Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Collateral Damage

The last line from the newscaster is classic: "Experts at the scene today don't think anyone killed the birds intentionally." Right. We killed them unintentionally.

According to a review issued jointly by the UN Environment Programme and Woods Hole Research Center, "Reactive Nitrogen in the Environment", pollution from burning fuels, sewage, and excessive fertilization in industrial agriculture triggers algal blooms in lakes, rivers and coastal waters, which take oxygen out of the water resulting in hypoxic or anoxic regions.  This loss of oxygen causes other forms of life to expire, and then again, some of those algal blooms are toxic, like the red tide in the picture above, poisoning whatever eats contaminated seafood.  Like those birds on the beach in Moss Landing.

"Global map of 199 coastal oxygen depletion zones related to anthropogenic eutrophication.  Updated from Diaz et al., 2004, by personal communication from R. Diaz, 2007."

"Diagram of the biogeochemical nitrogen cascade, showing the major fluxes of reactive nitrogen among atmospheric, terrestrial, freshwater and estuarine systems in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These inputs of reactive N to the Bay are attributed to three source types: energy production, food and fiber production, and wastewater. Arrow width varies according to flux size.  Adapted from Moomaw and Birch, 2005."  This model is applicable to other estuaries as well.

Thanks to the Coming Crisis for posting the newscast

But...I Thought Global Warming Is A Hoax!

Monday, January 30, 2012

to Traffic Cleverly in the Soulful Poetry of Ruination

Before we get to the abundantly amusing source for the title to this post, we'll take a quick look at a recent example from the news, of dying trees.  A Florida story is so ghastly that I almost wasn't going to mention that the dieback of vegetation is already leading to more frequent and worse wildfires, in the context of the smoke that caused a total lack of visibility across a freeway Sunday, leading to multiple crashes and at least 10 deaths.  "Visibility was so poor that when rescuers first arrived, they could only listen for screams and moans to locate victims, police said."  

"'You could hear cars hitting each other. People were crying. People were screaming. It was crazy,' a Gainesville man said hours later. 'If I could give you an idea of what it looked like, I would say it looked like the end of the world.'  All around them, cars and trucks were on fire, and they could hear explosions as the vehicles burned."
Of course I know that just because ozone is bathing plantlife in a poisonous chemical brew, doesn't mean that particular horrific incident is in any way related.  It could be, just not necessarily.

Giant trees falling over for no good reason though, I would say that definitely does have something to do with a rotting root system, as in this story from Ohio:

"Heather Rhoads wasn't home when a 90 foot white oak tree came crashing down in gusty winds over the weekend, but when she arrived home on Midland in Bay Village she took a huge sigh of relief.
That's because the backyard tree missed crushing her house by only a few feet."

"Power of 5 meteorologist Jason Nicholas says the peak wind gust in Cleveland was 41 mph at Hopkins Airport Saturday and the wind was gusting to 39 mph at Burke around 6 Saturday night when the tree came crashing down.  Part of the tree hit the back porch, but other trees surrounding the oak played an instrumental role in holding the tree off the home."

The best part was this comment left by a very sensible person named Terri:  "wow ! glad it did not hit the home and no one was home. How hard was the winds blowing to blow this big tree over? It has way too many leaves left on it which leads me to believe the tree was dead or been dying for awhile. I mean it would take some high winds to bring that out the ground."
And the carnage continues:  for mysterious reasons, there has been an "irruption" of snowy owls from their normal home closer to the Arctic.  Various speculations are made as to why thousands have descended to the northern US, but the article ends with an observation from the head of the Owl Research Institute of Montana, who has studied them for two decades:  "...snowy owl populations are believed to be in decline possibly because a changing climate has lessened the abundance of vegetation like grasses that lemmings rely on".
St. Isidore, Canada
My comment:  A lack of grasses due to climate change?  Nonsense!  The northern latitudes are warming much faster than the lower latitudes - why do scientists persist in attributing dying plantlife to climate change when it's well known that vegetation is highly sensitive to ordinary, invisible but toxic air pollution.

