Tuesday, May 7, 2013

It Tolls For Thee

By happenstance I crossed the North Branch of the Raritan River yesterday, just as the Virginia Bluebells were reflecting a cerulean sky from the forest floor.
In the unfolding of this fecund spring, the dichotomy between the awakening flora and fauna and the ongoing demise of the ecosystem has been more apparent than ever before.
As if the air pollution weren't bad enough for plants, we've had scarcely any rain and so the river is shockingly low when it should be surging at this time of year.
Gone are the days when a rapid melt from snowpack would swell the banks and brave souls would compete in the frigid waters in the annual tube race down the Black River.
I am guessing that this huge tree is a butternut.  It's definitely some kind of nut judging by it's leaves, but it hasn't got the bark of a black walnut or hickory (although, it is corroded).  Butternut, you may or may not realize, is a native American tree with many useful properties.  Indians crushed the hulls and used the oil released as a soporific to slow fish.  The nuts were dried and eaten, mixed with cornmeal or hominy to make "sappaen", and pickled as a condiment for meat, while the sap served as a sweetener.  The hulls made a dye for Confederate soldiers' uniforms, the figured wood is prized...and for any survivalists, the bark and hulls make for various medicinal remedies.  Except there are hardly any butternut left...oh well.
There is one in New Jersey that is claimed to be the oldest (over 200 years) and largest, which narrowly escaped the axe up in Kinnelon (presuming it's still alive).  I may just measure this trunk and head there to compare.  It's possible that this one quietly standing in the woods will rival its city cousin in longevity and size.  Heh.  The cut log that is lying across the path is actually a pretty good sized trunk itself.
This is my favorite specimen on earth, an old copper beech in Oldwick village, at least two centuries old I would imagine.
There is nothing more lustrous than the deep saturation of its leaves when they emerge in spring, nor a trunk more magnificent than its sturdy, smooth central pillar.
It is humbling and thrilling at the same time to gaze up at the crown blazing against the sky.
But like everything else now, there is a sad and ugly side.  The crown is thin and many branches aren't producing any leaves at all.
It is rotting from the inside out.
The maple next to it, though not nearly as old, is rotting from the outside in, its wood eaten away.
The leaves in the hedge of rhododendron beneath it are chlorotic.
The little fruit orchard I planted at Wit's End is blooming feebly and has been invaded by a nasty fungus.
On the other hand, I was shocked and thrilled at this volunteer apple tree in the meadow, taller than me already.  Ever since a large part of Wit's End was fenced, baby trees have sprung up - oak, maple, even tulip poplar from those I planted myself.  Throughout the woods beyond the barrier, the deer eat every sapling that sprouts.
My little beech is leafing out without ever having the energy to shed last season's brown leaves.
But the ornamental plum is perfuming the air.
...and the springtime palette is like a most glorious Impressionist painting.
The house wren has returned to nest under the toolshed.
Listen Here
She and her mate scold me in their outsized indignant voices every time I walk by to feed the horses at the barn.
Life still tries to colonize in unlikely places - this dandelion is situated in a hollow, high over my head.
Despite lingering morning frost the magnolia outside the kitchen window made its most splendid display ever.
Some of the flowers froze but many were unscathed.
Towering over it though, the pin oaks are dying and I worry they will fall on the house in a storm.
While I was standing there I heard the most wonderful bird song and followed it around the patio to another pin oak in which I could just barely see, high above, a flash of scintillating orange.
Listen Here
It was a Baltimore Oriole, and I listened to its liquid torrent until it flew off.  I heard a pair of them again this morning, exchanging calls.  I've also heard, but not seen, the tiny inconspicuous ovenbird and the shy, but incomparable flute of the wood thrush.  One day, a hummingbird was attracted to the quince so I put out a feeder, but I haven't seen it return yet.  And the pair of Phoebes that usually nest on the porch light, in an elaborate construction of straw and bright green moss, stopped by for day, noted that their usual perch on the espaliered apple tree that died over the winter had been removed, and went on their way for parts unknown.
Coco Chanel glares with stony resentment as the birds flutter past the window.  But it's time to move on to the science and latest articles about trees dying from tropospheric ozone.
There are so many to choose from, but for today three news stories will serve to illustrate the global trend of forest decline.  Opportunistic pathogens - insects, disease and fungus -  are busy, exploiting the weakened immunity of trees with unprecedented virulence.

The first has been reported before but is becoming exponentially worse - a blight on coffee plants.  A CBC article discloses that small farmers are devastated.  Following are excerpts from the article with my notes in italics:
Wilson Tzunún pulls a brown, skinny branch off a coffee plant and snaps it in two. The coffee plants around us are all in varying stages of death.The cause is something some refer to as "roya." It’s a word that’s almost become a curse in Central America. It’s a fungus, a leaf rust that first shows up as yellow spots on the leaves of coffee plants. Then it curls them up and causes the round coffee fruits to drop to the ground before they can mature.The Guatemalan government has declared the coffee rust a national emergency. So have the governments of Honduras and Costa Rica.Tougher fungusThe dried-up, dead plants are an unusual sight, when everything else in this humid region of Western Guatemala is lush and green.
[I don't believe it.  People think everything is normal in New Jersey and it is emphatically not.  And I've been to Costa Rica and already, three years ago, the mimosa, national tree, and the manzanitas along the beach were dying off and all the pampered ornamental shrubs in the resort were sick.]
“The roya that attacked before, six to eight years ago, it was controllable,” Tzunún said. “We’ve seen that this is much stronger.”
[Unlike the favored culprits in the US and the UK, this rust is not an invasive species, it's native, and it's inexplicably getting far more destructive.]
Nils Leperowski is president of the National Coffee Association in Guatemala. “It’s a problem that goes from Mexico down to Peru.”He goes through the numbers for Guatemala: 70 per cent of crops have damages. Of the 276,000 hectares of coffee in this country, 193,000 hectares are infected with the fungus.Experts blame climate change.Leperowski said farmers in coastal regions have seen some leaf rust since the 1980s, but now it’s more resilient and it’s spreading.“It was the combination of warmer temperatures and humidity. Now we see it at all altitudes in Guatemala.”
[Another bogus climate change claim grrrr.  The climate hasn't changed nearly that much near the equator - by far the vaster difference has occurred at higher latitudes.]

From coffee plantations all over the world, we find another fungus in California.  The Mercury News announced that an army of citizen scientists are being recruited to help identify oaks infected with the Sudden Oak Death fungus:

"The microbe, a foreign, funguslike invader that came to California from overseas, has killed more than a million trees in 14 coastal California counties, from Monterey to Humboldt."

On a blog post (suddenoaklife.org) about the controversial practice of removing bay laurels because they carry the pathogen and compete with oaks, a commenter takes exception with the received wisdom that the fungus is an invasive species, and points to stressors from pollution instead:
In my opinion, this information confirms that P ramorum and sudden oak death are native ecosystem organisms. There is no definitive scientific proof that P ramorum was introduced into the California ecosystem. In fact many old foresters in Northern California have told me that “the bay trees kill the oaks”. So the entire premise of exclusion and nursery “host plant” eradication and monitoring is a total waste of taxpayer money.
Also, the infected nursery plants could have been infected from forest trees, not the other way around.
What we do know is the forest ecosystems have been degraded due to multiple anthopogenic factors like acid rain and forest trees are in a weakened state. Rather than concentrate on trying to exclude and kill a single pathogenic organism, we should be concentrating on ways to strengthen the forest’s immune system. This work has already been successfully demonstrated by the US Forest Service site at Hubbard Brook in New Hampshire , where they aerially applied calcium to entire forest ecosystem in 1999. Since that time the data has shown multiple benefits to declining forest trees like sugar maples.
This data backs up the claims on this site that the forest ecosystem is more important than any single forest pathogen. The native oaks of california are being predisposed to this infection and the pathogen most likely has been in the forest ecosystem for thousands of years.
Here in the east we have asian longhorned beetle, emerald ash borer, hemlock wooly adelgid and beech bark disease (another Phytophthora infection). Interestingly enough Beech Trees and California live oaks are in the same family “Fagaceae”. They are dying on both coasts from Phytophthora infections.
In the book “The Dying of the the Trees” by Charles Little we can learn that even President Ronald Reagan could sense that there was something wrong with the forest when he was travelling to Camp David in the early 1980s. At that time 80% of our native dogwood trees were dying on both coasts from an anthracnose infection. A cursory examination of the literature yields some clues about dogwood trees- ” they have the highest calcium requirement of any forest tree”. This was and represents today the proverbial canary in the mineshaft. We as scientists just need to pay closer attention.

Similarly, a non-native species is being blamed for dying oaks in the UK, only in this case it is caterpillars.  I know, ewwwwww...right?  It's even worse than they look, because they are toxic to people and animals, too.  But how relevant is the Continental origin of the caterpillars when they have become equally virulent just across the Channel in Belgium - and according to citizens of Spain who commented, there as well?

