By Gail Zawacki: The Waste Land

My new favorite piece by Gail Zawacki.

A few ideas that stood out for me:

  • Much of what we view as nature is not natural.
  • Humans are an invasive species and we deny this reality.
  • Ozone pollution continues to be a huge problem that we deny.
  • Drought is not killing trees. Human air pollution is killing trees, and dead trees are contributing to drought.
Most often, writing on a blog feels to have no more effect than idly dropping a pebble in the ocean, and watching the tiny ripples disappear; lately it seems that climate heating has gone exponential, and in my imagination I anticipate the moment I will hear an official NASA announcement on the radio – that it’s too late to do anything about climate change because irreversible amplifying feedbacks have taken over and there’s nothing left but to listen to the orchestra play on the deck.

“There ought to be a word that expresses in a few syllables the totality of ecocide – not just the horror in recognizing the physical manifestations of looming extinction, but the ensuing pain upon realizing the futility and meaninglessness that has been wrought by human folly, hubris, stupidity and blindness.  But I don’t know what it is.”

By USFS: Forest Service survey finds record 66 million dead trees in southern Sierra Nevada

VALLEJO, California, 22 June 2016 (USFS) – The U.S. Forest Service today announced that it has identified an additional 26 million trees dead in California since October 2015. These trees are located in six counties across 760,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada region of the state, and are in addition to the 40 million trees that died statewide from 2010 to October 2015, bringing the total to at least 66 million dead trees. Four consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and warmer temperatures are leading to historic levels of tree die-off.

“Tree dies-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that puts property and lives at risk,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While the fire risk is currently the most extreme in California because of the tree mortality, forests across the country are at risk of wildfire and urgently need restoration requiring a massive effort to remove this tinder and improve their health.

Between 2010 and late 2015, Forest Service aerial detection surveys found that 40 million trees died across California – with nearly three quarters of that total succumbing to drought and insect mortality from September 2014 to October 2015 alone. The survey identified approximately 26 million additional dead trees since the last inventory in October, 2015.

Forest Service scientists expect to see continued elevated levels of tree mortality during 2016 in dense forest stands, stands impacted by root diseases or other stress agents and in areas with higher levels of bark beetle activity. Additional surveys across the state will be conducted throughout the summer and fall.

With the increasing size and costs of suppressing wildfires due to climate change and other factors, the very efforts that would protect watersheds and restore forests to make them more resilient to fire in the future are being squeezed out of the budget. Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget.

By Gail Zawacki: No Mercy (on trees)

It took me a while to read this. When Gail Zawacki writes on the global decline of trees it upsets me, a lot. I can live with the extinction of a frog or an insect, but not trees. I really like trees.

Gail here presents the latest science. It’s not pretty. And you probably won’t read about it anywhere else. But it’s important.

Gail also comments on how our scientific knowledge of the details continues to expand, yet our understanding of the whole, the system, the thing we should actually care about, is in decline.

I think about this a lot. We need more systems experts like Dana Meadows, rest in peace. All of our problems are systemic and complex.

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.

Not the Trees Too Damn It!: On Gail Zawacki

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.

A Fine Frenzy ~ the universal dance of delusion…and the paucity of hope

If you have time, this would be my runner-up essay which provides more history and detail.

Whispers from the Ghosting Trees

By Gail Zawacki: Dispatch from the Endocene, #9

Another excellent piece by Gail Zawacki on pollution and trees. Well worth your time.

“No, I do not think humans can help themselves from indulging in cheap energy.  We fly and ride in cars despite the risk of accidents.  Even people who claim to know better make excuses to continue to travel, to use electronic technology, and purchase items manufactured from plastic.”

Dispatch from the Endocene, #9

By Gail Zawacki: The Silent War on Trees

Here is an excellent musical meditation on the impact of ozone on trees by Gail Zawacki.

“Ozone is invisible but highly toxic air pollution. As the background level increases, trees that absorb it are poisoned and become more susceptible to insects, disease and fungus. Epidemic attacks are causing forests to decline around the world. More info at

“I am old enough to remember learning about plate tectonics in college, when students were still cautioned that it was a controversial proposition.  I was incredulous that something so brilliantly, obviously true could still be considered unproven.  However, there have been many theories that were treated as heretical when first unveiled – gravity, evolution, the origin of ulcers, and the dangers of tobacco smoking all come to mind.  It is my hope that someday soon, the notion – that spewing poisons known to be toxic to vegetation into the atmosphere at ever increasing rates must and has achieved a threshold that is intolerable to trees – will become crystal clear as well.  It is in that spirit that I made the film.  Please follow the links, and leave any questions in the comments, or email me at”

By Gail Zawacki: A Fine Frenzy (trees and ozone)

I just finished reading this superb essay by Gail Zawacki.

Ground level ozone, and its impact on trees, may be the most important ecological problem no one has heard of, myself included. It is particularly worrisome because planting trees, in addition to shrinking our lifestyles, may be the only effective means of making climate change less bad.

Gail has also written a book on the demise of trees that you can download for free here: