"To the philosopher, the physician, the meteorologist and the chemist, there is perhaps no subject more attractive than that of ozone." ~ C.B Fox, 1873
By Gail Zawacki
11 July 2014
(Wit’s End) – There is a man who lives on the other side of my village (it is said) who one day, setting out for errands, inadvertently ran over his child as he backed out of the driveway. Ever since I heard this tragic tale, I have thought I can imagine the moment that, thunderstruck with horror and frozen in disbelief, he gazed upon that little mangled body. I think I know the ferocious dread that overcame him when first he realized that the car of which he was so proudly enamored - that quintessential symbol of success, the pinnacle of modern technology and shiny avatar of individual freedom - was the very same mighty instrument of folly that had literally crushed the one thing most important to him - his progeny, his future.
I suffer his tumultuous and inconsolable grief because that is how I greet every new day since abruptly I came to understand that the splendid, intricate, exquisitely entwined tapestry of life is unraveling. This realization rushed into my consciousness like a dark sinister flood by an odd circumstance. In the summer of 2008 I suddenly noticed an irrefutable signal - that trees, the essential foundation of so much biodiversity, are dying prematurely. It was a hot, dry August, and everywhere the leaves were drooping, limp and lifeless. My curiosity piqued, the more I looked, the more I found indisputable, incontrovertible symptoms of irreversible decay. It was only the beginning recognition of an ominous trend. Now, the mute indicators of deterioration are common - swathes of bare branches protrude above the canopy.
Possessing just a rudimentary knowledge of the timescales involved in evolution was enough for me to realize the formidable outcome that must result as trees die off, when myriad crashes reverberate throughout the biosphere. Eventually, a total collapse of the ecosystem will be inevitable. Initially I speculated that the reason trees manifest terminal afflictions could only be attributed to the changing climate - surely the sole influence extensive enough to instigate such a colossal catastrophe. And yet, the climactic mechanisms - precipitation and temperature - did not consistently correlate with the empirical evidence I found, which was puzzling. It turns out, as incredible as it may seem, that the primary reason all species of trees - old and young, coniferous and deciduous - are in precipitous decline is their exposure to pollution.
Following Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the Clean Air Act, and Earth Day, like many others I had assumed that pollution was under control, at least in the US, where I live. But after becoming immersed in countless books, articles, government reports and conference catalogs, the overwhelming data persuaded me to reluctantly admit that the opposite is the case. I had no idea the extent to which an entire industry of corporate vultures and unscrupulous lobbyists had been systematically undermining regulations - in the courts, in elections, in universities. The barrage of emissions from our cars and trucks, our planes and ships, our factories and power plants, our petroleum-based fertilizers, our fracking wells and flares…all rise and mingle and travel around the globe in devastating concentrations. Unlike the visible, murky components of smog that have been, somewhat, regulated and reduced - sulfur dioxide and particulate matter - nitrous oxides continued to proliferate and have come to bathe the air, water and soil in a venomous chemical witch's brew.
Whenever fuel is combusted at high temperatures - such as, to run an engine - the abundant nitrogen in the air becomes oxidized, which is why little has been done to curtail it as a pollutant. The single remedy would be to stop burning fuel. Meanwhile, the reactive nitrogen traverses oceans and continents, as does methane, another ozone precursor that is increasing. As they go in and out of complex chemical interactions volatile organic compounds, catalyzed by UV radiation, the air has become saturated beyond a threshold that is tolerable to plants. Invisible but highly toxic, the persistent background level of ozone in the troposphere is inexorably rising, as more and more precursors are emitted - particularly from booming Asia.
Science has become ever more specialized, which is marvelous and elegant, but such compartmentalization tends to obscure and dilute a holistic picture of ecology. And so even though ozone is a product of reactive nitrogen, the eutrophication of the world's waters and the ruin of the soil and air are almost always considered as separate issues. In 2011, Alan Townsend of U Colorado termed the nitrogen cascade "the biggest environmental disaster nobody has ever heard of". The disruption of the cycle was also was named in the Stockholm Resilience Centre's famed "Nine Boundaries" study as one of the thresholds that we must not - but already have - breached. One fascinating paper that examined numerous nefarious processes - deemed "an onslaught of acid loading" - was written by Rice and Herman, titled "Acidification of Earth: An assessment across mechanisms and scales". Published in 2011, it should have instigated widespread alarm, but instead was promptly forgotten. [more]