Update: Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas

Recently, I shared an article with you called “Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas“. You may want to take a moment and familiarize yourself with the original article before going any further. In a nutshell, the article laid out some interesting new research by Yale Ph.D. candidate Kristofer Covey. His research centered around the amount of methane gas, well known for its contribution to the greenhouse affect, that trees were putting out. His research found that trees that were diseased with a common fungus had conditions favorable to the production of greenhouse gases. Most of the trees were pretty old between 80-100 years old.

Red Maple
Red Maple which is a significant source of methane. (© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

The reason I am updating this article is because I was able to get in contact with Kris and found out a couple pieces of information that I thought might be worth sharing with you the reader. I had two questions for Kris and he was kind enough to respond. Below, you can see the questions I asked with his answer following.

Question #1. – I am curious how you or the authors feel this affects the global warming debate?

I think the most important thing here is that although it appears as though trees may be producing and releasing significant amounts of methane, they still offer significant climate benefit. Our results indicate that in the stands studied the methane being released is equivalent in it’s climate warming effect to 18% of the carbon sequestered annually. If, as we suspect, this phenomenon is widespread then there would be implications for carbon markets and other programs that make use of forests as a mitigation tool in climate change action.

Question #2. – What potential remedies could be put in place to eliminate the source of this fungal activity?

While there aren’t practical ways to limit fungal infection in forest trees (these fungi are normal and essentially ubiquitous agents); however, we did find species level differences (red maple seems to produce far more than the other species studied ex.) indicating that there may management strategies that could optimize the tradeoff between carbon sequestration and methane production. That said, there’s a great deal of questions to ask before specific recommendations could be made. We are only now recognizing this pathway exists!

I thought it was important to share this information because it clears up some concern that trees aren’t destroying our atmosphere. Basically, even the diseased trees still clean up bad carbon but just not as much as a healthy one could.

For more information about Forestry studies at Yale, visit http://environment.yale.edu/forests/.

Diseased Trees are Potential Source for Greenhouse Gas

Just when you thought the global warming debate or (depending on the mood that week) climate change debate, couldn’t get any more complicated, new research suggests that trees may be a significant source of the greenhouse gas, methane. That’s right folks, I said trees. You know, those things we plant in droves every Earth Day while singing some happy tune about saving the environment and making the world a better place to breathe. I really don’t mean to sound snarky here, but the poor global warming debate is already hopelessly mired in political rhetoric as it is. Now, we have to contend with research suggesting that trees may be a significant contributor of methane, which is a greenhouse gas.

Red Maple
Red Maple which is a significant source of methane. (© Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

Now, before you go get the chainsaws and start deforesting the neighborhood, let’s put this new study in context. Researchers at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies examined 60 trees at Yale Myers Forest in northeastern Connecticut. They tested for concentrations of methane and found that these particular trees had concentrations 80,000 times ambient levels. It is important to note that the trees themselves weren’t the culprit rather, it was a fungus that was eating them from the inside out. This resulted in favorable conditions for methane producing microorganisms called methanogens. Most of these trees were between 80-100 years old and were diseased. Red maples showed the highest concentrations of methane but other significant contributors were oak, birch and pine. Methane levels were also more than 3 times higher during the summer which suggests that summer heat and higher methane output could create a spiral of elevating temperatures.

According to a Yale press release, “These are flammable concentrations,” said Kristofer Covey, the study’s lead author and a Ph.D. candidate at Yale. “Because the conditions thought to be driving this process are common throughout the world’s forests, we believe we have found a globally significant new source of this potent greenhouse gas.” “No one until now has linked the idea that fungal rot of timber trees, a production problem in commercial forestry, might also present a problem for greenhouse gas and climate change mitigation,” said Mark Bradford, a co-author and Assistant Professor of Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology at F&ES.

This is groundbreaking research because no previous studies have made the correlation between fungal timber rot and increased green house emissions. These findings present a new target for scientists interested in climate change and the potential that aging forests may have on greenhouse gasses. This study was published in Geophysical Research Letters.

