Wit's End

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Death's Prisoner

Following is the transcript, with links and illustrations and more extended comments, from my contribution to Extinction Radio this week, where it will be archived, or you can listen to it live today at 3 pm ET.

Welcome to the 16th Dispatch from the Endocene.  I’m calling this, “Death’s Prisoner”, after the following quote from On The Heights of Despair, published in 1934 by Romanian Emil Cioran, which reads:

“One of the greatest delusions of the average man is to forget that life is death’s prisoner.”

I once wrote an essay about the genesis of the Obama campaign slogan, the Audacity of Hope, which I called the Paucity of Hope.  I might just have well written about the Mendacity of Hope, because it blinds us to reality even to the point where it ensures our self-annihilation.  The death throes of the biosphere have become nothing short of a grotesque convulsion, and yet still people remain oblivious to what is directly observable.

For instance, an article in the Washington Post tells us that scientists say they are detecting the beginnings of the third global coral bleaching event.  The first, in 1998, caught experts by surprise, but now they can predict where it will occur using temperature-sensing satellite measurements.  One of the scientists quoted in the article said “...half of the world’s reefs have already been lost due to causes ranging from bleaching to pollution in the last 50 years”.
Another added that “Coral reefs are the underwater equivalent of rainforests, and by removing the corals, you remove the trees of that underwater world”.

When oceanographers try to warn about coral bleaching using as analogy the hypothetical death of forests, it's always an ironic comparison, because they seem unaware that the trees of the world are in fact dying, too, at least as fast if not faster.

It has been a balmy autumn here in New Jersey, where a serene sky is mirrored in the cerulean morning glories that are improbable late bloomers on my patio trellis.  Coral reefs turning into cemetaries seem so far away.  So do the elephants in Nigeria that poachers poisoned with cyanide-laced oranges to steal their tusks.  All that and irreversible Antarctic melt seem abstract and surreal.

What is real, though, are the trees dying right before my eyes.  Every fall since 2008 I have documented faded colors, scorched foliage and early leaf drop, but this is the most desolate season by far.  You can find an extended version of this Dispatch, with videos and photos, from Arkansas to Maine, and links to all of the topics in this episode, on my blog, Wit’s End.

For several years I have been following a series narrated by a Vermont reporter named Sharon, who starts a televised journey from the Canadian border in late September, following the southward march of peak autumn colors.  Each year it is harder for her to pull off the charade, as she tries to put a brave front on the increasingly ugly and barren landscape, searching for the sort of magnificent scenery that is no longer in existence.
She has to continue the pretense, of course, because tourism is a significant source of income in the New England region, and also advertising for the media outlet that employs her.
So despite how ludicrous her efforts to locate some vibrant color when the camera is stubbornly revealing mainly dull greens, browns, and grey skeletal crowns, Sharon continues her valiant effort to project cheery optimism that a gorgeous red maple will turn up around the corner.
Yankee Magazine has a interactive map on the web where fans of autumn upload pictures, seemingly unaware that most are of sickly trees and shriveled or injured leaves, like those above from Caledonia County, Vermont, designated peak on October 6.  You can see a comparison to healthy leaves in the past, such as these from October 18, 2007 in Ontario, in Spill the Scarlet Rain, a post named for Emily Dickinson’s 1862 poem:

The name - of it - is Autumn -
The hue - of it - is Blood - 
An Artery - upon the Hill - 
A Vein - along the Road -

Great Globules - in the Alleys - 
And Oh, the Shower of Stain - 
When Winds - upset the Basin - 
And spill the Scarlet Rain -

It sprinkles Bonnets - far below - 
It gathers ruddy Pools - 
Then - eddies like a Rose - away - 

Upon Vermilion Wheels -

This year, the rusty tone has become so noticeable that even the Concord Monitor published a story admitting that the once glorious brilliance is dimming.  Terminally, permanently.

The parade of stories about this or that dying species of tree has become a stampede.  Cactus and olive trees are in the news, as are giant sequoia.  As usual, clueless foresters and scientists enamored of climate change point to drought - unless like, with pumpkins, they blame a poor harvest on too much water, despite seasons with more rain a decade or so ago.

Incredibly, in Denver, a frost last November is held responsible for trees dying today - and meanwhile, in Texas, where 300 years of tree-ring data indicate a drought in the 1850’s was far more severe even than the infamous Dust Bowl, mass tree death is blamed on caterpillars.  As for the demise of the village of Granville, Ohio’s beloved Christmas blue spruce at the untimely age of only 45, the causes range from insects, to fungus, to pruning, to exhaust from traffic.

