Monday, October 6, 2014

When Every Leaf is a Flower

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
~ Albert Camus

That certainly was once true...but no longer.  The leaves pictured here are typical right now in New Jersey, still weeks before "peak" fall color is traditionally expected nearer the end of this month.  Every autumn the leaves have had less vibrant color, displayed more egregious injury, and dropped sooner.  This year their condition is so dreadful, it is nothing short of shocking.

The leaves above, from the day before yesterday (October 4) belong to a tulip tree I planted which is now about ten years old.  Earlier, on September 29, it is exhibiting classic symptoms of ozone damage where the older, inner leaves are more damaged than the greener, younger leaves at the tips of the branches:

Just next to it, on the same day, is a sycamore, showing the identical pattern.  This type of decay cannot be from drought or UV radiation or warmth or cold.

The same sort of damage can be seen irregardless of species, or whether an annual plant or a tree.  Below is a branch from a redbud, where the leaves first go chlorotic (losing chlorophyll and their natural pigmentation) to having brown lesions.

Eventually the lesions become necrotic, and if the leaf doesn't fall off prematurely, they can turn completely shriveled and black.

Silky dogwood
This maple leaf on the ground gives only the merest hint of the brilliant color that should begin to emerge in early October.

But mostly they are scorched...
and falling to the ground a month ahead of normal.
They are already swirling in the creek.
They fill the gutters on the side of the road.  That tall tree on the left is an oak and shouldn't lose leaves until November, if then.  On the right completely bare branches of a massive black walnut protrude.
I watch the leaves flutter down in the slightest breeze...can't you see them?
They remind me of the people falling in silent anguish from the twin towers, so tiny and faraway, in a lonesome journey to their death.  If spectators understood what this early leafdrop portends, they would be shrieking with just as much horror.
In case you haven't heard,  there is major drama raging in the blogosphere about the Royal Society methane meeting and the exclusion of the data collected by Russian that's a nice temporary diversion from the death of trees.  The preliminary account is here but I'm sure there will be more to come.  Major criticism is being leveled at Gavin Schmidt, the new head of NASA and one of the proprietors of Real Climate, for jeering crudely like a callow juvenile in his public derision of those who are a bit more concerned about methane than he.
Virginia creeper
That reminded me of how I wrote him way back in 2009 to ask him what he thought might be responsible for all the trees dying, and he answered:


Thanks for your note. Unfortunately, I don't know of any pollution issue that would be responsible for this, and I am inclined to follow the statements of the people quoted in the piece that this is a combination of effects related to pests and drought. Sorry I can't be more help.


So imagine how annoyed I was to later come across a post in RealClimate from 2007 about research from the UK Met Office - written by Gavin himself, no less - which states in part:

"It’s well known that increased ozone levels – particularly downwind of cities – can be harmful to plants, and in this new study with a carbon-climate model, they quantify how by how much increasing ozone levels make it more difficult for carbon to be sequestered by the land biosphere.  Actually it’s even more complicated. Methane emissions are one of the principal causes of the rise of ozone..."

And now here he is, in his infinite smugness, still pooh-poohing the significance of the threat from methane emissions, whether it is increasing ozone killing vegetation, or a outgassing from permafrost and clathrates.
wild grape
 Other than that, today's only link will be to a more recent study from MIT, published this July.  Following is the university press release on the research, which talks about the loss to major annual crops from ozone.  It's critical to remember that since damage is cumulative, trees and other longer-lived shrubs and perennials HAVE to be even more affected - as indeed they are.  Just go take a look at them!  In a few days, I will put together more comparative studies from autumns past.  Right now this is about all I can stand to post, what ought to be gorgeous looks so abominable.
Dull hues and transparent crowns
 Study: Climate change and air pollution will combine to curb food supplies
milkweed - sorry, Monarch butterflies
 Many studies have shown the potential for global climate change to cut food supplies. But these studies have, for the most part, ignored the interactions between increasing temperature and air pollution — specifically ozone pollution, which is known to damage crops.

A new study involving researchers at MIT shows that these interactions can be quite significant, suggesting that policymakers need to take both warming and air pollution into account in addressing food security.

