Friday, January 1, 2016

No Mercy

“I think we are just insects, we live a bit and then die and that’s the lot. There’s no mercy in things. There’s not even a Great Beyond. There’s nothing.”

        ~ John Fowles, The Collector

Following is the transcript to my 19th Dispatch from the Endocene which aired on the Extinction Radio episode of Friday, January 1, 2016.  Happy New Year!

Thanks Gene and greetings listeners.  Welcome to the 19th Dispatch from the Endocene, a new epoch in Earth’s history when life is on the verge of ending.  We conscious wanderers find ourselves in a time of extreme cognitive dissonance - when material luxury is juxtaposed with abject deprivation and hunger; when the myriad glories of nature are accessible on smartphones but are overshadowed by images of unimaginably violent storms; and a temporary abundance is stalked by grotesque desecration.  For me, it’s a time of grief and gratitude…and occasionally, suffocating guilt and stark terror.
In one of the many paradoxes that engulf modern civilization, science is becoming ever more fabulous - and simultaneously woefully inadequate.  The ability of research to specialize in minutiae unveils more mysteries of chemistry and biology and physics every day; but it also compartmentalizes each subject into extreme isolation.  Too often, our expanding base of knowledge resembles the blind describing different parts of an elephant with no concept of the whole animal.  One field lacks substantive relevance to the others.
This trend was discerned years ago and discussed in a wonderful essay titled “Whatever Happened to Ecology”.  You’ll be able to find a link to that article and all other references in this Dispatch posted with a transcript on my blog, Wit’s End.

The author, Edward Goldsmith, wrote:  “The science of Ecology has been taken over by the cult of scientific reductionism and has become a weapon in the war on the living world being waged by industrial man.”
Thus we see that recent research traces a reduction of trees and forest carbon storage to the extirpation of large mammals being hunted as sport or bushmeat.  But this is really nothing new, because a vast transformation and degradation of tree diversity occurred many thousands of years ago, when humans hunted the megafauna to extinction as we migrated to continents and islands around the globe.  The persimmon, pawpaw and osage orange trees barely survived through clonal root reproduction, while many other species of tree that relied on large herbivores for seed dispersal disappeared.  Their predators also went extinct, and other vast ecological disturbances occurred as a result.

Another new study examines an ancient transformation of the structure of plant and animal communities by analyzing fossils.  It revealed what is described as a “dramatic switch” in diversity that is linked directly to human influence, even at low levels of agricultural activity.
From an article quoting co-authors of the study:

“The pattern of co-occurring species remained stable through the evolution of land organisms from the earliest tetrapods through dinosaurs, flowering plants and mammals,” said Anna K. Behrensmeyer, co-director and paleobiologist… “This pattern didn’t change because of previous mass extinctions or ancient climate variability, but instead, early human activities 6,000 years ago suddenly began resetting a basic property of natural communities. Isolating species has consequences — it can catalyze evolutionary change over hundreds of thousands to millions of years, but it also makes species more vulnerable to extinction.”

A member of the team of 29 scientists explained:

“Human impact on the environment has intensified deeply since that early-Holocene transition, but it is important to understand that we began altering ecosystems long ago…I think that modern human-driven forces, like climate change and pollution, are orders of magnitude more destructive than what early humans were doing,” she said. “But more and more, research into the Holocene and the Pleistocene is showing that when humans started migrating around the globe, they started having major, unprecedented impacts.”

Another observed:  “We humans have influenced the landscape, but perhaps for a lot longer than we had previously recognized.  When we look at landscapes and say, 'this is pristine or unaltered,' that's not necessarily true. We may have changed the rules over a much larger scale than we appreciate."

An underwater fossil site discovered in a flooded sinkhole by a scuba diver in the Bahamas yielded yet more unequivocal evidence that the arrival of humans, and not even extreme climate change with attendant changes in flora and sea level, led to mass extinctions.  This is most starkly clear on islands as it has occurred in conjunction with the arrival of humans whether it occurred 2,000 or 10,000 years ago.