Ah, finally, the crux of the matter - the fumes.

At long last the EPA enacted stricter ozone standards, but only marginally, caving in to intense corporate lobbying.  Grist ran a scathing critique of the Obama administrations tepid decision.  But in all fairness, it’s a measure of how difficult, really impossible, it is to reduce background levels and still maintain modern civilization.  A toxic atmosphere is simply a byproduct of incinerating anything, whether it is diesel for Volkswagens, fire from agriculture in Indonesia, or volcanic emissions. While the PETM extinction is looked to as an analog for contemporary global warming, I am afraid our Endocene more closely resembles the Permian-Triassic 250 million years ago.  It was the only mass extinction that included plants on a large scale, as well as insects.  Basalt eruptions would have emitted sulfur oxides creating poisonous acid rain - and I can’t think of any reason there wouldn't have also been copious amounts of nitrous oxides as well, the precursor, along with methane, to ozone.

A study in 2009 points to fungus eating forests due to chemical conditions:

In the wake of the world's worst mass extinction 250 million years ago, life on Earth was nearly nonexistent. All across the supercontinent Pangea, once lush forests lay in ruins, the corpses of trees poking like matchsticks into the poisoned air.

In their place fungus ruled the land, according to a new study. It feasted on defunct wood, spreading across the planet in an orgy of decay.
What we're looking at is a lot of plant die-offs concentrated in time,”  Peter Roopnarine of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco said.  We're most likely looking at episodes of intense greenhouse warming, and chemical changes in the atmosphere that made it unsuitable for the huge, massive forests living at the time.

…The finding has important implications for the Permian-Triassic extinction, which wiped out a large majority of life on the planet. If the fossils had turned out to be algae, it would've suggested a soggy, swampy world dominated by gradual changes in climate and the environment.

But in this ancient murder mystery, fungus fits. Modern forests ravaged by acid rain are covered in the stuff, and scientists generally believe that the titanic eruptions of the Siberian Traps, a large volcanic province in Russia, choked the atmosphere and blighted the land with acid rains. The harsh conditions lasted for hundreds of thousands of years.
Deniers indulged in an orgy of mockery over an ill-advised tweet from someone who probably no longer works at the EPA, which read:  “Think sunny days are good for plants? Not always. Sunlight causes #ozone to form, which harms foliage, weakens trees”.  This inspired  rejoinders like “So sunlight is bad, but the country would be moving exclusively towards solar power” and so forth, which of course completely ignores the core issue, which is that ozone is catalyzed by UV radiation - and ozone is really, really bad for plants.

Listen to what the EPA still has on its website, which was written in 1997!

How does Ground-Level Ozone Harm the Environment?
  • Ground-level ozone interferes with the ability of plants to produce and store food, so that growth, reproduction and overall plant health are compromised.
  • By weakening sensitive vegetation, ozone makes plants more susceptible to disease, pests, and environmental stresses.
  • Ground-level ozone has been shown to reduce agricultural yields for many economically important crops (e.g., soybeans, kidney beans, wheat, cotton).
  • The effects of ground-level ozone on long-lived species such as trees are believed to add up over many years so that whole forests or ecosystems can be affected. For example, ozone can adversely impact ecological functions such as water movement, mineral nutrient cycling, and habitats for various animal and plant species.
  • Ground-level ozone can kill or damage leaves so that they fall off the plants too soon or become spotted or brown. These effects can significantly decrease the natural beauty of an area, such as in national parks and recreation areas.
  • One of the key components of ozone, nitrogen oxides, contributes to fish kills and algae blooms in sensitive waterways, such as the Chesapeake Bay.
You might wonder why is everyone so quiet about how ozone is toxic to trees when it has been established since the 1950's.  I have come to think the answer is deceptively simple - it’s because natural levels are incompatible with industrial civilization.  Most scientists continue to harbor hope, however faint, that technology can save us from CO2.  But there is no antidote to the pure poison of acidifying the earth.

VW exposed themselves (and it emerges they are by no means the only car manufacturers) to the outrage caused by the recent scandal, just to evade pollution controls:

“The software was designed to conceal the cars’ emission of the pollutant nitrogen oxide, which contributes to the creation of ozone and smog. The pollutants are linked to a range of health problems, including asthma attacks, other respiratory diseases and premature death."