We should all wake up to this existential threat.  Plants are at the bottom of our food chain, too!
Exploded Peaches on Picnic Blanket - all artwork by Valery Hegarty
This is my favorite - I have a thing about peaches
Is it any wonder with such forebodings rampant in the world that I find it to be delightful when I come across such meager macabre beauty as can be found?  All the tedious science and depressing conclusions that follow will be interspersed by photos of the work of an artist, Valerie Hegarty, who explores themes uncannily close to my heart...

...Distorted, zombie trees bursting through man-made architecture; sloppily exploding fruit; black crows - insidiously taking over much of the avian world - ripping what's left of nature asunder; woodpeckers destroying fine antique furniture and artworks with such obsessive pecking they leave something that looks suspiciously like bullet holes in the wood, glass and plaster; faux interiors in remorseless decay...Great Stuff!  Here are a few of her pieces with comments from critics who reviewed her shows.
"Damage is romantic. Our hearts go out to the broken, wounded and wrecked. The works in this evocative exhibition are not literally but only apparently damaged. The 20 artists included in “Perfectly Damaged” (selected by Isaac Lyles) traffic cleverly in the soulful poetry of ruination."
"Some pieces involve carefully contrived illusions of damage. For “George Washington Melted 2,” Valerie Hegarty created a convincing simulation of a Gilbert Stuart-type portrait of the first president and, at the same time, made it appear as if a fire had burned through the upper edge of the canvas and turned half the subject’s face into an sagging, oozy mess." - Ben Johnson, NYTimes 7/7/2011

This is a marvelous photo of the show's opening reception, where patrons wander the gallery, sipping wine and chatting, and meanwhile, the crows swarm and viciously attack.
"...Similar combinations of darkness and excess stuck out elsewhere. .... and, most pleasingly allegoric of all, Valerie Hegarty’s Still lives with Crows at Guild & Greyshkul, a paper assemblage resembling a flock of crows tearing bloody hunks of meat out of a painting of a steak -- a goof on the old Greek myth of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, and a picture of image culture cannibalizing itself."
I'm sorry I missed this installation, but through the magic of teh intertubes, we can get a sense of it:
"Valerie Hegarty's installations create dream-like transitional spaces that expand and fracture the austerity of an exhibition space while dismantling the constructs of image making. For her first solo exhibition in New York, Hegarty will present Landscaping, a new installation in which an idyllic woodland scene, seemingly alive and growing, overcomes the gallery in a collision of exterior and interior views."
"Working solely with paper and paint, Hegarty exploits a scrupulous mimicry of all of the elements of Landscaping- the ladder left in midst of an attempted repair of the situation, the trees, the cabin- that can render the viewer into a state of euphoric confusion.  On one level the viewer can become overwhelmed with an inquisitive desire to determine what is real and what is constructed and on another, reveling in the make believe – they may wish to remain in her escapist fantasy of secret forests and hidden lands forever." - Solo Show at Guild & Greyshkul, NY, 2005
Her multi-media installation for the Brooklyn Museum Artist Ball, called "The Table", was described as:
"...sculptural recreations of five still life paintings from the American Wing of the Brooklyn Museum. In addition Hegarty has created a flock of crows that are attacking and decimating the recreated still lives. Hegarty’s insertion of the flock of crows humorously plays on the genre of vanitas paintings, in which still lives contain objects that serve as symbolic reminders of life's impermanence (such as skulls, candles, or fruit showing signs of decay)."

"Often depicted in literature and paintings as harbingers of death, the crows activate the still lives at the same time as they serve to demolish the tableau."
Crows are smart, adaptable omnivores.  In future, we will have more of them, and jellyfish, and apparently, stinkbugs.  In the process of embellishing the deadtrees-dyingforests website with a new page about the Nitrogen Cascade - which underlies the increase in tropospheric ozone - I took another look at the EPA Science Advisory Board's Report, published in August 2011, and decided to reproduce Appendix H here on the blog.