For the earliest times, the devastating consequences of such changes, known in ecology as a trophic cascade, were most likely completely inadvertent, and ultimately inevitable once our ancestors discovered they could control fire and with it, much else.  However, we continue blundering towards the obliteration of the biosphere and ruination of our own health - even when it has become perfectly obvious we are doing so.

In particular, we are creating trash and pollution with reckless abandon.  I encourage you to visit the Waste Atlas, an interactive website that has amazing visualizations of the staggering volume of garbage of various sorts.  As for the air, it continues to worsen almost beyond belief.  Cities from Beijing to Rome have declared states of emergencies and restricted vehicular traffic due to levels of pollution so high that places like Madrid become shrouded in perpetual darkness, while Delhi has given up trying to restrict traffic even though their air quality is horrific.  Researchers suspect other regions may be even worse, but there is simply a lack of monitoring in remote locations such as Africa and parts of the Mid-east.

Meanwhile medical research is inching closer to declaring air pollution the main cause of Alzheimer’s disease, a burgeoning epidemic that will join cancers, heart disease, and asthma as collateral damage from contemporary pollution.  Even children and dogs exhibit cognitive impairment, and it is also linked to reduced fertility, low birth weight babies, and obesity.

The death toll, estimated by WHO in Europe to be 500,000 people yearly, is actually much worse because NO2 emissions from diesel aren’t factored into that figure.

Usually when we hear of premature deaths in heat waves, the news reports leave out the really scary part.  But in a book, The Climate Bonus: Co-benefits of climate policy, IPCC contributing scholar Alison Smith explains:

“In the first 2 weeks of August 2003, Europe was hit by an extreme heat wave and drought.  Record high temperatures up to 40°C were reached, and slow air movement from the east allowed extra pollution to drift into Western Europe and the UK.  In the UK, ozone levels were more than twice the air quality target.  The poor air quality was estimated to account for around 700 of the 2,000 heat-wave-related premature deaths over a 7-day period.  The UK deaths were concentrated in the London area and South East England, where ozone levels were highest…

“The high ozone levels were partly related to the effect of the high temperatures on vegetation.  Plants respond to heat stress by producing large amounts of isoprene, which is a volatile organic compound and ozone precursor.  High isoprene levels were thought to be responsible for around a third of the UK ozone production during the heat wave…

“Across Europe, temperatures and ozone levels were even higher, resulting in an estimated 45,000 extra deaths, of which around a third were probably due to air pollution.  In the Paris area, the death rate doubled; and on the worst day, mortality was six times higher than normal, with half of these deaths attributed to high ozone levels.”

Similar to human mortality, we are seldom advised that it is a toxic gas and not a warmer temperature that is lethal to trees.  Although it’s no secret that pollution is damaging to the ecosystem and crops as well as human health, researchers overwhelmingly tend to ignore it completely when assessing forests.

When I first started writing about trees drying around the globe, I was ridiculed and ostracized as being an hysteric.  Scientists and foresters unanimously told me I was imagining the symptoms of an alarming decline.  Merely pointing out the consequences to carbon storage was enough to antagonize virtually everyone from obscure peak oil preppers like John Michael Greer to prominent climatologists like Gavin Schmidt.  Mostly I was ignored by everyone from journalists like George Monbiot to the physicist blogger Joe Romm.

Now, however, the swathes of dead trees are too ubiquitous to deny.  The Ecological Society of Australia claims that “climate change is killing our trees”.  Science Magazine devoted their August issue to forests, which is summed up by one overview article as “Every forest biome on Earth is actively dying right now”.

Since it has become widely acknowledged that trees are threatened and dying prematurely, researchers persist in blaming drought.  One widely distributed study predicting that drought is going to cause massive tree mortality in the Southwest US bases it on the distant year of 2050, which is ludicrous since trees are demonstrably dying right now.  Another equally limited survey reveals that up to 58 million trees in California are estimated to have experienced water loss due to drought.  Unfortunately, that survey only looked back four years, to 2011 - had they bothered to look earlier, they would have found damage prior to the drought.