It is only fairly recently that it has been known that pollution circumnavigates the globe, and many people remain unaware of the impact of long-distance transport on places still considered pristine, because they are remote.

One study published in August in Nature Geoscience, Ozone Pollution Near and Far" says: “Tropospheric ozone is generated from precursor pollutants, but can be blown far afield. Satellite observations show rising ozone levels over China — and almost stable levels over western North America despite stricter regulations.”

Another in the same journal titled, “Rapid increases in tropospheric ozone production and export from China” concludes that the increase in China has offset efforts in the US to reduce levels according to government air quality policies.”

Right now, Southeast Asia is smothered in a toxic cloud from illegal burning of drained peatlands in Indonesia for agriculture.  Flights and sporting events are being cancelled and schools closed in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

In a sad way, the conservatives who object to EPA stricter rules are right, as one study title phrases it, “Background ozone a major issue in US West".  The September NASA release found that, ...on average, background ozone sources generated about 48.3 ppb, or 77 percent, of the total ozone in the study region of California and Nevada. The findings are particularly important in Northern California and Nevada, where wildfires and ozone transported to the region from abroad can cause background ozone to exceed 60 ppb.

40 ppb is the level at which plants experience damage.  So when we read estimates such as one that was published last month, that 3.3 million people - about 6% of all annual deaths - die every year primarily from air pollution, its important to remember that plants are even more sensitive.  And yet despite a global decline of forests, most scientists continue to fixate on climate change and drought.

What is so amazing about these determined attempts to tie tree death in with carbon emissions is that severe droughts have occurred many times in the prehistorical past - and the way they are documented is using tree rings.  So obviously, trees survived past episodes.  One study sampled white oaks in Iowa going back to 1640 and found that prolonged droughts such as that of the 1930’s occur about twice per century.

A recent reconstruction of tree ring data in California, where some of the trees are thousands of years old, prompted headlines saying that 2015 registered the lowest snowpack in 500 years.  Then came the caveat:

“But the scientists also said the uncertainties in Monday’s tree ring data indicated that a few years, mainly in the 16th century, might have had snowpack lows even lower than the 2015 numbers.”

What is certain is that trees began dying before this year, and prior to just this year, the snowpack levels were much higher than many years in the past, according to their own graph.

An announcement from UC Santa Barbara quoted scientists there as saying “record heat and drought are taking a deadly toll on California’s native trees" and that “Oaks and conifers haven't had good water since 2011" - but they were dying well before that.

Recently there have been a slew of articles about the danger to the Sequoias in California, now that scientists have finally noticed they aren't actually as resilient as thought.  Typically, they are blaming drought, from both lack of precipitation and low snowpack.  However, so far the drought is not unprecedented - and the trees managed to live through past natural episodes.

Here's the way the account reads from The Guardian, last month:

Last September, US Geological Survey ecologist Nate Stephenson hiked into Sequoia National Park’s Giant Forest to look for dying seedlings. California was suffering through its third year of severe drought, and trees were dying in the park in greater numbers than usual. The roadside leading up to Giant Forest was pincushioned with trees faded brown – dead oaks, sugar pine, fir, incense cedar. But the forest’s namesake trees, which are among the world’s oldest and largest, were faring better. They’re tough – they have to be to live for thousands of years – and tend to grow in the wettest parts of the landscape.

Still, Stephenson thought the effects of the drought might have started to become visible on sequoia seedlings, which are typically more vulnerable to environmental fluctuations than mature trees. He searched the forest floor, but found nothing out of the ordinary. It was only when he looked up that he was startled: he saw a towering old sequoia loaded with tufts of evergreen foliage turned brown.
The tree wasn’t dead, but such foliage die-back is an uncommon sign of stress. “I’ve been studying sequoias for 35 years or so and had never seen anything like this,” Stephenson says. He deployed a field crew to hike through Sequoia and its sister park, Kings Canyon, to document the die-back. About half of the more than 4,300 trees they surveyed had lost 10% to 50% of their foliage, while 1 in 100 had lost more than 50%.’”

Contrast Nates surprise to this excerpt from a story from the AP, which ran in several outlets in May of 2012, which compared the pollution levels in America's parks:

“California's Sequoia National Park garnered the top spot, with nearly a quarter of the year, or 87 days, recording dangerous smog levels.

“Smog is so bad that signs in visitors centers caution guests when it's not safe to hike. The government employment website warns job applicants that the workplace is unhealthy. And park workers are schooled every year on the lung and heart damage the pollution can cause.

