Thursday, February 28, 2013

Now I am an Azotista

Quite some time ago, ClimateProgress proposed a contest challenging readers to describe Canada in 2050.  My friend Richard Brenne included in his submission the admonishment, "Zawacki is a verb that means I told you so".  He was referring to my prediction that trees all over the world will die from ozone pollution (those that aren't dead already).  I thought that was so funny I made it the title of a blog post using his essay.
Back then most experts didn't even recognize the ominous trend that forests are in decline, let alone what is causing it to happen at a rate unprecedented in all of time.  Even as the bark beetles decimated forests in the west, in fact, eminent professors at venerable forestry departments from Yale to Harvard to the Smithsonian Research Institute insisted when I wrote them that, in the east, due to increasing CO2 and because so many old farms had been abandoned and left to revert to woods, forest cover was increasing and thriving.
So when vindication emerges that trees are, in fact, prematurely dying, do I reflect smugly that my last name is a verb?  Not really.  I can feel my heart beating with dull thuds and my eyes tear up and I stop breathing for a minute and experience a terrifying, overwhelming paralysis.  This is what happened when new research showing this graph derived from satellite data was described thus:  "NASA Eyes Declining Vegetation in the Eastern United States from 2000 to 2010"
Caption:  "Trends in forest canopy green cover over the eastern U. S. region from 2000 to 2010 derived from NASA MODIS satellite sensor data. Green shades indicate a positive trend of increasing growing season green cover, whereas brown shades indicate a negative trend of decreasing growing season green cover. Four forest sub-regions of interest are outlined in red, north to south as: Great Lakes, Southern Appalachian, Mid-Atlantic, and southeastern Coastal Plain."
On the way home from the "Forward on Climate" rally in Washington DC, I stopped at Longwood Gardens where the annual orchid show was featured in the greenhouses.  I don't want to dwell on the problems I saw there, but it's obvious that in order to maintain vegetation with some semblance of health, there are massive efforts to remove chlorotic, burnt, and necrotic foliage.  This is one of the reasons I am certain that the composition of the atmosphere, and not drought from climate change, is killing trees.
The horticulturalists must be ceaselessly trimming, cutting, pruning and rotating plants in and out of the working greenhouses nobody sees.
With the help of who knows how many barrels of pesticides, fungicides and antibacterials, the staff still manages to put together a spectacular show.  
As mentioned many times before, plants damaged by ozone become prone to attacks by pathogens, what one scientist called "sharks that smell blood in the water".
With the larger plants on permanent display, the gardeners cannot keep up with the dying leaves.
The bamboo inside the greenhouse which is, obviously, being watered and coddled, looks just as bad as the bamboo I planted outside, around Wit's End.
All of the leaves appear singed and battered.
Never mind...we have perfumed flowers to admire!  What follows is the release from NASA of the recent paper mentioned above, which is titled, "Declining Vegetation Growth Rates in the Eastern United States from 2000 to 2010".  Note that the most recent data used is from 2010 - and so given that we are talking about an exponential trend, the decline is now much more widespread and far, far worse.  Naturally, the authors associate it with drought from climate change, with no proof other than corrolation...and don't even consider ozone - but what else is new?
"NASA scientists report that warmer temperatures and changes in precipitation locally and regionally have altered the growth of large forest areas in the eastern United States over the past 10 years. Using NASA’s Terra satellite, scientists examined the relationship between natural plant growth trends, as monitored by NASA satellite images, and variations in climate over the eastern United States from 2000 to 2010."
"Monthly satellite images from the MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) showed declining density of the green forest cover during summer in four sub-regions, the Upper Great Lakes, southern Appalachian, mid-Atlantic, and southeastern Coastal Plain. More than 20 percent of the non-agricultural area in the four sub-regions that showed decline during the growing season, were covered by forests. Nearly 40 percent of the forested area within the mid-Atlantic sub-region alone showed a significant decline in forest canopy cover."
"'We looked next at the relationships between warmer temperatures, rainfall patterns, and reduced forest greenness across these regions,' said Christopher Potter, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. 'This comprehensive data set gave us the evidence to conclude that a series of relatively dry years since 2000 has been unfavorable for vigorous growth of forest cover over much of the Eastern U. S. this past decade.' Potter is the first author of the paper titled 'Declining Vegetation Growth Rates in the Eastern United States from 2000 to 2010,' published by Natural Resources, Dec. 2012, (3), 184-190."
"In the past, scientists were uncertain about what was causing the changes in the forests in the eastern U. S. Based on small-scale field site measurements since 1970, forest growth was thought to be increasing in regions where soil nutrients and water were in good supply. At the same time, there were fewer wildfires throughout the eastern U.S., which scientists believe contributed to the transformation of more open lands into closed-canopy forests with more shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive plants."
"More recent studies indicate that climate change could be having many adverse and interrelated impacts on the region. The warming climate this century has caused new stresses on trees, such as insect pest outbreaks and the introduction of new pathogens. Scientists consider both climate change and disease to be dominant driving forces in the health of forests in this region."
"NASA’s technology is revealing an entirely new picture of these complex impacts. The MODIS satellite captures very broad regional patterns of change in forests, wetlands, and grasslands by continuous monitoring of the natural plant cover over extended time periods. Now, with over a decade of 'baseline' data to show how trees typically go through a yearly cycle of leaves blooming, summer growth, and leaves falling, scientists are detecting subtle deviations from the average cycle to provide early warning signs of change at the resolution of a few miles for the entire country."

