Science shocker: Drought drives decade-long decline in plant growth

This could drive an amplifying feedback, undermine biofuels strategy

Earth has done an ecological about-face: Global plant productivity that once flourished under warming temperatures and a lengthened growing season is now on the decline, struck by the stress of drought.

NASA-funded researchers Maosheng Zhao and Steven Running, of the University of Montana in Missoula, discovered the global shift during an analysis of NASA satellite data. Compared with a six-percent increase spanning two earlier decades, the recent ten-year decline is slight — just one percent. The shift, however, could impact food security, biofuels, and the global carbon cycle.

“We see this as a bit of a surprise, and potentially significant on a policy level because previous interpretations suggested that global warming might actually help plant growth around the world,” Running said.

“These results are extraordinarily significant because they show that the global net effect of climatic warming on the productivity of terrestrial vegetation need not be positive — as was documented for the 1980’s and 1990’s,” said Diane Wickland, of NASA Headquarters and manager of NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology research program.

That’s from a remarkable NASA news release today, “Drought Drives Decade-Long Decline in Plant Growth” (see narrated video below).

On Friday, the journal Science publishes the study itself, ” Drought-Induced Reduction in Global Terrestrial Net Primary Production from 2000 Through 2009” (subs. req’d), which found:

Terrestrial net primary production (NPP) quantifies the amount of atmospheric carbon fixed by plants and accumulated as biomass. Previous studies have shown that climate constraints were relaxing with increasing temperature and solar radiation, allowing an upward trend in NPP from 1982 through 1999. The past decade (2000 to 2009) has been the warmest since instrumental measurements began, which could imply continued increases in NPP; however, our estimates suggest a reduction in the global NPP of 0.55 petagrams of carbon. Large-scale droughts have reduced regional NPP, and a drying trend in the Southern Hemisphere has decreased NPP in that area, counteracting the increased NPP over the Northern Hemisphere. A continued decline in NPP would not only weaken the terrestrial carbon sink, but it would also intensify future competition between food demand and proposed biofuel production.

The notion that we could use a substantial amount of arable land or potable water for growing biomass to make energy was always dubious, as I’ve long argued (see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?“).  If this study does in fact portend a long-term trend, then  it further constrains the potential biofuel options.

The release contains an excellent video:

(Video Credit: NASA/Michelle Williams. This narrated video gives an overview of net primary production and the carbon cycle. High-resolution data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, indicate a net decrease in NPP from 2000-2009, as compared to the previous two decades.)

The release itself continues:

Conventional wisdom based on previous research held that land plant productivity was on the rise. A 2003 paper in Science led by then University of Montana scientist Ramakrishna Nemani (now at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.) showed that global terrestrial plant productivity increased as much as six percent between 1982 and 1999. That’s because for nearly two decades, temperature, solar radiation and water availability — influenced by climate change — were favorable for growth.

Setting out to update that analysis, Zhao and Running expected to see similar results as global average temperatures have continued to climb. Instead, they found that the impact of regional drought overwhelmed the positive influence of a longer growing season, driving down global plant productivity between 2000 and 2009. The team published their findings Aug. 20 in Science.

“This is a pretty serious warning that warmer temperatures are not going to endlessly improve plant growth,” Running said.

The discovery comes from an analysis of plant productivity data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite, combined with growing season climate variables including temperature, solar radiation and water. The plant and climate data are factored into an algorithm that describes constraints on plant growth at different geographical locations.

For example, growth is generally limited in high latitudes by temperature and in deserts by water. But regional limitations can very in their degree of impact on growth throughout the growing season.

Zhao and Running’s analysis showed that since 2000, high-latitude northern hemisphere ecosystems have continued to benefit from warmer temperatures and a longer growing season. But that effect was offset by warming-associated drought that limited growth in the southern hemisphere, resulting in a net global loss of land productivity.

“This past decade’s net decline in terrestrial productivity illustrates that a complex interplay between temperature, rainfall, cloudiness, and carbon dioxide, probably in combination with other factors such as nutrients and land management, will determine future patterns and trends in productivity,” Wickland said.

Researchers are keen on maintaining a record of the trends into the future. For one reason, plants act as a carbon dioxide “sink,” and shifting plant productivity is linked to shifting levels of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Also, stresses on plant growth could challenge food production.

“The potential that future warming would cause additional declines does not bode well for the ability of the biosphere to support multiple societal demands for agricultural production, fiber needs, and increasingly, biofuel production,” Zhao said.

Even if the declining trend of the past decade does not continue, managing forests and croplands for multiple benefits to include food production, biofuel harvest, and carbon storage may become exceedingly challenging in light of the possible impacts of such decadal-scale changes,” Wickland said.


“A snapshot of Earth’s plant productivity in 2003 shows regions of increased productivity (green) and decreased productivity (red). Tracking productivity between 2000 and 2009, researchers found a global net decrease due to regional drought.” Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

Finally, the study itself concludes ominously:

Recent simulations from coupled climate-carbon cycle models have shown that there is a positive feedback between the carbon cycle and the climate system (2931), and also that future biological carbon sinks could eventually level off and subsequently decline to zero….  [S]oil respiration largely follows a similar nonlinear temperature response in these models (31). These nonlinear amplification responses of water and carbon processes to warming are the major mechanisms responsible for the positive feedback between the carbon and climate systems.

Though the warming climate during this period continuously increased NPP over areas of high latitude and high elevations, these warming-benefited areas only account for 16% of the global total NPP and 24% of global vegetated land area. NPP over large land areas of lower latitude and altitude is negatively correlated with temperature (fig. S10A), mostly due to the warming-related increases in water stress and autotrophic respiration, especially for the SH (r = -0.94, p < 0.0001). Globally, interannual NPP is negatively correlated with air temperature over vegetated land (r = -0.64, p < 0.05) (table S3).