The study looked in detail at global production of four leading food crops — rice, wheat, corn, and soy — that account for more than half the calories humans consume worldwide. It predicts that effects will vary considerably from region to region, and that some of the crops are much more strongly affected by one or the other of the factors: For example, wheat is very sensitive to ozone exposure, while corn is much more adversely affected by heat.

climbing hydrangea
The research was carried out by Colette Heald, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) at MIT; Amos Tai, a former CEE postdoc who is now at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; and Maria Val Martin at Colorado State University. Their work is described this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Heald, the Mitsui Career Development Professor in Contemporary Technology, explains that while it’s known that both higher temperatures and ozone pollution can damage plants and reduce crop yields, “nobody has looked at these together.” And while rising temperatures are widely discussed, the impact of air quality on crops is less recognized.

Black Walnut
The effects are likely to vary widely by region, the study predicts. In the United States, tougher air-quality regulations are expected to lead to a sharp decline in ozone pollution, mitigating its impact on crops. But in other regions, the outcome “will depend on domestic air-pollution policies,” Heald says. “An air-quality cleanup would improve crop yields.”

Overall, with all other factors being equal, warming may reduce crop yields globally by about 10 percent by 2050, the study found. But the effects of ozone pollution are more complex — some crops are more strongly affected by it than others — which suggests that pollution-control measures could play a major role in determining outcomes.

Ozone pollution can also be tricky to identify, Heald says, because its damage can resemble other plant illnesses, producing flecks on leaves and discoloration.

Potential reductions in crop yields are worrisome: The world is expected to need about 50 percent more food by 2050, the authors say, due to population growth and changing dietary trends in the developing world. So any yield reductions come against a backdrop of an overall need to increase production significantly through improved crop selections and farming methods, as well as expansion of farmland.

While heat and ozone can each damage plants independently, the factors also interact. For example, warmer temperatures significantly increase production of ozone from the reactions, in sunlight, of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. Because of these interactions, the team found that 46 percent of damage to soybean crops that had previously been attributed to heat is actually caused by increased ozone.

even ordinary grass shows greater damage lower on the stalk
Under some scenarios, the researchers found that pollution-control measures could make a major dent in the expected crop reductions following climate change. For example, while global food production was projected to fall by 15 percent under one scenario, larger emissions decreases projected in an alternate scenario reduce that drop to 9 percent.

Air pollution is even more decisive in shaping undernourishment in the developing world, the researchers found: Under the more pessimistic air-quality scenario, rates of malnourishment might increase from 18 to 27 percent by 2050 — about a 50 percent jump; under the more optimistic scenario, the rate would still increase, but that increase would almost be cut in half, they found.

typical maple
Agricultural production is “very sensitive to ozone pollution,” Heald says, adding that these findings “show how important it is to think about the agricultural implications of air-quality regulations. Ozone is something that we understand the causes of, and the steps that need to be taken to improve air quality.”

Denise L. Mauzerall, a professor of environmental engineering and international affairs at Princeton University who was not involved in this research, says, “An important finding … is that controls on air-pollution levels can improve agricultural yields and partially offset adverse impacts of climate change on yields. Thus, the increased use of clean energy sources that do not emit either greenhouse gases or conventional air pollutants, such as wind and solar energy, would be doubly beneficial to global food security, as they do not contribute to either climate change or increased surface-ozone concentrations.”

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Park Service, and the Croucher Foundation.


  1. I'll bet Gavin doesn't remember what he wrote.
    Maybe this recomment will stir up the hopium.

    Something to ponder:

    "Upgrading photosynthesis is a different story. If biologists succeed in boosting it by 25 per cent or more, the upgraded plants are going to have a big advantage over their unmodified cousins. And that could spell trouble.

    There is a precedent. About 30 million years ago some plants evolved a way to concentrate CO2 like cyanobacteria do. These are called C4 plants, and although they make up only 4 per cent of plant species, they account for 25 per cent of plant biomass. Look out over a grassy savannah and just about every living thing you see will be a C4 plant."


  2. Great post Gail! Yesterday a small group of college girls collected leaves to make a collage. They were multi-colored but dull from chemical "burn" and many had spots. I commented that leaves used to be much brighter in color and that the dullness and discoloration of their collection was from atmospheric ozone pollution. They shrugged (like "waddiya gonna do?") and continued with their project, I walked away.

