The Fall of the Colors

We look at the fall forest — here at Shavers Fork, West Virginia — but we do not see the falling trees. (Wikipedia Photo)

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.

But wait, there’s more! Call right now and we’ll double the number of existential threats to trees and thus humans. Operators are standing by.  

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.”  


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22 Responses to The Fall of the Colors

  1. Richard Stone says:

    Well that really cheered me up, thanks. And we haven’t really cleaned up the NO either, just pretended too.

  2. Ken says:

    I was thinking this morning about why the term “pollution” was replaced with “climate change” when pollution remains an enormous, and visible, unsolved problem in the Third World especially. I realized that in fact there is no economic reward for solving pollution in the Third World, and the systems we have put in place to solve it in developed countries are literally the best we can do. “Climate change” is the struggle to label CO2 as a pollutant so we can put some minimal, almost token, caps on the amount of CO2 produced by industry. And that’s all capitalism is able to accomplish.

  3. Tom says:

    Third world, Ken? China and the U.S. continue to spew the lion’s share of toxic pollution (including CO2 and radiation), but it all adds up – that i’ll agree with.

    Mr. Lewis – thanks for speaking the truth regarding the ever-present, “invisible” destruction from the by-products of civilization on the biosphere. This needs to be recognized for what it is – a death knell, along with the collapsing global marine ecosystem.

    Since freaking SPRING of this year i’ve had burn leaves and branches with green new leaves falling, followed by even more all summer and now this is the most “muted” and unspectacular fall color display i’ve ever witnessed. Most don’t notice that the former blazing colors are now all washed out and dull.

    They’ll notice when on of these seasons we’re greeted with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for real. i’m not looking forward to that, but it’s certainly on its way.

  4. Ben says:

    Tom, can you explain why you say that CO2 contributes to acid rain? My understanding is that carbonic acid (what you get when CO2 dissolves in water) is a very weak acid, so I don’t think it would have the same effect as NOx and SOx…

    • Tom Lewis says:

      You’re right, that’s why I said “contributes to,” to distinguish it from the primary role of NOx and SOx. It is weak, but the quantities are, as the Trump guy would say. yuge.

  5. SomeoneInAsia says:

    Don’t you just LOVE modern industrial civilization for all the wonderful things it has come up with?

    I sure do. Especially when I think of the big shithole towards which it’s leading us all. This is going to be such a delightful thing! I CAN”T WAIT!! :D

  6. Lawrence Miller says:

    Referencing The Fall of the Colors:
    Tom – Trees, like humans, are loaded with radioactive Carbon 14 and have been since the dawn of time. That is the basis of Carbon dating Carbon 14 is produced by sunlight. So, radioactivity in trees is NOT the result of any radioactive fallout from human sources. Everything around you is naturally radioactive. It is called natural background radiation. In many parts of the world, natural background radiation exceeds the worst fall out from Chernobyl by quite a bit with no health effects for thousands of years of recorded history. Apparently you need to take a course in nuclear health physics in order to get correct facts on radiation to put in your blog. In short, we live in a naturally radioactive world. Human contributions are of little consequence.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      Right, and global warming is just weather.

      Pretty much everything I post here is sourced. The linked sources for the section on radiation tell me that “In a German report, a researcher documents that radioactive Carbon 14 and neutron levels have been rising since 1950 in the atmosphere.” []; that “nuclear power plants continously emit carbon 14 to the environment [] and that “Over time, carbon-14 becomes part of organic material including food, and has a half-life of approximately 5,730 years, [and its] hazardous life is 10-20 times its half-life, meaning that harmful exposure to man-made carbon-14 can last for hundreds of generations.” []

      I would never be so condescending as to suggest you return to school for some refresher courses on what is happening in the world today, but I would earnestly recommend you read the sources before disparaging the content here.

      If you find these sources are somehow flawed or unreliable, I would appreciate knowing why.

