Sunday, August 30, 2015

Collective Insanity

"The death of trees and shrubs is so blatantly egregious that I simply do not understand what sort of collective insanity allows the residents of this state to go about their daily routines without pausing to reflect on the implications of the ecosystem collapsing in front of their very eyes." ~ yours truly in California, July 2010, in The Widening Gyre.

Below is the transcript for this week's eleventh Dispatch From the Endocene, airing on Extinction Radio.  Photos are from the links at the end, to posts from 2010, 2011 and 2013 taken on the West Coast.  Whether from cities or towns, wilderness or national parks, being watered in nurserys or gardens or arboretums or even in greenhouses, from Southern California deserts to the Olympic Peninsula rainforest - these ubiquitous damaged leaves and sickly, dying and dead trees of all age brackets and of every single species make it clear that a massive die-off was well underway before the drought that is being blamed for the wildfires...and, the only common denominator they share is the composition of atmospheric gases.
Thank you Mike, and welcome Extinction Radio listeners.  This week I’m going to indulge in some new speculation about my pet existential peeve, which is trees dying from pollution.  But don’t despair, because the good news is that even I can see the prospect of saving trees by reducing ozone has become obsolete, and has been superseded by runaway climate change - so this is probably the last time I will do an extended survey of the topic.  I suppose it might be tedious, but guaranteed you won’t hear this anywhere else, and to be honest, I don’t think there is anything much more crucial to life, or more beautiful, than a tree.
I was once a member of an online discussion group about climate change that included prominent activists from the major environmental organizations.  I annoyed them all so much by posting information about trees dying from ozone pollution, and how that will increase global warming, that in exasperation the moderator of the forum begged me to “stop being such an Ozonista”, with a capital O.
In spite of his intention to shame me for being preoccupied with ozone, I was quite pleased with that designation and have been joking about it on my blog ever since.  In today’s Dispatch from the Endocene I’m going to earn it all over again by focussing on ozone pollution; and by suggesting a highly speculative, wild proposition.  You can check on the Extinction Radio website for links to all sources for this episode.
Lately forests have been in the news quite a bit.  In just the past few years, foresters have finally begun admitting that trees of all species are dying prematurely around the world.  If it weren’t so terrifying, this belated recognition would come as something of a relief, because my conviction since 2008 that a trend of forest death is accelerating has been typically greeted with derision and even hostility whenever I have contacted the so-called experts.
One contemptuous response I got in 2010 from a researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center insisted that - “I’m afraid I don't quite understand this 'dieoff' you're talking about. I see no evidence of massive die-offs in eastern forests."

Later that same year Jim Bouldin, official RealClimate blog forestry expert, responded to my comments with a variety of insults as though I was blasphemous, the least of which was - “The "world's forests" are not "in decline"--a gross overstatement.” and “You have no idea what you're talking about”.
The smug response to my letter about “flammable” concentrations” of methane found in virtually all the (rotting) hardwood trees only 80 - 100 years old at the Yale Forest was  - "The common fungal infection described in the paper could be compared with tooth decay (bacterial), or athletes foot (fungal) infection in humans. It is essentially ubiquitous in the world's forests. Would you describe an otherwise normal adult with a tooth cavity as being in terminal decline? I would not. Also, I would mention that, while concerning at the extremes, many of the other signs of 'terminal decline' you describe above can be the result of normal ecological processes active in all forests."
As I wrote in my blog, when trees are being, as they described, "...hollowed out by a common fungal infection that slowly eats through the trunk" it’s a lot more comparable to gangrene or leprosy than tooth decay.

As late as 2012 Professor Steven Wofsy of Harvard disdainfully informed me my concerns were misplaced and wrote:  “Based on our measurements broadleaf trees in Harvard Forest are not declining, they have been thriving”.
(look at the size of that dying tree - compare to youngest daughter on the right!)
And yet this month, Science Magazine devoted a special section to the topic of forest decline worldwide.  The Washington Post headline reads, “The forests of the world are in serious trouble, scientists report” and describes how all four types - tropical, temperate, boreal, and planted - face various challenges that are sometimes unrelated other than that they are all induced by human activity.
Vice led with an even more frantic headline:  “Every Forest Biome on Earth Is Actively Dying Right Now” and continued:

“…according to the latest issue of Science, which is devoted to forest health, every major forest biome is struggling. While each region suffers from unique pressures, the underlying thread that connects them all is undeniably human activity.

“For example, the first of the special issue’s studies, led by forest ecologist Sylvie Gauthier, outlined the threats faced by boreal forests, which represent the largest forest habitats on Earth. These high-latitude woodlands are primarily coniferous, made up of pines, spruces, and larches, and stretch from the expansive forests of Canada to the Russian taiga.”
“Gauthier and her colleagues note that boreal forests have been traditionally very resistant to environmental changes that would devastate other biomes. “The resilience of these systems is well illustrated in the boreal forest of eastern North America,” noted the team, “where the regional tree species pool has remained mostly unchanged over the past 8,000 years despite large fluctuations in climate and regional disturbance regimes.”

“But the adaptive prowess of boreal forests can only be pushed so far, and industrial logging of these timber-rich woodlands is beginning to take its toll. Gauthier’s team estimates that two thirds of the world’s boreal forests are now subject to heavy resource extraction, which has resulted in widespread pollution, deforestation, wildfires, and a less genetically diverse tree population.”
“Compounding these issues is the projected effect of climate change on northern forests. “Over the course of the 21st century, the boreal biome is expected to experience the largest increase in temperatures of all forest biomes,” the team said. “Warmer temperatures would [...] lift the climate barriers to population growth or range expansion of native or invasive forest pests, resulting in severe outbreaks.”
“The health of the immense and seemingly timeless boreal forest is presently under threat, together with the vitality of many forest-based communities and economies,” the researchers said.