"'The next studies at NASA Ames will research areas that appear most affected by drought and warming to map out changes in forest growth at a resolution of several acres,' said Potter."
Here's the abstract of the paper:

"Negative trends in the monthly MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Enhanced Vegetation Index (EVI) time-series were found to be widespread in natural (non-cropland) ecosystems of the eastern United States from 2000 to 2010. Four sub-regions were detected with significant declines in summed growing season (May-September) EVI, namely theUpper Great Lakes, the Southern Appalachian, the Mid-Atlantic, and the southeastern Coastal Plain forests ecosystems. More than 20% of the undeveloped ecosystem areas in the four sub-regions with significant negative EVI growing season trends were classified as forested land cover over the entire study period. We detected relationships between annual temperature and precipitation patterns and negative forest EVI trends across these regions. Change patterns in both the climate moisture index (CMI) and growing degree days (GDD) were associated with declining forest EVI growing season trends. We conclude that temperature warming-induced change and variability of precipitation at local and regional scales may have altered the growth trends of large forested areas of the eastern United States over the past decade."
There are more anecdotal indications that trees are dying.  Two news reports - one from Atlanta and another from Ohio - relate that people were killed by falling trees.

The Portland Press ran a story about New England pines losing needles:  "New England white pines are losing more needles; 'Something very serious is stressing the trees,' says one expert from UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space"

"Something very serious is stressing the trees" - to which I want to say, NO SHIT, SHERLOCK!!!

"DURHAM, N.H. — A University of New Hampshire forest program has noticed that white pine trees in northern New England seem to be losing more needles lately.  The Forest Watch program says the trees maintained vigorous growth during the late 1990s as the Clean Air Act took effect and ozone levels fell. Ozone is an oxidant that accelerates aging in foliage."
"But data shows that since 2010, the trees have not done a good job of retaining those needles."

"'Something very serious is stressing the trees,' said Forest Watch founding director Barrett Rock of UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space. "Not since the early to mid-1990s, when ozone levels were extremely high, have we seen these kinds of measurements of stress in the pines.'"
"One possible cause is air pollution from wildfires. Rock said he believes that a powerful oxidant in wildfire smoke from Canada, in combination with unusually high temperatures, might have contributed to damaged sugar maple trees in the region."

