Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Arbitrary Indifference of Nature

Wisteria at Wit's End
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
~ Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Do you see the bee?
Nature is neither benevolent nor malicious - not even capricious.  When ecosystems collapse and famine results, we might attribute retribution for our transgressions to Nature, but there is no malevolent intent.  There is merely cause and effect.  Nature doesn't even know we exist, let alone bothers to scrutinize our motives for ruining her splendid creation.
After dry weeks of ominously unrelenting sunshine, we finally had some rain.  In a fusillade of green, the leaves exploded.
Once the skies cleared, it was time to go exploring.
Fungi commenced swelling in the woods.

This orange monstrosity spends part of its life cycle in apple orchards, but in the spring, after a rain, it festoons the native red cedars.
Everything I've ever read about it claims it does no harm to its host.
Nevertheless, every year there is more and more of it...

...and every year, more needles turn brown and fall off.
This is the first time I've seen it in this shape, ugh!
With the cool weather spring has been laggard, but now that trees are leafing out, it's becoming apparent that many will have branches that remain bare, even on young trees.
Nevertheless, the air is balmy and full of the scent of early flowering shrubs and bulbs, so it's hard to be glum just because trees are dying prematurely from invisible ozone pollution, and the entire ecosystem is collapsing as a result.  I went for a walk with my friend Catarina to Willowwood, an arboretum with so many exotics plantings, there is something new to find in every visit.
At the center of the gardens is the home of the landscape architect who originally designed the park, early in the last century.
 Clever how the groundskeeper put a potted plant in the hole between the boxwoods.
I have to wonder how long it will be before the hedge, which is now an eyesore, is removed entirely.  But it didn't used to be.  It was just beginning to yellow and lose leaves in July of 2009 when I took this photo:
Here's another comparison (there are more at an earlier post) of a pine tree in the meadow, 2009 (funny how back then I already saw this tree as an example of decline):
 By February 2012, it had seriously deteriorated:
And this is what it was reduced to by last Thursday, May 9:
Trees store an enormous amount of energy to tide them over extended awkwardly inclement weather episodes, and so they will leaf out, season after season, even when they are dying, and often produce bumper crops of seeds or cones in an attempt to reproduce.  So at this time of year, when the deciduous trees are trying their hardest to survive and sprout leaves, the trend is more easily observed in the evergreen species.
Everything from bamboo to rhododendron is pinched and sparse.
So many large conifers have died that the staff can't keep up with removing their carcasses.
Here's another:
The Mahonia has an extraordinary amount of yellowing leaves.
They eventually turn black and fall off.
Even more bizarre, the new growth is a distorted mutation.
Japanese andromeda, a staple of suburban landscaping, is speckled with the classic symptom of stomates damaged by absorbing pollution.
Perhaps most shocking, and sad, are the hollies, because they grow so slowly that this (once upon a time) magnificent and elegant hedge must have been planted long ago.  That yellow cast isn't an oddity of the photograph.
The leaves really are bright acid yellow, a prelude to falling off.
The transparency is as embarrassing as inappropriate nudity.
The leaves aren't just yellowing from an inability to photosynthesize, they are splotchily necrotic. 
The array in this park represents a persuasive counter-argument to the wearisome and nonsensical claim of foresters around the world, that the primary threat to trees is from new invasive pathogens from imported nursery stock.  Like many old estates in the UK, Willowwood is planted with dozens of specimens imported decades ago.  Take this huge Sawara cypress, from Japan.
The Amur barberry hales from Manchuria.
Another import from Manchuria is this crabapple - the biggest I've ever seen.
It was planted in 1942.
The bark is flaking off, unfortunately.
It had already finished flowering, and drifts of white petals buried the perennial bed like snow.
It was one of many exquisitely beautiful sights that day.
The Japanese wheel-tree was planted in 1951.
It is an evergreen, suited to the local hardiness zone.  Until recently, it was growing robustly to reach such heights.
But now the foliage is injured, identical to the holly and Mahonia.
All through the property, even the deciduous shrubs have been ruthlessly hacked, in the hopes of rejuvenating growth.
Despite great efforts, the remnants of the Sandy storm still mar the woods beyond the manicured areas.
As mentioned at Wit's End many times, Sandy did not have unprecedented winds when it made landfall, and many of the trees fell because they were rotting inside.
Too often people assume that trees are dying because they are old, forgetting that most trees should live for hundreds of years.
We stopped near this tree to sit in the shade and rest.
It's impossible not to find evidence of decay, like holes, in seemingly healthy trees.
Cankers result from a lethal fungus, and epicormic branching - new sprouts from the trunk - indicate a hormonal signal that the crown is decayed.
While we rested, a Baltimore Oriole sang nearby, high in a branch.  I barely caught him as he flew away.
How are birds going to survive when so many branches have no leaves?  How can they build a nest secure from wind and heavy rains?
On our way back to the parking lot, Catarina stopped for a picture by this tree, since it's so hard to depict the size.
When I got home I looked it up and found it is Carya ×nussbaumeri Sarg. [illinoinensis × laciniosa] a type of hickory.
According to the USDA it exists in only five midwestern states, so it too, was imported long ago.
Like virtually every other tree of any age, the bark is corroded and splitting.  This is a horrendous symptom comparable to leprosy or gangrene.
You could try it for yourself, just go to the nearest tree and see if you can break some bark off.  Or else a good facsimile to the horror is the scene in Psycho, when Lila reaches out to Norman's mother in the rocking chair, and finds a corpse instead of a living person.  Ha!

