Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Cascade of Consequences

For two weeks now I have been so immersed in writing what my editor at the Coming Crisis calls my "treetise" (heh) I haven't been anywhere, not even to the post office.  At last I finished "Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC" yesterday - yay! - so I was able to finally collect the mail (we don't get delivery here, it's too rural.)  I had actually forgotten that I ordered a used copy of "An Appalachian Tragedy", until I removed it from the envelope.
In my essay I had quoted extensively from other published work by several of the contributors, but reading a description of it while researching made me think I had better get my hands on a copy of the real thing, because for one thing in a review it was said - and it's true - that it is full of magnificent photographs by Jenny Hager, a few of which are scattered in this post.

Since the minute I opened it up, I've felt as stunned as if I stumbled upon the holy grail.  It's a large book, bursting with lush pictures of exactly the sort of damaged leaves and trees that this blog is all about.  And the text is utterly mesmerizing.

"Ozone, the uninvited intruder, does not need to reach levels harmful to humans to have a disastrous impact on forest plants and trees, and therefore wildlife.  Over a long enough period of time, even modest levels of ozone can decisively alter the delicate interconnections of highly adapted species and their food base in the Appalachian forests."

"Although air pollution is rarely the primary cause of death of forest trees in the Appalachians, its weakening effect makes various species vulnerable to all manner of creatures and environmental conditions that can cause their demise.  All too often, US foresters, reflecting the political and economic interests of those who sign their paychecks, wish to minimize the importance of air pollution's impacts on the eastern forest, asserting that the proximate cause of tree death and forest decline is the only cause.  According to this view, the fatal webworm and adelgid damage, the beech scale, the gypsy moth defoliation shown on these pages is the whole story, having nothing to do with air pollution."
 "The idea that the death of so many different species of trees along the Appalachian chain is simply happenstance - a coincidental aggregation of isolated, anomalous events - seriously challenges ordinary logic. Today even the most cautious forest scientists now confirm that the death and decline of Appalachian trees and forests is from a cascade of consequences whose point of origin, at least in part, is the debilitating effect, year after year, of air pollution from distant cities, factories, and highways."

A current poster child for the insects that foresters love to blame for killing trees because it is invasive is the woolly adelgid, which is decimating hemlocks.  But look at this:
"An import from Asia, the adelgid has been around for nearly a half-century in eastern forests without causing undue destruction until recently.  Today hemlock death is so widespread that some fear the species will become locally extinct in the wild.  The reason for the sudden virulence may well be that the insect thrives on nitrogen, an excess of which results from deposition of pollutants.  Experiments have shown that when nitrogen is applied to adelgid-infested hemlocks, the population densities of the pest increase fivefold compared with infested trees not subject to abnormal amounts of nitrogen."

The same increase in virulence applies to fungus such as anthracnose, which is killing dogwood and sycamore - a notion the typically, deliberately obtuse Forest Service, as described in this story from NPR, continues to utterly fail to appreciate:

"How Climate Change Makes Trees Sick"

"Forest diseases like Sudden Oak Death, which has infected trees in 14 counties in the state, stand to benefit from the effects of climate change, to the detriment, obviously, of the trees."

"Trees are big and long-lived. Tree pathogens, mostly fungi and bacteria, are the opposite. They’re mobile, able to blow around on the wind. And they reproduce and evolve rapidly. That’s the crux of the problem, according to Susan Frankel, a plant pathologist with the Forest Service."
“When you look at forest health and the balance between forest trees and the pathogens that attack them, it does seem, given climate change, pathogens get the better end of the deal,” she told me."

"Frankel is working with a group of ecologists, funded by the Forest Service’s Western Wildland Environmental threat Assessment Center, to better understand how climate change will affect tree diseases."

"Frankel is especially interested in Sudden Oak Death, which has killed more than a million trees in California. It needs moisture to spread and reproduce, and it thrives in warmer temperatures. 'The pathogen blows in wind-blown rain,' Frankel explained. 'It loves the weather we’re having right now.'”

