Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Fear in a Handful of Dust

Everything in this Panglossian world is indeed for the best!  Autumn has just barely commenced, and we can anticipate luminous scenes saturated in pure hues of rich scarlet and blinding gold, a riot of tangerine contrasted with deep purpled russets, a raging passion of color, violet brimming against lime like these pictures...Oh no - hold on.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

~ T.S. Eliot ‘The Waste Land’
Chester County, PA, Turning - September 29, 2013
More pictures from reader uploads at the Yankee Magazine Fall Foliage map, with leaves looking worse and worse, wilted and shriveled and scorched, branches bare already:
Montgomery County, NY, Moderate - September 29, 2013
Union County, GA, Turning - September 28, 2013
Some trees turning.
Essex County, VT, Moderate - September 28, 2013
Worcester County, MA, Turning - September 25, 2013
Incredibly, the next photo is from as far north as you can get in Vermont without being in Canada and it looks like rust:
Franklin County, VT, Turning - September 28, 2013
Litchfield County, CT, Moderate - September 30, 2013
I subscribe to a photographer who likes to share pictures from his birding adventures and hikes.  I learn from him about places I never thought to visit, and of course, his images often reveal landscapes that are diminished in ways that he does not recognize, like this egret surrounded by dead branches.
The most recent batch came from Great Falls National Park, which I never even heard of before, or I surely would have visited, since I love waterfalls and it is not far outside Washington, DC.  He was there on Sunday, September 22, inadvertently documenting the damaged leaves.
The dull green in the distance is because many leaves are completely brown, as they are in the foreground.
When the trees are viewed singly and not in layers, it becomes apparent how many are already leafless or nearly so.
This next picture is why I am including his trip in this post.  Because the falls are channeled into a very narrow gorge, the area can flood spectacularly, as marked on the post.  Yet somehow, those trees managed to survive flooding in the past, so when people say (as they often do now) that trees fall over because it rained a lot, don't believe it.  With healthy root systems they can obviously withstand quite a soaking and emerge unscathed.
Do you think, on the other hand, that dead trees like the one below might have something to do with the deaths of the five hikers who were buried in a landslide?  Ever since I realized that vegetation is being poisoned by air pollution, one question that arises is - without roots, how could soil NOT become destabilized?
This is what the pines look like on Cold Brook Road, on the far side from Wit's End.
I'm putting these here specially for people who say that it's normal for them to have inner needles turn yellow and fall off, because this proportion of lost needles is anything but normal.
Yesterday I returned to the beach of doom at Round Valley Reservoir.
I was on a bit of a mission, which has to do with acid rain.  More than once I have encountered people who are of the opinion that acid rain is responsible for recent tree losses, so I have to give it consideration.
Acid rain is very very bad, no doubt.  It is notorious for killing aquatic life, and ruining the soil.  But is that what is killing the trees, now, at a rapidly accelerating rate?  Does even it make any difference if it's that, or ozone, since they both derive from fuel emissions?
Well, aside from possessing an intense curiosity to determine the truth, it actually does make a difference and not just to me, as we shall see.  Since I was there just a week ago and observed the terrible condition of the trees, I wanted to check the pH of the water in the reservoir, because I thought that it might be a good indicator of whether or not acidic deposition is a problem in this area.  I didn't know it until I watched the movie at the end of this post, but exceptionally clear water can occur from acidity, because the lake becomes sterile.  This clearly is not devoid of life (see fish above ^^), but it is clear.  Anyway, I stopped at a pool supply store and got a testing kit (which I plan to use to test rain and snow, when we get some). The top of the stick indicates the pH and is to be compared to the top row of color range.  It looks to me to like it corresponds closely to right around 7.  I tested first at the beach, which is dammed off from the reservoir, and then again in the larger lake, and the results were identical.
Later I did a test at home, just to see what the difference would be.  My tap water is more alkaline, at least 7.8.
To determine accuracy I wanted to check what would happen with something very acidic - off the chart on the bottle which only goes down to 6.2 - so I squeezed fresh lemon juice on one strip...and it turned bright yellow.  Based on this, I think the lake water reading is reasonably accurate, because had the reservoir water been acidic it would have been much more yellow than the orange it was, noticeably brighter than the lowest of the options.
According to the wiki entry on acid rain:  