When we got back to the car, we realized the entire graveled lot was littered with fresh leaves falling off.  Which brings me reluctantly to items in the latest news. 
Everytime I think everything that can be said about ozone has been said, something new turns up and I feel compelled to report it.  In fact recently, several new things have come up of such importance, that they have even crept into the propaganda that passes as mainstream media.  So instead of sitting outside on a lovely day with my paints and easel, trying to create something that looks like a Rousseau jungle, I become mired in dreary scientific papers and have to content myself with sorting photos to intersperse with the graphs and charts.
Garnering the most attention - which finally achieved front page, miraculously above the fold at the New York Times - is the symbolic milestone of reaching 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Arguably one of the most important sentences in that article, as David of WindSpiritKeeper astutely pointed out to me, is the following:

Carbon dioxide rises and falls on a seasonal cycle, and the level will dip below 400 this summer as leaf growth in the Northern Hemisphere pulls about 10 billion tons of carbon out of the air.
As Ozonists and Ozonistas are painfully aware, the ability of vegetation to absorb carbon out of the air is being drastically crippled, due to the toxic effects of rising background tropospheric ozone pollution.
Barely had I finished the last post (It Tolls For Thee) which includes information about coffee plants dying from a mysteriously more virulent fungus, when two other disastrous crop failures fell suit.  Actually they are worse than coffee - except for the producers who depend on export sales - because they are about more basic foodstuffs.
Cassava disease in Africa is the most critical because it is a staple for millions of people, and oops, the other staple, wheat, is also imperiled by a rust (but that's yet another story).
Cassava can be prepared in a multitude of ways - boiled, roasted, or pounded into flour.  Additionally, it can be stored in the ground until needed and has been relied upon for its resistance to drought and heat.  These screenshots are from a video about the disease.
It begins with a floating leaf in flames, and shows the bitter-tasting rot in the root.

These excerpts from Scientist: Cassava Disease Spread at Alarming Rate were found at Desdemona Despair:
Scientists say a disease destroying entire crops of cassava has spread out of East Africa into the heart of the continent, is attacking plants as far south as Angola and now threatens to move west into Nigeria, the world's biggest producer of the potato-like root that helps feed 500 million Africans. 
"The extremely devastating results are already dramatic today but could be catastrophic tomorrow" if nothing is done to halt the Cassava Brown Streak Disease, or CBSD, scientist Claude Fauquet, co-founder of the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century, told The Associated Press.

Africa, with a burgeoning population and debilitating food shortages, is losing 50 million tons a year of cassava to the disease, he said. 
In Uganda, a new strain of the virus identified five years ago is destroying 45 percent of the national crop and up to 80 percent of harvests in some areas, according to a new survey, said Chris Omongo, an entomologist and cassava expert at Uganda's National Crops Resources Research Institute.
"The new strain looks to us to be much more aggressive," Omongo said.

Fauquet said one problem is that the virus attacks the tubers underground, so a farmer can husband his crop for up to 18 months and only realize when he goes to dig up the cassava that all his fields are infected. 
Omongo has participated in a training video — funded by U.S. aid to the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa — where farmers in north Tanzania are shown digging up cassava and cutting into roots turned black and brown with rot. The farmers say the rotten bits taste bitter and are inedible. They say they spend hours trying to chop away blighted parts.

The disease is spreading too fast to measure its impact, say scientists. A moderate infection with up to 30 percent root damage decreases the market value of cassava tubers drastically, to less than $5 a ton instead of $55, according to a study published last year in the journal Advances in Virology. 
"Recent estimates indicate that CBSD causes economic losses of up to $100 million annually to the African farmer and these are probably an underestimate, as the disease has since spread into new areas," the article said.

Africa produced 150 million tons of the global harvest of 250 million tons last year, with Nigeria alone producing 50 million tons, according to Fauquet. 
The cassava disease is endemic along the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa, affecting Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. In the past, it had not struck at high altitudes. But recently the disease has been found at up to 1,500 meters (nearly 5,000 feet) above sea level in Uganda, Congo and Tanzania's lake zones, the article in Advances in Virology reported. The disease also is found in Burundi and Rwanda.

In the past year, Fauquet said, symptoms of the virus have been found as far south as Angola and moving into West Africa. The white fly that acts as a vector for the disease also has been spotted in Cameroon, in central Africa, and in Zambia to the south. 
"If the disease makes it to the Congo Basin, which is a big cassava producer, and — really frightening — reaches West Africa and Nigeria, the biggest producer, you can just imagine the impact, the magnitude," Fauquet said.
Are we worried yet?
It makes me crazy to see papers like one titled "Emerging Infectious Diseases of Plants" with no mention of air pollution, or the fact that air pollution increases susceptibility to disease, insects and fungus.  This is no secret, it's well-known.  So why is the only mention of pollution in reference to invasive species as "polluters" in research that purports to study "the most significant drivers of emergence" of disease?
Emerging infectious diseases of plants:  pathogen pollution, climate change and agrotechnology drivers
Emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) are caused by pathogens that: (i) have increased in incidence, geographical or host range; (ii) have changed pathogenesis; (iii) have newly evolved; or (iv) have been discovered or newly recognized. Interest in EIDs has focused on those affecting humans, livestock and wildlife. Plant diseases impact negatively on human wellbeing through agricultural and economic loss, and also have consequences for biodiversity conservation. Here, we apply previously published definitions of EIDs to diseases of plants, analyse the factors that drive their emergence and review their impact on human wellbeing and biodiversity. We conclude with recommendations for improving strategies for the surveillance and control of plant EIDs.
The USDA webpage and this European site both explain fumigation experiments, field observations, symptoms and effects of ozone on annual agricultural crops.  They steer clear of effects on perennial crops even though it would seem inevitable that the growth of plants exposed to cumulative damage year after year would be even more reduced.  Here's a stark explanation from York University webpage designed as an introduction for potential graduate students:
Ozone - A threat to global food security?  Our continued ability to feed the world’s population over the next century is uncertain, as population increases, agricultural land decreases and degrades, and the impacts of climate change increase.

