is entertainment and distraction and that's exactly what they get. The intellectual equivalent of junk food. And I think that a steady diet of that kind of crap is one of the reasons that they have totally unreasoning hostility (probably disguising fear) when they see somebody who isn't wearing a coat because it's too warm for one even in December in the Northeast Unites States.

    I also agree with the previous poster, if I recall correctly, about how she is trying to clean out her body but it's impossible, I have the same problem. It doesn't seem to me that healthful food is readily available any more for any number of reasons. I do try to eat really healthful food that doesn't destroy the environment or involve cruelty towards animals, but it's simply not possible to do that, at least in NYC. For one thing, the terms "natural" and "organic" are not regulated, and according to Michael Pollan, the notion that organic eggs and poultry come from birds that are treated much better than Purdue ones is simply false.

  11. Gail,

    That split pine looks like it was hit by lightning, but otherwise forests are certainly starting to get pretty ragged.

    Here in upstate NY, lichen is also starting to appear in unusual places. I even found it growing on the fiberglass sailboat stored in my backyard. This has never happened before in the 25 years I've had the boat.

  12. Dear Gail,
    Glad you could use the photos.

    May I add a few brief comments and thoughts about the Harvard Forest Museum? You and your readers may find them interesting.

    First, this was the first time I remember going into a museum and finding no one at all there. We had to look for the light switch in order to be able to see. I had the odd feeling that it was a museum of a museum, preserved in case anyone wanted to see what one looked like back when they were visited as a source of knowledge.

    Second, there was information on how tree farms came to be, on all the careful work that went in to raising the trees over a period of many decades, and on how things changed when the business moved on. I was struck by how much our lives and values have changed in a period of time no longer than the time it took to raise one crop of trees. The changes don't seem to be good ones, as we've discussed.

    Third, the picture in the museum shows a historic birchbark canoe hanging from the ceiling, and me pointing to a map showing the many miles of stone walls in the area. I've always loved stone walls, so it was interesting to read some wall facts that were noted on the map. For example, they figured that a man with a team of oxen could build about 16 feet of wall per day. Given that a typical farmer could only devote about one month per year to wall building, and taking into account the size of a typical farm, it took about 35 years to get the walls finished. Then, of course, as written by Robert Frost, there was always a need for mending wall...

    Thank you for all you do, Gail!
    Warm regards,

  13. Gail, thanks for the video from the TFB Hunt. That is the first video I have ever found of the Bassets in action. Please post anymore if you have them.....
    Carl W.