Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Lifeboat Hour

Carolyn Baker will be hosting Michael Ruppert's weekly radio show, the Lifeboat Hour, tonight (Sunday the 26th) - and she has very kindly invited me to be her guest. Please tune in at 9 pm Eastern Time on Sunday, to We'll be taking questions during the last segment, so be ready to phone in!

Update:  here is the link to listen now:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A World of Wounds

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

~ Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
After a trip back north for Christmas with the family, I returned to Palm Beach in good time to escape the Polar Vortex and consequently - despite the intense cognitive dissonance of living within sight of yachts several times larger than my home back in Oldwick - I am in no rush to leave.
This is as good a place as any to wait out the Ecopocalypse.
On a fine sunny afternoon, I finally got around to a promenade along Worth Avenue, which is sort of a Rodeo Drive East.
From the intercoastal approach the water's edge of the Everglades Club is visible, but it is less than obvious how to get there without swimming.  Apparently it is so exclusive there is not a single sign for an entrance on the road.
...other than this terse plaque, which says sternly, Private.
At the other end of Worth Avenue is the Atlantic Ocean.
In between are the elegant boutiques, punctuated by cool dark charming passageways that lead to sunlit courtyards with yet more opulent shops.
Even if you were unable to see the ladies beaded and embroidered gowns, the gentlemen's crocodile belts and jeweled cuff links, the cashmere blankets in the linen shops, the plasticized faces and pedigreed dogs, to be cognizant that you are in the playground of the obscenely pampered rich you could determine as much just by smell - as you meander down the bougainvillea strewn shell-paved sidewalks a promiscuously mingled miasma of expensive perfumes and colognes will assault your nostrils.
If you close your eyes and only listen, you might think you were in Venice or Baden Baden or any other haven of the international ultra-wealthy, because you will overhear a panoply of conversations in Italian, French, German and Russian.
This gleaming Bentley was reflected in the window of an art gallery.
A vintage photograph of a model on the beach was displayed in one window.
In the other window two photos taken by Harry Benson at The Factory alternately focus first, on Andy Warhol and then Bianca Jagger.  It is listed for a mere $20,000, but I like my version even better, with the double exposure, and the balcony and cars across the street reflected in the glass; feel free to take a screen grab and print it...You're welcome!
One of the more peculiar aspects I notice here is that the mansions are mostly deserted.
Theres nobody home in estates worth tens of millions of dollars, and this is exceedingly distressing because it is indicative of the fact that the owners have at least two and often several domiciles in other enclaves.
I have noticed a few forbidding dowagers but for the most part, people here are extraordinarily friendly towards strangers.  It is, I think, because they are not afraid.  They are safe, here.  Nothing bad ever happens or will happen.
Meanwhile the gardeners ride their bicycles in the morning, sullen and implacable with their heads swathed in cloth, over the draw bridge that separates the island like a medieval city, where they swarm over the estates, pruning and hacking back the vegetation, trying to encourage new growth as they remove the old damaged leaves.  You know there is an intractable problem when even Cartier can not maintain healthy topiaries.
It seems they can't use ordinary clippers, rakes and brooms however, so the racket from blowers and mowers is an incessant harangue.   Early in the morning, discretely as an undertaker, a truck comes by to suck up the piles of detritus they leave piled on the side of the street.  On top of the relentless drone of air conditioners, I hate it.  I long for a silence broken by nothing but the song of birds.
Even palm trees here, which are full of black holes, are colonized by lichen, and the landscapers frantically inject insecticides into their trunks.  They are fighting a losing battle.
Leaves are nearly uniformly injured, seared and burnt from absorbing toxic pollution.
Although there is plentiful evidence in Florida that air pollution is killing plantlife, I increasingly question whether it matters in the writing about seems to be of questionable value.
Even though, once I learned about climate change, I never doubted it would lead inexorably to mass extinctions - almost certainly including our own species - and even though, I expected it to occur much more rapidly than the models predict or scientists will admit...still, the rapidity with which the catastrophes are converging is breathtaking.  The heat in Australia and the freezing in North America and the drought in California and the outgassing of methane in the Arctic are completely insane.  The pollution in China is utterly beyond belief...every region of the earth is experiencing unprecedented disasters.  The Great Convulsion has begun - it is violent, and beyond any control.