It's the moisture!  Right?  Oh, wait...
Jim Robbins in the NY Times says of dying trees: "The common factor has been hotter, drier weather."  ...What???

In “Why Trees Matter” he inveighs against the usual insects, and drought.  Then, to emphasize how wonderful trees are, he wrote something that I see often - and never know whether it should make me laugh or cry:

“Trees are nature’s water filters, capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes, largely through a dense community of microbes around the tree’s roots that clean water in exchange for nutrients, a process known as phytoremediation. Tree leaves also filter air pollution. A 2008 study by researchers at Columbia University found that more trees in urban neighborhoods correlate with a lower incidence of asthma.”

This sort of sentiment is so nakedly anthropocentric it enrages me, frankly.  If somebody knows enough to understand that trees are cleaning up our pollution, wouldn’t it cross their mind, just for a tiny second, to wonder what that does to the tree??
Tragedy has a huge bibliography of scientific research on air pollution and forests, a veritable treasure trove. It also has pages listing organizations and foundations that are working on the problem except you know what?  Either they are defunct, or you go to their website and fine NO mention of air pollution, ozone, or acid rain, NADA, ZIP.

Published in 1998 by Sierra Club Books, Tragedy was then, apparently, promptly forgotten.  In the Foreward a declaration optimistically asserts that the book will be the foundation of an ongoing research project and "major public education campaign" about the effects of air pollution on forests, under the auspices of the Sierra Club's Southern App. Eco-region Program.  Here's their current website.  If anyone can locate a reference to pollution, please let me know!  Because I've looked and looked, and I can't find a single one.

Another group still extant is American Forests, described as being deeply involved in efforts to investigate the damage to forests by air pollution.  Following is all I can find on their website about pollution - nothing about what it does to trees, just the same garbage about how they clean the air that we just saw from Tim Robbins in the Times:
"Clean air and clean water are products of forests."

"The role of trees and forests in our ecosystems is absolutely critical. Forests renew our air supply by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. Trees also clean our atmosphere by intercepting airborne particles, and by absorbing ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other greenhouse gases. A single tree can absorb 10 pounds of air pollutants a year, and produce nearly 260 pounds of oxygen- enough to support two people."

"Urban trees can do even more for clean air. Depending on location, species, size, and condition, shade from trees can reduce utility bills for air conditioning in residential and commercial buildings by 15 to 50%. Through shade and the evaporation of water from their leaves, trees also provide natural, low-tech cooling that reduces energy use and the need to build power plants."

I haven't had time to do anything but skim Tragedy, so I don't know whether the authors anticipated that the tragedy they perceived was going to intensify, exponentially increase in speed, and spread around the entire globe, which is what has since occurred.  I don't know if they predicted that the constant, persistent background levels would ever become so high from Asian pollution traveling across the ocean, or that even young trees would start dying off just as rapidly as older trees that had many years of cumulative exposure.  I may never find out either, because none of them has ever responded to my repeated attempts to contact them.

The book is dedicated to John Flynn, a "top science writer with a national reputation, [who] unflinchingly chronicled the widespread impacts of acid rain on the Eastern forest..but during the 1980s as the frontal assault on environmental reform gained power he was hounded out of jobs on metropolitan dailies from Detroit, Michigan to Jackson, Mississippi, by managements fearful of losing advertising revenue from polluting industries.  He spent the last 6 years of his virtual poverty."

"Denial has likewise been frequent among certain elements of the scientific community.  The pioneering researchers mentioned above have endured a barrage of criticism from the old-line forest-science establishment, which tends to operate in lockstep with the Forest Service and those political and economic entities whose interests this government agency has traditionally supported.  While Loucks, Likens, Bruck and others are well aware that proof of air pollution's role cannot be shown in absolute terms (in the same sense that smoking cannot be absolutely proven as the cause of lung cancer ), they have been unafraid to assert that air pollution is fundamentally implicated in the unprecedented levels of tree death and decline in eastern forests over the past quarter-century.  However, no good deed goes unpunished.  For their honesty, they have had to pay the price in attacks on their credibility and in lost federal funding.  Instead, they should be recognized for the scientific heros they truly are."

