Climate Witness: Gail Zawacki, USA
Until the summer of 2008, I was one of those lucky, oblivious people who believed that though climate change was going to occur, it meant a gradual, linear warming, and that the worst effects would occur far in the future, at some distant, exotic place, losing biodiversity, like maybe in Madagascar. I expected my paradise to remain a protected niche, where a spring-fed creek provided clean cold water, excellent soil had accumulated, and I was no where near the shore where wild storms and rising seas could disturb the inhabitants of the village where I have been so fortunate to live.
Not in my home, in New Jersey! In fact though, from my journey to learn what is happening to trees, I have read enough to know that the terrible results of burning greenhouse gases are going to bring about change that is abrupt, violent, and sooner rather than later - just what is already happening in my own back yard, now.
All my life, I have admired the majesty of trees, and made countless visits to arboretums, and hikes in parks, to seek out the oldest and most venerable specimens that have been spared the widespread clear-cutting of the past three centuries in North America.
As an adult I have planted hundreds of seedlings on my farm and in the woods surrounding. Because I care about them, and also of course have invested quite a bit of time and money and effort, I monitor their growth carefully.
Thus it was I became quite alarmed last summer (2008), when I noticed the leaves of trees becoming wilted, droopy, scorched at the edges, and falling off prematurely. The phenomena was so widespread that out of concern I began to do research, and learned about tree decline, what causes it, and the fact that it is irreversible once such extreme symptoms are visibly apparent.
Around October of fall 2008, the coniferous trees abruptly began dropping needles, and were sprouting ridiculous numbers of cones weighting their branches, in what I learned was a desperate attempt to put all their energy into reproduction under the spectre of demise. By fall 2009 many are bare, and it's now impossible to locate a single specimen that doesn't have yellowing needles. Many have bizarre fountains of sap oozing from split bark.
Witnessing the wholesale degradation of every species of tree, of every age and habitat, convinced me that there had to be an over-riding agent at work. I am not a scientist, and so I am not qualified to diagnose the chemical and biological processes that are occurring. But it is only logical to infer that no particular insect or disease or fungus could be responsible for such universal impact that is readily obvious to the naked eye.
In my ignorance I speculated that perhaps long-term drought, acid rain, decreased snow-pack and/or warmer temperatures leading to an inability to go dormant, might underlie the phenomena.
I considered many causes and still don't have the precise mechanisms because, as I said, I'm neither a botanist nor atmospheric physicist. I know enough to know that I know nothing - the complexities of the interactions of so many agents are a challenge for even the experts. Soil nutrient depletion, invasive species, droughts, and many other factors are muddled together.
I wrote about my concerns to many climatologists, biologists, atmospheric physicists, and foresters. In May I began a blog, www.witsendnj.blogspot.com, to document the symptoms of decline with photos, and post links to scientific research.
This past summer, the symptoms appeared not just on trees but all shrubs, perennials, and even annuals. It became apparent to me that the composition of the atmosphere was the only explanation that fits the empirical facts, when I discovered that aquatic plants such as lotus and water lilies had the same foliar damage, a characteristic stippling from closed stomata, a loss of chlorophyll as the plant loses the ability to photosynthesize, the normal colouration fading as veins become prominent. This is inevitably followed by singed edges, larger brown spots and holes that eventually consume the leaf until it is frayed, or falls off the branch.
Another aspect is the rampant spread of lichens, which are known to thrive in polluted air. As I write now in mid-October, many trees never turned their beautiful fall colours, their leaves just either turned brown or fell off early. Many have no leaves whatsoever, weeks before they should be bare, and are blanketed by the lichen that appears to grow in direct proportion to the loss of tree mass.
It is well documented that ozone from gasoline emissions is toxic to vegetation. But ozone has been around for decades and may even have decreased lately due to the economic downturn.
It is less well known that burning ethanol emits acetaldehyde, which when exposed to UV radiation, creates peroxyacetyl nitrates, PANs, which are even more poisonous than ozone. The EPA, in a rush to remove lead, to move away from dependence on foreign oil, and to satisfy the corn lobby, appears to have ignored harmful consequences of burning ethanol and mandated its addition to gasoline. In fact they now seem to want to increase the proportion! That is why I think the “other” greenhouse gases, as described in this paper are so important to investigate.
If it turns out that ethanol is the primary culprit that is massacring our ecosystem, that would actually be a good thing, because all we have to do is stop burning it and and we could then return to a more leisurely, but just as certain, climaticide from elevated CO2.
It will take a scientist to prove there is a connection between the composition of the atmosphere, and the death of trees. I am just a witness.