Scientists are fighting to stop a poisonous caterpillar from threatening to kill off  thousands of oak trees.
Efforts to cull the oak processionary moth, which can be toxic to humans, have failed, leaving experts mounting a rearguard action to stop it spreading.Larvae have been destroying trees around London for the past month after the insect came into the country on infested trees imported from Europe. 
Its caterpillars strip leaves from the trees they occupy with their nests, often in such large numbers that the oak is fatally weakened. 
Trees are left covered in toxic hairs, which can burn the eyes and skin of anyone touching them. In severe cases, victims can suffer anaphylactic shock.Yesterday scientists admitted that they are unlikely to be able to eradicate the moth. Instead, the best they can hope for is to ‘slow its spread’ by containing it in the areas already infected. 
Larvae have hatched across the capital in the last few weeks from Richmond Common and Kew in the west to  Croydon and Bromley in the south. 
…Oaks are the moth’s favoured habitat but it can also eat hazel, hornbeam, sweet chestnut, birch and beech trees. 
Tony Kirkham, head of the Kew Gardens arboretum, said gardeners have previously been poisoned by the caterpillars.  Staff are on standby to spray trees with pesticides, which has kept the outbreak there under control in the last five years. 
‘We have cleared thousands of nests from trees,’ said Mr Kirkham. ‘We hope it is under control in Kew but it looks like it is established in the wider area of London.  'There’s every chance it could spread. It’s a worrying pest and it’s a new pest.’ 
It is thought the moth came to south-west London in 2006 on an infested oak from Italy. 
Larvae have been hatching in the area since then, despite eradication efforts by the Forestry Commission. But its entomologists have said they are now focused on slowing its spread. 
The outbreaks in Bromley and Pangbourne are believed to have been caused by other infested trees from the Continent. The commission is hopeful these areas can be cleared. 
It is thought the growing trade in shrubs and trees has enabled the moth to spread across Europe in the past decade.

A sidebar adds:
SO TOXIC THEY SENT TROOPS INIn Belgium, caterpillar infestation became so bad that the army was sent in to incinerate nests.The moth earned its name because of the nose-to-tail ‘processions’ the caterpillars form when stripping foliage.Their threat to humans comes from 700,000 toxic hairs found on each caterpillar, which contain the irritant chemical thaumetopoein.Even people walking near a nest can be affected as the hairs become detached and are carried by wind.
There has been a lively trade in nursery stock around the globe for centuries as gardening enthusiasts introduce exotic plantings, so for all the sudden invasive species to be decimating everything everywhere is highly improbable - absent some other major anthropogenic input (like pollution).  Not only that, but species that are indubitably native parts of the ecosystem, like the bark beetle, are out of control regardless of how severely the climate has been altered.

For an example of a native pest taking advantage of trees weakened from ozone, a clear example is well-known in California.  An overview, Air pollution distribution patterns in the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California: a 40-year perspective, published in 2007 by Bytnerowicz et all, reviews the combined influences of ozone pollution and nitrogen deposition in combination with drought and anticipates "catastrophic" wildfires resulting from weakened trees predisposed to "massive" bark beetle attack.  Already this year southern California has seen a frightening fire well in advance of normal emergence:

Since the mid-1950s, native pines in the San Bernardino Mountains (SBM) in southern California have shown symptoms of decline. Initial studies in 1963 showed that ozone (O3) generated in the upwind Los Angeles Basin was responsible for the injury and decline of sensitive trees. Ambient O3 decreased significantly by the mid-1990s, resulting in decreased O3 injury and improved tree growth. Increased growth of trees may also be attributed to elevated atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition. Since most of the N deposition to mixed conifer forest stands in the SBM results from dry deposition of nitric acid vapor (HNO3) and ammonia (NH3), characterization of spatial and temporal distribution of these two pollutants has become essential. Although maximum daytime O3 concentrations over last 40 years have significantly decreased (approximately 3-fold), seasonal means have been reduced much less (approximately 1.5-fold), with 2-week long means occasionally exceeding 100 ppb in the western part of the range. In the same area, significantly elevated concentrations of HNO3 and NH3, up to 17.5 and 18.5 microg/m3 as 2-week averages, respectively, have been determined. Elevated levels of O3 and increased N deposition together with long-term drought predispose the SBM forests to massive bark beetle attacks making them susceptible to catastrophic fires.

