27 January 2009

"How the mighty have fallen"

The Bay of Biscay windstorm that crossed France this past week took down a 223-year-old beech tree planted in 1786 to honor Marie Antoinette.

Since my summer hobby is working and exploring woods, I see lots of treefalls. What never fails to impress me is the shallow root system of even the largest mature specimens. Many people have a mistaken preconception that tall trees have deep roots, but in fact there are few species (typically desert ones) that have anything approaching a taproot. There is no advantage to a tree to send deep roots, since all the nutrition and water rests in the top few inches of the soil.

Giant trees are typically brought down not by wind alone, but by winds that follow soaking rains that loosen the topsoil. Another prominent factor is the susceptibility of isolated trees planted in the center of parks and lawns, where there no other trees to block the wind or provide lateral support when the top sways.

Impressive size, majesty, and dominance can all be toppled when there is a shallow root system and inadequate lateral support. It's a principle that can be applied equally to people, economic pyramids, nations and empires.

(image credit Remy de la Mauviniere, Associated Press)


  1. I respectfully disagree and would be very interested to know your impressions of the current condition of the woods. Following is a letter I have been sending to scientific researchers and academics that will explain my concerns:

    I am writing you about a long-term and widespread catastrophe that is receiving far too little attention in the discussion about effects of climate change. I sincerely hope you consider what I have to say without dismissing me as an alarmist (my kids think I am!)

    Since last summer I have been searching for information about possible causes for the tree decline that I am lately finding ubiquitous around my home in western rural New Jersey. In recent months I have been as far north as Cape Cod through NY, CT and RI, as well as around Pennsylvania, and corresponded with scientists as far off as Michigan and North Carolina. The conditions in those states appear to be equally appalling, as is the western US, by all accounts.

    I began noticing that the deciduous trees were losing leaves by last August, or they were scorched, or brown. Soon thereafter the coniferous trees began bursting with cones (a rather poetically tragic sign of impending death) and more recently have begun a wholesale shedding of their needles. Some are already completely bare, most are visibly thinning, and virtually none appear intact any longer. In just the past two weeks, evergreen shrubs such as boxwood, holly, rhododendron and andromeda have begun turning yellow, a sure signal of irreversible damage.

    I am not a scientist myself, just a life-long nature lover and avid gardener, and I find this threat to trees profoundly disturbing. It also astonishes me that few professional foresters or conservationists acknowledge what is plainly visible if only you go outside and take a cursory inventory. (Perhaps they are in denial because ultimately, their livelihoods are at stake?)

    At first I attributed it to an overall warming and drying due to climate change, particularly because this past summer and 2007 were exceedingly dry. And of course we get very little snow cover anymore to gradually permeate the soil, and the past few seasons, trees and shrubs have bloomed prematurely. When the leaves fell off this fall (some never did, as if petrified in place) I began to notice that this revealed seriously injured limbs, trunks and bark. It appears the trees are rotting from the inside out. Also now that it is possible to see deeper inside the woods, it is clear many have toppled over and those that remain are becoming smothered by a pale green lichen that is spreading by the day, others, covered with a creeping black fungus.

    According to many studies acid rain has created the conditions leading to this rapidly accelerating damage by changing the composition of the soil and depleting the nutrients required for growth. Absent any improvement in pollution, or global warming, it would appear that we are poised for a mass extinction of trees and ultimately, all the species dependent upon them. It has already been documented that the populations of frogs, birds and various mammals are greatly diminished due to pollution, and mycologists have observed reduced yields of mushrooms over the past 20 years. At soils.org, studies show that even with cleaner air standards, the soils are not recovering.

    In hindsight I believe, having lived on the same small farm for over 25 years, that the loss of trees has been going on for perhaps decades and I simply did not recognize it as more than isolated incidents as opposed to a trend. However there is no question remaining that it was and is in fact a trend, which is suddenly much, much radically more extreme. Because trees of every age and species are affected equally, it seems there must be some universal cause rather than any one pest, disease, opportunistic invasive, or deer damage to saplings to blame.

    I fear it is too late to save trees now living and even perhaps the shrubs. From what I have read and observed, once the symptoms of decline become visible, such as thinning crowns, rotting limbs, and dropped needles, it means the roots have lost their ability to absorb water and there is no way to save an individual specimen. It would be like throwing a bucket of water on a person who died of thirst already. I do not think that most people realize "decline" is actually a technical forestry term which means the tree is in the process of dying, whether this season or in a few.