“Temperate forests aren’t faring much better, according to another study…Temperate forests are primarily composed of deciduous trees that shed their leaves seasonally, and are common in mid-latitude regions around the world.”

“As with boreal forests, climate change is the most devastating threat facing temperate woodlands, which are especially vulnerable to droughts and wildfires. Deciduous trees have evolved to withstand these pressures to a certain degree, but the authors pointed out that the steep upward trend of rising temperatures is ushering in “megadisturbances” that will not be so easy to brush off.”
“For millennia, drought has been a key disturbance agent in temperate forests…Over the past few decades, however, rising global temperatures have contributed to droughts of a severity that is unprecedented in the last century or more.”

“Exceptional droughts, directly and in combination with other disturbance factors, are pushing some temperate forests beyond thresholds of sustainability,” the team concluded.
“Forests that have been severely dehydrated by megadroughts suffer from water depletion, and they also turn into enormous tinder piles that can feed megafires. On top of that, temperate forests coincide with heavy population densities, so there a lot of anthropogenic stressors on them as well, like pollution, industrial development, and invasive species.”

“Last but not least, researchers led by geography professor Simon Lewis assessed one of the most biodiverse habitats on the planet—the tropical forest, characterized by evergreen broadleaf trees.”
“While Lewis and his colleagues noted that climate change is a major risk for tropical forests, they concluded that this biome is much more threatened by direct anthropogenic contact.”

“Along those lines, the team outline the ecological disturbances induced by human settlements over the course of several millennia, beginning with extinctions of tropical megafauna and ending with “today’s global integration, dominated by intensive permanent agriculture, industrial logging, and attendant fires and fragmentation.”
Inevitably, the article has to end with some hope:

“So, to sum up: Every forest biome on Earth is actively dying right now, and if this course isn’t corrected, the deterioration of these valuable ecosystems will accelerate over the coming decades.”

“Of course, in each of the studies, the authors pointed out numerous ways to slow the alarming decline of forests worldwide, such as stricter conservation policies, better forestry management, and a global framework for policing climate change. These kinds of actions “would lessen the unwelcome shocks that living in the Anthropocene will bring this century,” as Lewis’s team put it.”
“In other words, it is absolutely possible for humans to curb the damage to forests, or perhaps even reverse it in some places. Indeed, given that our own fate is inexorably tied to that of the world’s forests, it seems suicidal to consider any other option.”

“But whether we can pull this kind of turnaround off depends almost entirely on the human capacity to plan for the long-term health of the planet. If humans intend to survive this anthropogenic age we brought to the planet, we will have to up our game.”

That’s a lot of ifs and buts.
The articles are behind a paywall, so I wrote to the lead author of the one abstract that mentioned pollution, Dr. Trumbore at the Max Planck Institute.  The abstract reads in part:

“Mechanistic relationships between the multiple and interacting stresses and disturbances and forest decline are not well characterized.  Most ecological experiments are designed to test the effects of a single factor such as drought, elevated CO2, or changes in ozone, and those that attempt to test more than two factors quickly grow to an unmanageable size.”

Dr. Trumbore sent me a pdf of the paper so I will post one of the graphs indicating the influence of ozone on my blog (it is below):
The influence of tropospheric ozone is greatly underestimated in this graph, in my opinion!
So great has concern about forests become that funding has just been approved for a laser sensor to be placed in the International Space Station to monitor all aspects of forests, including tree height, biomass, canopy architecture and cover.  Unfortunately, the $94m grant that Woods Hole obtained from NASA will go to develop and deploy this instrumentation over the next five years, and won’t actually be installed until 2019.  By then, I don’t think anyone will need satellites to tell them what has already been perfectly obvious on the ground, for many years.

Meanwhile, the wildfires are becoming quite a problem.  They are unprecedented in frequency, duration, and intensity.  The ability to fight them is being eroded, as budgets are overrun and there just isn’t enough equipment and personnel to contain them all.  In addition to the loss of the forest habitat, as well as homes and other buildings and property, the air quality is deteriorating in a feedback loop with many dimensions.
The overwhelming consensus is that the forests are dying, and fires are raging, predominantly because of drought from climate change, with a nod to invasive insects and disease.  However, while I’m not prepared to say I am unequivocally certain, I would like to raise the prospect that the experts have everything if not exactly, then basically, more-or-less, upside down.

Rather than drought from climate change killing trees, I think it is worth considering the opposite - that trees dying from ozone are causing the droughts that are plaguing so many parts of the world.

The main reason I think this could be the case is that trees are dying in places that aren’t in drought, and plants that are being watered or irrigated have foliage that is identically injured as well.  I saw extensive evidence of dying trees myself several years ago in California and Washington state, places that weren’t yet in the current drought.   Those have been my observations, which I documented with countless photographs on my blog, Wit’s End.  But, there are also some objective, intriguing reasons to think that the scientists are missing the forest for the trees.
First, let’s take a look at the past, when numerous civilizations collapsed because of deforestation followed by drought - a pattern which occurred long before widespread burning of fossil fuels.

The mechanism for this is that trees actually create rain.  In the past, people deforested by cutting them down.  We are still doing that, and on an industrial scale - and now, even worse, we are poisoning them.