I have been spending more time on Facebook, where it is at least possible to find people who understand precisely how dire circumstances have become, where I posted this, about human beings:  I used to think that the wonderful outweighed the horrible, because I believed in this thing called progress.
I thought that, over time, we improved by doing things like banning slavery, passing environmental protection laws, instituting the UN where disputes could be resolved without war...and that consequently our children would raise their children in a better world. Now I realize that we just got ever more clever - aided by cheap fuel - at hiding the slavery and the pollution...sending it overseas, for instance - and when the cheap fuel is gone, and the climate we have ruined goes off the rails, the veneer of civilization will evaporate and we are going to go straight back to total barbarity.
Apparently, the damage ozone does to crops is causing concern, because the annual Siemens Competition awarded a $100,000 prize to three young high school students for their research detecting a gene that confers resistance to the pollutant.  Here is the announcement in LiveScience:
Priyanka Wadgaonkar, Zainab Mahmood and JiaWen Pei from George W. Hewlett High School in Hewlett, N.Y., shared the $100,000 prize in the group category for their work on ozone resistance in plants. 
The winning team, from Hewlett, N.Y., characterized the gene for a protein (a building block of cells) that confers resistance against ozone pollution, in ferns. Ground-level ozone causes more damage to plants than all other air pollutants combined, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. The resistance gene, which evolved early on in plants, could be used to protect important crops from ozone, drought and soil salinity, which cost billions of dollars in damage each year.
…The Siemens Competition, a leading science research competition for high-school students administered by the College Board, was launched in 1998. More than 2,400 students, a record number, registered for the competition this year, submitting 1,599 projects. The foundation selected 331 semifinalists, 100 regional finalists and 20 national finalists.
I was very hopeful that I could read their paper so I wrote to the teacher at their school, but he answered they are trying to edit it for publication.  Instead it is possible to watch the three give their winning presentation by following this link and clicking on the words Team Five.  I can pretty much guarantee that for anyone without an advanced degree in chemistry or physics, these young ladies will make you feel very stupid.
Falling trees are making news and yet, no one questions why the tree above that crushed the car has no roots!  These are reader-submitted photos, where the amount of lichen on the bark is astonishing, insides are rotting, and evergreens have hardly any needles.
I have posted too many stories already about people dying from trees.  This was once almost unheard of, but is becoming horribly frequent.  The most recent is from the Southeast:
“Raleigh police said Sunday that Cheryl Harrison of Raleigh died after high winds broke the top off a tree that then fell onto the hiking trail she was walking with two men on Saturday afternoon.”
“In metro Atlanta, fire crews freed a 14-year-old child from a mobile home Saturday morning after a tree crashed into a back bedroom of the Cherokee County residence. Fire officials said the girl, who was alert and conscious and was talking to paramedics during the rescue operation, was in serious condition.”
 These pictures are from Nova Scotia:
 In addition to all the lichen and moss, the base of the trunk is black with rot, and the trees in the stand below are lacking any needles at all.
 Following are screenshots from video taken right here in Florida:
The tree above is obviously rotted, and others are solid green from lichen.