Over the past 10 years, large-scale periodic regional droughts and a general drying trend over the SH reduced global terrestrial NPP. Under a changing climate, severe regional droughts have become more frequent, a trend expected to continue for the foreseeable future (13, 33, 34). The warming-associated heat and drought not only decrease NPP, but also may trigger many more ecosystem disturbances (6, 35, 36), releasing carbon to the atmosphere (18, 37). Reduced NPP potentially threatens global food security and future biofuel production and weakens the terrestrial carbon sink. Continuous global monitoring of NPP will be essential to determining whether the reduced NPP over the past 10 years is a decadal variation or a turning point to a declining terrestrial carbon sequestration under changing climate.

And so we have another potential  of an amplifying feedback in the carbon cycle.

This new study is the latest in a series of truly alarming scientific studies published just this year that  suggest we may be closer to dangerous carbon-cycle tipping points and  irreversible  thresholds than anyone realized:

Failure to takes strong and immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions  is increasingly looking like societal suicide.


75 Responses to Science shocker: Drought drives decade-long decline in plant growth

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    Bold steps are required to tackle this mega event.

  2. Fred Teal says:

    Hopefully, this is one more nail in the coffin of deniers.

  3. Lore says:

    I’ve often stated that climate change will make its impact known first by driving the world to starvation, long before ice caps melt and major sea levels rise.

  4. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    “By…[1975] some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions. Other experts, more optimistic, think the ultimate food-population collision will not occur until the decade of the 1980s.”
    • Paul Ehrlich, Stanford University biologist

    Remember this prediction? Folks, we are not going to starve.

  5. Lore says:

    “Remember this prediction? Folks, we are not going to starve.”

    Because recent predictions haven’t happened yet is not much comfort. With greater knowledge comes better foresight.

  6. Lore says:

    Clarence E. Causey III:

    So your relying on the fact that it hasn’t happened yet? I’d ask the 6 million flood refugees in Pakistan right now it they would agree with that assessment.

  7. But, but… CO2 is plant food! Quick put more it into the atmosphere. That should fix it.

    In all seriousness – in addition to the news about phytoplankton decline, these is some of the worst news this year.

  8. catman306 says:

    Lore, I’m not sure that there will be that many years between world famine and the ice caps melting. I think this is year we’ve left the linear portion of climate change and have entered the exponential part. That’s the part when all the deck chairs start sliding down the the deck into the water in that movie Titanic. People too.

    I think the chaotic, non-linear, multi-variate, reality of climate change has completely escaped the grasp of our economic, spiritual, and political leaders. But they’ll recognize catastrophes when they see them.

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    “These nonlinear amplification responses of water and carbon processes to warming are the major mechanisms responsible for the positive feedback between the carbon and climate systems.”

    Suck carbon from the atmosphere is the “fix”.

    [JR: More expensive than mitigation, plus putting that much someplace ain’t easy.]

  10. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    More predictions: “I’m not that there will be that many years between world famine and the ice caps melting…” How many years exactly are you suggesting? 10? 50? 100?

  11. Lore says:

    Clarence E. Causey III & catman306:

    Here we agree, right now we are applying placeboes to real and obvious problems. Lots of shake, rattle and role with no rhythm. We cam see and some even admit to the problems, but we can’t help ourselves in proceeding with our plans to sustain business as usual.

  12. Re starvation and predicitons.

    “We” in the affluent West won’t starve, as the existing infrastructure and will continue to meet most of our requirements.

    However, it means food prices will rise. The people you don’t see in the developing world will suffer the most.

    This will create a food security issue that wil have a deep, long lasting political impact on those parts of the world.

    The risk is how this impacts the geo-political environment.

    i.e who would have thought the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan would have changed the world so profoundly?

  13. Prokaryotes says:

    Genetically engineered wheat when subjected to changing environmental conditions was more prone to disease and produced half as much yields as unmodified wheat.

  14. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Prokaryotes is correct, “we” here in the West will not starve, it will be in the less developed countries, but that has very little to do with climate change, and more to do with an unstable government and society.

  15. Lore says:

    I believe that it’s pure hubris to think that the Western world is somehow impervious from possible future food shortages. Climate change can and will affect every portion of the planet and its human food sources.

  16. Colorado Bob says:

    Joe –
    Add to your list at the foot of the post, the recent study about rice production declining due to increasing night time highs.

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    Clarence E. Causey III, “we” here in the West will not starve …

    I think this will happen everywhere. All it takes is heatwave, a flood, major storms, extended blizzard conditions etc. The west could compensate better, with importing deficits, but it’s setup to get worse with time.

    Investing in Clean Energy Manufacturing

  18. catman306 says:

    Take care of all your worldly business, Mr. Causey. Gaia is about ready to reboot with Nature version 7.0. It will probably require a reformat which will cause much genetic information to be lost (mass extinction). Dr. Lovelock thinks 2020, but I think he is optimistic. How many formerly linear variables can become non-linear at the same time without the entire system blowing up?

    There probably won’t be too many people noticing the ice caps have melted. They’ll be busy with more pressing matters.

  19. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Lore, we at least have the advantages of technology and a stable system of government. No one is suggesting it can’t happen here, but it’s very unlikely. The undeveloped world has the rough equivalent of a lowered economic immune system; they won’t be able to withstand what a healthy society will.

  20. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Catman306, you should also concern yourself with more pressing matters, including not worrying that the world as we know it might end any day now. Do what I did and throw your TV in the dump and you’ll quickly find your “worry time” will go way down. Also, as I’m sure you are aware, the Earth has seen several mass extinctions, but recovered quite nicely. I think George Carlin said it best, “The Earth isn’t going anywhere…..*we* are….”.

  21. catman306 says:

    Mention the 2nd Amendment and here come the trolls.

  22. Charles Darwin Jr says:

    #17 catman

    You think mass extinction by 2020 is optimistic?

    Interesting development Joe, something to keep an eye on…

  23. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Not a troll, unless your definition of a troll is “anyone who disagrees with you”.

