Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ringside Seats at the Finish Line

It's a race (!) between converging catastrophes...and isn't my generation lucky to have ringside seats at the finish line?  Even luckier is the younger generation, the one we've given this gift to.  It's impossible to predict which disaster will take precedence and precipitate the end of industrial civilization but one thing is for sure - ultimately environmental collapse, peak oil, and climate change will compound each other in a chaotic cataclysm, on a scale that will look like nothing ever seen by human eyes before. 
A pervasive sense of dread is palpable even as the cacophony of the distractive circus makes its racket... because the signals that earth's vital systems are fundamentally out of whack are increasing exponentially, and becoming ever harder to ignore.  In this post I'll just mention a few recent indications that have come to my attention - there are of course as many as there are dwindling species in the world.
The smallest dolphin, the Maui, which lives only on the western shore of New Zealand, is effectively extinct.  Only about 55 of these beautiful creatures remain alive, from a count in the 1970's of one thousand.  The population has been so drastically reduced simply because they are caught in fishing nets along the coast, and the fishermen refuse to change practices.  This is just too sad and horrible to add anything else.

But let's get back to trees, the main topic of this blog.  Most people of course still have no idea that air pollution is killing them, even though there is plenty of evidence in recent news.  For several of these links, and the photos of trees from the Hudsen River Valley, we can thank Roger and Susan Shamel, of the Global Warming Education Network (  They went to the lovely resort to prepare for their daughter's upcoming wedding, and it's just as well, because the unnaturally malevolent heat fills me with so much foreboding I loathe going outside even though the air is balmy and technically, it should be enjoyable weather.  I did take the pictures of the flowers though, which started blooming at Wit's End even before the winter that never was, was over.
In an article about insanely violent storms, it was reported that a young girl was killed by a falling tree.  I'm sorry, but trees are not supposed to fall over because they have snow on them!

"A heavy snowstorm hit northern Arizona and California over the weekend, toppling a 100-foot-tall fir tree that crashed into a house, killing a sleeping 8-year-old girl in Arnold, Calif.  The tree, 3 feet in diameter, fell across a creek after a night of heavy snow and fatally pinned the girl to her bed Sunday, Ebbetts Pass fire officials said."
Desdemona reports from several sources that pollen counts are high already this spring - and not just earlier than normal, and lots - but breaking previous records by staggering concentrations.  Following are a few of the quotes:

"Allergist doctor Bob Overholt says the pollen counts in Knoxville yesterday were more than 3,000 grams per cubic meter. The normal count is 200."

"Greater than 1,500 grains of pollen per cubic meter is considered very high, according to Dr. David Hagman, medical director of the Vanderbilt Asthma, Sinus and Allergy Program.
After reaching a count of 3,200 last week, pollen measurements were 11,000 Tuesday morning and over 16,000 today, Hagman said."

"Officials say a record high pollen count of 9,369 particles of pollen per cubic meter was measured in metro Atlanta on Tuesday. That shattered Monday's level of 8,164."
"This week's pollen counts are well above the old record of 6,013, which dates to April 12, 1999."
My comment?  This makes no sense.  An early spring and warm weather would explain early pollen release, it doesn't explain such record-breaking high levels....The trees are dying.  They are desperately trying to reproduce. [A well-documented phenomena of exposure to ozone, e.g. "A study by Darbah et al. (2008; 2007) of paper birch (Betula papyrifera) trees at the Aspen FACE site in Rhinelander, WI investigated the effects of elevated O3 and/or CO2 on reproductive fitness. Elevated O3 increased flowering, but decreased seed weight and germination success rate of seeds from the exposed trees. These results suggest that O3 can dramatically affect flowering, seed production, and seed quality of paper birch, ultimately affecting its reproductive fitness." - from the EPA]
Perhaps we should look on the bright side.  The prediction in a study released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, that by 2050 "urban air pollution will become the top cause of environment-related deaths globally" is almost certainly NOT going to prevail.  More ozone is based on the expected rise in population, and increasing emissions from higher living standards, neither of which is going to contraire.  But here's the comment I left anyway:
The Obama administration prevented stricter EPA standards for ozone because there's a problem - we can't continue to burn fuel and reduce the constant background levels, which are inexorably increasing. The ONLY way to reduce, or even slow the increase, in ozone is to cut back on "growth" of the modern industrial society. 
Growth is unsustainable anyway, but I suppose if you're willing to trade off a certain amount of disease and death to continue to drive your car, fly in airplanes, and buy stuff shipped from far away, not to mention all the other ways we squander energy for frivolous purposes, that would be okay for some people. 