It has been well established that both the Mayan and the Anasazi civilizations collapsed due to extensive deforestation followed by drought, and it’s quite likely the same fate fell upon the Mound Builders of North America.
I’ll quote from one article about this pattern, which says:

“Desertification played a significant role in the collapse of many large empires and civilizations — such as the Roman Empire, Carthage, the Harappan civilization, and Ancient Greece… Most of the desertification that these civilizations experienced was as a result of agriculture, deforestation, and the associated changes in aridity and the climate.”

A related post says:

“Interestingly, historical evidence has shown that there have been at least three major epicenters of extreme and extensive land deterioration (in addition to less extreme occurrences of course) — the Mediterranean; the Mesopotamian Valley; and the loessial [ low-ess-i-al] plateau of China, where population levels have previously been quite dense. These regions were all, until human activity, biologically rich, forested to some degree or other, and agriculturally very productive — with rich, dense topsoil. Humans played a very, very significant role in turning these regions into the rather dry and arid regions that they are now.”

“Deforestation is one of the main drivers of desertification, and the processes that set desertification in motion.”
“More than half of the planet’s forests have been destroyed in the last 10,000 or so years — with most of that loss coming in only the last 50 years, along with an exponential increase in the human population. This enormous deforestation has been the cause of an enormous number of species extinctions, the desertification of large tracts of lands, climatic changes, topsoil erosion, large-scale flooding events, famine, disease epidemics/pandemics, and what you might as well call “insect plagues”, amongst other things.”

“Deforestation has been throughout human history primarily the result of agriculture, fuel use (firewood, charcoal), timber harvesting, growing human populations, war, and animal husbandry.”

“Deforestation almost inevitably seems to end-up creating wastelands via the processes of soil erosion and desertification — if the area isn’t reforested soon afterwords, whether via natural processes or human ones. Once reforested, though, the new forests still lack the great biodiversity that the old growth forests once possessed, and this doesn’t return.  A great many of the regions deforested in previous ages (thousands of years ago) remain as severely degraded wastelands or deserts to this day.”

“As it stands now, the annual rate of deforestation is estimated to be around 13.7 million hectares a year — about the same amount of land as the area of the whole country of Greece. Around half of this land gets reforested to a degree — but, as stated before, these new forests are almost invariably a shadow of their former selves, and don’t offer the same degree of natural services (water purification, oxygen production, food production, etc).”
Regarding Easter Island, the article says:

“The archeological record clearly shows that the current state of the island is vastly different from what it was at the time of its settlement. Before settlement, the island was nearly entirely forest, with many species of trees that are now extinct there — several of which reached heights of over 50 feet. This includes what would likely be the largest palm tree species in the world if it weren’t extinct, [which I’m not going to try to pronounce]. After resources shortages started to begin the population on the island plummeted to around 2,000–3,000 — from a previous high of approximately 15,000. It was during this time of crisis that 21 different species of trees, and all of the species of land-birds became extinct. This included at least two species of rails, two species of parrots, and a heron species.”

“Researchers think that this was the result of large-scale deforestation, over-harvesting/over-hunting, and the introduction of the rat. As a result of the loss of large trees, the islanders were no longer able to create seaworthy ships. This led to significant changes in their diet, from a diet where previously fish and dolphins had provided abundant protein, to one that was almost completely reliant on farming and domesticated chickens. Previously there had also been an abundant resource in the large land-bird and sea-bird populations on the island, these disappeared shortly after the loss of the ability to fish — very likely from over exploitation.”

“As a result of the deforestation, rainfall levels also fell considerably — as without trees the evaporation and condensation cycle on the island was greatly weakened.”

So let’s turn to the current situation, and see how it is described in an article from Climate News Network, based on two brand new studies.

“Human impacts on global warming and water resources are threatening to turn the landscape of the US west into a dustbowl.”
“One way or another, humans are to blame for the catastrophic drought in California that scientists say may be emerging as a “new normal”.”

“Either humans have mismanaged the state’s water, or human-triggered global warming has begun to help turn America’s landscape of wine and roses into a dustbowl, according to two new studies.”

“And the arguments have relevance extending far beyond the US west, as the European Drought Observatory has warned that much of mainland Europe is now caught up in the continent’s worst drought since 2003.”

“The consequences of any drought could also be more enduring than expected.  A research team in the US reports in the journal Ecological Applications that trees that survived severe drought in the US southeast 10 years ago are now dying – because of the long-ended drought.”

“Such statements are simple, but the connections with climate change are complex. That is because drought is a natural cyclic turn of events, even in well-watered countries. It is one of those extremes that, summed up, make the average climate.”

“Global warming or not, droughts would happen. California in particular has a history of periodic drought that dates back far beyond European settlement and the state’s growth to become the most populous in the US.”

“But the drought that began in 2012 – and which has cost the agricultural industry more than $2 billion, lost 17,000 jobs, and so far killed 12 million trees – is the worst in at least a century.”
“Amir Agha Kouchak, a hydrologist at the University of California Irvine, and colleagues say in Nature journal that they want authorities to recognise that human factors are making cyclic water scarcity worse.”

“They say: ‘Severe and long-lasting droughts have occurred in reconstructions of the region’s past climate, so it is not clear whether California’s current drought is a temporary weather condition or is the emergence of a ‘new normal’.”

“Observations and climate projections indicate that California’s climate is warming, with more winter rainfall instead of snow, earlier snow melt, and decreases in spring and summer stream flows. Future droughts will be compounded by more-intense heatwaves and more wildfires.”
“…The researchers leave open the question of the role of global warming, fueled by rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide because of increasing fossil fuel combustion. But US scientists report in Geophysical Research Letters that they think global warming could have contributed up to 27% of the present drought.”