  24. Lore says:

    Clarence E. Causey III:

    If anything we are a much more delicate and less capable society in being able to deal with these upcoming issues then are some third world countries. We rely on a intricate network of just-in-time services to sustain our every day lives. Technology is far from a panacea, it can also be our Achilles’ heel. The graveyards are full of people that were waiting for technology to cure there ills. You only have to look at Katrina relief, or the GOM oil spill to see how feckless of a society we really are in being able to tackle major catastrophes we have not prepared for.

  25. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Good points Lore, and well-written. I will address some of them later if time permits.

  26. Bob Lang says:

    Question for Clarence E. Causey III:

    How old is the earth? Thanks in advance.

  27. catman306 says:

    The Mass Extinction is already underway, Mr. Darwin. It has been for 20 years now. Things take time.

    Mr. Causey, I actually agree with your #19 comment. No TV, Gaia will be just fine without the current biosphere which will be replace with some other regime, George Carlin was the greatest, we lost a special person when he died.

    Do you really think our civilization can survive in any form while we are having so many life supporting systems fail at nearly the same time? (within the next 10 years) I don’t. Groups will survive longer but as the day to day weather gets more extreme, they will fail too.

  28. Charles Darwin Jr says:

    #27 Catman

    You are correct things take time. That is why mass extinction by 2020 being an optimistic scenario is very odd.

    I agree that things are headed in a very bad direction, but I don’t think any scientists believe everything is going to fail in the next 10 years.

    The second half of this century seems more realistic.

  29. Mike says:

    I am not sure I agree with the statements about biofuels. There is plenty of plant waste from agriculture and suburban lawns. With progress in cellulose to ethanol, biofuels should be viable. I have always agreed that sugar to ethanol was a bogus option. But, haven’t read the article yet, so maybe they can change my mind.

    It is clear that the plant food argument is dead even though it was never really viable.

  30. hapa says:

    if ranching was still a family business, i’d feel bad for cattle farmers. but then we all knew meat was doomed, right? it’s their momentum carrying them now.

  31. jyyh says:

    On the off-chance JR hasn’t seen this
    I note that plants are going to have to adapt to a quite different conditions than previously anyway. Anyway the picture there is about the best depiction I’ve seen on how different conditions for biosphere the humans are producing. True plants do not rely on proteins (containing most of the organic nitrogen) as much as the animals, but their cells may enlarge with increased CO2, this leads to enlarged distances of protein transport across plants’ veins, which slows their growth or makes them more susceptible to diseases (if the disease’s ability to infect them isn’t also reduced). It’s not like rocket science to understand the chlorophyll complex isn’t an easily adjustable machine.

  32. #19 Clarence E. Causey III

    “…The undeveloped world has the rough equivalent of a lowered economic immune system; they won’t be able to withstand what a healthy society will…”

    Again I’d suggest you miss the point of general political instability that may result from serious disruption to the food supply network.

    What will those billions in Africa, Asia and the Middle East decide to do if they don’t have enough to eat and we do?

  33. Mr. “Causey,” just because one person’s predictions in the past did not come true scarcely qualifies evidence that no predictions — now or ever — will ever come to pass. It transcends comprehension how anyone could actually imagine such a claim would stand as a legitimate argument, yet either (1) this is exactly the claim you are making, or (2) you are being calculatedly disengenuous in your grotesquely fallacious Red Herring argument.

    If one looks — and disregards all the counter-arguments and mountains of contradictory evidence — one can find suggestions that we were moving toward an ice age back in 1975 as well. More than a few people have pointed out how vacuous such claims are with regard to our understandings of climate change, and yet such an argument is entirely analogous to the one you are making here. Again, a person with an interest in the logical structures of valid arguments should and ought to wonder why you would do this?

    Again, to repeat and rephrase the above so as to ensure that the point is genuinely clear, failures of past speculations are evidence of NOTHING but themselves. This is even more emphatically obvious (to say nothing of true) when one takes into account the substantially improved basis of evidence upon which contemporary concerns about the near-term future are predicated.

  34. End of the Line says:

    Hey kids, I can accept blame for the past and the present, but now that you know the science, the future is all yours.

  35. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    Bob Lang at #26 on the age of the Earth; I believe the currently accepted age is on the order of 4 billion plus years. Why do you ask?

  36. Clarence E. Causey III says:

    “Watching the Deniers” at #31: my guess is those billions in the third world who don’t have enough to eat will first turn upon themselves. Their societies will simply implode, but they will not, and cannot take the rest of the world with them.

  37. Richard Brenne says:

    Clarence E. Causey III and others:

    Interesting conversation, and yes, Clarence (#4), Paul Ehrlich wrote in his famous book “The Population Bomb” in 1968 that by the 1970s famines would kill hundreds of millions. Instead famines only killed millions, which is meaningful to all the family members and friends of the millions, even if it wasn’t to most Americans or those in other wealthy nations.

    But just because Paul Ehrlich and Thomas Malthus haven’t been right yet doesn’t mean that they won’t be right eventually. Leonardo da Vinci predicted heavier-than-air flight in the 1400s and it didn’t come true in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s or 1800s but eventually it did come true.

    I remember Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Dickens, Lincoln, Twain and others fondly and greatly respect the legacy each has left us. What is the legacy we’ll be leaving all future generations the same amount of time into the future?

    I put panels together of experts in climate change and related areas. The water infrastructure experts don’t see how we’re going to feed 7 billion let alone 9 billion people. The same with the aquifer and other water table depletion experts. Same with the peak oil, natural gas and phospherus experts. Same with the topsoil experts and the nitrogen cycle experts and the pollinator experts, including those studying the loss of honeybees, ladybugs and many other pollinators.

    In fact with each of these concerns alone, the experts don’t think 7 billion people can be fed, and indeed one billion people are malnourished, ranging from starving to death to just hungry.

    Each of these experts is not necessarily aware of the concerns of all the other experts, or even most of them. Then climate change could affect agriculture more than all the others, and someday maybe more than all the others combined.