    Ever since I read your blog the first time, I knew this would lead to crop failure and negatively impact the food supply at some point. It seems that point has arrived. Soon nuts, fruit and many other foods will be in ever shorter supply, much higher in price while lower in quality and nutrition, and the panic will begin. With so much else going on - from Fukushima to chaotic weather and various wars to ebola and other diseases - very few are paying attention to this "detail." i'm petrified, but continue along with a happy face for as long as I can, knowing what's coming and planning a quick exit when the time comes. The generations coming up have no idea what's ahead - and that's probably good for now (since nothing is being done about any of it).


    1. In addition, and if anyone 'missed it' ...

      The links at the end of the short article/audio (linked above) are equally frightening!

    2. Thanks for that link Colin! I have seen studies with the same results. You have only to buy hothouse produce, where they elevate the CO2 to accelerate growth, to know that it has no substance or flavor and wonder what the nutritive quality can be. And think of all the wild animals who are eating but not being nourished. How many ways can we screw everything up?

    3. "waddiya gonna do?" is indeed the question...

  3. ... and the "answer" to that question is, let's do a little "arithmetic!" :)

    1) We KNOW trees and plants of all kinds are being adversely affected by ozone, airborne mercury and countless other forms of atmospheric pollution, curtailing their ability to even GROW let alone assimilate and 'fix' nutrients that herbivorous and omnivorous lifeforms rely on for their growth and well-being.

    1a) Lest we 'forget,' humans and many other creatures are aerobic, meaning those atmospheric pollutants enter the bodies of these organisms with every breath and, in some cases, transdermally.

    2) The aforementioned atmospheric pollution precipitates out of the air, to one extent or another, and onto/into the ground where it has more and perhaps greater debilitating effects on the root systems of all plant-life as well as the soil microbiology, exacerbating their already reduced ability to acquire and assimilate nutrients necessary for their own well-being as well as that of "higher" lifeforms.

    3) One species of those "higher" lifeforms then take the already degraded "food," process and adulterate it, usually with a plethora of synthetic (i.e., unnatural) chemicals, until it is barely recognizable, visually or biologically, as "food." Think fast- and snack-foods as examples. The end products of these chemistry experiments is then consumed by a significant fraction of those "higher" lifeforms. More and more studies show this isn't even "prudent" let alone "wise."

    4) One species of the aforementioned "higher" lifeforms also combine a veritable cornucopia of natural and/or synthetic chemicals to produce "cleansers," cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and many other compounds for various, assorted and sundry purposes. Many of these are "designed" to be ingested while others are not, yet, they may be ingested by "accident" or absorbed transdermally. Few, if any of them, have undergone truly rigorous testing for efficacy or safety by themselves and NONE of them have been tested at all in any combination!! (In EVERY office in which I've worked, one can ALWAYS smell the chemical warfare being waged by all the repugnant colognes, perfumes and "deodorants," what an abjectly ludicrous misnomer! Some of these even persist in the air long after the "wearer" has vacated that space.)

    I could go on and on but I think the above is sufficient to generate a "sum" that says, "Life on this planet is fuckity-fuck-fucked!" That is all, end transmission.

    1. Ooops! The above was meant to be a "Reply" to the last "waddiya gonna do?" comment.

    2. LOL fuckity-fuck-fucked! Haha that is splendidly evocative Colin! Today I read this:

      Imagine. First daughter who has been riding horses since she was 6 contracted mediastinal large B cell diffuse (non-hodgkins) lymphoma and guess what they use in riding rings for footing? Yup. Rubber crumbs. Yes indeedy.

    3. Thank you and I am sorry to hear about the affliction of your "first daughter." You and she have my deepest sympathy and I sincerely hope it is not cause of "too much"(?!) (or ANY, for that matter) expense, inconvenience or suffering. Alas, that does "fit" with my earlier itemized list and also helps "explain"(?) how people who have never smoked tobacco products, nor spent any time around those that did, nor worked in coal mines or with asbestos or in any other overt manner came into "contact" with "causal" factors, still contracted lung cancer. Of course, it does nothing to shed light on how or why many people have smoked 2 packs/day for 60-70 years, lived well into their 90's and never had ANY form of cancer. It's a "funny" old world! :( That reminds me of the first year or so I started playing golf, many an "old duffer" told me "Golf is a funny game." To which I replied, "Then why don't I hear more people laughing on the golf course?"


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