 The reporter informs us that “The Sheriff's Office says they are seeing this - downed trees - all over the place.”
Wildfires are, as might be expected, becoming more frequent all around the world.  While I was visiting my parents this weekend, who are staying in Jensen Beach for the winter, I went for a walk at Savannahs Preserve.
The park ranger told me that last summer they had conducted a prescribed burn, and recited a lot of nonsense about why that was necessary...nothing along the lines that the vegetation is dying off from poisonous invisible gases and turning into dangerous tinder, of course.  New foliage has already gone from chlorotic to necrotic lesions, and trees left standing have been in decline for a while, as this set of photographs shows.  If it had not been such a lovely day, walking through that dismal landscape, the air still acrid from burnt wood, might have been depressing.  But, hey!!  Compare pictures of it to the wonders of Worth Avenue, and perhaps the degree of lunacy the marks Florida will glimmer through.
Research linking wildfires with pollution has begun in California, FINALLY.  It's not specifically targeted towards ozone, but it is about atmospheric reactive nitrogen, an ozone precursor.

Air Pollution May Boost Fire Risk in Local Mountains

Preliminary findings released Tuesday from a study in the Santa Monica Mountains show that air pollution may be increasing fire danger in the mountain range. 
Researchers from the National Park Service, University of California Riverside and the U.S. Forest Service have been monitoring atmospheric nitrogen at 10 sites in the Santa Monica Mountains for two years. Nitrogen is a byproduct of gas combustion and a major component of smog. Researchers attribute nitrogen depositing out of the air in the area to vehicle emissions.
Data that was analyzed after the first year of a three-year study show that a gradient of nitrogen levels exist across the test area, increasing from west to east. Atmospheric nitrous oxide levels at the eastern edge of the study range are at levels more than three times higher than those found at places along the western edge.
“Nitrogen enrichment into ecosystems is probably the third largest global change driver and driver of loss of biodiversity that we face on the planet,” said Irina Irvine, a wildlife ecologist for the National Park Service at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. 
Two locations identified as having lower levels of atmospheric nitrogen were experimentally given added levels of nitrogen and monitored. Keystone native plants declined at higher nitrogen levels, while invasive grasses thrived.
As exotic species out-compete native plants, that could increase potential fire danger, as native species are more fire resistant. 
“If your cigarette butt or your backfire hit a coastal sage scrub plant or a chaparral plant, it’s probably got more moisture involved in its tissues. It’s going to be a little bit harder to ignite,” Irvine said. “But if you’ve got a bunch of grasses there, then off you go to the races.”
Irvine said that further research will be done to try to quantify the increase in fire danger as a result of high nitrogen pollution. The three-year, $100,000 study is intended to allow scientists to understand the “critical load” point at which pollution causes harmful changes to the range’s ecosystem.  Nitrogen is a key component in fertilizer, but Irvine said not all plants benefit from it.
“It was wonderful for the people of earth to have all of this nitrogen available for their farms and to increase productivity,” Irvine said. “The downside is that nitrogen enrichment in pretty much every ecosystem that it’s been tested in results in a dramatic loss in biodiversity.”
 I wrote to Dr. Irvine and she sent me a radio interview in which she discusses the link between excess nitrogen from car exhaust and the increased growth of grassy invasives.  She mentions the Joshua Tree National Park and explains that the Joshua Trees are not adapted to wildfires there, which result from the invasive grasses.  However, when I went to the Park I photographed trees that are simply rotting to death, with comparisons to healthy trees from years past - nothing to do with wildfires!  It is really unfortunate that ecologists study biodiversity loss from nitrogen without factoring in the death of keystone species from ozone, for which the reactive form of nitrogen is a major precursor, especially considering that the map shows the spread of nitrogen oxides.

ScienceDaily posted an article that I found intriguing for a number of reasons, not least because since it looks like a four degree rise is inevitable, this would seem to spell certain doom:

Global Warming: Four Degree Rise Will End Vegetation 'Carbon Sink, Research Suggests