Unfortunately, there's a rarely discussed but well-known impediment to this approach, which is well documented in scientific research. Vegetation is even more sensitive to ozone pollution than people and animals. Plants absorb ozone through their stomates in leaves and needles and it happens to be very toxic. 
Not only are annual agricultural crops reduced in yield by anywhere from 10 to 60% at current exposure, their nutritive quality is also reduced. Worse still, trees are dying around the globe at an accelerating rate. 

Controlled fumigation experiments have demonstrated that trees damaged by ozone are then susceptible to attacks from insects, disease and fungus. Their root systems are diminished so they are more vulnerable to drought. 
Look around and you will see that in addition to trees that are completely dead, those that remain have very clear evidence of injury - broken branches, peeling, splitting bark, holes oozing sap, and cankers. Crowns are thin and evergreen pine trees are transparent as inner, older needles subjected to cumulative seasons of polluted air fall off. has more information and links to decades of published studies. 

The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the ecosystem. We're destroying the ecosystem on the land by killing vegetation, and in the ocean through acidification. It would be a really good idea to acknowledge this and embark on another path before it is unsalvageable. As precursors travel across continents and oceans, we need international cooperation. We all share the same atmosphere.
Other signs that vegetation is dying off from air pollution?  Wildfires, obviously - which as usual are being blamed on drought even while they are on the increase in places that are not in drought conditions, at all, like Michigan!  Here's what NOAA (which has cool interactive maps) says about drought:

"On a broad scale, the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by unusual wetness with short periods of extensive droughts, whereas the 1930s and 1950s were characterized by prolonged periods of extensive droughts with little wetness."

In fact, a recent study concluded that even the horrific ongoing drought in Texas was surpassed in severity and length numerous times in the past, within the lifetimes of existing trees.

In any event, there is no doubt more wildfires will make another dangerous positive feedback, contributing both to more climate change and more pollution, as described in an article, "Warming to Ignite the Carbon Bomb":
"Other researchers have shown that the average size of forest fires in the boreal zone of western Canada has tripled since the 1980s. Much of Canada's vast forest region is approaching a tipping point, warned researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany's largest research organisation."

"This 'drastic change' in normal fire pattern has occurred with a only a small increase in temperatures relative to future temperatures, the German researchers concluded in a study published in the December 2011 issue of The American Naturalist."

"Worldwide, fires burn an estimated 350 to 450 million ha of forest and grasslands every year. That's an area larger than the size of India."

I don't suppose that "drastic change" isn't the result of a slight increase in temperatures but rather a significant increase in air pollution?

As vegetation dies, more landslides can be expected too, particularly because ozone causes root systems to shrink even before damage is visible above ground.  Below is a screen shot from a recent incident in Ohio, when a giant boulder crashed down a hillside, crushing two cars and a house.  The newscaster said,  "Other homes in the neighborhood have been evacuated because they're not quite sure how stable the rest of the boulders are on the top of that hill."  I'm not quite sure how alive those trees are.
To see the video click here
That story is kind of funny to watch.  The boulder is huge, and you can see tiny people peering over the edge of the vast new cliff.  Also comical is this poorly conceived study, in which scientists try to determine if plants are affected by noise.  For their comparative experiment they chose sites both near and far from natural gas wells in Rattlesnake Canyon Habitat Management Area in northwestern New Mexico.  Why in the hell there should be fossil fuel wells in a "habitat management area" in the first place is another story [ask that son of a bitch, Barack "the future I want for our kids" is one in which "we’re going to keep on drilling" Obama].

Leaving that aside (or if you want to get furious, this report "No Rest for the Weary" describes how rampant drilling in public lands is affecting the wildlife), how could the researchers possibly know if the noise from the wells was what caused the observed changes, or the fugitive emissions?  I suppose it is just the insanity.  C'est la guerre.