“Their study, based on analysis of month-by-month meteorological data for more than a century, identifies a trend towards drought that is in step with warming since 1901. And they argue that even through the present drought is natural, it has been modestly intensified by climate change.”

“More ominously, global warming has amplified the probability of severe drought. The new study suggests that, by the 2060s, California may be in more or less permanent drought. Rainfall might increase, but not enough to make up for greater evaporation because of rising temperatures.”
“A lot of people think that the amount of rain that falls out the sky is the only thing that matters,” says the report’s lead author, A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“But warming changes the baseline amount of water that’s available to us, because it sends water back into the sky.”

So there are several things to take away from that release.  One is that trees began dying at a ridiculous rate in California well before the current drought, even though obviously they survived past cycles, since some of them are thousands of years old.

Another has to do with the study cited, claiming that trees are dying in the Southeast from previous drought, which states in the abstract that “Following a severe, multi-year drought, 72% of trees that did not recover their pre-drought growth rates died within 10 years.”

Reading this was disappointing to me because I recalled I had written to one of the co-authors, Dr. James Clark back in 2011 after I read about his earlier research, in which an 18-year study monitored the growth and fecundity of 27,000 trees.  I asked him why he hadn’t included the influence of ozone, and he wrote back:
“Gail, thanks for the note, a few thoughts.

“Ozone is a problem for plants, hard to study for large trees.  For crops, it's increasingly evident that rising CO2 can mitigate effects of rising ozone (or if you prefer, ozone offsets the stimulation that would have occurred with rising CO2).”

Okay, I have to say that that is wrong, because the effects of ozone aren’t just decreased growth, which CO2 stimulated, but leaves that become spotted and then shrivel up and turn brown, first noticed on tobacco.  So it ruins crops like spinach and lettuce that are used for their leaves, and it does a number on the leaves of trees so it ruins the famed autumn color and the tourist industry in New England that is based on it.  But moving on, he continued some blah blah and finally admitted:

“Nonetheless, all evidence is that ozone is bad for all plants and certainly contributes to the health of trees in our study.”

“In any study of mortality, there are risk factors that cannot be experimentally manipulated, so they become the background factors. Ozone levels have been high in our region throughout the duration of this study, and mortality rates could be higher throughout for that reason alone.  What we studied are the factors that varied against this background, and they show the differing impacts of temperature, drought, and competition for light on different species.  Ozone is not included in the study, because we could not experimentally manipulate it or design the experiment to benefit from a broad range of ozone levels.”

“That does not mean it is unimportant.”

So basically what he was saying is that it doesn’t matter to the scientists whether ozone is detrimental or even lethal to trees, because they can’t test it experimentally, so they take it as a given influence and only investigate precipitation and temperature as the variables.  Which kinda seems like a study of cancer patients that only collates what sort of food the subjects eat and how much they exercise, while ignoring what toxic chemicals they have been exposed to.  Oh wait.  That’s precisely what they do.

I looked for scientific confirmation that loss of trees leads to drought, and there is plenty of it.  I’ll go through some highlights.

A study published in 1997 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters stated “…deforestation along the southern coast of West Africa…may result in complete collapse of monsoon circulation, and a significant reduction of regional rainfall.

In 2006 a UN media outlet reported on deforestation and resulting drought in East Africa:
“Trees actually do two processes. They drill water into the ground. They funnel water into underground aquifers where it is stored to supply rivers during drought. They also hold soil. Where there are no trees, the soil is washed away into rivers causing siltation into the oceans choking coral reefs.”

“…Contrary to conventional wisdom, an estimated 62 percent of precipitation occurs over land as a result of evapotranspiration from lakes and wetlands and dense vegetation, particularly forests, which pump ground water into the sky. The moisture then condenses and falls as rain, according to Nuttal.” 

“Only about 38 percent of the precipitation is generated over oceans and seas.” 

“The link between deforestation and drought is very significant.  Forests are needed to build in resilience in the natural ecosystem. They are a buffer against extreme floods and droughts."
A guest post at Skeptical Science said of the situation in Brazil,

“In 2007, Sampaio et al. published a paper called “Regional climate change over eastern Amazonia caused by pasture and soybean cropland expansion”. It suggested there’s a tipping point in the capability of the Amazon rainforest to recycle water inland. Let’s explain this: water comes to the Amazon from the Atlantic Ocean only until it rains down for the first time. From then on, it’s the forest itself that promotes transpiration, producing new clouds that go a bit further inland, repeating the cycle many times and so making rain come to many parts of the continent where it wouldn’t otherwise.”
In January, The Center for International Forestry Research published an article titled “The science is clear: Forest loss behind Brazil’s drought” which also tied it to the drought in Argentina.

But loss of forest in the Amazon has implications beyond Brazil.  Research published in 2013 in the Journal of Climate suggested that “Complete deforestation of the Amazon rainforest could reduce rainfall in the Pacific Northwest by up to 20 percent and snowpack in the Sierra Nevada by up to 50 percent…’“The big point is that Amazon deforestation will not only affect the Amazon — it will not be contained. It will hit the atmosphere and the atmosphere will carry those responses,” said first author David Medvigy of Princeton University… “It just so happens that one of the locations feeling that response will be one we care about most agriculturally. If you change the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, where most of the irrigation for California’s Central Valley comes from, then by this study deforestation of the Amazon could have serious consequences for the food supply of the United States.”

“Reduced rainfall and snowpack could also increase regional vulnerability to fire and affect energy production since much of California and Washington’s power comes from hydroelectric dams.”
It would seem that two things are now beyond any doubt.

