Every day, most of us look directly at one of the worst manifestations of global industrial pollution — only one of which is climate change — and yet we do not see it. Especially this time of year, we stare at it, take trips to see even more of it, and marvel to each other about how “gorgeous” it is. We look at the colors of the forest, but we do not see the sickness of the trees. Let me warn you: once you do see, you cannot unsee, although you will wish most fervently that you could.
If we do look just a little more closely at those “spectacular” fall colors, walk up to just about any tree and inspect it, we will see skeletal branches whose leaves have been prematurely lost; leaves that are curled and crisped and spotted and blanched with sickness; more than likely, in a mature tree, a partially rotted-out core; and overall a display of color that pales in comparison with prior years. I wrote about this last year [Falling Colors: The Long Agony of the Trees] and of course nothing has happened since to make it any better.
Forests are in massive decline on every forested continent. And every year we learn that more are dying, and more things are killing them. Of course climate change — specifically, warming temperatures and drought — is a major factor. And as I have learned largely through the efforts of blogger Gail Zawickie at Wits End, the implacable rise of background levels of ozone pollution, primarily from automobile exhaust, is poisoning trees everywhere now, even in remote, pristine locations.
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Radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants and nuclear accidents, borne by wind and water, absorbed by soil, affect trees much as does ozone, by administering a low-dose, cumulative, persistent poison that affects the tree and the tree’s ability to resist other threats such as insects and fungi. There is a relentless global increase in these emissions, from accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, and from the daily operations of power plants.
And one more thing. When forests that have been absorbing and sequestering radioactivity for decades burn, as they have been doing across vast areas of the northern hemisphere since early spring this year, the radioactivity, still as potent as ever, is released in the smoke, carried by the wind, and redistributed as if all the radioactive emissions of decades were released all over again.
Acid rain is a term we almost never hear these days, as if it were a problem that had gone away. Hardly. While automobile exhaust has been cleansed of much of the nitrogen oxides that are the primary cause of excess acid in the atmosphere, little has been done to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide gas, which is not only a greenhouse gas but also a contributor to acid rain, which continues to damage trees, among other living things, worldwide.
Insects are being unleashed by warming temperatures that allow them to operate at higher altitudes and latitudes. In the American West, for example, beetles preying on conifers for longer periods of time each year, in places they have never been before, have killed an astonishing 70,000 square miles of forest since 2000. And it’s not just because there are more beetles in more places, but also because the trees, are also besieged by ozone, radiation, acid rain and drought.
So take another look at the bleaching colors of fall, and now, see them, how they represent not the ecstatic celebration of nature and the turning of the seasons that was once so reassuring to us; but resemble now the art of the undertaker’s cosmetics that prompt us to say, “Oh, it looks so natural.”