NASA Captures Europe Reeling In Severe Winter; Spectacular Space Image Reveals Bleak Situation

Entire Europe is reeling under an intense cold spell. This is the worst that Europe has seen since February 1991. NASA’s Terra satellite reveals this with a photograph. Most of the area is blue, indicating a temperature much below the normal. The data stretches from January 25th to February 1st. The “normal temperatures” are estimated from data ranging from January 25th to February 1st over the years 2001 to 2011. And this is just the land temperature. Oceans and lakes appear in gray. This was NASA’s photo of the day today.

The image that NASA's Terra satellite took of the entire landmass of Europe. The scale (below) shows how further below the normal the temperatures across Europe are. (Courtesy: NASA)

This year’s tremendous cold throughout the Northern Hemisphere is a not a sign of global warming, but of erratic climate conditions, which might be indirectly linked to global warming.
Jeff Masters explains it as being due to the Jet streams, or rather their anomalous flow patterns. Jet streams are wide streams of air in the atmosphere and, like ocean currents in the sea, they separate different pockets or regions of air from one another. One of them blows from the west to the east along the middle latitudes, separating cold air from the north from the warmer air packets to the south. This year the Jet stream pattern has been very convoluted and the usual stream is now flowing further south. This means that the cold air front has descended southwards, covering much of Europe and leading to this spell of intense cold.

News from the Himalayas

In related news, a different perspective tab on global weather provides both relief and astonishment. While climatologists have already given their prediction of fast melting of glaciers in the Himalayan regions, it seems that the glaciers have not melted much in the last year or so.
Prof. Jonathan Bamber, glaciologist at Bristol Glaciology Center, University of Bristol, says that this is extremely unusual that the ice mass loss is “not significantly different from zero”. However, the results of the climate scientists fall bang on for the mass loss experienced by Antarctica, Arctic, Greenland and the Alaskan permafrost. The data anomaly for Himalayan regions might indicate some region-specific variation that is difficult to incorporate into models.

Climate denial

This should be music to the ears of climate deniers and provide some much needed ammo in their depleted armory. They have always viewed the conclusions as being falsely alarmist and have called them a fraud. However, outright denial is something to be guarded against. Simon Cook warns:

All too often in the past, media reports have presented a ‘black and white’ view of glacier response to climate change. The reasons for this complex global picture are not clear: some places warm more than others, some places experience more precipitation and, hence, snowfall to maintain glaciers is in positive or neutral balance. What is clear is that more research is required to evaluate the response of glaciers to climate change.

In the absence of an alternative to Earth, we ought to do our bit to prevent the ruin of this planet. And we can start off by taking scientists a bit more seriously.

Huge Crack In Antarctic Glacier Gives Rise To Iceberg Bigger Than Manhattan!

NASA’s Terra satellite saw a huge crack in the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica and it is all set to give rise to an iceberg the size of Manhattan! The huge gash in the snow is 30 kilometers (or 19 miles) long and nearly 100 meters wide, and is widening every passing minute. This is expected to create an iceberg more than 900 square kilometer in area, as compared to the 785 square kilometer area of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and Bronx combined, said NASA. It recently featured as NASA’s Image of the Day.

The breaking of the glacier in Hi-Res. Courtesy: NASA/JPL/Terra

Bad News!

This is bad news, as it once again shows the disastrous effects of global warming. The Pine Island Glacier is a massive glacier and is also a major contributor to sea-level rise – almost one-third of the total contribution of Antarctica.

Ted Scambos, glaciologist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, Colorado, explains that it is nothing unusual when glaciers cleave to produce giant icebergs. The problem is that this is happening out of the general pattern of ice-berg formation. He fears that the trend is shifting ‘upstream’ and that signifies acceleration. The reference to ‘upstream’ is given in the context of ice-flows – rapidly flowing streams of ice which flow into the sea.

That is nothing unusual in most cases. [When the] point of rifting starts to climb upstream, generally you see some acceleration of the glacier. [That] signifies that there are changes in the ice

The effect forms a feedback cycle. The ice breaking off from the Pine Island Glacier will leave a lot of room for ice from higher upstream to flow into the sea. The faster flow of this ice will contribute to a quicker rise in sea level.