1.  Forests all over the world are dying, and;
2.  Deforestation reduces rainfall, causing drought, leading to wildfires and desertification

The question that remains is, are the forests dying because of pollution, and is this contributing, or even primarily causing, droughts and wildfires and thus even more, faster death of trees?

Another way of phrasing the question might be, given that the forests ARE dying, how could drought NOT be a result?
A five-day conference back in 1987 brought together foresters from West Germany and the US.  The participants reached no consensus, but various theories emerged that were described in an article by The New York Times.  It was already recognized that trees were struggling then, well in advance of the kind of heating and drought we are seeing now.  This was understood by the conference participants to be at least partly related to pollution, a conclusion that has since been avoided by the majority of the scientific community.  Reading some of the quotes in the article makes it pretty clear why.
“’This pollution is caused not just by big companies but by individuals, by you and me,'' said Dr. Schutt as he stood on a fog-shrouded slope of Whiteface Mountain, a research site in New York's Adirondacks that the scientists visited. He said preserving the health of forests meant that individuals must reduce their use of substances, like gasoline, that pollute the environment. ''And what politician wants to tell people that?'' he asked.”

“Dr. Prinz believes that a prime cause of the declines is low-altitude ozone that is created from the burning of fossil fuels.”
“Alan Wellburn, a scientist from Lancaster, England, who works on an American-financed project there, said his research had shown that trees under stress from both natural and man-made causes manufactured in their leaves or needles a substance called ethyline, which then reacted with ozone and caused the trees to die.”

Despite the mania for CO2 induced climate change that has taken hold of the scientific community, there is ample reason to believe that there is a generally unexamined aspect to forest decline.  The situation improved temporarily with emission controls in the US and Europe, but that has since been superseded by the enormous increase elsewhere.
To illustrate this, lastly I will add the latest research on the increasing concentration of ozone in the atmosphere as recounted in an article titled:  “China ‘exporting’ ozone pollution to US: study.”

“Progress slashing unhealthy ozone in the western United States has been largely undone by pollution wafting across the Pacific from China, according to a study published Monday.”

“Scientists have long suspected this might explain why ozone levels along the US west coast remained constant despite a significant local reduction in ozone-forming chemicals.”
“The study, published in Nature Geoscience, is the first to make the case using satellite observations coupled with computer models of how air-borne molecules travel in the lower atmosphere, the authors said.”

"The dominant westerly winds blew this air pollution straight across to the United States," explained [the] lead researcher….In a manner of speaking, China is exporting its air pollution to the West Coast of America," he said.
“Nitrous Oxide emissions from vehicle traffic and industry, mixed with sunlight, create dirty-yellow blankets of ozone smog that sting the eye and scatch the throat.”

“Close to the ground, this pollution causes respiratory problems, damages crops, and is an important source of greenhouse gases.”
“By imposing stringent standards for motor vehicles and industry, state and national government in the US succeeded in cutting ozone-producing nitrous oxide emissions by 20 percent from 2005 to 2010.”

“Those efforts, however, were undermined by China's galloping growth, which pushed its own ozone levels up over the same period by about seven percent.”
“…And some portion of the man-made ozone above China may not have been of its own making.
"China itself lies downwind from India and other parts of Asia…It remains to be established how the free tropospheric ozone trend over China is in turn influenced by emissions upwind."

Verstraeten concludes by suggesting that local or national efforts to improve air quality will have limited impact unless dealt with on an international scale.

"Our atmosphere is global rather than local," he said by email.”
Let’s not forget fugitive emissions of methane from fracking, and melting permafrost, since methane is also an ozone precursor.  Ironically, forests dying primarily from ozone is something we should all wish for, because if the decline and the droughts are really due to the changing climate, there is utterly no hope - since unlike a reduction in ozone precursors which could result in cleaner air almost instantaneously, climate change is long since past any human control, due to amplifying, irreversible feedbacks.
On that cheery note, I will close this latest episode of Dispatch with a brief encouragement to anyone who has listened this far to please, go outside and find a tree, or several.  Really look at them.  Look at their crown, at their bark, at any holes or swollen cankers, examine their leaves or needles and ask yourself…are they healthy?  And if not, ask yourself, why is it that ALL the trees of EVERY age and EVERY species no matter where they are situated are dying?  Can it all be from not enough water?  And if not, what is the common denominator?

Thanks for listening.
Links to sources mentioned in this Dispatch:

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center:

Study, trees in Southeast dying from drought:

Geophysical Research Letters, West Africa:

Posts from Wit's End with photographs of trees that began dying in California and Washington state prior to the drought:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Everlasting War

"The violence of raving thirst has no parallel in the catalogue of human calamities." ~ Owen Chase, First Mate and survivor of the Essex shipwreck

After their ship was stove by a massive sperm whale on November 20, 1820, the twenty sailors who were left with three small whaleboats were afraid to steer towards the Marquesas.  Rumors of ritualized homosexuality, warfare and cannibalism inspired them to attempt to reach South America instead, a much longer voyage that led to the deaths of all but eight and, ironically, murder and cannibalism among themselves.

Still, contemporary reports reveal their fears were not unfounded.  From the Nantucket Whaling Museum:
Marquesan war club ('i'u), early 19th century - Heavily ornamented ironwood clubs served as weapons and as symbols of prestige for chiefs and warriors in the Marquesas Islands
Above, Marquesan chief's staff (tokotoko pio'l), early 19th century; and below,
This ironwood staff supports a pom-pom of human hair, reputedly obtained from a slain enemy
The industry of which those sailers were a part decimated whale populations.  Indeed, much life in the sea was historically overfished, with vast ecological consequences.  It remains to be seen if this long-standing problem is being usurped by pollution, climate change, and acidification.
This fin whale is one of 23 carcasses that have washed up on Alaska beaches in the last month. Before anyone freaks out about Fukushima radiation, it's worth looking at NOAA's Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event (UME) chart, which indicates most UMEs occur not in the Pacific, but in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico - and that of the causes that were determined, they include infections, human interactions, malnutrition and, increasingly, the biotoxins demoic acid and brevetoxin (red tide), which are known to increase with pollution and thrive in warming waters.