"'The event might also have stressed the pines, and other pollutants from a growing number of wildfires might be causing further stress,' Rock said."
"Another theory is that unusually wet weather in 2009 caused an explosion of fungi that are clearly now feasting on the pine needles. They appear as orange-looking "blisters" on the needles."

"'Such fungi normally only attack needles that have been weakened by some other factor, and the fungi usually only damage a small percentage of the needles, not the large percentages we're seeing,' Rock said."
"Forest Watch takes K-12 students and teachers out of their classrooms to study air pollution and forest health.  Since 1991, more than 350 schools across New England have helped researchers at UNH gather samples and measurements of white pine needles to monitor the impacts of the ozone levels."
I don't know why Barry Rock is blaming wet weather and wildfires when the massive emissions of precursors from Asia dwarf any such influences, especially on a global basis - and it's on a global scale that all species of trees are dying, not just white pines in New England.  I also can't explain why he refers only to reduced peaks of ozone when the persistent background level has been inexorably climbing.  Government regulatory agencies always like to downplay the impacts of low-level, but constant exposure to poisons, whether it's radiation, heavy metals, chemicals, or ozone - but why an academic ignores it is a mystery.  I wrote him in an email in 2010:

One of the reasons I think the atmosphere must be creating the recent, rapid tree decline, at least in New Jersey and surrounding states, is that trees that are irrigated, or growing in pots, have the exact degree of leaf damage as trees growing in the wild.  For that matter, all plants in pots had symptoms of ozone poisoning last summer, and it's also important, I think, that every species of tree, and every age, is equally affected.

We also had an exchange in which he insisted the lichen growth is normal.

"The photos you sent with the lichens suggest to me that they are likely in large numbers because of the very wet summers we have had the last two years. My diagnosis is based on the fact that the lichens (apparently crustose) are all small, and so very young (or recent), and they are located in the fissures of the bark, where rainwater would be concentrated as the result of stem-flow. The fissures would also limit the amount of drying during non-rainy periods. Also, keep in mind that lichens do not harm trees, nor do they indicate a tree is damaged. Lichens are also very sensitive to poor air quality, and their presence suggests air quality in your region is pretty good. Don't worry about the lichens. They are actually environmental good news."

Yesterday, I stopped at a cemetary which is about a mile from home.  Given how the trees are plastered with the lichen and stones that date back to 1820 are also festooned, it's pretty obvious to me that there has been a historic explosion of growth - and since they are epiphytes, it has to be a consequence of SOMETHING in the rain, air or both.  Perhaps nitrogen?  Consider this Irish lichen website:

"For example, some species of the genus Xanthoria establish and grow abundantly in nitrogen rich areas, such as near farms or chemical factories...Lichens, unlike most living organisms, are unable to 'refuse' entry to many chemicals into their bodies. This means that chemicals can freely invade them and interfere with their metabolic processes, often killing the lichen, but sometimes increasing their growth rate."
In the past Dr. Brook was considerably more direct about the effects of ozone.  Here's what he said in a lecture (transcript and link at Apoptosis and Cosmeticsm) in 1999:
We've done many other studies--open-top chamber studies, controlled exposure environments in which we can document the impact of a variety of other parameters--but at least here in New England, our work and the work of others indicate that

[drum roll...]

ozone is the dominant factor affecting the growth of white pine."
According to an interview with the New York Times in 2010 (posted in The Country Mouse Reluctantly Trains to the City) he had already backtracked from ozone being a "dominant factor" and jumped on the climate change bandwagon along with every other forester and scientist in America.  

In an interview for an article by the NRDC OnEarth Magazine, Spring 2005 edition, about researching a forest in Europe, he was quoted:
"'So I came to the Krušné hory. When I looked at the Landsat images I couldn't believe what I saw. The damage was appalling.'"