A series of papers by this author highlight the impacts of ozone and N deposition not only on vegetation but human health as well.  Where this is extreme in southern California, due to sources and topography and weather, it is a global issue.  A few links for those who want more:

Ozone, nitric acid, and ammonia air pollution is unhealthy for people and ecosystems in southern Sierra Nevada, California.
Two-week average concentrations of ozone (O3), nitric acid vapor (HNO3) and ammonia (NH3) were measured with passive samplers during the 2002 summer season across the central Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, along the San Joaquin River drainage. Elevated concentrations of the pollutants were determined with seasonal means for individual sites ranging between 62 and 88 ppb for O3, 1.0-3.8 microg m(-3) for HNO3, and 2.6-5.2 microg m(-3) for NH3. Calculated O3 exposure indices were very high, reaching SUM00-191 ppm h, SUM60-151 ppm h, and W126-124 ppm h. Calculated nitrogen (N) dry deposition ranged from 1.4 to 15 kg N ha(-1) for maximum values, and 0.4-8 kg N ha(-1) for minimum values; potentially exceeding Critical Loads (CL) for nutritional N. The U.S., California, and European 8 h O3 human health standards were exceeded during 104, 108, and 114 days respectively, indicating high risk to humans from ambient O3.

Another paper is titled:
Ozone distribution and phytotoxic potential in mixed conifer forests of the San Bernardino Mountains, southern CaliforniaAbstractAlthough peak ozone concentrations have greatly decreased in the San Bernardino Mountains, very high ozone phytotoxic potential remains.In the San Bernardino Mountains of southern California, ozone (O3) concentrations have been elevated since the 1950s with peaks reaching 600 ppb and summer seasonal averages >100 ppb in the 1970s. During that period increased mortality of ponderosa and Jeffrey pines occurred. Between the late 1970s and late1990s, O3 concentrations decreased with peaks ~180 ppb and ~60 ppb seasonal averages. However, since the late 1990s concentrations have not changed. Monitoring during summers of 2002-2006 showed that O3 concentrations (2-week averages) for individual years were much higher in western sites (58-69 ppb) than eastern sites (44-50 ppb). Potential O3 phytotoxicity measured as various exposure indices was very high, reaching SUM00 - 173.5 ppm h, SUM60 - 112.7 ppm h, W126 - 98.3 ppm h, and AOT40 - 75 ppm h, representing the highest values reported for mountain areas in North America and Europe.
The first time I learned of the "X" factor was on a telephone conversation with Dr. Bytnerowicz, and sure enough, here it is in the introduction section:

In the 1970s, when the first reliable measurements of Ostarted, peak concentrations could reach 600 ppb (National Academy of Sciences, 1977), and national and state air pollution standards were exceeded during most of the photochemical smog season (http://www.arb.ca.gov/ html/brochure/history/htm). During that time it was also determined that the mysterious ‘‘X’’ disease killing thousands of sensitive ponderosa (Pinus ponderosa) and Jeffrey (Pinus jeffreyi) pines in the SBM in the 1950s was caused by high Oconcentrations in combination with frequent drought stress and severe bark beetle attacks (Miller et al., 1963; Taylor, 1999). This was the first worldwide evidence of a large-scale decline of coniferous forests caused by ambient O3 (Mackenzie and El-Ashry, 1989).
The number of trees that died is staggering to me, as are the incredibly high levels of ozone.

In the early 2000s, a widespread dieback of trees in the SBM started to take place due to prolonged drought, over-stocking of forests caused by long-term fire suppression, air pollution, and bark beetle infestation that eventually resulted in a death of 4.6 million trees (Christensen et al., 2007). Such enormous amounts of dead biomass caused a very serious risk to the remaining forests and to the local population. The 2003 fires in the SBM (Keeley et al., 2004) showed that a very high probability of catastrophic fires exists in southern California mountainous forests. 
Long-term information on spatial and temporal O3 distribution trends in the SBM is essential for understanding the O3 phytotoxic potential for forests and health risks to the SBM inhabitants. Therefore, a network of passive samplers and active instruments for O3 monitoring was established in the SBM in 2002 in order to better understand O3 distribution and its phytotoxic potential.

Of interest is the finding that concentrations of ozone are not dissimilar to other Mediterranean climates such as Spain and Italy, they tend to remain high on summer nights not just during sunny days, and are of course also high in other mountainous areas of the US.  I won't spoil the fun for anyone who wants to read the original source so will just include this final bit:

In general, our study showed that although the peak O3 concentrations have significantly decreased over 40-50 years of studies, all of the calculated O3 exposure indices were still very high. Such high doses of exposure point to a strong potential for negative physiological and biochemical effects on forests (Bytnerowicz and Grulke, 1993), including damage to sensitive species and individuals and predisposition of trees to drought stress and bark beetle attacks (McBride and Miller, 1999).

Dr. Bytnerowicz has found ozone damage in Europe as well, as described in Contribution of ambient ozone to Scots pine defoliation and reduced growth in the Central European forests: A Lithuanian case study.