Dec. 16, 2013 — Latest climate and biosphere modelling suggests that the length of time carbon remains in vegetation during the global carbon cycle -- known as 'residence time -- is the key "uncertainty" in predicting how Earths terrestrial plant life -- and consequently almost all life -- will respond to higher CO2 levels and global warming, say researchers.
Carbon will spend increasingly less time in vegetation as the negative impacts of climate change take their toll through factors such as increased drought levels -- with carbon rapidly released back into the atmosphere where it will continue to add to global warming.
Researchers say that extensive modelling shows a four degree temperature rise will be the threshold beyond which CO2 will start to increase more rapidly, as natural carbon 'sinks of global vegetation become saturated and unable to sequester any more CO2 from the Earths atmosphere.
They call for a change in research priorities away from the broad-stroke production of plants and towards carbon 'residence time -- which is little understood -- and the interaction of different kinds of vegetation in ecosystems such as carbon sinks.
Carbon sinks are natural systems that drain and store CO2from the atmosphere, with vegetation providing many of the key sinks that help chemically balance the world -- such as the Amazon rainforest and the vast, circumpolar Boreal forest.
As the world continues to warm, consequent events such as Boreal forest fires and mid-latitude droughts will release increasing amounts of carbon into the atmosphere -- pushing temperatures ever higher.
Initially, higher atmospheric CO2 will encourage plant growth as more CO2 stimulates photosynthesis, say researchers. But the impact of a warmer world through drought will start to negate this natural balance until it reaches a saturation point.
The modelling shows that global warming of four degrees will result in Earth's vegetation becoming dominated by negative impacts -- such as 'moisture stress', when plant cells have too little water -- on a global scale.
Carbon-filled vegetation 'sinks will likely become saturated at this point, they say, flat-lining further absorption of atmospheric CO2. Without such major natural CO2 drains, atmospheric carbon will start to increase more rapidly -- driving further climate change.
The researchers say that, in light of the new evidence, scientific focus must shift away from productivity outputs -- the generation of biological material -- and towards the mechanistic levels of vegetation function, such as how plant populations interact and how different types of photosyntheses will react to temperature escalation.
Particular attention needs to be paid to the varying rates of carbon 'residence time' across the spectrum of flora in major carbon sinks -- and how this impacts the carbon turnover, they say.
The Cambridge research, led by Dr Andrew Friend from the Universitys Department of Geography, is part of the 'Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project (ISI-MIP) -- a unique community-driven effort to bring research on climate change impacts to a new level, with the first wave of research published today in a special issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Global vegetation contains large carbon reserves that are vulnerable to climate change, and so will determine future atmospheric CO2, said Friend, lead author of this paper. The impacts of climate on vegetation will affect biodiversity and ecosystem status around the world.
This work pulls together all the latest understanding of climate change and its impacts on global vegetation -- it really captures our understanding at the global level.
The ISI-MIP team used seven global vegetation models, including Hybrid -- the model that Friend has been honing for fifteen years -- and the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) modelling. These were run exhaustively using supercomputers -- including Cambridge's own Darwin computer, which can easily accomplish overnight what would take a PC months -- to create simulations of future scenarios:
We use data to work out the mathematics of how the plant grows -- how it photosynthesises, takes-up carbon and nitrogen, competes with other plants, and is affected by soil nutrients and water -- and we do this for different vegetation types, explained Friend.
The whole of the land surface is understood in 2,500 km2portions. We then input real climate data up to the present and look at what might happen every 30 minutes right up until 2099.
While there are differences in the outcomes of some of the models, most concur that the amount of time carbon lingers in vegetation is the key issue, and that global warming of four degrees or more -- currently predicted by the end of this century -- marks the point at which carbon in vegetation reaches capacity.
In heatwaves, ecosystems can emit more CO2 than they absorb from the atmosphere, said Friend. We saw this in the 2003 European heatwave when temperatures rose six degrees above average -- and the amount of CO2 produced was sufficient to reverse the effect of four years of net ecosystem carbon sequestration.
For Friend, this research should feed into policy: To make policy you need to understand the impact of decisions.
The idea here is to understand at what point the increase in global temperature starts to have serious effects across all the sectors, so that policy makers can weigh up impacts of allowing emissions to go above a certain level, and what mitigation strategies are necessary.
Despite the fact that Dr. Friend appears to believe this can somehow be mitigated, I was encouraged by his stance that scientific research should influence policy, a rare stance (that with Michael Manns essay in the New York Times is becoming rarer), so I decided to send him my usual letter with a bit of a twist:
On 18/12/2013 19:30, Wits End wrote:

Dear Dr. Friend,

I read a description of your recently published research at ScienceDaily.  I wonder if it would be possible for you to run a model on your fast super-computer that accounts for the decline in plantlife to due tropospheric ozone pollution.