“Ozone also is to blame for weakening many stands of the park's Jeffrey and ponderosa pines, leaving telltale yellowing of their long needles. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, they soak up ozone through the stoma in their needles, which inhibits photosynthesis. Ozone also stresses young redwood seedlings, which already face challenges to survival.

Is it any wonder the forests are burning?  OF COURSE they are.

So how come Nate Stephenson just noticed sequoias having problems last September?  Who knows? - especially since I wrote to him nearly six years ago to point out that ALL species of trees were in steep decline from air pollution.   The article says he has colleagues mapping the standing dead by climbing trees, and fly-overs.  I wish they would come to the East Coast forests, because they would find the condition of the forests are no better here despite plentiful rainfall.  Color me cynical but then, if you acknowledge that pollution is the problem, I don't suppose it would be quite as much fun or justifiable to swoop around in your fancy high-tech plane, which is “equipped with instruments that capture the chemistry of individual trees across entire landscapes, generating colorful 3D maps that allow land managers to identify hotspots of stress or resilience.

Scientists are also striving to connect drought to ash tree beetles.  A NYTimes article reviewed research which stated:

“This may be why the beetle never caused much alarm: In East Asia, it left healthy ashes alone. 'It’s going to kill already dying trees, said Caterina Villari, a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State and an author of the new study...Dr. Villari and her colleagues don’t know precisely how drought makes Manchurian ash trees vulnerable to the insects.”

That might be because pollution, and not drought, is the pre-disposing factor.
 [A reader from the Ozarks sent these photos, the pine taken in September and the persimmon, below, in August - the area has had 5 inches more rainfall than normal this season.]

Another article in the UK Guardian has the title, Mass tree deaths prompt fears of Amazon “climate tipping point” and quotes tropical forest expert Simon Lewis, at the University of Leeds, and who led the research published today in the journal Science. Lewis was careful to note that significant scientific uncertainties remain and that the 2010 and 2005 drought - thought then to be of once-a century severity  – might yet be explained by natural climate variation.”  So in other words, the tree-dieoff leading to fears of a tipping point in the Amazon might have nothing to do with drought, which has been a feature in the past.

A survey conducted by Los Alamos National Laboratory, of 38 forests around the globe, claims that large trees suffer most from drought, but actually, all it really found was that older trees are dying off at a faster rate than younger trees.  The idea that older trees would suffer more from drought than younger trees is silly - they have deeper roots, and more stored energy to tide the over dry spells.  The real problem is that large older trees have been through more seasons of damage from pollution, which according to research endorsed by the EPA, is cumulative. Furthermore, controlled fumigation experiments have proven over and over that the first impact from absorbing ozone, even before damage is visible on foliage, is a reduction in root mass. This makes trees more susceptible to drought that they would otherwise withstand.

There are more heartwrenching - and terrifying - stories in the news about people being injured and even killed from falling trees.  Just recently a the head of the New Jersey Cancer Society died when a tree fell on her Mustang - there was no bark on the trunk that snapped.

a fallen oak trapped a Connecticut college student for hours in her bed,

the broken branch from a chestnut tree, clearly full of black rot, injured a pedestrian in Berlin,

and a sycamore snapped and injured five patrons, two seriously, at a sidewalk bistro in Manhattan's Bryant Park.
 It is one of several described in the media as having fungal rot visible at the base.

And while I am being a full-blown Ozonista, how about this study from last month in New Phytologist Journal titled, “Ozone degrades floral scent and reduces pollinator attraction to flowers.”  The abstract states:  “The combined results of chemical analyses and behavioural responses of pollinators strongly suggest that high ozone concentrations have significant negative impacts on pollination by reducing the distance over which floral olfactory signals can be detected by pollinators.”

This week Smithsonian Magazine featured an upbeat story about the Archangel Tree Archive, which is cloning the world’s largest trees, in order to save them - based on the theory that they have the most genetic resilience.  The nonprofit was started by a nurseryman, Jake Milarch, who had given up on his business because he had determined the trees he was growing weren't thriving because of pollution.  But like just about everyone else who knows - the authors of “An Appalachian Tragedy”, the retired scientist just interviewed by the Concord newspaper, the professor who wrote "Acidification of Earth” and the one who published the book "Global Alert - the Ozone Pollution Crisis” - he hardly ever talks about that anymore - even though this is what he said during an NPR radio interview in 2012:

Weve been in the shade tree business in northern Michigan for several generations. And 20 years ago, our trees that we were growing for the cities and nurseries started to die and we didn't know why. Well, after a couple of years and a lot of research, we found out it was due in large part to the decline in air quality. So, we were trying to find an answer of trees that could be stronger, hardier, could take the increase in temperature as well as the increase in toxins in the air.