"This was in 1989. What Rock found on the ground when he arrived in May of that year confirmed the worst."
"'Retention of needles is a key indicator of health in these trees. A healthy tree may have 12 or more years of needles on its limbs. These had only two or three. The trees were skeletons with tufts of needles. When I looked at the cells of these needles I saw they were suffering plasmolysis, the inability to retain water. The cell content pulls away from the cell wall. The cells become physiologically crippled.'"
"When Rock takes out photographs of damaged needle cells they recall for me comparisons between normal lungs and smokers' lungs. The cells' chloroplasts, which are responsible for photosynthesis, disintegrate. Acidic tannins, looking like tar, accumulate inside the cell. The cell's walls go flaccid and the needles' normally orderly interior structure disintegrates. Says Rock, 'Sulfur dioxide and ozone are the only things that do this.'"

Even the National Park Service understands without equivocation what ozone is doing to trees:

"Air pollution is shrinking scenic views, damaging plants, and degrading high elevation streams and soils in the Great Smoky Mountains. Even human health is at risk. Most pollution originates outside the park and is created by power plants, industry, and automobiles".

And they also document nitrogen pollution:

"Research shows that certain high elevation soils in the park are receiving so much airborne nitrogen that they are suffering from advanced nitrogen saturation."

The leaves of the ornamental shrubs in the cemetary exhibit classic damage - stippling and bronzing.
In the worst cases the leaves turn completely brown and fall off.
All the way in the back, almost invisible, was the hulk of a once majestic tree, surrounded by much younger trunks gleaming greenish white from lichen.
It makes me wonder how many collosal older trees, in quiet unvisited places, have silently disappeared and been forgotten.
Here are the remnants of another former giant.
Here are a couple of the old stones that are plagued with the lichen.
When it appears on trees, it is always accompanied by cracking bark.
I stopped on the way home, along the Cold Brook.  Only a few years ago the woods were so thick, you couldn't see the water at all, ever...let alone through to the fields on the far side of the creek.
You would never have known those red barns were there.
Aside from all the other evidence, if drought from climate change were the primary cause for tree death, wouldn't you expect trees growing along water to be in better shape?  And yet, they are not.  Not at all.
All is not lost, however.   Today I learned that we can "reject" ecosystem collapse.  Yes, we can!! I wrote to Dr. Barry Brook (not to be confused with Barry Rock, above) in 2009.  It was before I started Wit's End, so instead I sent some pictures I uploaded to two facebook pages (which I had forgotten all about and will have to return to for a comparison), until I was reminded by his new research:

Ecologists reject 'doomsday-like' scenario

"Planet's Earth's terrestrial life is not likely to suffer sudden global collapse at the hands of humans, says an international team of ecologists.  But there is debate about their conclusions, to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution."

"Dr. Barry Brook of the University of Adelaide, and colleagues, question suggestions in recent scientific papers that human activity is pushing planetary ecology past "tipping points", altering terrestrial life rapidly and possibly irreversibly."

"Some scientists, for example, argue the number of species lost has already crossed a threshold, compromising ecological function.  Brook says while ecological tipping points apply in some cases, such as the Amazon, he does not believe humans can have the sort of global-scale impact on the terrestrial biosphere, that meteorites or exploding volcanoes are capable of."

"In the past, such catastrophic events drove large and rapid planetary-scale changes that shifted Earth's terrestrial ecology into a completely new state, he says.  By contrast, says Brook, human activity has a much more local and piecemeal effect on terrestrial environments and this does not add up to one focused global driver of change."

Before you rejoice, however, it's worth continuing.  According to the article, Dr. Andrew Pitman from the University of New South Wales dissents, saying "…Brook has failed to consider the role of the atmosphere in driving global-scale change."  He is referring of course to climate change from CO2, but it's even more true of ozone.