      • Lawrence Miller says:


        There are all sorts of nut cases around, dime actually with degrees who put out all sorts of bogus nonsense about nuclear power. I guess they do it for publicity. I suggest you go to the NRC for correct information. I am a nuclear engineer. I have supervised the operation and maintenance of 8 reactor plants in my 50 + year career. I can assure you that what you have been putting out in your blog about emissions from nuclear power plants is basically wrong.

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          Mr Miller, could you perchance cite a couple journal articles which dispute the material cited by Lewis ?

        • gwb says:

          What about the nuclear waste? It will be radioactive for millennia, just so we could make coffee and microwave beef burritos. Will we have a civilization advanced enough to keep all this stuff under lock and key for millennia? All past civilizations have collapsed, without exception. And our modern civilization is the exception?

  7. James Eberle says:

    What is never mentioned, is that carbon dioxide is released due to the chemical weathering of calcium carbonate (limestone) by acid precipitation. The lower the pH of acid rain, the faster the rate of weathering, and the greater is the contribution of acid rain to increases in atmospheric CO2. The chemical reaction is:
    CaCO3 + H2SO4 ———> CaSO4 + H2O + CO2

  8. Mike Kay says:

    I have lived and do live this reality every day.
    Utah Phillips correctly surmised that the world wasn’t dying, it was being killed, and we know who’s doin’ the killing.
    Most are able to comprehend only a little of it. They live in a fantasy world they are convinced is real, in fact, the only reality from their point of view. Yep, the world looks pretty nice if you zoom past it at 80mph. Of course, most have not yet lost their homes, their mountains, their ways of life to a truth challenged corporate government. For them, relativism is a useful tool to monkeywrench evil into profit, which h becomes their good, even as it leaves a wake of destruction.
    I see little bits and pieces of old life, genuine life, holding out in pockets, doing its thing, bravely surviving despite it all. Surviving despite the psychopaths in government who burn the forest to cover their resource looting, the destruction of traditional lifestyles, to continue the rape and pillage of the world.
    Yes, Utah Phillips saw it all, which was probably why he never had the corporate backing to become a household name.

  9. Tom says:

    i don’t care who he is or what he’s spent his time doing in his life, but Lawrence Miller has no idea how wrong he is. Fukushima BY ITSELF is an extinction level MISTAKE by bullshit engineers and atomic water boiling “experts” who just happen to have OVERLOOKED that their technology will require ENDLESS MAINTENANCE and that THERE’S NO SAFE PLACE FOR THE WASTE! Now we can’t even shut them off in time to avert MORE of the same!

    Does Mr. Miller not see where this is all going?

    • Philip says:

      No, he does not see where we are all going.

    • Lawrence Miller says:


      Ill informed anti-nuclear power advocates have created a myth of wild dangers from so called I constrained release of nuclear waste from nuclear power plants. It is a pure myth used to promote so called “green, renewable energy” like wind and solar. The irony is that wimd and solar are not green and actually not renewable. They are extremly polluting and actually not at all renewable. Nuclear power plants are not allowed to discharge any radioactive waste into the environment with the exception of some very short half life inert gases. Safe disposal of nuclear power plant waste until it has decayed away to background levels is technically a non-problem. However, it is becoming politically a very difficult problem because of myths and disinformation being put out by technically ignorant so-called environmentalist. These environmentalist are actually hurting the environment by forcing the continued expansion and use of coal fired plants. Wind and solar are already history due to their complete failure to live up to all the hype and unaffordable costs. The Frenvh are over 80% nuclear and have the cleanest air and lowest utility costs in Europe and they don’t have a safe nuclear waste disposal problem.

      • Tom says:

        Lawrence: i agree – the so-called “green” or “renewable” energy craze is anything but (since they rely on fossil fuels for their composition, manufacture, distribution and maintenance) but nuclear energy has been a bad deal from the start. Look, i don’t know if you’re some kind of industry shill or not, and i don’t care. There’s no safe place to put the “waste” or by-products and your statements above regarding “background radiation” are nonsense because all the emissions we’ve spewed into the environment since WWII ARE STILL AROUND (because these particles have very long half-lives with respect to human and other species that they can affect in a deleterious manner – like genetic mutation). Also, humanity and other species have adapted to the background radiation over the long course of life, but ADDING TO THIS EVERY DAY (as Fukushima is doing) can’t be adapted to that quickly and has many negative effects on life at the cellular level.