News courtesy: National Geographic, JPL/NASA

British Researchers Look at Lake Ellsworth Under Antarctic Ice For Unknown Life Forms and More

A British team of researchers will be exploring under the Antarctic in a year’s time (December 2012) trying to look at the history of the region and the possibility of the existence of some other form of life. The region of interest is Lake Ellsworth. This mission is expected to find some unknown forms of life and also give hints about the history of the place and what role it can play in the climate of the world in future.

Tents of earlier researchers (Courtesy: Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium)

The Mission Strategy

The strategy is ambitious. The team aims to melt their way through 3km of solid ice that has never thawed in the last 150,000 years at least! They will use hot water at 970C to melt their way through. Given that the ice is way below freezing temperature (00C) and the water is at nearly the boiling point, the burrow should be a clean hole all the way through. The team will then lower 5 m long probes and use several flasks to collect water samples from the buried lake up to the surface. That is not all; they also plan to take up sediment samples from the floor of the lake. All of this will have to be done in a limited amount of time 24 hours estimate experts since the borehole will constantly keep narrowing down.

Map for the Ellsworth region (Courtesy: Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium)

Lake Ellsworth

Lake Ellsworth is a wonder of Nature. It is located about 3 km below the Antarctic ice sheet and covers an area of about 29 km2 (10 km long and 3 kilometers wide), with a depth of 150 m approx. Untouched for 150,000 years (or maybe even a million) it is almost certain that the subglacial lake will contain life-forms (ancient bacterial forms, most likely) that will be absolutely new to humans. The water in the lake is kept in a liquid state due to the high pressure of the ice-layers above it and the heat from geothermal sources located near the place.  Lake Ellsworth is just one of 360 subglacial lakes, the largest being Lake Vostok, which will be explored by a Russian Team soon.

Looking into the past to predict the future

The mission will hope to look into the past response of ice layers to climate changes and this will provide valuable clues to the response of the Antarctic region to rising temperatures. Remember the Antarctic region contains enough ice on land to raise sea-levels world-wide by 4-5m.

The secrets in the sediments shall be uncovered.

Courtesy: Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Consortium

Australia’s Clean Energy Bill To Go Up For Voting In House and Senate; To Put A Price On Carbon

Australia leads many first-world nations in promoting green energy sources and it shows through once more. On 12th October, 2011 (tomorrow), the Australian House of Representatives will be putting the Clean Energy bill up for voting. Once passed, it will go to the Senate for voting. It is expected to be passed by both the House and the Senate and should come into effect by the middle of next year. One of the primary features of the bill is the levying of a carbon tax on carbon emissions.

The Bill

The bill has been a long time in the making. The proposal to place a carbon tax came in the 1990’s. Serious thrust was provided this year, especially since July. September saw a Multi-Party meet on climate change and the committee suggested the way forward. The government was also presented the draft proposal to the public and received an overwhelming response.

The bill’s main focus is to maintain sustainable growth, while reducing the carbon footprint of the nation. The bill proposes to reduce the carbon tonnage by 160 million tonnes a year by the end of 2020. The Australian Govt. acknowledges that the climate is changing globally and this change is primarily driven by humans. The main source of the pollution is carbon and this harms the economy as well. Every government should take action towards a green future.

This should become a lot rarer

The Important Points

Towards the achievement of a green economy, the Govt. plans to take the following steps:

  1. Big polluters will have to pay. There will be charges levied for every tonne of carbon that one puts into the atmosphere. The charges are expected to come in fixed slabs, so if you pollute more, you should be ready to pay disproportionately higher than someone who pollutes less.
  2. Establishment of green industries’ and development of clean energy sources. This will also create jobs and investments. If the big American companies are anything to go by, green industries are doing better than the big polluters like GM or Ford.
  3. Reduce carbon footprint by 160 million tonnes a year by 2020.
  4. Use the money collected from carbon taxes to cut taxes on families and increase pensions.

If all goes well, carbon will have a price on it from 1st July, 2012. The exact pricing mechanism will be worked out in meeting and negotiations. The Australian Govt. is already eyeing 500 polluters who will pay under this scheme. The price will be $23 per tonne initially.