Updates on the Alaska UME event can be found at NOAA's website.

Following is the transcript from the 10th Dispatch from the Endocene, the episode for Sunday, August 23.  You can listen to the entire broadcast on Extinction Radio here.  The illustrations are from an exhibit in the Whaling Museum, of embroidery depicting scenes and quotes from Moby Dick.
Thanks Mike and welcome listeners, to the 10th Dispatch from the Endocene.

You might think I should be reporting on trees again, since the current issue of the journal Science has compiled recent research indicating that all the world’s forests are in deep trouble - an alarm bell I have been ringing for many years.

However, I didn’t have time this week to really do it justice, because my youngest daughter came from the west coast where she is studying sea otters, for an ecology conference in Baltimore - and then wanted me to bring her to visit her grandparents on Cape Cod.  So, I was busy…and besides, I’ve got a couple of more obscure - one brand-new and one decrepit but viable - terrific papers to share.
By way of introducing them, let’s start with a quote from Herman Melville’s epic novel, “Moby Dick”- because while we were on the Cape, I took her on the ferry to Nantucket where we toured the Whaling Museum.  Here’s the quote:

“And still another inquiry remains...whether leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; or whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
I have only been to Nantucket once before and loved its historic architecture and cobblestone streets, its lack of even a single traffic light, and the pervasive fresh smell of salt water.  This is probably because I grew up in a house which was built in 1720 in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a sleepy seaside town on the far side of Cape Anne about an hour north of Boston.  In the 1600’s, Ipswich was expected to be what Boston became.  A harbor that silted in left the town in economic decline for the subsequent three centuries, so the impoverished citizens had no money to tear down the houses and replace them with newer fancier versions.

Consequently Ipswich, though small, has more preserved 17th Century homes than any other town in the United States.  I still miss the ancient mystique conveyed by those mute rows of clapboard houses, with their leaded bubbly diamond-paned windows - and the worn graveyard stones spattered with lichens.  The stubborn survival of such artifacts testifies to longevity through adversity, which is a comforting notion.  But back to our day trip.
Herman Melville wrote, in “Moby Dick” - “Nantucket! …It stands there, away off shore…a mere hillock, an elbow of sand…what wonder…that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! …launching a navy of great ships on the sea…and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood…” 

He referred, of course, to the whales that sailers from the island pursued and relentlessly exterminated - at first easily plucked from the adjacent migratory route just off the shores, then from down the Atlantic to South America, around Cape Horn and finally chased all the way up to Japan.  The whalers’ journeys began as day excursions, and then, as the whale populations were wiped out, grew into weeks, and finally searching as much as 3 years long at sea.
Nantucket was the original epicenter of the whaling industry that began in the 1600’s and flourished, with only a setback or two from international wars, into the 1800’s.  It’s difficult to convey just how enormous the slaughter of whales became, and how ruthlessly and swiftly it expanded, and how essential the oil was for lamps, soaps, and lubricants in the burgeoning industrial age.

“Moby Dick”, the novel and the real-life tale upon which it was based, is a chronicle of hubris, slaughter, greed, and obsession.  These themes are explored through desperation, disaster, terror and cannibalism.  It’s also a cautionary tale about the retribution of Mother Nature, which makes it a quintessential story for our own time, when human exploitation and ruination of ecosystems has spread to every habitat on earth - and so many sleeping dragons have been poked and awakened that it’s almost impossible to keep track of the consequences.  We are witnessing rampant deforestation, over hunting and fishing species to extinction, pollution, dwindling freshwater aquifers, depletion of essential mineral and energy resources, the melting glaciers and polar ice, sea level rise, acidifying oceans, transport of invasive species, the burning forests, violent storms, heat waves, and extreme weather bringing floods and droughts.  Did I leave anything out?  How about increased seismic activity from the isostatic rebound of the great ice sheets.  Earthquakes, volcanic explosions, and tsunamis anyone?
With the transcript of this episode on the Extinction Radio website, I will leave links to some previous articles I have written on my blog, Wit’s End, that look in greater detail at the scale of this truly epic annihilation.  The title of the first is taken from the quote that began this Dispatch, “The Final Puff”, which features original paintings from the era, plus a fascinating review by Emily Witt published in the London Review of Books called “Properly Disposed”.  She discusses Eric Carle’s book “Moby-Duck:  The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea” which traces the travels of plastic in a most amusing and enlightening way, slightly more sinister than his famous “Hungry Caterpillar” child’s book.  Another post, “Merely Players” contrasts the profound parallels between Melville’s masterpiece and the brilliant book and movie “Life of Pi”, which also examines the savagery of man against animals, and himself.  There are pictures of items in the museum and buildings and luxury shops in neighborhoods around the town, in “Torches of Freedom”.
“Moby Dick” is Melville’s dramatization of the true story of the shipwreck of the “Essex” - the first whaling ship, but not the last, to be attacked by its prey.  In the fictionalized version, he called the ship the “Pequod”, which also sank after the assault.  As with the “Essex”, most of its crew perished immediately, and the few who remained were condemned to drift on the water, exposed to the elements, starving and dying of thirst.

