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Grace Ross: Pollution Could Kill Fall Foliage

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Grace Ross, GoLocalWorcester  MINDSETTER™

The streets are buzzing with comments about the nice weather and the frequently expressed wish that there be no more snow this year.

Personally, I prefer snow to rain, but I’m wishing for snow for a different reason. When I ran for Governor in 2006 I made a splash with a comment that echoed in the minds of the Massachusetts public. I was at the debate out in Springfield for the gubernatorial candidates, one of the major media debates at the very end, and made a comment that if nothing was done about pollution in our atmosphere that 20 years from now Massachusetts fall foliage could be disappearing. That is our hardwood trees that provide that beautiful foliage would be dying and as someone who is even more attached to fall foliage than snow, that image breaks my heart.

I was referring to the pollution causing climate change frequently referred to as Global Warming; that has turned out to be an unfortunate term because it makes people think the primary climate change is an increase in temperature in every locale.

Not having been through a significant shift in our climate, I don’t think we have any images to form how that happens. My comment about the loss of our brilliant fall colors, while it brought a gasp from the audience and clearly changed the conversation across the state in the major media, didn’t necessarily clarify for people what might actually happen. 

It’s not like one day all the trees are going to fall down. What will happened (and is already happening) is the trees weaken and their immune systems weaken and their ability to handle drought and heavy rains weaken.
Our unfortunate experience with the Asian long horn beetle in Worcester is a perfect example. Periodically there are major attacks on different trees (and on any other species actually), different kinds of illnesses that attack those species, but when a species is doing well while there may be a major wipe out of large numbers, there’s still enough resiliency in the general gene pool that the species tend to survive. 

The great danger with the Asian long horn beetle was not just its attack, but that our trees are weakened and not enough may be strong enough to survive the attack and re-populate an area. We saw it again with the ice storm a couple of years ago that just tore down huge swaths of trees in our area. It’s because our trees are weak. I know it’s hard to believe for me, too. 

I got stopped two years ago by a neighbor literally across the street in the middle of summer. He was standing there staring at the tree in front of his house and I asked him what he was up to. He said, “well, you know, look at this tree: it looks perfectly healthy to me.” And I said, “yes, it looks perfectly healthy to me.” He said, “well, I had an arborist out to look at the trees for a different reason, he said all of these trees are dying. It may not look like it to us but apparently there hasn’t been enough water in the last few years and they’re really suffering. He’s worried that they’re not going to make it.” 

Well, February 2012 I understand was like the driest February on record in Massachusetts. 

It’s not just about rain. Snow actually serves a different function; it falls and then it takes so long to melt that it really saturates the grounds with water. These days rain often, particularly when it comes down heavy, just runs right off. That’s why we get huge floods in localized areas. And, unfortunately, because we use petroleum products in our fertilizer we actually have created sort of a shield – if you think of it as putting a layer of oil on water – when the rain comes down it tends to wash right off of our lawns and green spaces and puddle and then wash away. 

Snow doesn’t have that problem so although it may seem crazy, I’d like to see a lot more snow in the next few weeks and I’m hoping that that amount of moisture in the soil is really going to save our trees this summer. Otherwise, those few years of suffering so far is going to be really devastating this summer. Although it doesn’t feel that way given how we’ve built up our cities and towns, this area of the world used to be a big forest and our trees and animal life depends on a forest-like environment. 

It’s not that Global Warming is heating up the atmosphere in a way that we’re going to be able to feel it every year warmer and warmer and warmer. It’s that what we’ve done to the atmosphere is changing many dynamics. When a big system that is all interdependent like a world ecosystem is stressed out by big changes, unexpected things begin to happen. 

I suppose warmer temperatures is one, but more importantly you get weird tornados like the worse 3-day tornado season in March that happened in the Midwest or no snow around where we are. It doesn’t mean next year there won’t be tons of snow, there might be an unusually big snow, it means that the weather system is not reacting normally. The change will be noticeable because more strange and unusual weather “incidents” as they are called will happen. Our weather will be not what we are used to and while we can pick up and move to a different area, our beautiful decades old, sometimes centuries old trees cannot. And the plant and animal life dependent upon them will be damaged as well.

I hope our trees make it.


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