Peak ozone concentrations is one of the key factors affecting Scots pine trees. 
The study aimed to explore if changes in crown defoliation and stem growth of Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris L.) could be related to changes in ambient ozone (O3) concentration in central Europe. To meet this objective the study was performed in 3 Lithuanian national parks, close to the ICP integrated monitoring stations from which data on meteorology and pollution were provided. Contribution of peak Oconcentrations to the integrated impact of acidifying compounds and meteorological parameters on pine stem growth was found to be more significant than its contribution to the integrated impact of acidifying compounds and meteorological parameters on pine defoliation. Findings of the study provide statistical evidence that peak concentrations of ambient Ocan have a negative impact on pine tree crown defoliation and stem growth reduction under field conditions in central and northeastern Europe where the AOT40 values for forests are commonly below their phytotoxic levels.
It's a critical distinction that levels considered safe for trees are negatively impacting defoliation and growth.  When you have that kind of a trend, there is only one way for it to end and it's not good.
The remainder of this post consists of my response to Bob Ackley of the Massachusetts Shade Tree Trust.  I feel obligated to revisit and clarify my position, since I received an email from him on April 19.  It's quite possible that, as he contends, methane leaks from municipal pipelines are bad for tree roots.  However, I tried to point out a couple of years ago in an earlier exchange that such injury is inconsequential because any impact is now dwarfed in light of the far more important evidence that trees nowhere near pipelines are dying off just as quickly.  In fact, in order to scientifically demonstrate that it is the methane leaks that are responsible for any particular tree to die, I should think some kind of large and systematic census comparing the health of trees near leaks to the condition of trees not near leaks would have to be undertaken, and in more than one town.  Just sayin'.

Obviously I've been procrastinating about assembling this post since frankly, I'm so beyond discouraged about the plight of humanity and the rest of life on earth - what with bees dying and ice melting and whatnot - that I'm reluctant to devote much effort to a relatively trivial example of Upton Sinclair's famous adage "...It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it".
So even though I probably shouldn't, I'm going to intersperse the text with some pictures that absolutely delighted me, from youngest daughter.  She and some friends had a mini-cation in Las Vegas, and given that such days are numbered, I just loved seeing the careless joy they exhibit as they frolicked through a sumptuous supper, explore the city on a decadent evening out, get silly practicing martial arts and yoga back at the luxurious hotel and finally traipse on to a bleary-eyed breakfast in a place that must be the most ridiculously unsustainable citadel of artifice in the world.  Oh and now I really wish I had a wide-angle lens for my camera!  [ahem, nobody over the age of 25 will be permitted to inveigh with any snark in comments about frivolous, hedonistic excess.  Remember, this is the generation whose parents promised them they could be anything they want if they worked hard enough, and instead are leaving them a catastrophically, irrevocably ruined planet.]
On to methane.  By way of background, here is the mission statement of Bob Ackley's so-called "Trust" organization (which consists of himself and a lawyer) from their webpage:

"Quite simply, the mission of the Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust is to create a collective voice to the cities and towns across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts towards putting an end to the gas leaks that are killing Massachusetts’ Urban and Community Forests. Secondarily, the mission of the Trust is to assist cities and towns in recovering financial damages from the gas utilities."
I sort of forgot about their enterprise until reports in various media outlets surfaced recently, indicating that the scope of testing for methane leaks has now spread from Boston to Washington DC and beyond.  In the interim, Bob Ackley has become associated with and is listed as co-author of an academic study published by two university departments, at Boston University and Duke.  After I posted a comment at a news article on the story at the Washington Post which was discovered by Bob Ackley, he left his objections in comments here on the blog.

Interestingly, an article from a Boston University periodical about the subject says:

"Almost two years ago, Phillips coauthored a paper for a federal conference that estimated the fallout from leaking gas in greater Boston, with consequences ranging from higher residential gas bills to damaged trees. What’s different about his most recent study is, first, that it documents the specific number of spouting spots within Boston’s city limits, and second, the paper made it into a peer-reviewed journal. “'Knowing it passed peer review,'” Phillips says, “'means that agencies, utilities, municipalities, and policy makers have to consider this work seriously now.'”

Regarding the first paper, presented to NOAA in 2011 by Phillips, Ackley, and a co-author whose company builds the equipment that detects the leaks, the same publication reported:

"Leaking gas also kills or damages millions of dollars worth of urban trees—between $15 million and $25 million just in the commonwealth alone, says Ackley, who with Jan Schlichtmann (the lawyer hero of the book and film A Civil Action) runs the Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust, which seeks damages from utilities for affected municipalities."
This second paper that passed peer review however does not mention trees or vegetation at all - possibly because, it was relayed, that whether or not 10,000 trees had been killed or damaged was under litigation - while an article in Climate Progress about the research observes:

"There are sources of methane all over the planet: landfills, swamps, rice paddies, gas wells, melting permafrost, and livestock all contribute. Jackson’s research found another major source: aging infrastructure. Methane isn’t immediately physically harmful, though it does lead to ground-level ozone which is known to harm tree growth and reduce lung function."
The last line of the abstract says:  "Repairing leaky natural gas distribution systems will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase consumer health and safety, and save money."  No reference to trees.
Following is correspondence around this topic with the two professors, Dr. Phillips of Boston University, Dr. Jackson from Duke, and lastly the most recent email from Bob Ackley.