"Liquids with a pH less than 7 are acidic, and those with a pH greater than 7 are alkaline. 'Clean' or unpolluted rain has an acidic pH, but usually no lower than 5.7."  Thus at 7, the reservoir is not acidic, at all.  So what is killing the trees all around it?
This afternoon I walked through the unruly back yard to the Cold Brook, to test the water in the creek that delineates the border with the neighbor's property.
Waaaay alkaline, bright pink, even more than the well water.
 And yet all the trees are in terrible shape, every single one of them, every species, young and old.  Here is a tulip poplar that I planted around 2006.  It was just a twig then, about two feet high.  Now, all the inner leaves (lower on the branch) are at best chlorotic - yellow, from an inability to photosynthesize.
 Those necrotic legions follow, and it is NOT from acid rain.
 The longer their exposure to the air, and the more time they absorb ozone, the worse they get - all the way to brown and falling off early.

Following is a little bit about what wiki says regarding wet and dry deposition of sulphur and nitrogen oxides:
Dry deposition
Acid deposition also occurs via dry deposition in the absence of precipitation. This can be responsible for as much as 20 to 60% of total acid deposition.  This occurs when particles and gases stick to the ground, plants or other surfaces. 
...Soil biology and chemistry can be seriously damaged by acid rain. Some microbes are unable to tolerate changes to low pH and are killed.  The enzymes of these microbes are denatured (changed in shape so they no longer function) by the acid. The hydronium ions of acid rain also mobilize toxins such as aluminium, and leach away essential nutrients and minerals such as magnesium
Soil chemistry can be dramatically changed when base cations, such as calcium and magnesium, are leached by acid rain thereby affecting sensitive species, such as sugar maple (Acer saccharum). 
…Adverse effects may be indirectly related to acid rain, like the acid's effects on soil (see above) or high concentration of gaseous precursors to acid rain. High altitude forests are especially vulnerable as they are often surrounded by clouds and fog which are more acidic than rain. 
Other plants can also be damaged by acid rain, but the effect on food crops is minimized by the application of lime and fertilizers to replace lost nutrients. In cultivated areas, limestone may also be added to increase the ability of the soil to keep the pH stable, but this tactic is largely unusable in the case of wilderness lands. When calcium is leached from the needles of red spruce, these trees become less cold tolerant and exhibit winter injury and even death.

Of course much if not all of the wiki entry originates from the EPA, as does this chart: 

Caption:  "In areas where the weather is dry, the acid chemicals may become incorporated into dust or smoke and fall to the ground through dry deposition, sticking to the ground, buildings, homes, cars, and trees. Dry deposited gases and particles can be washed from these surfaces by rainstorms, leading to increased runoff. This runoff water makes the resulting mixture more acidic. About half of the acidity in the atmosphere falls back to earth through dry deposition."

There is a network of stations around the country that monitors wet and dry nitrogen and sulphur deposition, as well as ozone, called CASTNET (Clean Air Status and Trends Network).  This is a link to their most recent (2011) annual report.
Presentation at the National Air Quality Conference 
Ambient Monitoring 2012
CASTNET cooperates with the National Park Service, which has some great visuals and links and even webcams - or did, yesterday when I checked.  But today with the government shut down, they have closed all their webpages.  I can't imagine why that would be necessary, but oh well, perhaps it's pure spite.  The EPA too has pages of charts comparing deposition, and they all show the same thing - a dramatic decline in acidity.

This is the most recent result for ozone levels relating to the National Air Quality Standards.  These, too, have been reduced - however, it's critical to note that the way they calculate the standard (says right at the top of the chart) is the 3-year average of the 4th highest 8-hour daily maximum ozone concentration.  So, they are measuring the PEAKS and the peaks have been reduced.  The constant low background level, however, is increasing as transboundary precursors have exploded in the last decade in Asia, plus fracking and wildfires - and THAT is (according to Ozonists and Ozonistas) why trees are dying prematurely at a rapidly accelerating rate.  (But don't blame Asia - they're sending their products to Walmart).
Below is a photo from the CASTNET annual report illustrating what acid clouds and rain did at Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains.  High altitudes are well known to suffer the most serious consequences because they trap the precipitation.  But it can't explain the deterioration occurring now, almost evenly at every elevation.   Yet there are far more scientists and foresters who reserve their concern for acid rain and prefer to ignore ozone (see the Hubbard Brook experiment which I wrote about in Nostalgia).

Why?  Well, I contend that it is simple!  Because, theoretically at least and sometimes in practice, there is a method of treating the effects of acid rain, which is adding lime to the water or soil.  Of course, it's not practical to lime entire forests on a continental scale - or even a whole city! - but I suppose there is some comfort in the notion.  Also - and this is rather crucial - the worst of acid rain is in the past, so if the current damage to the health of forests is attributed to something that already happened and has since been substantially "solved", then we're off the hook having to do anything further, certainly nothing drastic.

Ozone, on the other hand, cannot be resolved by liming or any other after-the-fact action, other than chemically fighting off the secondary, opportunistic pathogens like insects, disease and fungus.  That's an approach that has very poor results - just look at the hemlocks succumbing to wooly adelgid, ash falling to emerald borers, spruce to the pine bark beetle and oaks to fungus to name but a few of the more notorious ongoing mass extinctions of trees. The only thing that can really be done about ozone is to stop driving, flying, and burning coal - and that, of course, is out of the question.
I highly recommend a lecture given recently by Peter Ward, author of Under a Green Sky.  He explains the relationship between CO2 levels to the paleo-climate which to my mind, has always been a far better indicator of what's in store for us than models.  I won't embed it, because there's another video below - but here's the link.  Aside from the fact that he does a credible and entertaining job of showing exactly how far beyond salvation we have already arrived, he asks sort of rhetorically, "What can we do about the warming of the planet?" and mentions geoengineering - painting roofs and making deserts more reflective - and then he ruefully brings up the topic of acid rain at about 30 minutes in, something along this loose transcription:

"...stratospheric aerosols! - which is the craziest idea except it came from Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen in which you… take all the jets you currently have and dump sulfates all over the high atmosphere, and this causes a reflection and the planet cools.  It also causes acid rain all over the planet sufficient to kill most life but…it cools us!  And this idea has been taken seriously and I finally said, 'but Paul what about the acid rain?' and he said 'Well, that's for the biologists to worry about.'"

He then chortles ruefully.

Below is part one of four of a Swedish documentary about acid rain.  If you click over to youtube, the other links will follow in order.  It was produced in part by an organization of fisherman, so there is far more emphasis on aquatic impacts than forests, but still it's quite a revelation just how extensive the acid rain problem in Scandinavia has been, particularly when compared to how little has been done about it, and how the rights of people have been violated without recompense.  Therein by itself lies quite a lesson about ozone and pollution in general, including the many black swans that result, like heavy metals released from the soils building up in the food chain.  It's a bit of a quirky film because they are trying to inject some levity into an undeniably gloomy topic, and make it a little more "sexy" (at least for male viewers).  Nevertheless it is unique in the way that it reveals the extent of the damage, so I thought it was well worth sitting through the idiosyncrasies (it's not all subtitled - probably mostly it is in English).  Get popcorn!

1 comment:

  1. Great Falls is beautiful. The Virginia side has a better view but the Maryland side is little more interesting. It has a walkway out on the falls and a working lock from the C&O canal. I am suprised at how many locals don't know it exists or have never been there. The town of Great Falls is home to lots of 1% ers. It is one of the richest zip codes in the US. A man was killed in his car there back in July 2012 by a falling tree. You mentioned it in your blog on July 19th 2012.
    I was hoping for a good fall show after several disappointing years (It's been either too hot, too cold ,too wet, too dry, but never too much pollution as a cause) But a close look at leaves looks like it may not be so spectacular after all.



Blog Archive

Follow by Email

My Blog List

Search This Blog