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Monday, April 2, 2012

Early ending: Maple sugar and global warming

Latest letter to the editor. Local papers offer an excellent opportunity for climate activism and education. The Valley News, for example, will basically print any letter of 350 words or less, and asks only that writers refrain from writing more than once every two weeks.  Pretty hard to beat.  The only defect is that they don't have a web version.

Letter to the Editor - Valley News (Lebanon, N.H.) - March 20, 2012 (Links added)

To the Editor:

Your article "Sap Flow Ends Early: Sugaring Ending When It Typically Would Be Taking Off" (Mar. 19) is one more indication that climate change is upon us, and the weather and world ahead will not be what they used to be.  Strangely, the article did not mention climate, nor did another ("Spring Comes to the Fore: Weather Creates Early Golf Start") the same day, but it's getting more and more difficult to ignore what is going on.

What does the future hold for maple sugaring?  Likely nothing good--to date, producers have managed to stay more or less even with the warming weather by using new technology, but climate change is like rust in that it never sleeps.  A good source for readers who would like to know more is a five-minute YouTube video titled "No Maple Syrup by 2100?"  It tells the fascinating story of Martha Carlson, a New Hampshire sugar producer who decided to become a tree researcher and PhD student at the age of 61 after she saw the quality of the syrup from her trees declining.   The video quotes the U.S. Forest Service as the source for the simple statement, "Most of the sugar maple is likely to be gone by 2100 due to climate change."  It adds that climate change threatens the $3 million maple sugar industry and the $292 million foliage tourism industry.

Anyone concerned about climate change and the prospect it offers--weather disruption, threats to plant and animal species, and more--should consider joining Citizens' Climate Lobby, a group that is seeking to persuade Congress to pass a gradually escalating carbon tax, with the proceeds distributed to all Americans as a dividend.  That may not happen this year or next, but climate change is not going away.

Thomas O. Gray

[In related news, see The End of Maple? for a first-person account of this year's sugaring "season."]

1 comment:

  1. It's not climate change! It's pollution!

    "Until recently, scientists thought increased nitrogen was beneficial to plants," explains Orie Loucks, an ecologist at Ohio’s Miami University. "Farmers typically add nitrogen to soils to spur growth." But, Loucks says, there comes a point when nitrogen saturation of soils threatens vegetation.
    Nitrogen oxide—converted to nitric acid in the atmosphere—falls as acid rain and bonds with the earth’s natural calcium and magnesium. It flushes these vital nutrients out of soils, denying them to plants. The acid also leaches aluminum from rock and soil. Toxic aluminum destroys root hairs; it prevents trees from absorbing water and minerals.
    Trees weakened by acid rain may be more prone to blowdown, insect and disease damage. Loucks contends that nitrogen saturation and leaching of bases causes increased limb breakage and tree snap-off. "Less calcium means weaker cell walls, which means weaker wood," Loucks argues. "For trees, it’s like having a pack-a-day cigarette habit for fifty years." The degradation is gradual, cumulative and eventually fatal. In time, it may cause Appalachian Mountain forests to come crashing down around our ears.
    Orie Loucks agrees that severe damage to sugar maples during New England’s devastating 1998 ice storm may have been intensified by pollution-sapped trees.
    The loss of soil nutrients and a lack of forest growth were conclusively linked to acid rain in 1996 at New Hampshire’s Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. Investigators studied three decades of data. They found that the annual accumulation rate of forest biomass—the total plant material added to the forest—dropped to zero in 1987 and has remained static ever since....
    On summer days when visible haze is at its worst above the Appalachian Trail, the invisible pollutant called ozone also peaks. "Ozone may be the eight-hundred pound gorilla no one notices," Loucks speculates. "While public attention has focused on acid rain, ozone is having extreme impacts on forest ecology."
    Ozone disrupts plant photosynthesis, producing ugly dark blotches of dead cells on foliage—an effect called "stippling." Some leaves are so injured they change color as early as June and drop off.

    The full extent of ozone damage is unknown. Loucks suggests that reduced photosynthesis hinders the healthy growth of tree diameters and roots. He worries that since the plants produce fewer carbohydrates, they also generate fewer secondary metabolites, the defensive chemicals made by trees to inhibit insects and disease. Ozone may, in a sense, disable a plant’s immune system.
    Representatives of the automobile and energy industries deny that air pollution harms people or trees. They say there is no smoking gun implicating acid rain and ozone in human or forest health impacts.  Bruce Hill disagrees.
    "Air pollution is like AIDS in the forest," he counters. "Forest ecosystems are complex. So, determining precise cause and effect will always be difficult. But you can draw a strong connection between air pollution and forest decline."
    "We need to recognize that we’re in the midst of a major forest health crisis," asserts Orie Loucks. "Some of my younger colleagues, who are in their forties, say that the tree growth we see today is normal, but I point out that they’ve never really seen a healthy forest."