    We’ve blown up a balloon of growth that is so unimaginably complex that it’s collapse is inevitable – in fact in the Gulf of Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, China and many other places this is exactly what we’re seeing, right now and simultaneously. But this is just the beginning.

    It is difficult to know how complete the collapse will be in a decade, two or three, but it seems very likely to be astonishingly complete sometime this century. You’re obviously a bright person, but I think we need to listen to the other bright people who have made the study of each of these things their life’s work.

    When you add – or multiply – their concerns (and add that of Gail at Wit’s End, who I expect to hear from here about her very real and unique concerns about global plant health), the result appears more likely to be global famine sometime during the next century than not.

  38. MARodger says:

    #34 Hey Clarence E. – “…they will not, and cannot take the rest of the world with them.” Thank you for that. Very reassuring, at least for us folk living in stable Western democracies. After all, our “First World” bears no relation to their primitive “Third World”. Like it truly is a different world. So there ain’t nothing to worry over, is there?
    Then I am reminded of that poem which ‘tomorrow’ may run something like. “First the Africans started starving to death but I didn’t give a damn. I ain’t no African. Then the Asians started starving to death but I didn’t give a damn. I ain’t no Asian. Then the Europeans started….”

  39. # 36 MARodger

    Spot on.

    Those billions include nuclear armed states and societies teaming with small arms.

    If Pakistan falls into a “failed state” category and what control over their nuclear weapons is lost, well…

  40. PSU Grad says:

    I think Mr. Causey makes a lot of good points (I, too, remember the Ehrlich predictions), but also ignores a lot. Specifically, the idea that mass disruptions “over there”, won’t affect us “over here”. As MARodger pointed out, maybe the world used to work that way, it no longer does.

    In fact, wasn’t this a concern in the latest Quadrennial DoD review? The DoD wasn’t concerned about anything over here, it was concerned about events “over there” to which our military would have to respond. Yes, “have to” respond, for any one of a number of reasons (see, currently, nuclear capable Pakistan, which I think is just a warm up for the future).

    Add to that the possibility that the “all volunteer” military won’t be able to handle all these issues, and you’re looking at a draft. And that means upheaval in this country, because young people, and their parents, will finally wake up. I don’t know if it’s probable, but it’s possible.

    Remember, the Twin Towers were brought down by a group of Saudis (we tend to forget that) and others who used our own technological tools against us. American and United bought the weapons and the fuel and the personnel to get the weapons in the air, the hijackers only had to aim at their target. It was something nobody except maybe our intelligence agencies had forseen.

    But I think this will all become apparent to the majority too late, when it’s in front of their noses. It’s been said here before, but that’s when the deniers will, incredibly, demand that somebody “do something”.

  41. BillD says:


    Plants have already adapted to the range of conditions found on earth. For example, if rainfall declines in the Amazon, the trees will not adapt to low water, they will be replaced by grasslands. The grasslands have much lower net primary production than the rain forest. Last parts of the American west are near the edge between grassland and desert. More droughts will transform them into unambiguous desert, which has lower NPP than grasslands. I am concerned about what will happen if either widespread droughts or problems in transport (both combined with increased population) lead to world wide food shortages. A 10-fold increase in the price of wheat and rice would cause misery and riot in a lot of places.

  42. Bill Maddox says:

    Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls ….. the bell tolls for thee

  43. Raul M. says:

    That bell,
    I stand transfixed again.

  44. Raul M. says:

    I know the football players stand transfixed
    because they would rather have AC installed
    on their helmets, simple radiant barrier paint
    is questionable.
    Having spent some time in a hot box without AC,
    I already know that the world may go on with
    other ways, but having come out of the hot
    box, I know that without AC may mean different
    things using other ways. For instance, the hot
    box wouldn’t be so hot with radiant barrier
    paint on the roof and walls facing the sun.
    So I have more freedom with that knowledge,
    there is something I may do rather than just
    suffer the heat.
    Maybe the football players are just waiting
    for the coach to say that it’s ok now.
    Funny thing, Gainesville Sun article reported
    on a luncheon with the Pres. of UF and the
    Coach attending as speakers and lead with the
    Coach is it ok for the football players to have
    AC units installed of their helmets yet?

  45. Raul M. says:

    I’m sorry,
    an inner liner of phase change material combined
    with a outer liner of radiant barrier would
    be better for the construction of football
    player helmets. The helmets could be exchanged
    with ones that have been refrigerated to reuse
    the phase change capabilities of the inner liner.

  46. Mark says:

    Paul Erlich has covered a lot of this:

    “The provincial view you get from someone living in some wealthy American East Coast city is wildly different from reality. Most of the world is tropical, hungry and poor. Visit the developing world and southern hemisphere and you get a very different view of reality.”

  47. mike roddy says:

    Good summary, Richard Brenne.

    Causey is wrong that we can safely assume that starving millions in places like Pakistan are just going to turn on each other. The world is a lot smaller now, and there will be aggressive migrations. Violence will increase dramatically, especially since the word will get out that these problems were largely caused by indifference from rich countries, such as the United States.

    jyyh, thanks for the link. We need to learn more on the subject of domestic plant resilience in the face of global warming.

  48. Raul M. says:

    I remember seeing that on youtube,
    just a little while back there was the
    unexpected and unexplained tidal wave that
    crashed into large parts of indonesia.
    Just last year there were the numerous
    hurricanes that hit SE Asia. I was supprized
    to see the areas hit by such covered by the
    local reporters from those areas.
    Being concerned, I thought what that could
    mean the world over. I thought of, the shipping
    routes would be changed for some time, the
    commerce of Asia would be affected and some
    products would be delayed due to storms, etc…

  49. Steve H says:

    Ah, it seems that some scientists have forgotten Bio 101 (with a little bit of graduate level anthro), and did not take into consideration that C3 plants like low levels of C02. And C3 plants, while comprising less than 5% of biomass, are the predominant species used for food by humans. As CO2 rises, C3 plants cannot thrive as well.

    Please put this in your quiver of facts, irregardless of global warming, supporting low carbon energy solutions.