One of the individuals thanked in the forward is Philip Shabecoff, who was an environmental reporter for the NYT for 30 years and recently published this a book "Poisoned for Profit, How Toxins are making Our Children Chronically Ill" which also of course nobody has paid any attention too.
A few more excerpts from the book, and then I'm going to stop and read the whole thing, cover to cover.

"How much abuse can forest trees take from airborne pollution?"

"The answers have to do with acid deposition, excess nitrogen enrichment, damage from tropospheric ozone and from burning ultraviolet-B rays streaming through a thinning stratospheric ozone layer, all of which so weaken the trees that they cannot withstand the normal stresses they re subjected to as a matter of course:  insects, fungi, bitter cold, and drought."

"In fact the word moribund in no hyperbole, for the very soils that support the forest are sick too, depleted of their life-giving nutrients after decades of pollution-caused leaching.   The same pollution transports the molecules of heavy metals into the forest, and frees a lightweight one - aluminum.  Ordinarily aluminum is safely locked away in silicate compounds in the soils but when acid deposition breaks down the compounds the poisonous aluminum is freed to be taken up by the trees."

"Where is this happening?  The answer is:  everywhere."

"But be careful whom you talk to about it.  For there are those in government and industry who do not want this story known who for the last 15 years have suppressed the details of the Appalachian tragedy, even dissembled about it in their testimony before the Congress of the United States."

"Do you not believe this?  People who have a political or economic reason for suppressing the truth can manipulate statistics until they are blue in the face, but nothing can refute the commonsense evidence that any ordinary American can discover just by walking in  the woods and looking."

How many times have I said that?  Go outside and look.


  1. "Do you not believe this? People who have a political or economic reason for suppressing the truth can manipulate statistics until they are blue in the face, but nothing can refute the commonsense evidence that any ordinary American can discover just by walking in the woods and looking."

    If only the ordinary person had such common sense...

  2. hi gail,
    today sunday i have been sitting on my third floor balcony with this maple tree canopy just a few feet away from my eyes: the leaves are coming to life in my face! they are this indescribible tender yellow-green and they more than doubled in just 4 hours. my heart is melting. wish i was inside the tree today...
    when/where can we read you treatise?

  3. Hi Michele! I'll do a post maybe tomorrow with the link but here it is:

    Pls. let me know if it doesn't download for you, I'm not sure it works.


    Several of the trees that I have planted are doing poorly, with lots of branches that won't bud...but there are a few that are doing well, especially an ornamental flowering plum right now that smells heavenly.

  4. my firefox browser added a final / to the URL and that's why I didn't get your article. It's 105 Megs of pdf.



  5. Gail,
    It's not a .pdf file. It is an iWorks '08 file. It's a Mac thing. When I clicked on the download it opened iWorks '06 which I've never used. I tried and it offered to upgrade to iWorks '08.

    Maybe you could convert it to a .pdf?

    And what of those people who have Microsoft products?


  6. GOT IT Catman. I'll do that now. It's really to bad I'm so technologically illiterate!

  7. okay, I have to convert it and then re-upload it...which takes a while - at least an hour or so...(sigh)

  8. try this one??

  9. Do I understand you correctly? Ozone hurts trees, which then die off in large numbers. But trees are part of the oxygen balance. Does this mean that the fraction of oxygen in the atmosphere will go down? Wouldn't that be easy to measure?

  10. That link works fine. Thanks!


  11. It's not actually that easy to measure because oxygen and Co2 and N are by far the most abundant component of the atmosphere - ozone is a trace gas, measured in parts per billion. So any reduction of oxygen due to loss of trees will also be proportionately not so much. Also, much oxygen comes from phytoplankton, and the ozone breaks down in the water before it can damage the phytoplankton.

    Keep in mind a couple of things - one is that just because ozone is PPB, like any other poison it doesn't take much to inflict damage. Anyway having said all that, I personally am keeping my eye on the CO2 Keeling curve seasonal differential because that should show some narrowing and also, they of course don't even think about ozone in this video but check it out, NASA satellite measurements of CO2:


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