But how important is air pollution globally as a threat to food security? 
The most important air pollutant in terms of effects on crop production is ground level ozone. Unlike many pollutants, elevated concentrations are not restricted to the vicinity of urban or industrial areas; ozone can be found at damaging levels across large areas of the countryside. It is formed in hot sunny weather by emissions from transport, energy production and industry. 
Ozone concentrations frequently exceed WHO air quality guidelines set to protect agricultural crops across many of the more densely inhabited parts of the planet. Evidence of the harmful effects to vegetation caused by ozone has accumulated over recent decades. In Europe, for example, visible symptoms of ozone injury are commonly seen on Mediterranean crops, especially when they are grown under irrigation. Ozone can reduce crop yield significantly even in the absence of such visible symptoms. More detailed information on the assessment of damage to crops from ozone in Europe is provided at ICP Vegetation.

However, ozone is not a problem that is confined to Europe and North America. Its effects in causing damage to crops have been recognised in Latin America, northern and southern Africa, South Asia and China. For example, studies in south Asia during the 1980s and 1990s have indicated that current ambient O3 levels can cause both visible injury and significant reductions in the yield of staple crops (up to 40% for rice and near 50% for wheat in one study conducted in Pakistan). 
If effects of this size occurred across large areas, the implications for regional crop production and the livelihoods of individual farmers would be dramatic. Regional estimates in east Asia suggest that current economic losses resulting from ozone impacts on the yield of three major staple crops are about US$ 5 billion.
Furthermore, ozone levels in many areas are projected to increase in the future, both as a result of increased global background concentrations, and because of increased regional emissions. Hence, these yield losses from ground-level ozone may, within the next 2-3 decades, reach levels which would pose a serious risk to national and regional food security, unless effective measures are taken to control the emissions which lead to ozone formation. These changes need to be considered in the context of the wider impact of a changing climate on global agriculture which were discussed at a policy meeting at the Royal Society in April 2005.
I came across that excellent reference looking for information about ozone in Africa because of the cassava story, since the received wisdom is that air pollution is less of a problem in the Southern Hemisphere, which is far less industrialized than the north.  Yet, up popped that graph above, and this line from the excerpt:  "Its effects in causing damage to crops have been recognised in Latin America, northern and southern Africa, South Asia and China."
Really, I wondered?  What could be causing high levels of ozone in Africa?  NASA explains:
Scientists have long recognized that high levels of ozone in the South Atlantic are caused by lightning in nearby continents and by burning vegetation in parts of North Africa. But, these sources alone did not seem to entirely account for observed seasonal episodes of extreme ozone levels.
Chatfield and Thompson believe man-made pollutants from Asia flows southward, gets trapped in clouds, and then moves rapidly westward across Africa and the Atlantic, reaching as far as Brazil. During the periods of high ozone in the South Atlantic, especially during late winter, pollution from the Indian Ocean follows a similar westward track, hurried along by winds in the upper air, leading to a pollution "pile-up" in the South Atlantic, making the ozone even thicker.
I was astonished to see that there is quite a bit of research about ozone in the Southern Hemisphere.
A study published last fall reports of an earlier episode "...a strong connection between regions of high ozone and concentrated biomass burning, the latter identified using satellite-derived fire counts" and summarizes:  "...the O3 maximum studied in October 1992 was caused by a coincidence of abundant O3 precursors from biomass fires, a long residence time of stable air parcels over the eastern Atlantic and southern Africa, and deep convective transport of biomass burning products, with additional NO from lightning and occasionally biogenic sources."
This visual depicting the increase in ozone over time - in both hemispheres - was published in 2003.  The research started with the rhetorical question:

Tropospheric ozone: A continuing threat to global forests?

It might better have been titled not merely continuing, but a worsening threat to global forests, since the background level is constantly increasing.  The important part of the abstract is highlighted:
Ozone (O3) has a critical role in tropospheric chemistry. It absorbs radiation in the infrared and ultraviolet regions and is very reactive and biologically toxic at appropriate levels of exposure. At the earth's surface, O3 is subject to long-range transport and is the most pervasive air pollutant affecting the world's forests today. The existence of O3 has been known since 1840 and smog-induced foliar injury on plants was first identified in the 1950s. Levels were ∼10–15 ppb during the second half of the 1800s, compared with 30–40 ppb measured as the global background today.
By 2100, fully 50% (17 million km2) of world forests are predicted to be exposed to O3 at concentrations >60 ppb. Ozone induces a variety of symptoms and pattern of injury that are dependant upon species, genotype, leaf position on the plant, leaf age, exposure dynamics, and meteorological factors or growth conditions. It is absolutely essential to have knowledge on species sensitivities, O3 profiles and toxicity concentrations for the species under investigation before diagnosis can be confirmed.
Ozone is generally detrimental to tree growth and ecosystem productivity, often through induced changes in patterns of carbon allocation or pre-disposition to insects and disease. The development of ozone exposure–forest response relationships that are scientifically defensible and applicable in air quality regulation has been difficult due to serious limitations encountered in scaling-up experimental data. In terms of air quality regulations, North America and Europe have adopted different approaches toward ambient ozone standard setting, with Europe opting for an approach that protects vegetation. The US and Canada, in their individual countries, implement separate or identical standards to protect both human health and the environment.
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany published results in 2006 from a five year experiment which they called "Tropospheric Ozone:  the role of African emissions", which begins:
Tropospheric ozone has become a major concern over the last few decades, due to its noxious effects on human-beings and vegetation. It is also a greenhouse gas, thereby contributing to climate change. Its two sources are transport from the stratosphere and production from photochemical reactions involving emitted species (e.g. volatile organic compounds (VOCs), NOx and CO). In any given year, Africa is known to contribute about 28%, 24% and 18% to global CO, VOCs and NOx emissions respectively. Therefore, how much of the tropospheric ozone is due to African air pollution? This is what we investigate in this paper.
The results of their investigation indicate that by far the majority of ozone is from biomass burning:
Biomass burning has the highest influence on surface ozone concentration over Africa, while lightning has no effect. Anthropogenic emissions is influencing the ozone of only 3 countries: Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt.

