New Ground-Level Ozone Alert
© 2016 by Linda Moulton Howe
“The whole global ambient level of ground-level ozone has risen now to 50 ppb
and rising. That’s a lot for a gas so toxic to plants, animals and humans.”
- Jim Robbins, New York Times contributor and author
Healthy tulip tree leaf (top) compared
to ozone-injured leaf. Images by National Park Service.
Environmental Protection Agency alert.
Even bristlecone pine trees over a thousand years old
growing on top of mountains from Colorado to California are now
affected by rising levels of ground-level ozone. Image USDA.
November 24, 2016 Helena, Montana - On November 18, 2016, the U. S. Forest Service reported that 2016 U. S. Forest Service surveys of dead trees in California increased by 36 million deaths since May 2016, bringing the grand total in California to 102 million dead trees during the ongoing 5-year-drought. More than half of that number were 2016 deaths reinforcing the alarm that trees in California and other parts of the U. S. and the world are dying at an ever-accelerating rate. The world lost 45 million acres of trees last year in 2015.
The government says this huge number of dead trees is “unprecedented in our modern history. Trees are dying at a rate much quicker than we thought.” The majority of the dead trees are where drought and unusually high temperatures have been most destructive in the southern and central Sierra Nevada region. But Northern California forests are also dying at a high rate.
California's five years of drought have left 102 million dead trees across 7.7 million acres of
California forests, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced in November 2016, following
an aerial survey. 62 million trees died in the year 2016 alone. That number is an increase
of more than 100% in tree deaths compared to 2015. In the photo above, all the dead
and dying trees are grey or orange. Image August 2016 by USFS Region 5.
The dead, dry trees are fuel for fires that are coming now more frequently in longer and hotter fire seasons. One forest fire in Monterey County the summer of 2016 burned for two months, making it one of the most expensive fire fights in U. S. Forest Service history.
On November 7, 2016, the National Academy of Sciences published a new study that found since 2000, there has been a 75% increase in forested lands with elevated dryness that will continue for decades along with increasing hotter, longer wildfires.
In November over thirty large wildfires burned more than 80,000 acres in northern Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. The Georgia fire alone burned forest acreages equal to nine times the size of Manhattan. 250 residents of Chattanooga, Tennessee, were hospitalized with breathing problems.
November 20, 2016, Asheville, North Carolina, one of thirty some wildfires
in half a dozen southeastern states struggling with serious drought
and dry, dying trees. Image © 2016 by John Cayton.
Scientists say all forest biomes on Earth are actively dying right now.
[ Editor's Note: A biome is a formation of plants and animals that have common characteristics due to similar climates and can be found over a range of continents. ... Biomes are distinct from habitats, because any biome can comprise a variety of habitats.]
One long-time contributor to The New York Times, Jim Robbins, reported for Yale Environment 360.com in October 2016, that there is a “New Ozone Alert, A Warning of Harm to Plants and to People.” Jim is talking about ground-level ozone.
We need ozone up high in our atmosphere to protect us from ultraviolet light. But there is lots of dangerous, toxic ozone close to the ground from car emissions and industries, which is increasing rapidly. An MIT study estimates now that ground-level ozone is causing between 5,000 to 19,000 human deaths every year now in the United States. Ground-level ozone has killed $20 to $70 billion worth of potato, soybean, peanut and tobacco crops each year. Ground-level ozone levels are continually rising around the world and some scientists think it's an existential threat.
Recently I talked about all this with Jim Robbins, a free-lance writer based in Helena, Montana, who reports about science and environmental issues for The New York Times and other publications. Jim is also author of The Man Who Planted Trees and has a new book upcoming in 2017, The Wonder of Birds.
Jim Robbins, a free-lance writer for more
than thirty years, lives with his family in Helena,
Montana. He is a frequent contributor to
The New York Times and other publications
and is author of The Man Who Planted Trees
© 2012 and upcoming 2017 The Wonder of Birds.