        Secondly, these facilities are all getting “old” and still being used past their 40 yr capabilities. The pipes are corroding, the cooling outside water is heating up from climate change (something else the goof-ball engineers “overlooked”), they’re increasingly being shut down due to “problems” that they keep to themselves, and much more. There are a lot more problems with nuclear energy than i have time to discuss with you.

        Here read this so i don’t have to go on and on:

        [i can’t post the link because for some strange reason i get a 404 page not found warning when i do, so type computerworld into your search engine to find the article]

        Anonymous insiders reveal real hacking risks to nuclear power plants, report
        by Darlene Storm (pen name)

        A report on the growing cyber risks to nuclear power plant quotes anonymous insiders who reveal a lack of cybersecurity awareness, design flaws, threat actors, cyber-attack scenarios and backbiting among personnel.


        The risk of serious cyber-attacks on nuclear power plants is growing, according to a new report by think-tank Chatham House. If you follow this type of news, then this is probably not a big shocker, but did you know there have been around 50 cyberattacks on nuclear plants?

        One unnamed expert quoted in the Chatham report (pdf) claimed, “What people keep saying is ‘wait until something big happens, then we’ll take it seriously’. But the problem is that we have already had a lot of very big things happen. There have probably been about 50 actual control systems cyber incidents in the nuclear industry so far, but only two or three have been made public.” The report claimed that there is limited incident disclosure and a “need to know” mindset that further limits collaboration and information-sharing. [more]

        [ends with and links to the report this is all based on]

        The executive summary (pdf) spells out the main issues amplifying cybersecurity risks to nuclear plants. In a nutshell, that includes the increased use of vulnerable ‘off-the-shelf’ software, digitization, lack of executive-level awareness, search engines like Shodan and automatic cyber-attack packages that have made hacking even easier. The supply chain is at risk, there is a lack of sufficient cyber investment and many more. There is even more in the main Chatham report “Cyber Security at Civil Nuclear Facilities Understanding the Risks” (pdf).

        • SomeoneInAsia says:

          Let’s also not forget that nuclear plants ultimately need OIL for maintenance. When the oil companies can’t produce any more oil — which everything indicates is going to happen sooner or later — how on earth are all the nuclear plants around going to be maintained? Yet the only alternative is for them to sit there and ROT — to the point where their monstrous contents eventually come out into the open.

        • Ken says:

          Just wanted to point out that nuclear energy lowers, not raises, radiation emissions, because coal plants also emit radiation. Even with Fukushima.

  10. Apneaman says:

    Lawrence Miller, you’re simply repeating horseshit group think and lies you were indoctrinated in (not really your fault). You nuke people are a lot like economists that way. Does the journal, The Lancet meet your high academic and institutional standards?

    Long-term effects of radiation exposure on health

    Toxic link: the WHO and the IAEA

    A 50-year-old agreement with the IAEA has effectively gagged the WHO from telling the truth about the health risks of radiation

  11. Apneaman says:


    Toxic link: the WHO and the IAEA

    A 50-year-old agreement with the IAEA has effectively gagged the WHO from telling the truth about the health risks of radiation

  12. Sara says:

    Earlier this week, I went for a walk along our River Promenade, a bikeway lined for a mile or so with massive blocks of limestone, stacked to create a pleasant place for people to walk, jog, bike, etc. It has been lined with trees on both sides to provide additional shade and color. I’ve often taken pictures of the trees; against the stone background, they make terrific abstract compositions. Except that this time, most of the trees had big red X’s painted on their sides. I assumed they were marked for removal because every one of them was dead. Not a leaf on their branches. None. The magnolia seemed to be OK, but it seemed that about 75 – 80% of the trees will be taken out.