Friday, June 14, 2013

Omen Trees

Between the storms earlier this week and yesterday's derecho-that-wasn't, I thought as it has been a while (since Sandy, a whole seven months!) it's time to take a cruise around the web and find downed trees.  Almost as soon as I realized they were all in trouble from tropospheric ozone back in 2008, they began falling down at astonishing rates and often spectacularly onto cars, like this incident in Boston, from 2010:
Reader Amanda left a link in comments about a branch that fell in New York's Central Park, leaving an Indiana tourist critically injured with a broken arm and teeth.  She said she was surprised at the rest of the article indicating this sort of thing is a rather frequent, which is understandable, since not so long ago it didn't used to be - in fact it was practically unheard of!
"Geoffrey Croft of NYC Park Advocates said it was the second time this month that a tree branch had fallen on someone, and he notes that last week the city and the Central Park Conservancy settled two high profile tree injury lawsuits for a total $14.5 million dollars."

"In 2010, a six-month-old baby was killed by a falling tree branch near the Central Park Zoo; this happened a month after three people were injured by a tree branch that fell on them near the Central Park Boathouse. In February 2010, a man was killed by a falling tree branch at East 69th and Fifth Avenue in Central Park, and six months earlier, a Google engineer suffered long-term brain and spinal injuries after a rotten tree branch hit him near West Drive and 63rd Street."
The aforementioned Mr. Croft posted this closeup photo to the Park Advocates website, in which it is clear that the broken branch has splitting bark along the lower right side, below the break - and in fact so does the smaller branch on the left.  When they're not suing the city, New Yorkers often express outrage that the Parks Department is not preventing such mishaps, but since all the trees are in various stages of acute decay, the only way Parks could do so would be to remove the trees altogether.  Of course, it may come to that.  Horrific as that list of injuries and death is, it obviously represents only the tiniest proportion of all falling trees and branches, the vast majority of which fall on property instead of people - like this willow in November of 2009, which landed harmlessly in the pool at Central Park:
Another story from this spring decries the Parks Department for "Killing Trees" from careless construction practices at the Ridgewood Reservoir, a rare green oasis in Queens.  Interestingly enough, a rare fact slips out from Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, who was quoted:

“Trees in the reservoir are a natural resource,” Holden said. “You can’t replace a 60- or 70-year-old tree. With pollution and air quality in recent years, the trees won’t even get that large.”

Did you catch that?  Due to air pollution, trees in the city won't even get to be 60 or 70 years old, a fraction of their natural lifespan.  Hmmm.

In the wake of storms at the beginning of the week, and the unseemly anticipation by both weathermen and climate activists over the prospect of another derecho like last year for Thursday, yahoo news recycled this photo of a shattered beech on Capitol Hill across from the US Supreme Court.  I remember this picture because it was such a great example of a dying tree just waiting to topple.  The inside of the branch is rotten and the bark, which should be smooth like elephant skin, is corroded.
On Tuesday, June 11, a century-old Arlington house designated to be put on the historic register was severely damaged, by what was said to be a 12,000 lb. white oak tree.  Here's a screen shot from the video of where it smashed the roof:
This is a photo of the base from another article about the incident.  The bark looks badly corroded but not nearly as bad as the high branches.
It's clear that no one had a good explanation or why the tree fell in the absence of wind on Tuesday.  The following narrative is from the video that is embedded below:

Officials believe Monday’s heavy rains turned the soil underneath the tree to mud, leaving unstable ground among the roots:
“The tree uprooted, even though other trees around it are doing fine for whatever reason,” says Jamie Bartalon, the landscape and forestry supervisor for the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation.
That unpredictability makes this year’s severe storms more dangerous. Even if there’s little wind, experts can’t see the soil shifting underground.
“There’s really no way to know for sure,” says Bartalon. “The best thing to do is to take preventative action.”
More storms are expected to roll in Wednesday night. Rain will soak the region Thursday, making trees swaying in the sunshine look more like omens of more damage to come
Omens of more damage to come?  Since when did trees become apocalyptic omens?  This failure is being blamed on a tornado, never mind the hollow branch, interior rot and flaking bark:
"Cleanup begins following severe storms" reports NBC Washington:

"A historic, 200-year-old oak tree that housed a colony of honey bees on Martin Farm in Woodbine, Md., may have also been knocked down by a tornado. A local bee keeper came to the scene to help save the hive, owner Maria Martin said."

"Thursday's storms were not as severe as the June 2012 derecho storm that battered the region. In fact, the first storm Thursday morning was the derecho that came from the Midwest, but that was not as bad as the afternoon storms, Kammerer said."

"A derecho is a severe line of storms with straight line wind damage, gusts to 60 mph and wind damage spreading 250 miles long -- from D.C. to Raleigh, N.C., for example."

"The D.C. region gets a derecho, on average, once every four years -- but last year's was so intense that it was categorized as a once-in-30-years event."