Until very recently on Nantucket, there was deep shame and general aversion to acknowledging the fate of the crew of the Essex.  The incident was not discussed in polite company, and the inhabitants tried to expunge any association, and distance themselves from the well-known disaster.  Recently however they seem to have decided to embrace it - at least at the Museum, which has installed an extensive exhibit since the last time I toured. It seems to have become a macabre draw, which probably is related to the popularity of zombie movies.
A whimsical and oddly delightful gallery, called “The Mighty Misty Monster”, features the fantastic, minutely precise embroidery of Susan Boardman.  She has illustrated narratives from the book with exquisite raised panels, delicately stitched and embellished with tiny beads and pearls.  I took photos of them, which you can find on my blog for this Dispatch.

It also includes props, such as costumes and weapons, lent by the producers of a movie to be released in January of this year.  It is a dramatization of a book of eponymous title, “In the Heart of the Sea” which is a big Hollywood updated version of the last voyage of the “Essex”.  I can’t wait to see it!
Far from ignoring the sordid details of the Essex survivors, the new exhibit unabashedly expounds on the cannibalism of the crew that remained.

Worse even than that, according to one of the plaques in the exhibit, “Cannibalism among shipwrecked sailors was openly acknowledged in the days of soil, and castaways often admitted to drawing lots to decide who would live and who die.  Yet it is clear that these lotteries were rarely fair, and the strong typically ate the weak.  In disaster after disaster, passengers perished before sailors, boys before men, and blacks before whites.  So, too, perhaps, among the men of the Essex.  Is it a coincidence that only Nantucketers remained in the boats at the end, or that only white men survived, or that only non-Nantucketers elected to remain on Henderson Island?”

So the formidably bleak picture of human nature presented by Captain Ahab turns out to be the perfect fictional representative for what new research now presents as indisputable.
In a blow to the fantasies of the WooWoo (which they will probably never admit) this conclusion is being described in newly published research by scientists as, finally, a virtual certainty beyond any doubt:

A headline from the university release says:

“Humans responsible for demise of gigantic ancient mammals
~ Early humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of a variety of species of giant beasts…”

Although it was not within the scope of the study to distinguish between which human activities were to blame in particular extinctions, whether directly hunting for food or other commodities, or indirect impacts such as habitat destruction or trophic cascades or bottom-up forcing from other extinctions, it did establish with mathematic precision that the correlation in all cases is to the arrival and activities of humans, and only tangentially to the natural influence of climate conditions.  The case of Asia is considered somewhat murky still, calling for further investigation.
The article reads:

“…Scientists at the universities of Exeter and Cambridge claim their research settles a prolonged debate over whether mankind or climate change was the dominant cause of the demise of massive creatures in the time of the sabretooth tiger, the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhino and the giant armadillo.

“”Known collectively as megafauna, most of the largest mammals ever to roam the earth were wiped out over the last 80,000 years, and were all extinct by 10,000 years ago.

“Lewis Bartlett, of the University of Exeter, led the research, which also involved the universities of Reading and Bristol and is published in the journal Ecography. He said cutting-edge statistical analysis had helped solve the mystery almost beyond dispute, concluding that man was the dominant force in wiping out the creatures, although climate change could also have played a lesser role.”
“The researchers ran thousands of scenarios which mapped the windows of time in which each species is known to have become extinct, and humans are known to have arrived on different continents or islands. This was compared against climate reconstructions for the last 90,000 years.”

“Examining different regions of the world across these scenarios, they found coincidences of human spread and species extinction which illustrate that man was the main agent causing the demise, with climate change exacerbating the number of extinctions…”
Lewis Bartlett was quoted: “As far as we are concerned, this research is the nail in the coffin of this 50-year debate - humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of megafauna. What we don’t know is what it was about these early settlers that caused this demise. Were they killing them for food, was it early use of fire or were they driven out of their habitats? Our analysis doesn’t differentiate, but we can say that it was caused by human activity more than by climate change.”

He added, most significantly, that “It debunks the myth of early humans living in harmony with nature”.
This is precisely why the WooWoo dread this final nail in the coffin, one which has been obvious for some time and certainly to anyone who read George Monbiot’s monumental article, “Destroyer of Worlds”.  The correlation of humans driving dozens upon dozens of species to extinction in prehistoric times is as strong as the shape of continents fitting Pangea, or smoking causes cancer, or burning billions of tons of fossil fuels adds to greenhouse gases and warms the earth…or spewing toxins into the air poisons trees.

The WooWoo are loathe to concede that humans caused the extinction of the megafauna because it fundamentally interferes with their cherished belief that humans are capable of, indeed prefer, living sustainably and peacefully within natural constraints.  Their hope for survival - or if not survival, then salvation - resides in the conviction that, absent some evil influence, humans are predisposed to respect and cherish nature without despoiling it.  This runs counter to basic biology.  Their supposition that humans are uniquely special is actually arrogant, and requires the existence of some “outside” force that perverted our spiritual inclination towards perpetual harmony - forces such as patriarchy, organized religion, agriculture, or capitalism that are to blame for wealth inequality, racism, sexism, slavery - as if those are “outside” forces!
For most people it seems too threatening to simply admit that we have NEVER cherished nature enough to safeguard it from our exploitation and expansion, even though it’s just humans doing what any organism does - grow as much as we can, as fast as we can.  We like to think our consciousness or souls or whatever sets us apart from other species of life, but it doesn’t.  It actually just enables us to grow uncontrollably like mindless bacteria, and PRETEND to ourselves that isn’t what we are doing.