And so, in addition to the earlier established addition of Zawacki to the dictionary, now, based on the brilliant suggestion from my Arizona friend WindSpiritKeeper, I would like to propose the inclusion of Azotist/Azotista.  This is far more expansive than Ozonista (and far more poetic than "doomer") because it infers not merely the consciousness that pollution is causing a march towards total ecosystem collapse, but everything else as well - ocean acidification, habitat destruction, resource depletion, and climate change with the already-triggered, irreversible, exponentially accelerating amplifying feedbacks.  The etymological root Azote (an obsolete word for nitrogen, the reactive version of which is, as we know, a primary ozone precursor) is the French azote, which derived from Ancient Greek ἀ- (a-, "without") + ζωή (zōē, "life").  It was originally coined by Antoine Lavoisier, who saw it as "the part of air which cannot sustain life".

I hope all who understand that yes, Professor Brook, the tipping points have been passed, and ecosystem collapse is well underway and unstoppable, will join me in embracing the concept of azote, and henceforth be a proud Azotist.  Or Azotista, as the case may be!

I was reminded of another great metaphor by Paul Chefurka - that like the ballerina smitten by the irresistible red satin shoes, we are trapped by our own desires, and will continue to dance ever more wildly and compulsively, until we collapse.


  1. Bravo, Gail.
    And yes, the simple term azote does paint a precise picture. It is also clear that its concept has been around for a very long time.
    As we ponder the plight of our trees, etc., remember that the trees do breathe through their leaves. As such, their leaves first show any problems, or threats to their health.
    We also must consider the rapidity and thoroughness of the leaf destruction we have carefully documented foe all to see.
    Ps The term "climate change" is very imprecise, and is useless in our present crisis.
    I suggest "climatic disruption", or "dysfunction" puts more weight and thrust into the subject.


  2. Ah well, you are the original Azotist - tweet it out! Maybe it will gain traction.

    And you are right of course about the term climate change, it is far too innocuous. I tend to favor Ecopocalypse.

  3. Saw this & thought of you. I hope he is right:

    "The trees appreciate our concern, but they have no other choice than to live. Literally, I mean this literally, the trees will destroy "us" when they have to. They don't live like us and do not think like us. But I am certain they do think about us on much, much lower frames of time. Not in an infantile way, but much more amazingly, the trees will do war with us if we do not clean up our act. They fucking recognize our, as humans, blink of an eye or loss of a limb. It is a slow and very ancient language. Humans cannot recognize their language. Because we are too sped up.

    I'm not fucking with you. This is true because they told me and yeah, call me a kook. But this is what trees in the old growth forest of Mt Rainier told me, like almost I could hear it. Alone. The old trees took pity on us and yet could not bother to save us, because "they couldn't" but wanted to. They still like us though, because how could they possibly care?

    They care because they have seen enough. They will die in order to kill us and then grow again. Word gets around in the trees. Forests have consciences far more advanced than anything any human knows. But I was promised that they are kind. Not conditionally, unconditionally. They realize our need for them and they sacrifice because they are leaps and bounds more smart the we are, just their thoughts are so slow and their language so muddled, but their spirit extremely potent.

    Tellin' you, this is what the fucking trees told me."

    I saw it here (via Brad's newish NTE forum and Guy):

    Thanks for this site. I think we all should slow down & listen.


  4. Gail,
    Thanks for posting the camellia pictures.
    I used to grow then when I lived in Slidell, LA and was a member of the Ozone Camellia Club.
    My daughter and I are going out tomorrow to document some of the many dead and dying trees here in Fairfax county. I'll send you a link when I get the photos and clips uploaded.

    Next time you are in DC you should check out the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore on your way back.


  5. Well islandraider, if the trees are smart, they will all die at once, and then we would quickly die, and perhaps they could then regenerate. Once we stop burning fuel, the ozone would dissipate fairly quickly.

    Unfortunately though I think the trees are touch, and stubborn, and tenaciously cling to life. So we will probably have time to keep fouling the air until the balance of nature is so distorted it will not be repaired for many millions of years.

  6. Thank you for the suggestion John, I will check out the museum!

    Please do send pictures.

    Once I went to Kiawah Island and while there went on a tour of plantations-turned-museums along the river outside of Charleston. They had gardens planted with camellias that had been brought from England, 200 years ago. Just absolutely gorgeous.


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