There is no question that megadroughts and higher temperatures will eventually kill forests.  Climate change is irreversible, and accelerating far too fast for trees to adapt.  However, they are dying ahead of predictions AND in places not in drought.  Indeed, trees dying from pollution are themselves contributing to drought.  Consider that researchers who predicted trees dying from pine beetle attacks would cause increased stream flow, found out the exact opposite has occurred.  And it has been established that ambient ozone reduces stream flow, as well, “…due to an enhanced water loss via the leaf pores.” - and nobody has any idea just how bad the combined effects of elevated ozone and enhanced nitrogen deposition from fertilizers and combustion will be.  But it’s not auspicious.

Meanwhile an iconic tree species faces imminent extinction in Hawaii, and it’s being blamed on a rampant fungus.  Interestingly, the article notes that the trees play a crucial role in absorbing water.

There have been three significant studies published recently that highlight this discrepancy between the purported cause of vegetative decline - drought - and the more likely influence, of ozone.

First, scientists are perplexed having discovered that the Arctic, which had been steadily greening with warming temperatures, is now suddenly and inexplicably turning brown.  The scientists at NOAA who produce the annual Arctic Report Card are at a loss as to why.

In one of the more surprising parts of the Report Card, the authors say that Arctic tundra greenness − a measure of the productivity and biomass of live vegetation such as grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens, and shrubs − had been increasing over the past two to three decades, as shown by the satellite record. But, “for reasons that remain to be identified, tundra greenness has been declining, or browning, consistently for the past two to four years.”

This is the directly contradicts what was predicted, especially since the Arctic is wetter.  “We're looking at, depending on where in the Arctic, a two- to four-year consistent drop in vegetation. It's something that's actually just gotten on our radar from a terrestrial ecology perspective," said Howard Epstein, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia.

Second, a most instructive example of decline that is unrelated to drought is that of sugar maples in the Adirondacks, which is described by new research using tree ring analysis.  The pattern the researchers discovered is described as one of  “…poor vigor, regeneration failure, and elevated mortality across much of its range” and that the “majority of sugar maple trees exhibited negative growth trends in the last several decades, regardless of age, diameter, or soil fertility…Such growth patterns were unexpected, given recent warming and increased moisture availability, as well as reduced acidic deposition, which should have favored growth.”

This was all the more remarkable because most of the 242 trees sampled were between 75 and 125 years of age, the prime growth interval for a species that typically can live for 300 to 400 years.

The lead author said:   “Reduced growth rates are completely unexpected…It's not supposed to happen.”

Since the scientists can’t explain this by blaming any of the usual suspects - insects, climate, soil acidification, disease, fungus, etc - they conclude “further study is needed”, despite the fact they didn’t even examine the influence of ozone, which is elevated in the entire Northeast.  They also didn’t seem to notice that, in an enormous coinkydink, ALL OTHER SPECIES in the region are also in decline, as are all species in the UK and northern Europe - another area that is wetter, not drier, from climate change.

I sent the authors a letter, as yet unanswered, in which I pointed out that ozone is well known to be the most poisonous phytotoxin to vegetation, and that the damage from background concentrations is cumulative over time.

I sent them a link to a 2012 paper published by the Swedish EPA examining tree growth in Europe which found that ozone reduces carbon sequestration by 10%, AND that it can induce a shift in resource allocation into height growth at the expense of diameter growth, resulting in spindly, weak branches.

It sources a US paper documenting that "In the San Bernardino Mountains, reduction in the volume growth due to chronic ozone exposure of up to 60% has been documented for Ponderosa Pine".

Further support is in the findings of a report from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to the Working Group of Effects of the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution which concludes:

"Whereas peak concentrations of ozone have declined in recent decades in some (but not all) parts of Europe, an increase in background concentrations at the same time has contributed to no change in median or average ozone concentrations across Europe. The rise in background concentrations can contribute significantly to impacts of ozone on vegetation…

Ozone pollution in Europe in the future is critically dependent on changes in regional emissions and global transport of ozone precursors."