On Apr 2, 2013, at 10:07 AM, Wit's End wrote:

Dear Dr. Phillips and Dr. Jackson,

I am writing to you about your study of methane gas pipeline leaks.  First, would it be possible to send me the full paper?  I do not have access to the publication so I would appreciate the opportunity to read it.

Second, I am interested to know if you support the position of Bob Ackley, who is listed as co-author, that methane leaks are directly killing trees by damaging their roots.  I have had several exchanges with Mr. Ackley, and I have been unable to find any support in science for his contention.  Since he and Jan Schlichtmann are, if I recall correctly, attempting to retain 40% of any settlements received by municipalities they represent from settlements with natural gas providers, it would appear they have a strong motive for making that claim even absent evidence.

I have no doubts that the work you have done mapping methane leaks is accurate and important.  However, as I have pointed out to Mr. Ackley, trees are dying just as rapidly in places where there are no leaks - in fact, they are dying off just as rapidly in places far from any pipelines at all.  The reason for this is that in most places, both urban and rural, background tropospheric ozone has gone past the threshold 40 ppb concentration in the atmosphere at which vegetation is damaged.  This causative effect and linkage with opportunistic pathogen attacks has been well-established over decades of research, both in the field and controlled fumigation experiments.

If you know of any scientific basis for Mr. Ackley and Mr. Schlichtmann to recruit townships to join their "Massachusetts Public Tree Shade Trust" I would be most grateful if you could forward any links to me.

Thank you so much for your attention.


Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ
April 2, from Rob Jackson to me

Dear Gail,

Below is the recent paper from Boston (Phillips et al. 2013).  I'll let Nathan answer as well, but I don't participate in lawsuits, testify at trials (expert witness or otherwise), or obtain financial gain from this research.  I'm interested in how much methane leaks to the atmosphere and why.
Rob Jackson
Duke University
April 2, from me to Dr. Jackson

Dear Rob,

Thank you so much for sending me your paper.  I would like to make it absolutely clear that I did not mean to imply that I suspect, or even for a passing moment considered that you or Dr. Phillips had any motives or interest in doing your research other than a purely scientific inquiry.  I apologize if I gave you that impression.  My concern is that Bob Ackley is presenting your research as verification of his theory and to bolster his litigation, if only by association, most recently in an article by Bill McKibben in the NYRB, which says:

"He [Dr. Phillips] fell in with a former local gas company contractor named Bob Ackley, who had been hired by gas companies throughout New England to find leaks, which he discovered were pervasive. As the years passed, he realized his employers considered gas lost from a myriad number of small leaks simply a cost of doing business, and declined to take remedial action unless there was immediate risk of explosion. Dismayed, Ackley struck out on his own as a whistleblower, finding an ally in Phillips. (The intertwined story of Phillips and Ackley is well-told by young journalist Phil McKenna in a recent e-book, Uprising, which also provides useful background.)"

The Amazon review of the book cited describes Ackley as a former pawn shop worker, community college dropout and climate skeptic - presumably before he discovered the potential for suing gas companies on behalf of towns losing trees and became a "whistleblower".  I was glad to see in your paper that the two references you give to ozone are those by West et al and Shindell et al, which refer to health benefits of reducing ozone as well as improving food security, which I assume relates to reducing the well-documented loss of yield and quality of annual crops from ozone pollution (typically grown far from gas lines).


[Note:  here is the synopsis at Amazon]:
Meet Bob Ackley, former pawn shop worker and gas company contractor, who has spent years crisscrossing America collecting data on the gas leaks that pepper the country's cities. And what he has found could mean that the fuel may be as damaging to our climate as coal.

How did a community college drop-out and climate change skeptic, carve out an unconventional place amongst some of the world's foremost energy experts? Find out as science writer Phil McKenna unpicks the science behind our energy future.
My comment at the NYRB:

The Amazon review of the book cited in the article (Uprising) describes Ackley as a former pawn shop worker, community college dropout and climate skeptic - presumably before he discovered the potential for suing gas companies on behalf of towns losing trees, and became a "whistleblower" with the potential of making millions in profits through the "Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust".