"NR Saturation and Ecosystem Function

There are limits to how much plant growth can be increased by N fertilization. At some point, when the
natural N deficiencies in an ecosystem are fully relieved, plant growth becomes limited by availability of other resources such as phosphorus, calcium, or water and the vegetation can no longer respond to further additions of Nr."
"In theory, when an ecosystem is fully Nr-saturated and its soils, plants, and microbes cannot use or retain any more, all new Nr deposits will be dispersed to streams, groundwater, and the atmosphere."
"Nr saturation has a number of damaging consequences for the health and functioning of ecosystems."
"These impacts first became apparent in Europe almost three decades ago when scientists observed significant increases in nitrate concentrations in some lakes and streams and also extensive yellowing and loss of needles in spruce and other conifer forests subjected to heavy Nr deposition."
"In soils, most notably forest soils because of their natural low pH, as NH4+ builds up it is converted to nitrate by bacterial action, a process that releases hydrogen ions and contributes to soil acidification. The buildup of NO3ˉ enhances emissions of nitrous oxides from the soil and also encourages leaching of highly water-soluble NO3ˉ into streams or groundwater. As negatively charged NO3ˉ seeps away, positively charged alkaline minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium are carried along."
"Thus, soil fertility is decreased by greatly accelerating the loss of calcium and other nutrients that are vital for plant growth. As calcium is depleted and the soil acidified, aluminum ions are mobilized, eventually reaching toxic concentrations that can damage tree roots [this is highlighted in red for Plovering - this could be why the trees have what the Californians call "tube socks" and white deposits on their bark] or kill fish if the aluminum washes into streams (Vitousek et al., 1997a,b)."
"Forests, grasslands, and wetlands vary substantially in their capacity to retain added nitrogen. Interacting factors that are known to affect this capacity include soil texture, degree of chemical weathering of soil, fire history, rate at which plant material accumulates, and past human land use."
"However, we still lack a fundamental understanding of how and why N-retention processes vary among ecosystems, much less how they have changed and will change with time and climate change (Clark and Tilman, 2008)."
"An overarching impact of excess Nr on unmanaged terrestrial ecosystems is biodiversity loss. In North
America, dramatic reductions in biodiversity have been created by fertilization of grasslands in Minnesota and California. In England, N fertilizers applied to experimental grasslands have led to similarly increased dominance by a few N-responsive grasses and loss of many other plant species."
["...biodiversity loss" means species are dying off.]
"In formerly species-rich heathlands across Western Europe, Nr deposition has been blamed for great losses of biodiversity in recent decades, with shallow soils containing few alkaline minerals to buffer acidification (Vitousek et al., 1997a,b; Bobbink et al., 2010)."
"Losses of biodiversity driven by Nr deposition can in turn affect other ecological processes. Experiments in Minnesota grasslands showed that in ecosystems made species-poor by fertilization, plant productivity was much less stable in the face of a major drought. Even in nondrought years, the normal vagaries of climate produced much more year-to-year variation in the productivity of species-poor grassland plots than in more diverse plots (Vitousek et al., 1997a,b)."
I can only imagine the feelings that went into creating this.  She is like the Edgar Allen Poe of modern art.
First Harvest of the Wilderness with Woodpecker

I wonder if she drilled the holes or just got a submachine gun.

The violation is ferociously ruthless and unsentimental.  It looks almost methodical, like a serial killer.

There is more of a laypersons description of nitrogen saturation at a blog, titled, "Artificial Nitrogen Fertilizers  - Dangers of Man Playing God" that included a wiki chart to illustrate the problem, which is cute because it has a little bunny.  Following are excerpts, lucidly written by Laura du Toit:
"There should be a law against mankind playing God over nature. Human beings are superior but they are also greedy. Never satisfied with what nature has to offer. We want more and because we are superior we find ways to imitate nature and trick her into doing what we want."
"We make decisions and never stop to ask ourselves what the consequences of  these decisions will be. A classical example of mankind playing God is the introduction of synthetic fertilizer in the form of artificial nitrogen just over a century ago. Nature could not provide us with a big enough crop yield so we went and found a way of imitating what nature does and forced her to give us bigger crops.  Now 100 years later we wake up to the realization that by doing so we have poisoned our environment."
Brick Wall with Branch

"What is Nitrogen?