Jim Robbins, free-lance writer for The New York Times, other publications, author of The Man Who Planted Trees © 2012 and upcoming 2017 The Wonder of Birds, Helena, Montana: “We’re surrounded by this ground-level ozone. One of the problems with ozone and the reason that people don’t pay attention to it is that we confuse it with the ozone in the atmosphere which protects us from ultraviolet rays. And that was a big issue for a long time because there was a hole in the ozone layer. Ozone is ‘good up high and bad near by.’
And so ozone at ground-level ozone is a toxic gas and it poisons every living thing, including us — especially in urban areas, it’s a big problem because one of the main causes of ozone is automobile exhaust that is not burned comletely. Sunlight turns it into nitrogen oxide and other compounds and then into ozone.
Los Angeles 1960s Smog/Ozone Pollution
In the 1960s, a typical new car in California produced a ton of smog-forming pollution,
including lots of ozone for every 100,000 miles of driving.
JIM, BACK IN THE 1970S, WE KNEW A LOS ANGELES THAT YOU COULD BARELY SEE ON SMOGGY DAYS AND THERE WERE THESE BIG CAMPAIGNS TO DEAL WITH THE OZONE SMOG IN LOS ANGELES AND SOME OTHER CITIES. AND SOME HOW WE GOT LULLED INTO THE IMPRESSION THAT THE GROUND-OZONE PROBLEM THAT USED TO BE SO ACUTE IN LOS ANGELES HAD GONE AWAY. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE DISCONNNECT BETWEEN WHY IT IS THAT WE IN THE PUBLIC HAVE NOT UNDERSTOOD THAT OZONE AROUND US HAS BEEN INCREASING AND IS NOW A BIG THREAT?
Well, in the worst areas like Los Angeles, like Houston — it’s gotten better because the EPA regulates the causes of ozone. We used to get up to 200 ppb, which is extremely toxic. Now the regulatory levels are 75 ppb, or parts per billion, in cities. But there’s a worldwide ambient level of ozone that’s everywhere in the world. And that has been going up and it’s not regulated in a general sense because they can’t regulate it. They regulate it at the source, but they can’t really do much about it when you leave the cities because there is no convenient way to do it.
Ozone Smog “Red Alerts” in India and China
One of the biggest sources is Asia — New Delhi and Beijing and other places that are growing rapidly and don’t have much in the way of air pollution controls.
Beijing, China (above) and New Delhi, India (below) have been overwhelmed in 2016 with
smog/ozone pollution that reaches “red alert” extreme health and environmental danger levels.
Average Global Ambient Ground
Ozone Is Now 50 ppb and Rising
So it gets into the atmosphere and it travels all over the world. It raises the whole global ambient level of ground-level ozone now to 50 parts per billion and rising. That’s a lot for a gas so toxic to plants, animals and humans.
And the thing that keeps coming back to me in these kinds of stories that I do, whether it’s about trees or birds or anything — is how little we know about the world! It’s bad, difficult to study — there’s not a lot of funding. But one of the things they think is going on is that ozone weakens trees and it makes them more susceptible to insects and disease and other things (fires).
Wildfires Hotter and Longer As Earth Heats Up
A Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane makes a drop over the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County
in June 17, 2016. The Nat'l. Interagency Fire Center reported that California leads the nation
in quantity, size and intensity of wildfires after five years of severe drought. Image by Zackmann08.
ESPECIALLY FIRE. THERE WAS AN ARTICLE HERE WHERE IN NEW MEXICO AND THE WEST AND CALIFORNIA, THERE HAVE BEEN INCREASING NUMBERS OF FIRES. AND IN FACT, IN THE ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL ON NOVEMBER 12, 2016, ‘STUDY SAYS WILDFIRE SEASON WORSENING, GLOBAL WARMING THE CULPRIT.’ THIS WAS A STUDY THAT WAS DONE BY THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES. THIS WAS DONE THROUGH THE COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY LAMONT DOHERTY OBSERVATORY. WHAT THEY HAVE FOUND IS THAT WESTERN FORESTS EVERYWHERE HAVE ‘HOTTER DRY SPELLS. THEY ARE LONGER. AND THEY ARE CAUSING THE WESTERN FORESTS TO DRY OUT.
