Gail Zawacki of the Wit’s End blog has waged a mostly solitary campaign trying to raise awareness of the worldwide decline of trees due to air pollution. It’s been a thankless struggle as experts and laypersons alike angrily reject her conclusions without consideration of the evidence, underlying science, or deductive logic.
There is something about trees that evokes passionate denial that we might be doing them harm. Yes, ok we are changing the climate, yes the coral reefs and fish stocks are collapsing, yes some animal species are going extinct, yes some nasty areas of the world are cutting down their forests so we can eat Palm oil and burn green biofuels, but the remaining trees are mostly healthy. They are too beautiful and important. We can’t be harming the trees too damn it!
I am typical. That was my initial reaction too. I consider myself well read on the problems we face. Nowhere in my travels had I encountered intelligent people discussing systemic problems with trees. Deforestation yes, pine beetles yes, drought here and there yes, but not a worldwide decline of trees. I walk a lot in the woods and a cursory review of the trees here suggested things were mostly ok. I also work with some environmentally wise people and they are not yet concerned. So I initially dismissed Gail’s premise and pushed back that it must be a localized east coast US problem.
I pride myself on having an open mind and a nose for people who know what they are talking about. So I started to read more and observe more closely. Gail has amassed a lot of evidence from all over the world that trees are in decline. I am starting to see the problem at home here on Vancouver Island too. The firs outside my door are off their normally deep green color and they have a considerable number of dead yellow branches. I don’t recall seeing these symptoms when we bought the property about 15 years ago. Many needles seem so fall after a breeze, it used to take a storm. In the woods that I walk I am seeing off colors and signs of sickness like cankers and many windfalls. A lot more windfalls and erosion than I remember as a kid in the same woods. Something not good is going on here.
The problem may be accelerating. A recent photo essay of Gail’s comparing the same locations in 2010 with today shows dramatic changes. I asked Gail to explain, and while she is not certain, the level of ozone pollution necessary to harm trees may have recently crossed a threshold.
A global decline of trees is a really big deal for many obvious reasons. One not so obvious reason that upsets me a lot is that planting trees is one of the few things we could do, and maybe the only thing that would work, to remove some of the CO2 we have already put in the atmosphere. But of course if the trees are dying from a different type of air pollution that results from burning the same fuel that puts CO2 in the air, then that plan won’t work.
Any and all actions we might take to mitigate the problems of human overshoot require dramatic changes to our lifestyles. Most importantly we must reduce per capita consumption and reduce population. Most people are not willing to make these changes yet.
Trees evoke passion in people. Perhaps there are memories of our hunter gatherer history embedded in our DNA. Passion is required to change behavior. It’s a long shot but I wonder if awareness of the tree problem might help bring about some behavioral changes we need.
Gail has been very prolific so I asked her for a short list of her favorite articles. I read them all and selected the following paper as my favorite. It provides a nice introduction to the impact of air pollution on trees, as well as an overview of the other overshoot predicaments we face.
Highly recommended and well worth your time.
If you have time, this would be my runner-up essay which provides more history and detail.