Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What's killing our trees?

"Our industrial society with its attendant air pollution is slowly killing our forests, as it has the forests of eastern Europe, weakening and stressing trees, and making them more susceptible to cold winters and attack by pathogens."  Paul Donahue, in Tree Death and Forest Decline.
Dying forests in eastern Europe. Photo by Lovecz, posted on Wikimedia Commons. 

Forests in the eastern U.S., the Rocky Mountains, and California are all seeing massive death of forest trees.  This in turn adversely affects the survival of other plants, as well as of animals dependent on those trees, and biodiversity is seriously diminished.  Yet there are misconceptions, put out deliberately by special interests or arising from ignorance, about what exactly is killing our forests. 

Donahue continues:

"One criticism often leveled by opponents of stricter air pollution standards is that acid rain or other pollutants don't kill trees, that they are actually killed by cold winters or by insects or fungus or some such agent." 

Those who lobby for relaxing pollution standards are using carefully selected facts out of context to support a particular agenda (one of the tools of pseudoscience). It is true that the trees in forests like those above are killed by insects, pathogens and extreme weather, but what is carefully ignored is the fact that such death is greatly increased after the trees have been seriously stressed or weakened by air pollution or changing climate patterns.

In the eastern U.S., as discussed in detail by Donahue, the immediate cause of death has often been severe weather, but trees that have been weakened by acid rain are more prone to damage than healthy trees.  Acid rain results from burning sulfur-containing fossil fuels by industry and from the nitrogen oxide component of automobile exhaust.

In the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and elsewhere in the west, the Mountain Pine Beetle is often blamed.  But this a native species of insect that has been here for thousands of years.  Beetle larvae overwintering below the outer bark of the trees are normally killed by cold weather, keeping the populations under control. They are having a much greater impact now because of higher than normal temperatures and lower rainfall in the past ten years, which also stresses the trees. These changes are part of overall global climate change. 

There is a misconception about climate change, voiced frequently by ignorant government officials, that it will be expressed as a uniform and consistent warming everywhere.  Climate change actually results in a complex array of disruptions that include more temperature and precipitation extremes, both up and down.  So vicious winter storms and extreme low temperatures are part of that disruptive pattern.

The planet is indeed warming overall, as is evident in the melting of the polar ice caps, which in itself will result in complex repercussions in oceanic currents and climate patterns, as well as the rising sea levels that threaten coastal human populations and entire low-lying nations.

"Those who deny the existence of climate change and rising sea levels, who want to do away with environmental protection agencies, who oppose treaties on clean air and reduction of carbon emissions, and who want to open up national parks and other wild lands to mining and other economic exploitation, just don't get it, and must be rejected."

This quote is from my October 2016 essay on endangered species and population growth.  Unfortunately, the fears expressed have been chillingly born out. The current governmental leadership in the U.S. is moving rapidly backwards on issues of air quality, climate change, and protection of public lands.  

Americans have another opportunity in the upcoming congressional elections to choose more environmentally supportive representatives.  Can those of us who understand and respect science, and who care about the environment and biodiversity, make a difference?

Given the many highly publicized and polarizing issues grabbing voter attention this year, it may seem hopeless.  But even if we can tip the scales on some tight congressional elections, even helping elect one or two conscientious representatives, we can make a difference.  You can help in a number of ways:

ASK your representatives or candidates what their stand is on air quality standards and other environmental issues.

EDUCATE your current representatives about important environmental issues and urge them to do the right thing.

If they will not be educated, REPLACE them.  Support candidates who understand the issues and will stand up for them.

VOTE for the best available candidates, Democrat or Republican.  

Though environmental protection has in recent decades has been associated primarily with the Democratic Party, an exchange of letters in a recent Sierra Club Magazine demonstrated that many conservatives also cherish our natural heritage and support the Club's fundamental mission.  This was expressed some time ago in a post from the Missouri chapter of the Sierra Club (click here).  In fact, an organization called Republicans for Environmental Protection (now called ConservAmerica) was established in 1995.  

The primary elections in both parties are the first opportunity to bring better candidates forward.  Republican candidates who support the environment particularly need support.

If you are among the many readers of this blog who do not reside in the U.S., do what you can in your own elections when they come up, and best of luck.  All nations must work together to protect our global ecosystem.

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