An animated .gif developed from the Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment (GOME) shows a movie of monthly mean tropospheric column ozone (with NCEP tropopause) from July 1995 to June 2003.  I would love to know what has happened in the ten years since the last image, but these two screen shots give an idea of the variability and the potential for abundance in the southern hemisphere.

From NASA satellite photos, Mongabay reported "Much of Africa Burning":
Season after season, year after year, people set fire to African landscapes to create and maintain farmland and grazing areas. People use fire to keep less desirable plants from invading crop or rangeland, to drive grazing animals away from areas more desirable for farming, to remove crop stubble and return nutrients to the soil, and to convert natural ecosystems to agricultural land.
The burning area shifts from north to south over the course of the year, in step with the coming and going of Africa's rainy and dry seasons. 
Finally, the smoke and accompanying gases and particles create a public health hazard; during an area's burning season, the amounts of ground-level ozone and other air pollutants can become hazardous to human health.
This map shows the potential distribution of the cassava disease:
Ironically maybe solutions will be found by the fuel industry, as even Biofuels Digest expresses concern about the once-impervious cassava, a plant now succumbing to various diseases especially to CBSD.  Accroding to their article, CBSD was first identified 35 years ago and was a negligible threat until very recently, when it has become labeled a "scourge" and a "pandemic".
In Italy, cassava experts are reporting a triple threat against cassava, including Cassava Brown Streak Disease virus, Cassava Mosaic Disease and a possible whitefly “superbug”.  CBSD alone could cause a could cause a 50% drop in cassava production. This is worrisome because agriculture experts have been looking to the otherwise resilient cassava plant—which is also used to produce starch, flour, biofuel, beer and can be used in bioplastic production – as the perfect crop for helping to feed a continent where growing conditions in many regions are deteriorating in the face of climate change. Cassava has a known ability to survive high temperatures, but those same temperatures appear to be one of several factors causing an explosion of whiteflies.
Less than a day passed after the cassava story was published before warnings of the demise of the citrus industry in Florida were being trumpeted (again).  Statements in The New York Times  about the unprecedented speed echo the other reports about coffee and cassava - and so does the deafening silence about the influence of pollution:
Citrus Disease With No Cure Is Ravaging Florida Groves
Florida’s citrus industry is grappling with the most serious threat in its history: a bacterial disease with no cure that has infected all 32 of the state’s citrus-growing counties.
Although the disease, citrus greening, was first spotted in Florida in 2005, this year’s losses from it are by far the most extensive. While the bacteria, which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe, affects all citrus fruits, it has been most devastating to oranges, the largest crop. So many have been affected that the United States Department of Agriculture has downgraded its crop estimates five months in a row, an extraordinary move, analysts said. 
With the harvest not yet over, orange production has already decreased 10 percent from the initial estimate, a major swing, they said.
“The long and short of it is that the industry that made Florida, that is synonymous with Florida, that is a staple on every American breakfast table, is totally threatened,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who helped obtain $11 million in federal money for research to fight the disease. “If we don’t find a cure, it will eliminate the citrus industry.”
The relentless migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida — and beyond — has deepened concerns this year among orange juice processors, investors, growers and lawmakers. Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil, and the state’s $9 billion citrus industry is a major economic force, contributing 76,000 jobs.
The industry, lashed over the years by canker disease, hard freezes and multiple hurricanes, is no stranger to hardship. But citrus greening is by far the most worrisome. 
The disease, which can lie dormant for two to five years, is spread by an insect no larger than the head of a pin, the Asian citrus psyllid. It snacks on citrus trees, depositing bacteria that gradually starves trees of nutrients. Psyllids fly from tree to tree, leaving a trail of infection.
Concerted efforts by growers and millions of dollars spent on research to fight the disease have so far failed, growers and scientists said. The situation was worsened this season by an unusual weather pattern, including a dry winter, growers said. 
“We have got a real big problem,” said Vic Story, a lifelong citrus grower and the head of The Story Companies, which owns 2,000 acres of groves in Central Florida and manages an additional 3,000 acres, all of which are affected at varying levels. “It’s definitely the biggest threat in my lifetime, and I’m 68. This is a tree killer.” 
...Across the Wheeler Farms groves here in Avon Park and beyond, the evidence of greening is obvious on some trees. Leaves turn yellow, then fall off, leaving behind sparse foliage. That is often the beginning of the end.
The psyllids are thought to have arrived through the Port of Miami a decade ago, scientists said. And while the bacteria does not harm humans, it devastates trees, leaving behind bitter, misshapen oranges. 
Greening has crippled citrus production around the world, including in Asia and Africa, researchers at the University of Florida said. A decade ago, psyllids were discovered in Brazil, which, with its abundant rural land, has tried to outrun the disease by removing countless trees and planting new acres.
Aware of the potential consequences, Florida’s thousands of growers have aggressively moved to curtail its spread. They have spent $60 million over six years, money raised mostly from a self-imposed tax, to create a research foundation seeking to eradicate greening. The federal Department of Agriculture also has dedicated millions of dollars to the effort.
More money is coming. The Florida Legislature this month approved $8 million toward greening research, a record sum. And Mr. Nelson is pushing a bill in Congress to set up a research trust fund using money from a tariff on imported orange juice. 
Florida is no longer alone in its battle against greening. The disease has spread to Texas, California and Arizona, where officials are anxiously watching developments in Florida. They are also joining the fight to speed up research.
"Greening has crippled citrus production around the world, including in Asia."  So if it's because it's an invasive from Asia, why is it crippling citrus production there too?
Since there have been massive crop failures in the past, it's worth wondering if the casssava and citrus situations aren't just normal, naturally occurring periodic events.