I was glad to see in the actual paper that the academic authors make no reference to methane damaging trees directly, because any such conclusion is not supported by science and obscures a far more crucial problem, which is that trees everywhere around the world - not just those near leaking pipelines - are dying prematurely at a rapidly accelerating rate.  The underlying reason is the inexorably increasing level of global background tropospheric ozone. 
The paper by Phillips et al does list two citations to methane's contribution to ozone, by West et al and Shindell et al, which refer to the health benefits of reducing ozone as well as improving food security.  Decades of research in field studies and controlled fumigation experiments have documented that ozone exposure leads to significant loss of yield and quality of annual crops and in that way, reducing methane leaks will contribute to food security.  Those annual crops are typically grown far from natural gas pipelines.  Trees that absorb pollution, which is traveling across oceans and continents, are damaged season after season.  Their immunities become weakened and render them susceptible to opportunistic attack from pathogens - insects, disease and fungus.

In addition to a widespread decline of vegetation which is dangerous to agriculture and wildlife habitat, that decline will impact a major CO2 sink, leading to even faster catastrophic climate change.  This is a much broader and more important effect that should not be obscured by Bob Ackley and attorney Jan Schlichtmann's attempts to recruit towns to settle with natural gas providers while making themselves wealthy.
[note, this is the citation for Shindell's research]:

Shindell, D., Kuylenstierna, J.C.I., Vignati, E., van Dingenen, R., Amann, M., Klimont, Z., Anenberg, S.C., Muller, N., Janssens-Maenhout, G., Raes, F., Schwartz, J., Faluvegi, G., Pozzoli, L., Kupiainen, K., Höglund-Isaksson, L., Emberson, L., Streets, D., Ramanathan, V., Hicks, K., Oanh, N.T.K., Milly, G., Williams, M., Demkine, V., Fowler, D., 2012. Simultaneously mitigating near- term climate change and improving human health and food security. Science 335, 183e189.

This strategy [reducing methane and particulate pollution] avoids 0.7 to 4.7 million annual premature deaths from outdoor air pollution and increases annual crop yields by 30 to 135 million metric tons due to ozone reductions in 2030 and beyond.

[Here's another West citation]:  West, J.J., Fiore, A.M., Horowitz, L.W., Mauzerall, D.L., 2006. Global health benefits of mitigating ozone pollution with methane emission controls. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A. 103, 3988e3993.

Moreover, because CH4, ethane (C2H6), and propane (C3H8) interact with NOto catalyze ozone formation, reducing these hydrocarbon concentrations should help reduce urban ozone concentrations and respiratory and cardiopulmonary disease (West et al., 2006Shindell et al., 2012).
From Nathan Phillips to me, April 2

Dear Gail,

    I am proud of my research collaboration with Bob Ackley, even though I am not part of his lawsuit and will not be an expert witness for his tree case.  Whatever Bill McKibben or other writers may say about our work together is their interpretation.

    Having said this, I think the science is settled that gas leaks can and do damage trees.  Even the utilities list vegetation damage as an indication of a gas leak.  Have you seen the old paper by Spencer Davis (1977)?  There is also a long history of literature including old papers from the Netherlands.

    In no way does this mean that other agents are not cause of tree decline, including ozone.  Indeed, there may be synergistic effects of multiple agents causing tree decline.  And natural gas may actually be an ozone precursor.  I sense that somehow you believe that gas leaks undermines your focus on ozone, but I am not sure why.

April 2, from me to Drs. Phillips and Jackson

Dear Nathan and Rob,

I don't mean to disparage your measurement of methane leaks or even Bob Ackley's contributions to that effort.  I think it's vitally important to know that it is happening and to map locations.  However, I'm surprised that an article written over thirty years ago serves as "settled science" especially when it refers to one study done in 1972, the only published research I have seen despite asking Bob Ackley for links to the "long history" you mentioned.   More to the point, even if leaks "can and do damage trees", the fact that they are dying in the absence of gas leaks, whether from ozone or indeed any other cause, or synergy of causes, means that putting the entire financial liability on one source - purveyors of natural gas - is at the very least disingenuous.

I personally don't care much for natural gas companies, but as you say, I do feel that gas leaks undermines an emphasis on ozone, and here's why it matters (as I wrote in an as-yet-unpublished comment at the NYRB):

Decades of research in field studies and controlled fumigation experiments have documented that ozone exposure leads to significant loss of yield and quality of annual crops and in that way, reducing methane leaks will contribute to food security.  Those annual crops are typically grown far from natural gas pipelines.  Trees that absorb pollution, which is traveling across oceans and continents, are damaged season after season.  Their immunities become weakened and render them susceptible to opportunistic attack from pathogens - insects, disease and fungus.