The Earth's atmosphere consists of 70-80% nitrogen. It is essential to all life and is a crucial element of food production. Most biological processes are dependent on nitrogen as it is an essential ingredient needed to build amino acids which form proteins."
"Nitrogen in its natural state is mainly unusable by plants and needs to be converted from gaseous nitrogen into reactive nitrogen. The conversion of gaseous nitrogen to reactive nitrogen is known as fixation. Reactive nitrogen is a vital nutrient in soil and its abundance or scarcity will determine the fertility of the soil."
Break-Through Miami

"Nitrogen cycle

The nitrogen cycle is the continuous flow of nitrogen through the biosphere by the processes of nitrogen fixation, ammonification (decay), nitrification and denitrification.

Nitrogen fixation

In order for nitrogen to be absorbed by the soil nitrogen must be “fixed” by adding hydrogen or oxygen which converts the nitrogen into compounds such as ammonia or nitrates that plants can utilize. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria are the only micro-organisms that are capable of absorbing nitrogen from the air and transforming it into nitrates. These are then absorbed by plants to build essential proteins."
Autumn on the Wissahickon with Tree
"A certain amount of atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by lightning and by some blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). The great bulk of nitrogen fixation however, is performed by soil bacteria. The are two kinds of soil bacteria. Those that live freely in the soil use the energy from decaying organic matter in the soil to stimulate soil processes including nitrogen fixation. The other type of soil bacteria, known as rhizobia,  live in the nodules of leguminous plants such as  Lucerne, peas, beans, clover, soybeans, and peanuts. When animals consume these plants the plant protein is converted into animal protein."
Teetering Trees

"Nitrifying bacteria

When an organism produces waste or dies, the decomposing matter returns organic nitrogen to the soil as ammonia.  Nitrifying bacteria then oxidize the ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates, a process known as nitrification. The nitrates can then be absorbed from the soil water by the roots of the plant and used to make proteins."
"Denitrification occurs in the absence of oxygen in the soil and is not common in well-cultivated soils.  During this process a third group of bacteria turn nitrates back into nitrites and ammonia and sometimes even back into nitrogen gas. This is harmful to plants as they need nitrates to make protein."
Fog Warming with Barnacles

"The Introduction of Artificial Nitrogen

Soils recycle nitrogen for re-use in organic waste such as animal dung. In the past some countries improved the fertility of their soils by adding guano and saltpetre, which are sources of geological nitrogen. Until 1908 the only way of adding more atmospheric nitrogen to soils was through capture by the bacteria that live in a small number of nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover and beans."
Break-Through Miami

"In an effort to increase the fertility of soil an appeal was made to scientists to find a way of producing nitrogen in a form that plants could absorb. In 1908 Fritz Haber invented a cheap new source of nitrogen fertilizer when he discovered how to make ammonia, a molecule made of hydrogen and nitrogen atoms from the inert nitrogen gas in the air."
"This was welcomed throughout the world and Haber received the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work. Unfortunately nobody thought of the consequences of adding massive amounts of artificially-made nitrogen into the planet’s ecosystems."
"Any High School chemistry student will recall having heard about the  Haber Process for the synthesis of ammonia (NH3) gas from its elements nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) as this is often referred to as one of the best examples of chemical equilibrium.  The Chemistry texts however very rarely give any indication of the effects that the discovery of this process has had on history or society."