I haven't mentioned this before, and I probably won't again, since first of all, it doesn't really change anything and secondly, it is almost certainly impossible to prove.  However just this once I would like to point out that it has occurred to me (since I might be the only full-time Ozonista in the world, I have to speculate about these things) that ozone may have played a role in possibly the worst and certainly most famously absolute crop failure in history - the blight leading to the potato famine in Ireland.  Although the English and Irish argue to this day about how much politics and religion had to do with the loss, either by death or migration, of a quarter of Ireland's population, the crop failure, which was eventually linked to a fungus, could have been at least partially the result of pollution.
But!  1845 you say!  True, but consider that ozone derives not only from the burning of fossil fuels and nitrogen pollution, but also from the same precursors emitted from the incineration of plant material - as the evidence above indicates.  In fact it may well be that what is currently pushing ecosystems over the edge is peroxyacetyl nitrates from burning ethanol and/or emissions of methane.
Often lost in climate change studies which tend to focus on the unprecedented burst of fossil fuel use beginning with the Industrial Revolution, is the fact that humans have been burning wood, peat and coal, thereby releasing greenhouse gases, for much longer.  Of course the quantity was trivial in comparison to the modern era, but the point remains that where burning fuel releases CO2, it also inevitably releases ozone precursors which could be, on local scales, poisonous to the inhabitants and plantlife.  Smithsonian Magazine reported on research published in the journal Nature with the headline:

Air Pollution Has Been a Problem Since the Days of Ancient Rome
By testing ice cores in Greenland, scientists can look back at environmental data from millennia past
The article follows but first, two thoughts:  1) methane is an ozone precursor and 2) in the chart below, a massive jump begins in 1800.

Before the Industrial Revolution, our planet’s atmosphere was still untainted by human-made pollutants. At least, that’s what scientists thought until recently, when bubbles trapped in Greenland’s ice revealed that we began emitting greenhouse gases at least 2,000 years ago. 
Célia Sapart of Utrecht University in the Netherlands led 15 scientists from Europe and the United States in a study that charted the chemi­cal signature of methane in ice samples spanning 2,100years. The gas methane naturally occurs in the atmosphere in low concentrations. But it’s now considered a greenhouse gas implicated in climate change because of emissions from landfills, large-scale cattle ranching, natural gas pipeline leaks and land-clearing fires.
Scientists often gauge past climate and atmosphere conditions from pristine ancient ice samples. The new research was based on 1,600-foot-long ice cores extracted from Greenland’s 1.5-mile-thick ice sheet, which is made up of layers of snow that have accumulated over the past 115,000 years.
Sapart and her colleagues chemically analyzed the methane in microscopic air bubbles trapped in each ice layer. They wanted to know if warmer periods over the past two millenniaincreased gas levels, possibly by spur- ring bacteria to break down organics in wetlands. The goal was to learn more about how future warm spells might boost atmospheric methane and accelerate climate change. 
The researchers did find that methane concentrations went up—but not in step with warm periods. “The changes we observed must have been coming from something else,” Sapart says.
That “something else” turned out to be human activity, notably metallurgy and large-scale agriculture starting around 100 B.C. The ancient Romans kept domesticated livestock—cows, sheep and goats—which excrete methane gas, a byproduct of digestion. Around the same time, in China, the Han dynasty expanded its rice fields, which harbor methane-producing bacteria. Also, blacksmiths in both empires produced methane gas when they burned wood to fashion metal weapons. After those civilizations declined, emissions briefly decreased.
Then, as human population and land use for agriculture increased worldwide over the centuries, atmospheric methane slowly climbed. Between 100 B.C. and A.D. 1600, methane emissions rose by nearly 31 million tons per year. According to the most recent data, the United States alone generates some 36 million tons of methane per year. 
“The ice core data show that as far back as the time of the Roman Empire, human [activities] emitted enough methane gas to have had an impact on the methane signature of the entire atmosphere,” Sapart says.
Although such emissions weren’t enough to alter the climate, she says, the discovery that humans already were altering the atmosphere on a global scale was “tremendously surprising.” 
The discovery will compel scientists to rethink predictions about how future methane emissions will affect climate. “It used to be that before 1750, everything was considered ‘natural,’” Sapart says, “so the base line needs to be reconsidered, and we need to look farther back in time to see how much methane there was before humans got involved.”
Manchester, Getting Up the Steam, 1853
from The Chimney of the World
Reflecting upon the complexities of the potato famine is an instructive cautionary tale, about overdependence on a single food source and overpopulation to say the least.  However, it's still true that Ireland was particularly polluted because of their habit of burning massive amounts of readily available and abundant peat, which although not fossilized still derives from many years of concentrated carbon from plants.  Since it isn't renewable in any meaningful time frame, it is classified as a fossil fuel.  In addition to many fascinating characteristics and an unappreciated role in history which can be glimpsed at wiki, peat also has a rather unique property, of smouldering beneath the surface.  This picture depicts one episode in Indonesia.  The white is aerosols that remained in the vicinity of the fires, while the other colors are ozone, moving west to Africa.
Perhaps you'll remember the horrific event in Russia:  "In the summer of 2010, an unusually high heat wave of up to 40 °C (104 °F) ignited large deposits of peat in Central Russia, burning thousands of houses and covering the capital of Moscow with a toxic smoke blanket. The situation remained critical until the end of August 2010."