THIS IS DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE INCREASE IN GLOBAL WARMING, WHICH THIS STUDY SAYS IS CONNECTED DIRECTLY TO HUMAN CAUSE FROM GAS IN CARS AND INDUSTRIAL EMISSIONS.
Yes, all of the trees on my property — 15 acres of ponderosa pine in Montana — died within 3 to 4 years because we don’t get winters below zero anymore, which we used to get all the time. Insects that live on our property took off (in population growth) and they killed every tree within three or four years.
So that really prompted me to start looking at what is going on in forests in the world. And it’s shocking!
I mean, it really is shocking to see what is going on, what scientists are saying. And when you connect all these dots, it’s a very troubling picture. I’ve been waving the flag trying to get people to pay attention.
THANK YOU FOR SENDING ME THE URL TO THE MOTHERBOARD ARTICLE THAT IS ENTITLED, ‘EVERY FOREST BIOME ON EARTH IS ACTIVELY DYING RIGHT NOW.’ AN AUGUST 20, 2015, ARTICLE WRITTEN BY BECKY FERRERA. SHE HAS A SUM UP SENTENCE.
‘Every forest biome on Earth is actively dying right now. And if this course is not corrected, the deterioration of these valuable ecosystems will accelerate over the coming decades.'
WHAT I WONDER, JIM, IF THIS IS TRUE — IF ALL OF THE LARGE FORESTS ARE IN EXTINCTION EVENTS, EVEN IF IT’S GOING TO TAKE THE REST OF THIS CENTURY — THIS SEEMS TO BE ONE OF THE MOST SERIOUS THREATS TO THE ENTIRE GLOBAL HEALTH.
Well, I can’t argue with you there because trees play a fundamental role in sustaining life, not only their life and forest creatures wildlife and so on, but our lives!
Ground-Level Ozone Is Toxic to Trees
COULD YOU PLEASE GO OVER SOME OF THE HARD PHYSICAL EVIDENCE THAT SCIENTISTS HAVE FOUND AND YOU HAVE REPORTED ABOUT IN YOUR WORK CONCERNING WHICH PLANTS ARE ESPECIALLY AFFECTED? WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ABILITY TO EITHER BRING UP WATER OR NOT? WHAT IS KNOWN OF GROUND OZONE IMPACT ON PLANTS AND TREES EVERYWHERE?
There is one study that was done where the guy covered up part of the forest with tarps and stuff. What he believes is that there is something that occurs called stomatal stagnation. That is that the trees get weakened by ground-level ozone. This is a toxic gas and the trees get weakened to the point where they can’t fully close their stomata. And stomata are little mouths on the bottom of the leaves that allow them to release water vapor into the atmosphere.
What that means is that they can’t close up and they keep pouring water out through their system. Scientists have looked at whole valleys that were forests and realized that what’s happened is the trees are releasing so much water into the atmosphere because they can’t stop from releasing it, which they would do if they were healthy. So, that’s just one of the aspects of what happens to trees from exposure to ozone.
Ground-Level Ozone Is Toxic
to Some Vegetables
IT ISN’T JUST TREES. IT’S SOME OF OUR MOST DEPENDED UPON VEGETABLES IN WHICH THEY KNOW THAT OZONE IS NOW KILLING $20 to $70 BILLION IN CROPS PER YEAR. CAN YOU GO INTO WHAT HAPPENS WITH SOME OF THEM LIKE POTATOES, SOY BEANS, PEANUTS, TOBACCO AND SO FORTH?