An earlier report says much the same thing, but about life in the ocean instead of on land, AND, it’s from 2001.  It was co-authored by several scientists, including Jeremy Jackson, and also my daughter’s thesis advisor, James Estes (which is how I came across it) titled “Cover story in Science reveals historical overkill of marine Megafauna triggered current ocean crises”.
These leading marine biologists called for restoration of the ocean, claiming that the most pernicious problem is overfishing.  Of course, no such restoration has occurred, in fact the opposite has transpired.  Humans have continued extracting life from the sea - and polluting it, and acidifying it - at a horrendously accelerating rate.

This completely ineffectual report, written 15 years ago, makes it quite clear that trends towards ecosystem collapse are impervious to scientific warnings.  Just listen to what they said:

“While recent reports suggest Stone Age hunters drove dozens of species of huge land creatures to extinction, the cover story of the July 27 edition of Science describes the ecological extinctions of marine megafauna--vast populations of whales, manatees, dugongs, monk seals, sea turtles, swordfish, sharks, giant codfish and rays--from overfishing at a global scale never before realized.”

“Drawing on paleoecological, archeological and historical data, the scientists uncovered past evidence of seas teeming with large animals as well as abundances of oysters and shellfish so vast they posed hazards to navigation. The new data also show that historical overkill of this marine life triggered current ecological collapses - many of which have been mistakenly attributed to pollution.”
"We started out to study everything that people had ever done to oceans historically and were astounded to discover that in each case we examined, overfishing was the primary driver of ecosystem collapse," states Jackson.

“The data demonstrate that overfishing triggered changes in ecosystem structure and function as early as the late aboriginal and early colonial stages. Even more chilling, the scientists show that grinding down marine food webs is responsible for many of the problems we face today. Removal of key predators and entire layers of the food chain set off sequences of events that are now culminating in toxic algal blooms, dead zones, outbreaks of diseases and other symptoms of ecological instability.”

* Chesapeake Bay, the ocean birthplace of the U.S.A. is a bacterially dominated, impoverished ecosystem. Historically oysters filtered the entire water column every three days. Records describe a lost cannon, "clearly visible in over 30 feet of water." Eutrophication commonly ascribed to increased run-off and nutrient loading began instead with the mechanized extraction of the vast oyster reefs. Overfishing the oysters removed the top down control of phytoplankton. Grey whales, (now extinct in the Atlantic), dolphins, manatees, river otters, sea turtles, alligators, giant sturgeon, and hammerhead sharks were all once abundant inhabitants of Chesapeake Bay but are now virtually eliminated.
* Overfishing of large fish has led to overgrowth of algae on coral reefs, which has smothered the reefs and jeopardized the approximately 3 million species they harbor.

* The recent die-off of turtlegrass beds in Florida Bay can be attributed to the ecological extinction of green sea turtles. Overkill of the green sea turtle and other seagrass grazers such as dugongs and manatees has contributed to outbreaks of disease and die-offs in seagrasses. This has undermined the habitat's ability to serve as a food source, breeding and nursery ground, erosion protector and more.

* Many scientists have long suspected that overfishing has caused the well-publicized collapse of sea lion and sea otter populations in the Bering Sea. But new work related to this study by Alan Springer (University of Alaska) and co-author James Estes at UC Santa Cruz and several others, suggests that vast depletion of the great whales by humans has contributed to this collapse in a heretofore unrecognized manner. Whaling and overfishing forced killer whales to switch prey from the great whales to sea lions and most recently to sea otters - ultimately causing sea urchin barrens and the loss of kelp forests.

“Responding only to current events on a case-by-case basis cannot solve the ocean's problems because impacts of human disturbance are synergistic and have deep historical roots. Ecological extinctions make ecosystems more vulnerable to other natural and human disturbances such as nutrient loading, eutrophication, anoxia, disease, and climate change. Meanwhile various forms of human disturbance have increased and accelerated.”
One of the plaques in the Whaling Museum that highlight quotes from contemporaneous writings about the sinking of the “Essex”, described the depravity and insanity among the shipwrecked sailors.  Commodore Charles Ridgely, of the USS Constellation, described their condition on March 9, 1821 - “They were ninety two days in the boat & were in a most wretched state, they were unable to move when found sucking the bones of their dead Mess mates, which they were loth to part with.”

I just have to love that vision of the crazed sailors, quavering in their battered boats and terrified by the prospect of rescue, wondering if they would rather roll on the swales of the ocean, blubbering and clinging and sucking old dry bones, than rejoin the inescapable brutality that is human society.

Thanks for listening to this Dispatch from the Endocene.  Guaranteed, next week will be even worse, so I hope you tune in again.

Update:  The Worldwatch Institute has just released a reportThe Oceans: Resilience at Risk.  The usual warnings which, as we have just seen, date back decades and have been to no avail, are repeated.

“Our sense of the oceans’ power and omnipotence—combined with scientific ignorance—contributed to an assumption that nothing we did could ever possibly impact it,” writes [contributing author] Auth. “Over the years, scientists and environmental leaders have worked tirelessly to demonstrate and communicate the fallacy of such arrogance.”

...Yet Auth believes that there is still hope. “Conservation efforts aimed at improving system resiliency have proven effective in addressing the nexus between fishing and climate change,” she writes. Changes in fishing policies, equipment, and techniques that result in less damage to ocean-bottom habitats and that reduce bycatch also would diminish fishing stresses. Finally, revamping the global energy system away from fossil fuels would curtail the rise in ocean temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.

“It is time for homo sapiens sapiens to live up to its somewhat presumptuous Latin name, and grow up.”

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