A study of pollution from the Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland mentions a long history of health effects as recorded in The Big Smoke, a book by Peter Brimblecombe and summarizes:
It has been known for centuries that air pollution can be harmful to health. In his book documentation references to air pollution through the ages, Brimblecombe references Swift in Dublin, recording that doctors “advised their ill patients to move to the suburbs away from the foul air of the city”. Another interesting aspect to Brimblecombe is that a significant amount of the pollution events he refers to are due to coal burning, and he discussed policies introduced to reduce coal usage, in the 15th to 19th centuries.
A 2001 study, Phytophthora infestans enters the genomics era, describes the infection:
Host range: Infects a wide range of solanaceous species.  Economically important hosts are potato, tomato, eggplant and some other South American hosts (tree tomato and pear melon) on which it causes late blight. 
Disease symptoms: Infected foliage is initially yellow, becomes water soaked and eventually blackens. Leaf symptoms comprise purple-black or brown-black lesions at the leaf tip, later spreading across the leaf to the stem. Whitish masses of sporangia develop on the underside of the leaf. Tubers become infected later in the season and, in the early stages, consist of slightly brown or purple blotches on the skin. In damp soils the tuber decays rapidly before harvest. Tuber infection is quickly followed by secondary fungal or bacterial infection known as ‘wet rot’.
In the mid-1840s, a devastating potato disease swept continental Europe, the British Isles and Ireland. It is estimated that Ireland, as a direct consequence of late blight, lost more than a quarter of its 8 million inhabitants to starvation and emigration, making this one of the most significant crop diseases in history. 
In the latter part of that decade, 20 years before the germ theory of Pasteur was widely accepted, a controversial debate raged through Europe and the USA as to whether the disease was caused by a fungus, excessive dampness, genetic deterioration in the cultivated potato, or by a ‘poisonous miasma borne on the air’, the offered sources of which included pollution, volcanic exhalations or ‘some aerial taint originating in outer space’ (reviewed in Bourke, 1991).  However, it was not until 1876 that a micro-organism named Phytophthora (meaning ‘plant destroyer’) infestans was conclusively demonstrated to be responsible for potato late blight (de Bary, 1876)."
That same agent causes what is currently known as "late blight" in tomato plants today - which, as many backyard gardeners have been lamenting, now comes "early".

In 2009, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, published Effects of air pollution on ecosystems and biological diversity in the eastern United States.  Despite a clarion call for abatement, it appears to have gone quickly into the dustbin of history.
Conservation organizations have most often focused on land-use change, climate change, and invasive species as prime threats to biodiversity conservation. Although air pollution is an acknowledged widespread problem, it is rarely considered in conservation planning or management. In this synthesis, the state of scientific knowledge on the effects of air pollution on plants and animals in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States is summarized. Four air pollutants (sulfur, nitrogen, ozone, and mercury) and eight ecosystem types ranging from estuaries to alpine tundra are considered.
Effects of air pollution were identified, with varying levels of certainty, in all the ecosystem types examined. None of these ecosystem types is free of the impacts of air pollution, and most are affected by multiple pollutants. In aquatic ecosystems, effects of acidity, nitrogen, and mercury on organisms and biogeochemical processes are well documented. Air pollution causes or contributes to acidification of lakes, eutrophication of estuaries and coastal waters, and mercury bioaccumulation in aquatic food webs. 
In terrestrial ecosystems, the effects of air pollution on biogeochemical cycling are also very well documented, but the effects on most organisms and the interaction of air pollution with other stressors are less well understood. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence for effects of nitrogen deposition on plants in grasslands, alpine areas, and bogs, and for nitrogen effects on forest mycorrhizae. Soil acidification is widespread in forest ecosystems across the eastern United States and is likely to affect the composition and function of forests in acid-sensitive areas over the long term. Ozone is known to cause reductions in photosynthesis in many terrestrial plant species.
For the most part, the effects of these pollutants are chronic, not acute, at the exposure levels common in the eastern United States. Mortality is often observed only at experimentally elevated exposure levels or in combination with other stresses such as drought, freezing, or pathogens. The notable exceptions are the acid/aluminum effects on aquatic organisms, which can be lethal at levels of acidity observed in many surface waters in the region.
Although the effects are often subtle, they are important to biological conservation. Changes in species composition caused by terrestrial or aquatic acidification or eutrophication can propagate throughout the food webs to affect many organisms beyond those that are directly sensitive to the pollution. 
Likewise, sublethal doses of toxic pollutants may reduce the reproductive success of the affected organisms or make them more susceptible to potentially lethal pathogens. Many serious gaps in knowledge that warrant further research were identified. Among those gaps are the effects of acidification, ozone, and mercury on alpine systems, effects of nitrogen on species composition of forests, effects of mercury in terrestrial food webs, interactive effects of multiple pollutants, and interactions among air pollution and other environmental changes such as climate change and invasive species.
These gaps in knowledge, coupled with the strong likelihood of impacts on ecosystems that have not been studied in the region, suggests that current knowledge underestimates the actual impact of air pollutants on biodiversity. Nonetheless, because known or likely impacts of air pollution on the biodiversity and function of natural ecosystems are widespread in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, the effects of air pollution should be considered in any long-term conservation strategy. It is recommended that ecologically relevant standards, such as "critical loads," be adopted for air pollutants and the importance of long-term monitoring of air pollution and its effects is emphasized.
Way back when, when I first learned the extent to which pollution damages trees, I began collecting research and photos at Wit's End because I had hope that if enough people found out, something could be done to rescue them (and us) from extinction.  (After all, we can't live long without trees).