No word on why a once-in-30-years event would have knocked over millions of trees, since at that rate, after 200 years, there wouldn't be any left (and let's not add in Irene and Sandy, neither of which had unprecedented winds).  Also left unexplained was why one of the worst tragedies to occur was earlier, on Monday, when the wind was gusting up to only 30 mph.

A teenage boy was pedalling home through a park in Chevy Chase as a storm moved in Monday night.  When he never arrived his father reported him as missing and then went searching himself.  He discovered his son, hit by a tree, on Tuesday.  A news team followed a distraught neighbor to the site.  Here's a screenshot of the tree that fell on the boy.  They call it a "weather-related death" even though it's obviously a "dead-tree-related death".

""Monday's thunderstorms -- which ripped through Montgomery County -- may have been a factor in his death. Between two and four inches of rain fell and winds gusted to 30 mph. There were reports of trees down in the area, said Storm Team 4 Chief Meteorologist Doug Kammerer."

It would appear that a whole new genre of video has snuck into the weather forecasters' repertoire, that of fallen trees.  I could click-skip merrily from one to another all day long, there are so many.  In addition to the gruesome once-upon-a-time-unheard-of deaths and injuries, there's also the "oh my gosh I was so terrified" genre like this Rockville Maryland example; and plenty of the "wow nobody it expected it to be this bad" type such as in DC's Dupont Circle; and the increasingly-popular "traffic disrupted and power lines down" variety as in this Arlington report.  Then there are too many of the "it must have been a tornado" and "praise the lord for saving us" to bother linking more.
Even easier to find are reader uploads of photos showing rotted trees, like this one from a North Carolina story that reads:

"Two additional deaths in North Carolina are being blamed on the massive storm system that started in the Upper Midwest and brought soaking rains and heavy winds to the Mid-Atlantic.
Authorities say a volunteer firefighter died in Wilkes County on Thursday afternoon when he was electrocuted after responding to a fire when a tree fell on power lines. Wilkes County Fire Marshal Kevin Bounds says 36-year-old Tony Barker had joined the Mountain View Volunteer Fire Department last year.  In the same county, authorities say 77-year-old Maurice Kilby died when a tree fell on him in his yard. Officials say Kilby's wife found him and called for help but he'd died by the time rescuers arrived.  At least four people died in the storm that caused widespread power outages, flooding and flight delays."
Almost inevitably, when there is a closeup of branches they are plastered with lichen.
This photo from the Charlotte News accompanied the following details of injuries and near-misses:

Storm blows through Triangle knocking down trees, powerlines

"DURHAM—All across the Triangle there were reports of trees down and power outages. On Alston Avenue in Durham, a large tree split in half and fell on two homes. Around 7:30 p.m., Durham urban forestry crews came out and started cutting up the tree to haul it away. Neighbors say no one was injured when the tree came crashing down and one of the homes is vacant. Durham Police say there were at least two other trees that also fell on houses in the Bull City. Several trees fell across streets and on power lines. There was even a brush fire attributed to the storm. Residents say the strongest winds came before the rain, when people were still out trying to take shelter. “It was a lady walking down the road. It nearly fell on her. She had to take off running. It was dangerous. I'm glad nobody got hurt,” said witness Joseph Brown. It was a similar scene in Chapel Hill, with trees taking down power lines, blocking roads, and falling on cars. There was a report of a tree falling on a person in front of a sorority house on Franklin Street. Police have not released that person's condition. However with the storm blowing through right at rush hour, people said they are lucky most of the damage was relatively minor and more people did not get hurt."
Apparently people who take pictures like this one, from Maryland, are unaware that a tree with a center so discolored is comparable to a person riddled with cancer.
More trees are shown with the following story from Virginia:

"Dark creepy clouds blanked the area in just minutes on Thursday and left its mark on the area—from small water sprouts over the Patuxent River to dozens of trees toppled on homes in Rockville."

"In Richmond, Va., a 4-year-old boy was fatally struck by a tree that toppled while he was visiting a park with his father. Capt. Emmett Williams of the Richmond police said the boy was crushed by an old yellow tulip poplar tree that became uprooted from rain-soaked grounds during heavy winds and rains. The father was taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Maymont Park board member Mary Lynn Bayliss said workers with bullhorns were scrambling around the 100 acres of preserved woodlands and gardens to try to get people to safety."
It perplexes me that people don't understand there is something wrong with all these trees.  The photo above is from the tenth of June, and the next is from Ohio.
This photo illustrated the story of the four-year-old but it's not clear whether it is the same tree that struck him:
Just to make clear how bizarrely delusional people are, here's a photo from 2012 in Detroit, with the caption below...and no, I'm not making this up!
A powerful storm Wednesday split this healthy tree in Detroit's Palmer Woods neighborhood. (Credit: WJBK |
Here are a few more from the mid-Atlantic region - I can never resist shots of crushed cars!
More examples of rotting interiors.  I know, I know - "But, they still have leaves!!"
A splendidly battered truck from the Nofolk area:
Here's one exhibiting deep delusion in North Carolina, with a caption that reads helpfully:  tree that fell in our yard last night.
And, nothing much to see here:
...or, here:
I suppose that's enough dead trees to make the point, so now here is an optical illusion.  If it doesn't perform automatically, it wants to be clicked.