  50. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Steve at 50 –

    Very good point indeed – though I’d apply it to promoting the need of a stringent treaty, without which any fossil fuels displaced by ‘low-carbon energy solutions’ are being and will be bought and burnt elsewhere.

    There’s also a further aspect to the C3/C4 issue – The north flank of the ridge on the far side of the valley here, comprising around 1,000 acres, was photographed in the ’50s with mountain pasture all along it.
    It is now almost entirely covered by dense bracken tall enough to hide the hill ponies we use for shepherding.

    And bracken, as you may well know, is a C4 species. – We’ve lost ~1,000 acres of grazing to CO2 pollution just in this one valley.



  51. Wit'sEnd says:

    Here’s the latest missive to a scientist, Dr. Skelly, which I sent this morning, before I read this post. I’m putting links in separate comments, because the whole thing got swallowed up when I tried to comment with links!

    Dear John,

    Thank you so much for writing back.

    I found your name as author of a paper in the references, when I read this paper just published by U Guelph researchers. It says forests are in decline.

    I’m not a scientist, but as a life-long gardener and tree-lover I have been concerned for about two years over the condition of vegetation.

    I first noticed a problem in the summer of 2008 when all the leaves on the trees around my home in New Jersey abruptly wilted. Soon they started turning brown and falling off. In the fall, the conifers began dropping needles.

    Since then the situation has deteriorated rapidly, and in addition, as I have traveled some, I have realized that it is the same every place I have gone – Seattle, San Francisco, Boston to Virginia, and even Costa Rica.

    What is even more alarming is that this summer, the same evidence of damage is appearing on the leaves of annual ornamentals and crops. It can even be seen on indoor and aquatic plants.

    Because of the widespread nature of the impacts I have concluded that only something in the composition of the atmosphere can adequately account for the empirical, visible evidence. If it was warming (as claimed by the paper above), or drought, from climate change then plants being watered in pots would be in better shape than those in the ground – but they aren’t. If it was primarily long-term, cumulative damage from soil nutrient loss due to acid rain, then potted trees in enriched soils would be in better shape – but they aren’t.

    I believe that ozone – which is well documented to have negative impacts on growth – must be the major culprit, although the recent damage is so rapidly intensifying that it seems either we have reached a tipping point; or there is something new and unmeasured in the mix – perhaps acetaldehyde from ethanol emissions (as far as I can tell, no one has tested to see what effect that might have), or some more virulent reaction with increase in radiation from cell towers.

    I started out writing letters and making phone calls to anyone I could think of who would have knowledge about this topic – from foresters to atmospheric physicists to government agencies. For the most part, it is nigh impossible to get any of them to acknowledge the existential threat that is occurring right in front of their noses. Just like coral bleaching in the sea, it appears we are willing to sacrifice the foundation of the ecosystem to sustain our habit of wantonly burning fuel as our source of energy.

    I am hopeful that you have the background to look into this. As a mother I am quite frankly terrified by the rapidity of destruction because it is going to lead to severe food shortages and all the social unrest that will shortly follow. It is going to take the strenuous intervention of experts to educate the public and politicians to this ongoing threat so that we can take steps to conserve our use of energy to only the most essential purposes, and transition quickly to clean sources.

    I have been doing my best to document the visible impacts by posting photographs on my blog, where I also have a list of links to any research I have been able to find, at the top of the page where it says “Basic Premise.”

    Here is the post where I discuss the paper from U Guelph. I recently discovered that gardeners from all the world over are posting videos on youtube of their damaged leaves, so I embedded some of them here. I am certainly no longer alone in noticing what is happening, although very few attribute the source to ozone. Some people think it’s fallout from the Gulf and others think it is contrails, while I see no need to seek conspiracies when we already know that there is a ubiquitous toxin in the air, the levels of which are inexorably rising.

    I would appreciate any help you are inclined to offer, including if you know of any other scientists who are active in this field. Already the streets and sidewalks are littered with dead leaves, and it’s only August. I fear we do not have much time left to understand this vast threat, let alone solve it before all the trees are gone – and with them, all the forms of life that depend on them for food, habitat, shade, lumber, and beauty.

    Please write back! I am not sure where you relocated to, since you left Penn State. I would be very interested to see what you observe if you are traveling for your vacation. Thank you so much for reading.



  52. Wit'sEnd says:

    my observations about UGuelph paper:

    And by the way, Steve H, your comment is fascinating. The very first avenue of inquiry I pursued was higher levels of CO2, since that is the major change, but I was told very firmly by the Real Climate scientists and others that there was no way on earth CO2 could adversely impact plants. Hm. If you have any links please post them here or on my blog!


  53. Mark S says:

    Could a single major drought event or heat wave like the one in Russia recently be the sole reason for a multi-percent decline in worldwide productivity? If so, what does that say about our ability to raise enough food in any given year to satisfy world food demand? What if a similar event happened over the rice growing regions of China?

    It seems the ramifications of this study are very profound and, again, not good news at all. Just another red flag that our politicians seem to be ignoring. How many red flags does it take to drive action?

  54. Mark S says:

    Wit’sEnd: I guess I should have expected that.

  55. Chris Winter says:

    Clarence E. Causey III wrote: “Remember this prediction? Folks, we are not going to starve.”

    Sure, Paul Ehrlich was wrong about that prediction (and about some others.) The Denialosphere is crowing now about the wrongness of James Hansen’s off-the-cuff prediction that New York City’s West Side Highway would be awash by now. (This prediction really has until 2017 to run, but it won’t come true by then either.)

    As others have pointed out, one failed prediction does not invalidate all predictions, especially if we haven’t reached the time when the predictions were expected to come true. No one is predicting dire climate conditions or their worst effects for the next ten or twenty years. So yes, we are not going to starve. But what about our children, or theirs?