Since those days of naivety, I have run into more than a few insurmountable obstacles, such as, most people simply won't even acknowledge that there is a dangerously accelerating global trend of premature mortality, across species and ages of trees.

In the intervening years - while it has become more obvious to some observers, and several scientific surveys have documented a decline around the world - most people, including professional nurserymen and expert foresters, still refuse to recognize the underlying, common cause.
Worse yet, I have come to the realization that no matter how irrefutable the evidence becomes, most people will NEVER admit that tropospheric ozone underlies all the diseases, insects and fungus opportunistically attacking vegetation, because to do so would implicitly require conceding that there are limits to our consumption and growth.  I expect this is true of many climate change deniers as well - no matter how many hurricanes or persistent droughts, they will never admit culpability.  I've become convinced that, contrary to my preferred belief that humans have historically made progress, in fact we have simply become more clever and ruthless about hiding our pollution and the slave labor that manufactures our toys and trinkets.  Moreover, our genetically programmed predisposition towards competition precludes any societal-wide, systemic reduction in the destructive activities that are exploiting and ultimately destroying the very natural world we depend on for life itself.
It turns out there are countless fascinating writings by philosophers along these lines, as well as studies in the field of evolutionary biology, which I've been reading about lately.  Scribbled notes and scraps and dog-eared books are cluttering the kitchen table, but every time I think I'll have time to collate them all into a somewhat cogent essay, more evidence that tropospheric ozone is arguably the most rapidly looming - and perhaps only avoidable - existential threat out of many turns up in the news.  I'm faced again with the bizarre nightmare that Wit's End is, as far as I know, the only place (other than WindSpirit) exclusively devoted to documenting the inexorably worsening threat from ozone - not just to forests and trees directly but to all the ramifications that follow - the loss of evapotranspiration creating precious rain, the loss a major CO2 sink mitigating even worse climate destabilization, the implosion of wildlife habitat.
Perhaps most ominous are the stories like those featured above, about the threats to agricultural products impacting our food supply.

I think it was around the 90's when science and activists decided to become obsessed with climate change to the exclusion of all other environmental issues - pollution, population, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, over-exploitation etc - thereby ruining any chance we would actually do anything about climate change.  And I think this has to do with the powerful and delusional impulse many scientists and activists share that climate change can be fixed with so-called green energy, and if necessary geo-engineering technology, requiring no sacrifice on the part of consumers.
Bill McKibben's recent sermon posted at DailyKos epitomizes this bogus assumption.  My comment to this quote - "...It's not that Americans are addicted to fossil fuel; most of us would be just as happy if our power came from the sun and the wind, if our cars ran on electricity." - was:

 * [new] the fallacy

Sure, they would be just as happy!  But you really can't fool the people.  They know there is no form of energy on earth, other than fossil fuels, that will provide enough renewable, clean fuel for personal automobiles and the other trappings of industrial civilization to which they have become accustomed.
Sure, the big corporations are evil, and the 1% is greedy.  But there's no point preaching against them if you aren't going to be realistic and point out that a drastic reduction in overall consumption and human population is required, in addition to "cleaner" energy, especially in the developed countries.

That is the only social justice and the only solution.  Pandering to the wishes of Americans by pretending it would be possible to continue their orgy of consumption will get us no closer to sustainable harmony with nature.  by witsendnj on Sun May 12, 2013 at 07:40:32 

I wasn't going to open the religious can of worms in that comment but personally, I tend to think that any belief in any sort of deity is an obstacle to fully engaging the reality of climate change.  They are not compatible - rather they are just fundamentally, diametrically opposed.  If you're going to subscribe to the idea that some deity exists, then there are only two possibilities and neither of them can allow for anthropogenic destruction of a habitable earth - either the deity won't allow it - or the deity wants it to happen.  Either way, it's out of our hands.  Since this is a highly contentious and unpopular opinion, it was refreshing to find a blog called Preposterous Universe, with this motto at the top:

in truth, only atoms and the void
Naturally I felt compelled to google that intriguing line - in truth, only atoms and the void - and found as I so often do, that I am woefully ignorant.  Wiki attributes the quote to Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher, and so I find another topic I need to devote study.
Agostino Carracci, 1557-1602
Democritus (c. 460 BC - 370 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He is popularly known as "the laughing philosopher" for advocating a cheerful outlook, and for his rhetorical use of irony and ridicule. Of his voluminous writings, only a few fragments of his ethical theory and descriptions by other writers of his atomic theory remain.
  • Nothing exists except atoms and empty space, everything else is opinion.  Diogenes Laërtius, 'Democrites of Abdera', Vol. IX
  • Sweet exists by convention, bitter by convention, colour by convention; atoms and Void [alone] exist in reality.  Freeman (1948), p. 142
  • Variant: By convention [nomos] sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.
What a delight to find atoms, a void, irony and ridicule in good company.  There is much to be cheerful about, and there is much to look forward to.  For instance, a new satellite project - called Biomass -  has been funded by the European Space Agency, which is going to measure the bulk and weight of forests, imagine how useful that will be!!  The bad news is that it won't launch until 2020, and by then, there will be almost no forests to measure.
Cynics might note that the information is to be used in calculating REDD credits, while complete misanthropes might wonder about this:

"Currently, Biomass will not be permitted to operate over North America, Europe and the Arctic.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) says the spacecraft's radar would interfere with its missile early-warning and space-tracking systems."