Let's revisit the United Nations Environment Programme report on Reactive Nitrogen, because I just never get tired of reading about this shit.  No actually, I found something new, a slideshow presentation on the topic by Dr. James Galloway that I wanted to post, that's a little short on verbiage but has great pictures.  The UNEP subtitle is "Too much or too Little of a Good Thing" which isn't surprising since many of the graphs they use are from Dr. Galloway's research, whose title "Nitrogen, an Essential Ingredient for Life and Food (To a Point)" is illustrated with this:
Get it?  Do all those dead bodies mean anything to you?  I thought so.  The following is from UNEP:

"Although carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the greenhouse gases, and the one most widely publicized as a contributor to climate change, nitrous oxide (N2O), which is a particular form of nitrogen oxide produced primarily by bacteria in nitrogen-rich soils and water bodies, also plays a part in this growing global concern. The average lifetime of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere is over 100 years, making its long-term climatic effects among the most persistent of the greenhouse gases."
"It is also among the most potent greenhouse gases, so that, when integrated over a century, the global warming potential of nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times that of an equal mass of carbon dioxide. The global atmospheric N2O concentration is now 18 percent higher than in pre-industrial times, and it has continued to increase at a rate of about 0.3% per year since 1980. More than a third of all N2O emissions are anthropogenic and are primarily due to agriculture."

More corroboration comes from a recent study which is an amazing detective story, especially interesting because of the remote areas the scientists sampled for evidence of increasing NO:
"The increasing amount of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere over the last 65 years is due to nitrogen-based fertilisers, according to a new study.  An international team of scientists, led by University of California-Berkeley researcher Dr Sunyoung Park, made the finding after studying air collected at the Cape Grim Station in Tasmania and sampled from the Antarctic ice sheet.  Previous studies have shown a 20 per cent increase in the level of N2O since 1750 - from below 270 parts per billion to more than 320 ppb."

"Despite being relatively low in concentration, N2O is considered a significant contributor to global warming (about 6 per cent) and also destroys ozone in the stratosphere. It is produced naturally and by human activities such as agriculture."

"According to this latest report, which appears this week in the online edition of Nature Geoscience, changes in the ratio of nitrogen-14 and nitrogen-15 point to the use of agricultural fertilisers as the main source of the increase.  'In this new paper we used isotopes - slightly different forms of nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the N2O molecule - as tracers of what the sources are behind that increase,' says paper co-author Dr. David Etherege, a principal research scientist at CSIRO in Marine and Atmospheric Research in Melbourne.

"'We know that when fertiliser is added to soils it stimulates microbes to release N2O with the lighter form of nitrogen-14. Over the Industrial Period we see a decline in the ratio of [nitrogen-15],' he says. 'So those two bits of matching pieces of information let us know that [the growth in N2O is] consistent with the use of agricultural fertilisers.'"
"The use of fertilisers in agriculture, both for food and biofuel production, is expected to increase as demand for both rises.  But Etheridge is quick to point out that the study isn't about demonising N2O and the use of fertilisers. Instead, he says this study will help feed into agricultural research aimed at improving fertiliser use and tilling practices, which could reduce emissions of N2O as well as the amount of fertiliser consumed."

OH NO, mustn't demonize industrial agriculture, that's what enables the world to feed seven billion hungry mouths and destroy it in the process.
Meanwhile, California farmers are unwilling to reduce their use of fertilizer (never mind pesticides) while their European counterparts sharply lowered their reliance on artificial chemical enhancements.  What is it about Americans?

"This week, a report for the California Legislature revealed that 250,000 people living in Central California, including four of the five agricultural counties in the U.S., are currently at risk for nitrate contamination in their drinking water. Many of them are among the poorest Californians."
"Nitrate, in this instance, is a byproduct of nitrogen fertilizer. In drinking water, high concentrations of it can interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity of infants younger than six months, and, if left untreated, may lead to death from “blue baby” syndrome.  Some studies suggest that long-term consumption of nitrate in drinking water may increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma."

"In Central California, according to the state report, cropland is the source of more than 90 percent of the nitrate that winds up in underground basins. Contamination can take a long time: some of the nitrate in well water today comes from fertilizer that was applied a century ago."
"Most of the nation’s lettuce, broccoli, and strawberries come from the agricultural valleys of the Central Coast. Vegetable and berry farms from Monterey to Santa Barbara, an area that includes the Salinas Valley, the nation’s Salad Bowl, bring in $7 billion in gross revenues per year. A board report states that farmers in this area have been over-fertilizing their irrigated crops — by nearly 40 percent for the past decade alone — sending 75,000 tons of nitrate into local rivers and groundwater basins every year.  Studies show that 120 public wells and probably thousands of private wells are contaminated with unsafe levels of nitrate because of the farmers’ wasteful ways."