In yet another and third surprise to scientists, a study comparing modeled expectations for increased net primary productivity GLOBALLY found a major discrepancy when compared to actual satellite data.  The researchers guess this could be due to unanticipated climatic feedbacks and/or nutrient constraints.  Too bad it didn’t occur to them that our era of the sixth mass extinction most closely resembles the Great Dying of the Permian, when emissions from erupting volcanic traps released toxic gases and poisoned vegetation - just as our cars, ships, planes and smokestacks are poisoning it now.

The scientific consensus is that damage occurs to plants when ozone levels reach 40 ppb, a level that has become close to the persistent background everywhere on earth.  With the EPA’S ozone standard lowered from 75 to 70 ppb in the US as of this fall, still well above that threshold, more counties and National Parks are in noncompliance.  According to US News, “the biggest violator is Dinosaur National Monument…on the Colorado-Utah border. Its ozone level is 114 ppb. The runner-up at 90 ppb is the 631-square-mile Sequoia National Park in Northern California, a pristine forest boasting 3,200-year-old trees that are among the tallest in the world.”

You almost have to feel sorry for states like Texas filing suit over the tighter standards.  They actually are correct - it is unfeasible to reduce ozone levels and continue business as usual, particularly with so many precursors traveling around the world from coal and transportation, plus agricultural burning and wildfires.  The emissions from fires in Indonesia alone, the worst ever in 2015, are spectacular.

I will end this Dispatch by quoting from a comment written by Paul Kingsnorth, author of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and founder of the Dark Mountain project.  This was his response to Wen Stephenson, a climate activist who was dismayed by Paul’s apparent nihilism.   It is well worth reading the entire thing, which can be found at the second link on this post.

I am not yet 40 but I have seen things that my children will never see, because they are already gone. This is my fault, and yours, and there is nothing that we have been able to work out that will stop it…How do we live with this reality? Politics is not going to do anything about it, Wen, because politics is the process of keeping this Machine moving. What do we do? I don’t know. The reality is that we have used the short-term boost of fossil fuels to give us a 200 year party, which is now coming to an end in a haze of broken bottles, hangovers and recrimination. We have built a hugely complex society which now can’t be fuelled and is, in any case, responsible for a global ecocide. Living with this reality — living in it, facing it, being honest about it and not having to pretend we can ‘solve’ it as if it were a giant jigsaw puzzle — seems to me to be a necessary prerequisite for living through it. I realise that to some people it looks like giving up. But to me it looks like just getting started with a view of the world based on reality rather than wishful thinking.”

Thanks for listening.

Bonus Video - links follow below:

Whatever Happened to Ecology:  (for more on ecology and the Kingsnorth letter, see this post about The Reykjavik Imperative)

Defaunation affects carbon storage in forests:


Science Magazine forest issue overview:

Swedish EPA Ozone report: (and an earlier bonus study from 1998 Ground-Level Ozone - a Threat to Vegetation:


  1. Best Wishes for the New Year and beyond. Leif

    1. Same to you Leif - Fingers crossed for beyond!

  2. best in the coming year, while I agree with most of what you have here this little bit "The science of Ecology has been taken over by the cult of scientific reductionism" catches in my craw as it's both incorrect historically and puts the blame on the ecologists who frankly had little to nothing to do with the capitalist engineering/extraction, nothing destructive (or saving) in being a materialist (philosophically speaking), cheers, dmf

    1. the original essay. You have it backwards, methinks! It exactly decries the mauling of ecology!

    2. I read it he has written an a-historical account that doesn't reflect either the philosophy of science nor the development of the science of ecology.

  3. I'm so glad that you've scientifically vindicated my observation that trees are growing taller, at the expense of their girth, as my "theory" was ripped apart by a Boston Arboreteum arborist, who "did not see the mechanism by which this would occur."

    1. Of course I thought of you when I read that! Seems to be pretty robust result, too.


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