  56. Dorothy says:

    I’m way behind you EastCoasters, so haven’t even finished reading all the comments this morning. But on #9, to both Prokaryotes and Joe, we need BOTH atmospheric carbon removal and mitigation. Nothing else adds up, or rather, produces a logical conclusion to the frightening, non-linear climate dynamics we’re seeing this year. Is any research being done on chemical or physical modification of the carbon atom to render it harmless to our atmosphere?

    On another subject related to vegetation, research was conducted at Duke U. in 2002 about the effect of excessive CO2 (over 400 ppm) on vegetation:

    I haven’t seen much about this since then. (The US Dept. of Agriculture had its National Program 204, “Global warming and agriculture” eliminated in 2008.)

    If the conclusions of Dr. Jackson are incorrect, we need to know. In any case, much more research is necessary. From what I’ve read, plants (and trees) begin to lose their ability to absorb nitrogen from the soil when the air contains too much CO2.

    Does anyone have updated information on this problem?

  57. Mike says:

    This a response to the original Clarence E. Causey III (#4) post.

    The issue to me is how should we weigh various scientific claims. With regard to the Ehrlich quote, I would have attached little weight to it: (1) It is from one person; (2) Ehrlich is a biologist not an agricultural economics expert. I can respect him as a smart guy who was genuinely concerned about an issue. But I would have given no more weight to his statement then to those of other political news analysts of his day.

    Take Carl Sagan’s raised concerns about a post nuclear war “nuclear winter.” His political motivations were obvious and he was commenting outsize his field. This does not mean his theory should be dismissed out of hand, but I would have not attached a great deal a weight to it.

    There were plenty of good reason plenty of good reasons oppose the nuclear arms race and to be concerned about world hunger. The work by Sagan and Ehrlich may well have done some good in each case. I respect their efforts in these areas as that of well informed politically responsible citizens but as distinct from their main scientific work.

    I believe AGW is real and serious and that we should be actively reducing out CO2 emissions. I believe this because every scientific body that has reviewed the science has said this; because every scientific professional society that has reviewed the science has said this and because several surveys and literature reviews have show that 97% of climatologists have concluded this.

    Jim Hansen has contributed important work in this field. I respect his efforts to raise public awareness of the issue. But I don’t believe in AGW because Hansen says so nor do I agree will all of his political statements. Al Gore has done a lot to raise awareness of this issue but has not influenced my thinking in the least.

  58. Leif says:

    Phase change and heating and cooling. Rual M, @44:

    I am a big fan of heat pumps and I am amazed at the efficiency of the new unites on the market. (Japanese technology I might add.) Perhaps phase change technology could be used to gather day time heat to be recirculated to be used as night time pre-heating or visa-versa.

    In my area of the NW cooling is not an issue and I have adapted a solar thermal mass “green house” area to feed the intake of my new heat pump warmer air than would be available from ambient air. This is no more than some used glass and gravel prior to the intake fan. While I have no way to know or calculate the improvement, I have to assume some. The same system could be run in reverse by cooling the thermal mass at night and perhaps adding a mister and of course shade during the daylight. The whole setup was almost free as I had on hand most of the materials from past improvements.

  59. Dorothy says:

    Ah, Steve #49. You’ve got me Googling. There’s an interesting site describing types of photosynthesis:

    Maybe we can all just adapt to eating saltbush and cactus.

  60. peter whitehead says:

    Currently we have 7 billion people – about 1 billion now are ‘food poor’. That figure has gone up from 0.8 billion to 1 billion in a few years (25%).

    This figure will increase more rapidly as droughts and floods hit food production – the Russian drought has possibly turned Russia from a grain exporter to grain importer at least for this year. Pakistan has lost a lot of this year’s harvest, and both Pakistan and Russia may have real problems planting for the next harvest.

    Climate change may not finish us off with a bang, but with a wimper of slowly spreading starvation.

  61. Raul M. says:

    Hi Leif-
    I’ve not much experience in phase change materials
    or of cold weather. One of my lasting memories, though
    of Utah, was that while on vacation one winter, I returned
    to find the water in the toilet bowl had completely
    frozen. What a time, though.
    A professor and I don;t remember what itunes chanell or
    podcast was explaining heat transfer and how it can
    work for you. He said that he had put in drywall that
    had phase change materials as one layer of the drywall
    I think, and that the material maintained temp. better
    and at one point poof it had given up all of its energy
    or gaines all it could gain.
    Still he mentioned phase change drywall.
    Phase change seems to work for food heating or cooling
    in thermal bags.
    There must be plenty of smart people who can figure
    things out.

  62. htomfields says:

    Idaho National Laboratory’s deployable Process Demonstration Unit (PDU)
    is used to model the Preprocessing Depot infrastructure and house the
    basic bioenergy feedstock preprocessing operation components. The goal
    of INL’s PDU system is to process as large a variety of input materials
    as possible while providing a flexible interface that allows the
    introduction of emerging and novel processing technologies.

  63. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    While we face uncontrolled multiple interactive feedbacks that are now evidently accelerating, of which the collapse of the carbon banks and decline of carbon sinks are just the latest to be observed, there can be no great confidence of any better outcome than Lovelock’s “few breeding pairs at the poles.”

    I write as a hill farmer who, for three years, has been unable to make hay for the livestock due to unprecedented weather – This year a cold drought started in February (while we still had snow on the tops!) and intensified until late June, precluding any spring grass. Then is began to rain, too late for even a third of a crop to grow, and too wet to harvest. I’ll get some poor silage, but hay will have to be bought in, again, at exorbitant prices.

    Meanwhile winter feed cerials, that used to be possible to grow in these mountains, now also have to be bought in, and their prices are already rising very sharply even before the next round of oil-price spikes pushes global fertilizer costs skyward.

    I mention these events to illustrate both the vulnerability of our food security to climate destabilization here in a ‘wealthy’ highly complex society, and to highlight its impoverishing effects.

    The proximate causes of famine are and will be impoverishment (from all causes) and the prevailing laissez-faire ideology (aka neo-liberalism, aka devil-take-the-hindermost). Recent reports of aboriginal children starving in Australia is a case in point. The communities’ part-reliance on traditional wild food sources had been hit by long intense drought, and they lacked wealth to by in alternative foodstocks, and the larger societal cohesion to ensure their wellbeing.