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

~ TS Eliot, Four Quartets
You might think that all this is depressing but no! Every day is a gift, and there is so much I want to learn, so much I want to see that I feel I must cram it all in, taste every morsel and inhale every waft while I can.  The hard part of reconciling with our headlong rush to self-imposed extinction is frustration with the colossal stupidity of it all, but even harder than that, for me, has been the crushing, stifling guilt.  I never felt particularly guilty about adding to overpopulation because at the time, I really had no idea what a problem it is.  If I thought about it at all, I guess I believed that we had plenty of time (space) left to deal with it.

However, I have felt horribly guilty that I brought my children into a world where, sooner or later, their generation will have to pay for our folly.  But at long last, after several years mulling it over, I no longer do.

My reasoning - and more important my inner conviction and feeling - is that no matter how horrible the future becomes, it will have been worth it for them.  Between the three, they have climbed Mount Kilamanjaro, Machu Pichu, and volcanoes in Hawaii.  They have held baby koala bears in Australia and bune jumped into a New Zealand ravine, gone scuba diving in Indonesia, become competitive equestriennes, earned degrees at Ivy League schools, visited the great art museums in Europe, read lots of books, and been to some pretty fabulous restaurants and parties.  Everybody has to die sometime, and when it's painless it's just dumb luck, because that is never assured.  But I plan to go to my grave without blaming myself for the fact that I and my fellow humans behave like a cancer on the earth.
Life is too short - and wonderful - to waste it feeling guilty.  If I am able to think coherently when I die, with my last thought I will go Knowing that Nature never did betray the heart that loved her. ~ William Wordsworth
I will end this post with the joyous sound of Bob Marley, whose song might be a pure medley of the irony and cheer posited by Democritus...I recommend you crank it up and dance, and then, go outside and hug a tree.
Check out the real situation
Nation war against nation.
Where did it all begin?
When will it end?
Well, it seems like: total destruction the only solution,
And there ain't no use: no one can stop them now.
Ain't no use: nobody can stop them now.


  1. I've been working for the past year clearing four acres of 40 year escaped wisteria with only hand tools and herbicide (UGH!). (see the video.) Some vines were 4 inches in diameter. It kills trees. Chokes the life out of them. When the trees falls on the ground, the wisteria vines take root. There are still tens of thousands of small, but separate, wisteria plants on those four acres.

    Wisteriastan, the movie

    Be careful with the garden.

    Just yesterday Bob had this message for me:

    Don't worry, be happy.


  2. That was another pointed and well researched post, Gail.
    You are doing unselfish and valuable work that our government and institutions of higher learning should be doing.
    If any of them think, or expect, our forests and vegetation to rescue a CO2 infected atmosphere from a fatal overdose, they are grossly mistaken, because, as you have noted, much of our foliage is stressed, dead, or dying. Also, my studies and observations agree with yours.
    I hope there is way to have your data and observations understood and trumpeted by the media, or some action oriented organization.
    Fossil fuel air pollution, and its many toxic gaseous and particulate components, is the culprit. Everyone seems to want to blame government, or the corporations, for compelling us to pollute at will, but I don’t agree. Each person makes personal choices each day as to what and how they will conduct themselves.
    My choice for an analogous song is Buffy Saint Marie’s “Universal Soldier”. Just substitute “polluter” for “soldier”, and away we go.
    “They’re the universal polluter and they really are to blame. Their orders come from far away no more.
    They come from you and me. Why don’t you see?”
    Thanks again, Gail.
    David Lange

  3. Hey Gail,
    Fantastic read today! Thank you for all your hard work and the clarion call that is mostly being ignored. i had a dreadful thought yesterday while i was doing some gardening - what if this pollution, along with the heat and diseases - effect even LOCAL food growers (like us backyard gardeners) so that the tomatoes and veggies no longer grow to fruition? It scared me to even think it, so i moved on to harder work that diffused the thought. i'm really startin' to worry that the end is approaching much faster than most realize and that we may begin the serious food shortages THIS year! The grass is having trouble sprouting in my back yard for some strange reason.


  4. Thanks Tom! One of the first reasons I began to suspect that air pollution is affecting trees was observing identical damage to the leaves of annual plants. Before that I assumed such a widespread decline could only derive from a very broad source, which I thought was climate change. The only way climate change could be damaging tropical plants being grown in the summer in northern latitudes is by drought, since they like the heat.

    And yet I could see the same injured foliage on plants in pots being watered, as well as garden plants growing in the ground being irrigated. That is the point at which I started reading about ozone, and discovered it is invisible and extremely toxic to plants of all sorts.

    This season I see that pachysandra and boxwood have been added to the hopeless list that was topped by impatiens last summer.

    The good news is if we stopped burning fuel the air would clear very quickly and as long as we have seeds and nuts we could replant.

    I doubt that is going to happen, because most people refuse to see what is right in front of them.

    As far as your garden, you can help it along by being vigilant about insects, disease and fungus since that is what generally finishes the plants off, and also, feed them (but not too much!). It boosts their immunities against the pathogens.

  5. Dear Gail,

    Thanks again for all you do. I had never heard of Paul Chefurka, but now, thanks to you, I have bookmarked his site.

    Romaine from Tucson

  6. Thank you for reading Romaine and yes, Paul's site is a great one to bookmark. You should google him if you haven't already - he has a long and noble history.


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