In addition to a widespread decline of vegetation which is dangerous to agriculture and wildlife habitat, that decline will impact a major CO2 sink, leading to even faster catastrophic climate change.  This is a much broader and more important effect that should not be obscured by Bob Ackley and attorney Jan Schlictmann's attempts to recruit towns to settle with natural gas providers while making themselves wealthy.

Very truly yours,

Gail Zawacki
Lastly, after a couple of weeks went by, I received this email from Bob Ackley on April 19 (and this post is all that I intend to serve as reply):


Really not sure why you have it our for me as we are really on the same side. Nathan Phillips and I along with others have been working to quantify how much methane is actually leaking into the atmosphere, something the gas industry does not want exposed.

I think Spencer Davis would have issues with your statement in the Mckibben piece that there is no scientific literature to support that gas leaks do in fact kill trees. I was trained over thirty years ago to find gas leaks by observing vegetation and I have trained over 100 gas industry employees in leak detection. Perhaps you could read the Spencer Davis article and realize that there has been no scientific evidence to refute Davis. I also have spoken with Milton Heath of Heath Consultants and please take note of his comments in the article.

I left working for the natural gas industry in 2006.  I have been told that to be considered an expert requires 10,000 hours of work in a given occupation. I have spent over 60,000 hours in gas leak detection and training on distribution systems all over New England, New York and in your state of New Jersey where I worked for several summers in the 1980's conducting vegetation surveys  for PSE&G and Elizabethtown Gas.

I stand proud of my work despite the negative comments about me from industry but also surprisingly from someone like you.

My work has morphed from just trees to the more important fugitive methane emissions and the effects on the environment.


Bob A
Remember the mission?

"Quite simply, the mission of the Massachusetts Public Shade Tree Trust is to create a collective voice to the cities and towns across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts towards putting an end to the gas leaks that are killing Massachusetts’ Urban and Community Forests. Secondarily, the mission of the Trust is to assist cities and towns in recovering financial damages from the gas utilities."

It says that gas leaks are killing FORESTS.  Not the individual tree here or there located above a leak.  Entire FORESTS.

Furthermore, I am not a scientist but from what I know of the process I think it is simply embarrassing when a university professor accepts one article not even two full pages in length -  which is not even peer-reviewed, published original research - from 1977 as any sort of consensus of "settled science" whatsoever.  You have to see it to understand how absurd it is - if this constitutes definitive proof, then my contention that ozone is killing trees should be beyond any reasonable doubt given the hundreds of experiments that have demonstrated causation of damage, and not mere correlation!

Well, here's the bottom line.  Money.  The town governments would rather have the finger pointed directly at the natural gas providers because they have deep pockets.  As so often with pollution, it's cheaper for the polluter to settle and pay damages than fight in court, and way cheaper than to fix the problem.  The gas companies would rather not know that ozone from all sources of burning fuel is killing trees, because that's a much bigger, industry threatening proposition.  Now of course, with the imprimatur of an academic connection, Bob and his attorney partner stand to do rather well.
Fuck the trees, eh?


  1. There has to be something to smile about!

    The Spencer Davis Group - Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out


  2. I can report that here in the Greater Vancouver area the new growth already looks to be experiencing damage. Though I'm not sure if its mainly insect damage at this point. Also some of the alders and cottonwoods seem to be dropping green leaves already.

    I'm not sure if this happened this early in previous years, I wish I had kept some sort of log with dates of the first dates of seeing damage.

    We had a really exceptional heatwave for a few days here also, around the same time Arkansas was seeing its first ever recorded may snow.

    The temperatures hit 86 degrees here which is exceptional for early may. To give some context, a normal high for late july which is our hottest time of the year is about 75. Normal high for this time of year is 63.

    It made me think about how much the streams are probably heating up from lack of vegetation cover. I was walking along a stream and nearly all the trees had died in certain stretches, exposing the stream to far more hours of sunlight than normal. Not to mention its already running low as we haven't had as much rain as normal this year.

    Keep up the good work, let us know when you find the first signs of damage on new foliage this year in New jersey.

  3. What was I doing 30 years ago. Not enough.

    From www.desdemonadespair.net

    Timelapse satellite views of human destruction of the biosphere over three decades


  4. Amazing images, Catman. I was just having a conversation with first daughter about development in New Jersey and she said, things are going to look really different in a hundred years. I responded that they already look incredibly different than they did just 30 years ago! I guess it's harder to see when you are on the ground and there are still some big trees and fields around you. But the satellite pictures tell the story.


Blog Archive

My Blog List

Search This Blog