    In any case, whether it is due to climate change or acid rain from pollution or some combination of them or other factors, I thought it might be important for the public and policy makers to understand what is at stake. For too long the concept of a "loss of biodiversity" has referred to a tragedy involving rare orchids or monkeys from obscure and remote places like Madagascar. Partly that's because so much conservation effort has deliberately concentrated on these exotic hotspots.

    When Americans realize that losing the trees in our backyards, towns, and parks will, in addition to impoverishing the landscape, result in wildfires, extended power outages, crushed buildings and vehicles, and enormous economic losses - not to mention killing all the birds and other creatures that live in woodlands - perhaps the cost of remedying climate change and controlling pollution will seem less onerous.

    It's astonishing to me how many groups and scientists I have managed to locate that are well aware of the immediate gravity of extinction, global warming, and pollution - from a seed bank in London to major activist organizations like Greenpeace, and many many academics at every university, doing studies in biology, soil ecology, chemistry and physics.

    In a way it's wonderful that so many are concerned and working on these issues, but on the other hand, I'm starting to feel that we must collectivize under one giant umbrella to really make the global impact we need in order to fundamentally shift the discussion from, say, economic growth, to survival and fairness.

    It's hard to describe how distressing this discovery is for me, although I should have known sooner, I suppose. I was brought up without any religion, which I don't regret, but absent that culture, I found it has been the rhythm and beauty of nature, and the human celebration of it through art, music, and literature, which gave meaning to my life. Now that I see it dissolving, I regret having children. I am so afraid they are going to wind up in hand-to-hand combat for the last cup of water.

    At best, they are going to be in a world without so many of the things that make life on earth splendid - birds, nuts, peaches, apples, raspberries, maple syrup, and a swing hanging from the big old oak. Instead of predictable seasons, each with their own traditions - the picnics and thunderstorms of summer, the arrival of spring flowers, the colors of autumn, the quiet of a winter snow storm - they're going to have extreme and dangerous weather.

    Of course, I feel guilty for my luxurious western way of life, and I also (forgive me for inserting partisan politics here) blame every Republican since Reagan, who immediately as the new President removed the solar panels from the top of the White House that Jimmy Carter had put there.

    Sorry. As you can no doubt tell, I am not very optimistic. Any hope I do have rests in a new direction with Obama, who seems to understand the science, and the idea that through innovation, we will be able to save many species - maybe in giant biodomes with enriched soil and filtered air and water - until such time as the magnificent trees and other flora and fauna can be once again propagated around the earth.

    I think that every variety of tree should legally be put on the endangered species list forcing government to mandate clean energy, by restricting emissions and funding alternatives. I hope some scientists will undertake to reveal the true scope of the problem so that people will wake up before we humans are next on the list of endangered species.

    Thank you for reading,

    Gail Zawacki
    Oldwick, NJ

    Here is an article in ScienceDaily.com with a link to the report, released just yesterday, by the US Climate Change Science Program. I believe the "abrupt change" that global warming "may" trigger according to the conclusions is in fact, already happening HERE and NOW.


    Here is a section from Wikipedia on extinction:

    "Most biologists believe that we are at this moment at the beginning of a tremendously accelerated anthropogenic mass extinction. E.O. Wilson of Harvard, in The Future of Life (2002), estimates that at current rates of human disruption of the biosphere, one-half of all species of life will be extinct by 2100. In 1998 the American Museum of Natural History conducted a poll of biologists that revealed that the vast majority of biologists believe that we are in the midst of an anthropogenic mass extinction. Numerous scientific studies since then—such as a 2004 report from Nature,[4] and those by the 10,000 scientists who contribute to the IUCN's annual Red List of threatened species—have only strengthened this consensus."

    from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction_event

    I found this site has many excellent reputable sources but if you just google 6th extinction you will find countless others:


    And if you want to go there, try looking up diminished sperm count, among humans and all other creatures on the globe, which has been documented for decades:


  2. I am in awe of your enthusiasm for this subject. Re the woods here, I have two spruce trees experiencing needle cast, but otherwise the trees in my back woods and my lots in northern Minnesota are robustly healthy.


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