Hundreds of studies documenting field observations and fumigation experiments have proven that ozone is highly toxic to vegetation.  Because the damage is cumulative, it is especially injurious to longer lived species such as trees, shrubs and perennials.  Even so, agronomists recognize there is extensive loss of annual crop yield and quality worldwide from the increasing background level of ozone, and they have been trying to genetically engineer resistant strains to no avail.
Perhaps the worst effect of ozone, after increasing susceptibility to drought, is the reduction of natural immunities towards insects, disease and fungus.  There can be no doubt that various biotic pathogens have reached epidemic proportions all around the globe placing many species in jeopardy.  In fact it is nearly impossible to find a species that isn't being overwhelmed by opportunistic attacks of one sort or another.
Much of this trend was documented earlier in a book published in 1999, called An Appalachian Tragedy,  which focused on the forests in the mountainous region that runs from Georgia to Maine in the US.  Many other studies have been done in Europe and Asia, as well.  I wrote a summary of the research which can be accessed online for free (Pillage, Plunder & Pollute LLC) with an updated guest post at Greg Ladens ScienceBlog, Whispers of the Ghosting Trees.  I also write on the topic of ecosystem collapse at Wit’s End.
This danger from nitrous oxide emissions and ozone pollution, which is generally forgotten, overlooked and downplayed, is a major threat to forests and their capacity to absorb CO2.  It will drastically alter predictions of climate change when it is finally recognized and taken into account.

I hope you are inclined to consider this issue because the implications for climate and ultimately the survival of the human race and much of the biosphere cannot be overstated.  If you have any questions or thoughts, they would be most welcome.

Thank you very much for your attention.


Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ, USA

  • Andrew Friend 
  • Dec 30, 2013
  • Wit’s End
Dear Gail,

Many thanks for your e-mail and interest in your work. I agree completely that ozone does and will significantly affect plant growth. The simulation results reported in our article did not include this effect, but other model simulations have done so. One in particular is attached. Our future work will include this important influence.


Christmas came and went and so did New Years while I mulled over his reply, particularly this:  I agree completely that ozone does and will significantly affect plant growth.  I wanted to be doubly sure he really meant that so I wrote again:

On 04/01/2014 21:22, Wits End wrote:
Dear Andrew,

Thank you for your reply.  The paper you attached is actually near the top of the links to research on Wits End:

Copied below is an exchange of letters with Peter Cox, John Reilly and others who have researched the impact of ozone on plants, and in reviewing it three years on, I am reminded of why I am so concerned.  I understand scientific reticence however, the complacency and unwillingness to be an advocate is allowing emissions to not only continue, but increase.  As the EPA has determined that ozone damage is cumulative, this is especially detrimental to trees.

Do you mind if I quote your letter on my blog?  I can promise, almost nobody will read it.  Virtually nobody cares.


Nearly a week went by and I thought, either he didnt really mean it and was perhaps just humoring me, or he did, but he doesnt want it to be known.  Then, I received a reply - and respect for his courage is why I have come out of hibernation to post here at Wits End:
  • Andrew Friend 
  • Jan 10 at 4:36 PM
  • Wit’s End 
Dear Gail,

Please feel free to quote my message in your blog.



Voltaire wrote;  “One day everything will be well, that is our hope. Everythings fine today, that is our illusion. 

It takes rare fortitude to admit that hope is misplaced - things will not all be well, ever - and things are pretty awful today.

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