And now my favorite story - and I won't apologize for asking...because I AM an Ozonista - did these doctors screen out effects from ozone when they studied the effects of CO2?   Here's the headline:

"Could air pollution be making us fat?"
"Steadily rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be affecting brain chemistry and contributing to the obesity epidemic, according to a new hypothesis, which still awaits rigorous testing and debate."

"The idea proposes that breathing in extra CO2 makes blood more acidic, which in turn causes neurons that regulate appetite, sleep and metabolism to fire more frequently. As a result, we might be eating more, sleeping less and gaining more weight, partly as a result of the air we breathe."

"Major studies are in the works to test the hypothesis, which is still very much in the what-if stage. But if the link pans out, the research would offer yet another reason to reduce the CO2 we produce, while also potentially inspiring new obesity treatments."

"'If it turns out that people are increasing their food intake due to this mechanism of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, we would suddenly be getting a new dimension,' says Arne Astrup, head of the department of obesity and nutrition at the University of Copenhagen. 'This could give us an explanation for why the entire population on this planet is increasing in body weight as soon as there is available food.'"

"'What we're doing is trying to be certain that we are not overlooking any very important factors that could be partly responsible for the obesity epidemic,' he adds. 'I think we should be extremely open-minded about new causes of obesity.'"

"Obesity and its associated health risks have escalated dramatically in the last few decades. And even though just about everyone thinks the reason is obvious - we are eating too many calories and exercising too little - research has revealed that obesity is far more complex than that, with multiple genes, metabolic pathways and even gut microbes involved, says obesity researcher David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham."

"Most of the steps that governments have taken to address the problem, Allison adds, have failed to keep the kilos off, with studies showing no improvement from policies that add fruits and vegetables to menus, for example, or that give kids more time for physical education."

"The balance between calories in and calories out clearly makes a difference in how much fat a person's body holds on to, he says. But it's probably not everything. And creative hypotheses are worth exploring."

"'We need to be open-minded so that we don't in some obsessive fashion continue to pound our heads against the same wall over and over again under the assumption that it is the right path and the only path and that it must make sense, ignoring the fact that we keep doing it and it's not working,' says Allison. 'I'm not saying that it's calories or this that matters. It's that there are other factors that influence metabolism and body weight.'"

"In a study published in 2010 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Allison and colleagues found that 24 populations of eight species had gained weight in the last 50 years, including lab animals that were kept in highly controlled laboratory settings and had been eating the same diet year after year.
One theory, currently under intense scrutiny, is that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment or the food supply are playing a role in cross-species weight gain."

"CO2 levels in the air have risen alongside obesity rates, Astrup wrote recently in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes. For two million years, atmospheric CO2 held steady between 180 parts per million and 280 ppm until about 60 years ago. Since then, levels have risen to almost 400 ppm with a projected increase to 550 pm by 2050. Indoor CO2 levels are often higher than outdoor measurements, and people spend most of their time in buildings."

"Studies show that our blood becomes more acidic when we breathe in CO2-laden air for just a few weeks, Astrup wrote in his article. And it only takes a 0.1-unit drop in pH to double the firing rate of appetite and wakefulness-related neurons. One human study found that pH levels fell by 0.05 units with exposure to 7000 ppm of CO2 - more than 17 times current CO2 levels."

"It's still far from clear whether the amount of CO2 we are currently exposed to is enough to make a difference, or whether exposure at specific times in development make more or less of a difference.
But a pilot study of six Danish men who spent time in respiration chambers showed that testing the idea might, at least, be possible. After seven and a half hours of breathing air with a level of 8000 ppm of CO2, three of the men ate more kilojoules than they did after breathing unaltered air - though the finding was not statistically significant and bigger studies are needed."

Movie time, but don't get out the popcorn for this show.  You won't be able to eat it.


  1. “Like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be...” (Isaiah 65:22)

    “The Cedar has fallen!”
    The Prophetic Word vs. Imperial Clear-cutting
    by Ched Myers

    Published in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet,
    ed. by David Rhoads, Continuum (2007), pp 211-223.

  2. Neat journal, as always.

    Pollen count is measure of particle numbers, not weight.


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