    Being an issue of national security, a threat to food supply normally causes govt.s to constrain food exports – viz Russia now, and numerous countries during the last oil-price spike. Alongside food being diverted to liquid fuel to ease gas prices, this both exacerbates shortfalls in global distribution and drives the feedback of price escalation, on which profiteers then speculate, thereby maximizing the impoverishment effect.

    Continued below . . .

  64. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Yet great as the all-sources impoverishment is becoming, (viz Pakistan defaulting on its international debt), it is a secondary issue in relation to the impact of the neo-liberal ideology. The latter not merely leaves people to starve, it actively maintains the profitable pollution that is destroying the climate stability that food production requires.

    Moreover, neo-liberalism is the key obstruction of the essential collective global efforts, firstly to control global warming and prevent the feedbacks running amok, and secondly to organize the global deployment of resources to minimize harms from the climate destabilization already under way. Without its callous obstructionism, I suggest we’d already have a World Food Bank operating to preclude famine, as well as having agreed and ratified a stringent Treaty of the Atmospheric Commons.

    The outlook that “poor nations will starve, wealthy nations won’t” neatly describes both a major part of the ‘problematique’ facing us, as well as its proponents’ myopic delusion of an incompetent ideology’s effectiveness. If that ideology is not overcome, then the upshot will be that the rich, in whatever nation, will starve, but a little later than the poor who used to be able to grow food for them.

    This is not a re-run of the C19 great game between nations, for all Obama and others cling to that mindset: this is a global crisis of fundamental resource destruction for which we are utterly unprepared. If we don’t get beyond the outdated ideology that has generated this condition and pull together in commensurate collective global action, we seem unlikely to survive it.



  65. Wit'sEnd says:

    Lewis, hear hear.

    We are terribly vulnerable to crop failure, and it is ensured as we continue to spew emissions from burning fuel. Regardless of whether it is from extreme weather events thanks to climate change from rising CO2 – or sea level engulfing the most fertile deltas – or coral reefs and phytoplankton being exterminated in the sea – or ozone killing vegetation on land – we are poised for an astonishingly rapid loss of food, which will lead directly to violence.

    Morituri te salutamus!

  66. Len Ornstein says:

    Although natural drought can – and does – cut back NNP, my proposal to use irrigated afforestation, using reverse-osmosis-derived seawater, can be relatively immune to such risks. See:

    “Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warming”

    It can provide about 8 GtC/yr of new bio-sequestration to ‘end global warming’.

    Don’t count out bio-sequestration as a reliable tool for mitigation based on this excellent paper by Zhaou and Running!

  67. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    The pessimists corner is starting to get crowded.

    Too often a reduction in resilience is confused with efficiency. Too often outrageous risk is confused with efficiency. Efficiency is well worth pursuing, but resilience and risk must be taken into account.

    We took a giant risk and we might have lost.

  68. Richard Brenne says:

    Thanks Mike Roddy (#47), as always – and thanks for putting me up at your place!

    Gail (#51) – that is a great letter to Dr. Skelly. You had me at “Hello Ozone.” You are winning me over to your observations line by line and photograph by photograph. I’ve asked many scientists/gardeners/etc about your theory and it’s making sense to a lot of people. I’m speaking to a large gardening organization and it will be a primary topic – I’d like to put them to work as kind of the equivalent of your graduate students (who as we know are modern-day indentured servants), making observations.

    Mike (not Roddy) #59 – You raise some great names. Of course we don’t just listen to individuals but the most expert individuals and the many scientific and professional organizations you mention who all support the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) view. We also look at the evidence in glaciers, sea surface temperatures, and enough weather to see clear patterns.

    Paul Ehrlich and Al Bartlett are latter-day Malthusians, or disciples of Thomas Malthus. Other great minds have agreed with Malthus fundamental belief that population will ultimately outgrow agricultural productivity, including Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin (whose son I believe posts here – he must be in his 170s or so).

    Malthus couldn’t have foreseen how efficiently cheap and abundant fossil fuels would increase agricultural productivity (first shipping with coal steam engines, then farming with some steam engine tractors but many more diesel tractors, then an unbelievable network of global food shipping, while natural gas is the primary feedstock of fertilizers and pesticides are petroleum based, etc). This fossil fuel era is only capable of lasting a few hundred years, and due to CO2 and first peak oil and then peak natural gas it shouldn’t and won’t last much longer (and peak oil and natural gas don’t solve CO2 emissions – imagine if billions return to burning trees and other biomass when they can’t get the oil and gas they’re used to).

    There is no scientific field where people are paid to see all this. We have enough specialists (though we’d always like more and better ones) but need more generalists. Robert Oppenheimer’s ability to understand and synthesize the theoretical and experimental physics as well as the mathematic and metallurgy and all the kinds of engineering often about as well as the heads of each of those departments contributed greatly to the building of the atomic bomb so quickly.

    The generalists and those who are good communicators are invaluable and far rarer than good scientist specialists alone. And Ehrlich is a world-class biologist, and agriculture is part of biology. So while he was premature in his predictions in the Population Bomb published in 1968, each of his subsequent books written with his wife Anne – also a great biologist – who reigns in his predisposition toward hyperbole has produced books like the 1990 Population Explosion where I can’t find an erroneous, misguided or hyperbolic sentence.

    Sagan is much the same, and worked with Turco, Brian Toon and others on the nuclear winter stuff. He was never the lead scientist those two were but he was the lead popularizer. As an outstanding astro-physicist and maybe the greatest science communicator ever, his contributions in the nuclear winter area were incalculable, in fact I’d say he, Turco, Toon and others helped end the Cold War because they convinced Reagan, Gorbachev and those in their governments that you can’t win a nuclear war because you’ll change the climate.

    So you should listen to Ehrlich (since the Population Bomb) and Sagan about nuclear winter, even if he overestimated the impact of the Iraqi oil well fires during the first Gulf War.