Solar Panels should receive a lot of impetus.

Bravo Australia!

The best news is the bill is expected to pass in both the House and Senate, since both have a majority of Green’s. The fact that this money can be returned to the public in form of increased payments shows just one of the ways in which the word sustainable’ is appropriate.

May be I should wait till tomorrow, but I’ll just say it right now Bravo Australia!

Alarming: Study Finds Highest Sea Level Rise In Last 2000 Years; Linked to Increasing Global Temperature

A conclusive study on climate and its impact on the rise of sea level is out and the results are quite grim. An international team of researchers, including many from the University of Pennsylvania, has put forward incriminating data acquired through decades that unambiguously points to a direct correlation between increase of ocean surface temperature and the rise of global sea-levels.

The Team

The study is led by Benjamin Horton, associate professor and director of Sea Level Research Lab, in collaboration with Andrew Kemp and Michael Mann, the man who first came up with the famous hockey-stick graph (see below). It is funded by the National Science Foundation among other institutes and boasts of many scientists from institutes like University of Pennsylvania, United States Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The famous Hockey Stick Graph by Michael Mann. The black line represents

This is the first complete continuous sea-level reconstruction for the past 2000 years. The trends have been compared with signs of global temperature increase and the positive correlation is too overwhelming to ignore.


The study finds that from 100 BC to 950 AD, the oceanic temperature was stable and so was the sea-level. For the next 400 years, the sea level rose by half a millimetre every year on average. This period in human history, called the Medieval Climate Anomaly, saw a steady rise in annual temperatures globally. Temperatures stayed cool and stable till the 19th century after that medieval period. However, since the late 19th century and, especially in the 20th century, sea-levels have risen on average by an alarming 2mm per year, surely one of the highest rates in the entire of Earth’s history. Again, a direct correlation with temperature rise was noted.


The team did a thorough job with the research. They used micro-fossils called foraminifera as markers. Found in sedimentary rocks, they respond in quantitatively measurable ways to change in the salinity of the water they live in. By drilling into the sedimentary rock, fossils from different ages can be studied. Bear in mind that, since, sedimentary rocks stack up in layers, drilling deeper means that we are effectively looking at older rocks a sort of geological time capsule. The samples, taken mainly from the marshes in North Carolina, can be dated by using radiocarbon dating techniques on the rocks in which it is found. A check on the dates was provided by a complimentary technique the Potassium-Argon dating method. Core samples equivalent to 2000 years were dug up.

Two typical foraminifera fossils; these are used extensively for radiocarbon dating
A typical core sample taken from sedimentary rock layers

This is much less than the core samples dug up from the Arctic, but the markers in the Arctic snow are much less useful. However, both tell essentially the same story, pointing to the same direct correlation.

The team accounted for effects of hurricanes that generally rearrange sedimentary layers by taking samples from places that face away from the sea. Hurricane imprints are easy to read, as the sedimentary rocks show unusually high amounts of sand blown in from the sea. The team also accounted for vertical land movements that will show a parallax in the sea-level rise data.

Horton says:

It’s evidence to support the obvious. The basic laws of physics say if you increase temperature, ice will melt. But what we show is how sensitive sea level is to changes in temperature

The study is co-authored by Horton, Kemp and Mann appeared in Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences yesterday, i.e. on the 20th of June.

This study disappoints in only one respect it doesn’t predict any trend for the near future. However, climatologists are already mulling the option of extrapolating the data to see if it fits.

Kemp points out:

Scenarios of future rise are dependent upon understanding the response of sea level to climate changes. Accurate estimates of past sea-level variability provide a context for such projections


A cleavage seen in the Antarctic ice-shelf with fresh water running down into it. The people provide the scale
Is this paranoia or the future?

The Last Word

The trend is disturbing. Carbon dioxide levels are rising, undoubtedly due to human activities. Now with this study confirming the worst, nations must take the imperative to bring their individual carbon footprints out. Skeptics may object, but it will take more than mere objections and fault-finding to get around this report. Silent numbers and dumb graphs speak louder than verbose microphones.

We should better pay attention. We’ve only one planet for ourselves.