Hotel Lobby
"The Path Of Destruction
The benefits that artificial nitrogen have of boosting the quantity of crops can not be denied but this has come at a price as far as quality is concerned. Artificial nitrogen fertilizers increase the level of potentially toxic nitrates, and other non-protein nitrogenous compounds as well as the sugars in the crops while decreasing the fibre content in the plants. Artificial nitrogen also impoverishes the soil by lowering the levels of trace minerals in the ground. The result is that these valuable nutrients are also substantially less in these crops."
Hotel Lobby
"These fertilizers also increase nitrates in our drinking water and damage vital soil micro flora. It reduces plant diversity in pasture land and contributes to reducing the quality of habitat for many insects. As a result birds that depend on these species of insects can not survive and need to migrate to other areas. It also influences the quality of the food we eat and is not the ideal for our fruit, vegetables and cereals."
"The production of artificial nitrogen is now being linked to the dramatic spikes in population growth, energy use, and carbon production during the last half of the 20th century. All species flourish and multiply when food is abundant – mankind is no different. The introduction of artificial nitrogen fertilizers helped the human population multiply from 1.9 billion in 1900 to nearly 6.87 billion in 2008."
Autumn on the Hudson Valley with Branches

"Nitrogen is to the Earth's Water as Carbon Dioxide is to its Air

Each year an average of 80 million tons of Haber’s fertilizer is spread onto fields around the world. Only 17million tons actually goes into food and the rest gets washed into the ecosystems."
Green Bathroom [made of paper!]
"Until recently people clearly refused to acknowledge the long-term damage that the use of artificial nitrogen is doing to water bodies, ecosystems, agricultural lands and human health. The observed increases in short-term crop yields derived from using artificial nitrogen can not make up for the long-term damage. We also fail to consider the carbon footprint and massive energy inputs of agrochemicals."
"Artificial nitrogen has become as much a pollutant of the Earth’s water as carbon dioxide is to the air. It is accumulating in rivers around the world and is present in underground water reserves. This over-fertilization of the water produces large volumes of algae which consume all the oxygen present in the water, causing ecosystems to crash."
"On land, nitrogen over-saturation has disrupted soil chemistry and created a depletion of other critical nutrients including calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Ironically, the addition of one nutrient out of balance with others can result in an overall decline in soil fertility, leading to diminished productivity of both cultivated and natural landscapes."
Still Life with Half-Eaten Fruit

"Crossing the Planetary Boundary

Denitrification is nature’s way of reversing man-made fixing of nitrogen by converting it back to an inert gas but we have crossed the boundary and many of the rivers have become so nitrogen-saturated that they are losing their ability to denitrify pollution. The excess nitrogen ends up in the ocean causing oxygen-depleted “dead zones” where it is killing entire ecosystems."
In the Woods, of the Woods
"According to a report by Johann Rockstrom and 27 scientists a safe boundary of nitrogen in the environment would be 35 million tons of nitrogen. Human activity currently releases 121 million tons of nitrogen into the environment creating serious distortions in Earth’s natural nitrogen cycle. Most of this ends up in the Earth’s waterways resulting in irreversible damage and loss of ecosystems. Based on current trends, global nitrogen use on farmland is set to double to 220 million tons a year by 2050 – more than six times the safe threshold."
Exploded Watermelon on Picnic Blanket
"The danger is that nature’s ability to process this excess nitrogen and return it to the atmosphere will be overwhelmed, and we will end up inhabiting a nitrogen-saturated planet, with nitrogen killing the oceans, driving global warming, acidifying air, depleting the ozone layer and reducing biodiversity."
Ms. du Toit ends by linking to the study posted on yale 360 which depicts the nine boundaries that we must maintain, the safe limits of which we are rapidly exceeding, particularly, as the graph demonstrates, the nitrogen cycle.  The concept of boundaries is based on the frightening notion that gradual change can build up in a system until there is a sudden, and essentially irreversible jolt.

Following is a short (1 minute) video from the EPA back in 1991, before they realized how drastically we would have to alter our habits of consumption and transportation if we wanted to be serious about protecting the environment...before they decided to start covering up regulating pollution and sugar-coating investigating and reporting on exactly how bad the damage is.
Chest of Drawers (Early American) with Woodpecker

I would like to see a video of her "making" this rampage!
In blunt language that is no longer used today, the narrater says that scientists discovered that "a major problem for the Chesapeake may be atmospheric deposition of nutrients like nitrogen"...with images of industrial plants belching emissions...rather than just the more readily controlled, localized effluent from manufacturing.

For those who are gluttons for doom, here's a video from 2008 indicating that things have done the opposite of improve since that video in 1991.

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