    Jim Hansen is the Robert Oppenheimer of Atmospheric Science, pulling more elements together than anyone else. He has gone out on a limb more than just about anyone but has also been right earlier about more things (the effects of a major volcanic eruption like Pinatubo, predicting 2010 would be the hottest year on record back in January, 2009, etc) than any other atmospheric scientist I know (and I’ve asked many atmospheric scientists about this and most agree he’s the dude).

    Al Gore’s understanding of atmospheric science and all environmental problems is by far the most impressive of any politician ever, and among the most impressive of anyone. Bill McKibben and Joe Romm are similarly very sophisticated even though McKibben’s a journalist and Romm’s a physicist. Many commenters here also have very sophisticated understandings of atmospheric science and related issues, including Mike Roddy, Leif, Gail (Wit’s End), RPauli and many others.

    Read Gail’s letter at #51. She’s is not a scientist but was married to the youngest member of the National Academy of Scientists and gets science as much as almost any scientist. I know of no one who is pulling back and looking at the big picture of the effect of ozone on all plant life as much as she is at present. She is one of our most important Paul Reveres (or Sybil Luddingtons – who was a female Paul Revere).

    Everything is, or should be, a meritocracy. Whoever presents the best evidence most accurately and communicates the truth most effectively is someone we should all listen to – including everyone you mention.

    Reading all the concerns here, including my list at #37, it’s like we’re all represented by an individual facing a firing squad. We don’t know which of the dozen or so firing at us will kill us. We can try to explain away the threat saying one of the soldier’s guns will jam, another is incompetent and will miss, etc. But that is merely wishful thinking and our denial talking. One and likely many more will deliver fatal bullets. Metaphorically those bullets represent at least enough to trigger massive global starvation ultimately killing billions.

    In fact just among those we’ve mentioned, here’s one immediate scenario. Due to the Hell and High Water Joe Romm has so expertly alerted us to Pakistan has received near-record flooding along the Indus that does have record channelizing (loss of wetlands to absorb floods) and record population, with glacial run-off also being near its peak. Pakistan is becoming destabilized and fundamentalists have gained huge support and could quite possibly commit a successful coup and the U.S. would intervene and we’d be at war with our third Muslim nation almost simultaneously and Iran, Israel and India could also become involved (and those are just the I’s) and all but Iran have nuclear weapons and Toon’s latest paper says that if Pakistan and India emptied their nuclear weapons on each other’s cities the resulting conflagration would create a smaller-scale (to a full-scale U.S.-Russia nuclear war) nuclear winter that could kill a billion of the world’s poorest subsistence farmers.

    And all that on top of everything else. Not every scenario needs to be catastrophic for catastrophe to result, just some of them.

    Other than that and all of the above, everything’s fine. . .

  69. Raul M says:

    Thank you for being smart and able
    enough to say.

  70. The whole “Don’t worry, we’re (Americans) going to be ok” argument appears quite delusional considering how at the present moment the United States government has nearly shut down, the American public is sliding into an economic black hole which will be named the “Terminal Depression” and also the “End of the American Empire” and there are already millions of Americans who are starving because they cannot afford to eat.

    The United States of America is not a rock solid stable country. The American people own millions of guns and just a little more stress might push this country over the edge into authentic social chaos. Note all the hatred of the Mexicans and Muslims expressed on a nearly daily basis by bigots who have also expressed a desire to take matters into their own hands in states whose political leaders have voiced a desire to either secede from the federal government or refudiate the federal government’s authority.

    Now consider how things are going to look in the United States in the decades ahead when:

    1. Mexico becomes a failed state
    2. Peak Oil has occurred and gasoline is over $6 a gallon
    3. A major state such as California defaults on its obligations and collapses
    4. Millions of hungry people from Asia, Africa and Mexico decide to follow the food to the United States rather than starve in their own countries. Mass migrations of this sort are unstoppable.
    5. Lake Mead dries up and millions of people from the Southeast have no choice except to migrate to where there is a sufficient amount of water to live

    And so forth …

    The theory that the rest of the world can go to hell while the United States and Americans continue to prosper indifferent to the suffering of billions of others isn’t going to coincide with reality in the 21st century.

    What the optimists are describing in reality is their sentimental fondness for the 20th century when America ruled the world and the Americans shopped until they dropped and no one cared in the least about millions dying in Africa and Asia because those people didn’t matter.

  71. Wit'sEnd says:

    Wow, Dave Mathews #72, well said. Personally, I don’t even think it’s going to be decades, it will be in the next few years, because the foundation of the food chain – plants – are going extinct faster than the lizards at the top of JR’s blog.

    At any rate, I share your despair, and disgust. And you take really nice pictures!


  72. ToddInNorway says:

    Hi David Mathews at 72, Your point 1: Mexico is already a failed state, but the reason is the drug economy and the violent crime associated with it. Decriminalize drugs and this will go away. Your point 2: I pay about $7/gallon for fuel already, and have been doing so for years. It has been a very motivating factor in my choice of car, the way I drive it and how much. Up until I became a parent a few years ago I used public transport and bicycling, and my wife used the car for her daily commute. I drove a scooter for a few years. Your point 3: States do fail, but they generally come back in a more rational and sustainable frame of overall functionality, which would not happen without them failing. Failure can in fact improve things! Your point 4: the USA already has mass migrations, mostly from Mexico and central America. They usually walk, some get smuggled in using trucks. Point 5: This is truly a catastrophic show stopper. Pray to the rain gods for the fate of Las Vegas. I see no hope for them whatsoever. For Southern Cal and Southern Arizona, I expect they can desalinate enough water to survive and build enough solar PV power to keep the lights on.

  73. James Newberry says:

    There is only one course of action now.
    A Second American Revolution.
    The founding document will discuss “life, liberty and the pursuit of responsibility.” It could be called The Declaration of Interdependence.

    Shall government of the people, by the people and for the people rise or founder on submerged shores of our own hypocrisy?