Yes, soybeans and peanuts are very sensitive to ozone. Some plants are more sensitive than others to this (ozone) gas. There were potatoes that they grew in the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland that they can’t grow anymore. They were grown for potato chips and so they had to retire the type of potato.
[ Editor’s Note: The Delmarva Peninsula or simply Delmarva is a large peninsula on the East Coast of the United States, occupied by most of Delaware as well as the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the Eastern Shore of Virginia.]
Ground-level ozone causes more damage to plants
than all other air pollutants combined, such as this snap beans.
Foreground plants damaged by ground-level ozone. Rear plants healthy controls
protected from ground-level ozone damage.Research photo by USDA.
WHAT DOES THE OZONE DO TO THE POTATOES AND THESE VEGETABLES?
It kills the plant. It kills the leaves. They turn brown and get spots on them and they stop functioning.
One of the big things about ozone is it’s intertwined with climate change. It’s a greenhouse gas. But also what happens is because growing seasons are longer — I talked to someone today who told me that growing seasons in the southwest are a month longer than they were 50 years ago. And because plants are growing longer, much longer in some cases, they are exposed to ozone for a much longer period. When it’s warmer, there is more ozone.
And so, if there is a longer growing season and it’s warmer —we’re getting these record heatwaves — I read today that 2016 was the warmest year on record.
And so, what’s happening is that means there is more ozone being produced. But also, the plants are growing longer in these longer growing seasons and taking in ozone longer. So, more ozone and more time to absorb it.
This is happening so fast now. Every scientist I talk to says, ‘Wow, we have just never seen — we’re beyond a collective wisdom of science at this point because it’s happening so fast. The glaciers I’ve been writing about — this thing called a ‘melt water stone fly’ that lives in the glaciers of Glacier National Park. The glaciers are expected to be gone by 2030. That’s 13 years.
Entirely. There’s 25 glaciers left and they’ll be gone in thirteen years.
Global Ozone Alert Needed
“There should still be a global alert about ozone now more than ever.”
- Jack Fishman, Ph.D., Prof. of Meteorology, St. Louis Univ.
WE CAN BE AT URGENT LEVELS EVEN IF PEOPLE ARE NOT AWARE OF GROUND OZONE AS A THREAT NOW. AND IN FACT, JACK FISHMAN, WHO IS A PROFESSOR OF METEOROLOGY AT ST. LOUIS UNIVERSITY AND YOU QUOTE HIM IN YOUR ARTICLE FOR YALE ENVIRONMENT 360. HE SAYS AFTER 40 YEARS OF RESEARCH HOW FRUSTRATED HE IS: ‘THERE SHOULD STILL BE A GLOBAL ALERT ABOUT OZONE NOW MORE THAN EVER.’
Yeah, and here we are and it’s not even part of the political debate we just had and it’s not even barely mentioned — maybe because people just don’t want to hear it. I don’t know.
THERE’S ANOTHER STATISTIC THAT IN THE YEAR 2015, THE WORLD LOST 45 MILLION ACRES OF TREES.
Yeah, it continues. I visited the bristlecone pines recently — the oldest trees in the world that are in Nevada, the Great Basin National Park. High levels of ozone around the trees. They don’t know why the levels are so high. It’s a big problem and these trees at the top of the world, ozone is weakening them. And now it’s warm enough so that bugs are coming up that high. And we’re seeing blister rust, which is an invasive species from Asia, which came over in the early 1900s from Asia. It is now found its way to some of these bristlecone pines very high in the mountains.
AND IS KILLING THEM?
Well, it hasn’t killed them yet. But they know it’s coming. It’s scary, really. I think we need a task force at the highest levels to figure out what the hell is going on and to do something. As you say, the science magazine title was ‘Seven Forest Biomes in the World Are Actively Dying.’ Well, if that doesn’t raise alarm bells, I don’t know what does.”
• 09/26/2014 — 314 North American Bird Species Face Extinction This Century Because Climate Is Changing Faster Than They Can Adapt