 (from QEDCAT - a very cool explanation)

I once heard Chris Hedges say that you can never know exactly what spark, what seemingly minor incident, will ignite the explosion of a revolution.  You can know it is inevitable, you can feel the tension in the air - but what precisely sets it into final terrible, irreversible motion can never be predicted.  I can't help feeling impressed that in the current parallel crises - ThreeEs boils them down to Energy, Environment and Empire, while my new friends at RootSimple refer to the "Triple Melange of Misery", and I usually rather more rudely think of it all as the Tifucta - it would seem to be only fitting if it turns out the place where the parallel lines of revolutionary outrage converge is at a park in Istanbul...and the incendiary point is a tree.

"The unrest erupted on Friday when trees were torn down at a park in Istanbul's main Taksim Square under government plans" said the Huffington Post.
Occupiers return to Zuccotti Park in Solidarity with Protesters in Turkey
June 1, 2013
Unfortunately, we are killing forests far more efficiently and widely with air pollution than bulldozers, because the air pollution goes everywhere.  No mountain ranges or oceans or lack of roads can halt its spread...but then, whether the flames that are going to engulf the last civilization are fanned from a tree in Turkey, or whether they simmer down and surge up somewhere else, nothing will be beyond their ferocious reach.
June 1, 2013, Lake Hughes, California
from WindSpiritKeeper
With best wishes for good luck to those in the wildfires out west, which are far, far earlier than ever before, in California and now Colorado.


  1. Yes, our trees, as are all living things, suffering from polluted air.
    Early in this post, we see trees and branches that are brittle. They have lost their elasticity,the very thing that kept them alive and in the ground. For they can no longer "bend with the wind".
    Earth's winds have not gotten stronger, over the past few years, but trees are obviously weaker.
    what has become stronger, or more prevalent,is toxic, and phytotoxic air pollution.
    David Lange

  2. michele/montrealJune 14, 2013 at 9:32 PM

    hi Gail,
    from an article:
    Comment 2, from NewsHour viewer mollycruz: It strikes me that when trees go, roads and cars come, and I suspect air pollution could be responsible for the curve upward in diseases long associated with exhaust fumes. Did you look into the link between pollution and the death of both trees and humans?

    Donovan: I agree that the loss of trees may result in worse air quality. That's why we looked at two causes of death (cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease) that are influenced by air quality. However, I don't think this is because of increased development. That said, our results don't tell us for sure what mechanisms link trees and health. I can speculate, but this is a question that needs more study.

    link to full article:

  3. Here in Georgia, with the very cool and wet spring, the trees are attempting full foliage. Or at least fuller foliage. The ozone level has also been lower, I can tell because the leaves look greener and healthier than they have for years.

    But all of those green, heavy leaves put stress on the roots, trunks, limbs, and branches. With all the disease, and after the last 5 years of drought conditions, the trees are weak and something has to give. Two 30 year old oaks went down in past two weeks in a neighbor's wood lot.

  4. Oh, yes, I remember that study well, Michele!

    I wrote to one of the co-authors and got this reply:

    "Hi Gail – That’s an interesting thought about trees and ozone. In the case of emerald ash borer, vast numbers of trees are dying in urban and semi-urban areas as a result of this invading insect species. My personal guess is that the dying trees cause substantial level of anxiety among residents in these areas and that the cardiovascular symptoms are related to that anxiety. I’m certainly not an expert on medical matters but I understand that relationships between anxiety and these sorts of disorders are known to exist. Nevertheless, I would acknowledge that there might be other possibilities too…."

    Which strikes me as utterly idiotic. Stress from not having trees around is more of a medical factor than the increase in pollution from the huge amounts living trees absorb?


    Catman, I have very similar impressions so far this season.

    Thanks again, David!

  5. In 1995, my father told me of witnessing the fall of a mighty oak. So old he claims it must have lived through the Civil War. He was the only one there on a sunny warm day, it just fell down in a mighty collapse, like a collapsing wrestler letting gravity pin him to earth.
    My father saw that tree as his personal omen. Witnessing the fall gave it some poignant grace.

  6. I googled whether lichens are harmful to trees and did not find any consensus. Some said that the presence of lichens indicated good air quality and not harmful to trees. Others claimed that the presence of lichens on tree bark were an indication of failing trees. No reasons given. Do you know of any credible research on this topic Gail?

  7. Hi Ravi.

    A scientist from Harvard Forest finally admitted to me that forests in decline have more lichen. I know for certain because I've seen it, that when trees get covered with lichen, the next thing is their bark starts falling off, and before you know it, it's dead. Most lichen are indicators of clean air, but there are some that thrive on nitrogen pollution, which is what I believe we're seeing. Here are some posts with links to lichen research:

    at the end of the video in this post are some shots of lichen in California that are really funny:


  8. Thank you Gail. Very informative and ulp..scary!



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