After dwelling on our tragically blighted earth, and our reluctance to recognize it - let alone rectify it through personal sacrifice - I think it is difficult to find meaning in life when contemplating extinction. It helps me to remember that life has never had meaning, other than that which we invent. Once you recognize the human desire for immortality, it becomes possible to accept that it is just a dream - and simultaneously, go about creating meaning for yourself - while knowing, as Camus says, it is all an absurd paradox.

I just watched the movie “Creation”, which is about Charles Darwin’s personal emotional struggle to reconcile his confidence in the theory he articulated in the Origin of the Species with the overwhelming social pressure to believe in religion or indeed any sort of spirituality.  His agonizing strife makes clear that any such notions of direction, intention, or infinite souls are simply incompatible with the theory of evolution - which is at its very essence random and purposeless and primarily accidental.  People who claim to reconcile the two are stretching the constraints of one or the other or both.  There is no life after death, there is no "greater consciousness”.  There is only the beauty that you can find now - it’s up to each of us to make the most of it.

Thanks so much for listening.

Links below the trailer:

The Paucity of Hope:  http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2014/07/a-fine-frenzy-universal-dance-of.html

Coral bleaching:

elephants poisoned

Antarctic melt:  http://robinwestenra.blogspot.co.nz/2015/10/thats-not-holy-shit-its-worse-than-that.html

Autumn leaves in Vermont:
Yankee Magazine:  http://www.yankeefoliage.com/live-fall-foliage-map/

Concord newspaper story about leaves: http://granitegeek.concordmonitor.com/2015/10/06/leaves-are-beautiful-well-some-of-them-but-our-climate-future-isnt/

Maine autumn - https://twitter.com/mainefoliage/status/651370232045543424

Trees dying:

Olive trees:  http://theplate.nationalgeographic.com/2015/08/26/europes-olive-trees-are-dying-heres-why-you-should-care/

Pumpkins:  http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/oct/07/pumpkin-pie-climate-change-christmas-crops

Denver:  http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_28813323/metro-denver-trees-struggling-recover-from-november-2014

Texas:  http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/New-Caterpillar-Infestation-Damages-North-Texas-Trees-323793821.html

Drought in Texas: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/div/ocp/drought/nineteenth.shtml

Christmas Tree:  http://www.newarkadvocate.com/story/news/local/granville/2015/09/16/village-granville-holiday-tree-landscape-commission/72250684/

EPA enacts new ozone regulation

Permian-Triassic extinction, acid rain:


EPA twitter

EPA website about ozone:

VW emissions scandal

Ozone from Asia

3.3 million deaths annually from air pollution

Toxic cloud in Southeast Asia

Iowa drought reconstruction through tree rings

Extreme droughts in the past:  http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/res/div/ocp/drought/nineteenth.shtml


Sequoias Unhealthy:

video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3jxMdyFV0E&feature=share&app=desktop

snowpack - http://www.theweathernetwork.com/us/news/articles/us-weather/sierra-nevada-snowpack-estimated-at-500-year-low/57359/

UK Guardian, Nate Stephenson

Wit's End post about Sequoias and link to AP article

NYTimes article about drought, ash dieback:

drought Amazon

large trees die faster

root damage from ozone:

UC Santa Barbara, dead oaks

Deaths and injuries from falling trees
NJ: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/10/05/stacey-weathers-tree-falls-on-car-colts-neck/
CT: http://businessnewsusa.org/new-york/woman-injured-oak-tree-falls-bedroom-article-1.2305613
Berlin:  http://www.morgenpost.de/berlin/polizeibericht/article205676571/Kastanie-bricht-und-begraebt-Fussgaenger-in-Neukoelln-unter-sich.html
Bryant Park, NY:   http://nypost.com/2015/09/06/several-more-bryant-park-trees-are-in-danger-of-falling-arborist/

China forest massacre article: http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/technology/article/1749736/nitrogen-emissions-smog-threatens-massacre-worlds-forests

Pollinators cannot detect flower scents from ozone

Archangel Tree:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/race-save-worlds-great-trees-cloning-them-180956832/?no-ist

Archangel Tree Archive, interview with Milarch:  http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2012/12/no-one-knows-where-this-will-lead_19.html

Blog Archive

My Blog List


Search This Blog