Saturday, April 07, 2007

Silent Disaster

There was no dawn chorus today.

After six weeks of sometimes freakishly mild weather, the climate gods changed their minds. Across middle Tennessee this morning the temperatures at NWS and Co-op reporting stations were in the low 20s. Here in our hollow where cold air drainage often keeps us colder than any of those stations, the temperature slipped below 18F. Spring was well-advanced. Fruit trees were in full bloom or beyond. Leaves were out on most of the hardwood trees. All in the past tense.

The dawn this morning was not greeted by the cacophony of spring arrivals and year-round residents that had been the norm in recent weeks. Instead, there was a profound silence, broken by a cardinal here, a titmouse there. The new spring leaves hang now like boiled spinach on wilted twigs. By this afternoon the spring greenness of the forest landscape was gone, as this devastated foliage was already turning brown and beginning to fall. It looks as though we suffered an attack of Agent Orange. Some species, such as elms, willows, black cherries, and blackberries, seem to have been almost unaffected. Others, especially maples, have drooped but still look as though they may recover. But the oaks, hickories, tulip poplars, sycamores, hackberries, sumacs, and many others have been blitzed. They will doubtless leaf out again once the weather warms. But they have already spent the large part of the reserves they safeguarded through the winter, and it will be a massive stress on them. It's a safe bet there will be essentially no crop of nuts or acorns this year. After two years of drought, this added strain might weaken many trees enough to trigger some die-off. Only time will tell. And, needless to say, hopes for all cultivated fruit crops for 2007 can be forgotten here and through much of the south. Our blueberries are already dropping their sad brown corollas, and the withering and blackening bud stems tell me that the rest of the aborted berry will go soon.

This is a widespread disaster, playing out at this very moment across the South. Of course, the mainstream media and mainstream mind will hardly notice. What coverage that there is will focus on those strange and anachronistic people called "farmers" with whom the average american now feels almost no connection, as well as an inconvenience to that quaint little hobby known as "gardening" that so few people really pursue anymore no matter how much they might like waching the TV shows. The real effects on habitat, ecosystem, wild food crops, game and non-game wildlife populations, and countless other pieces of the puzzle are unlikely to even be contemplated. Nothing more fundamental than produce prices in the grocery stores tends to capture mass attention. Suburbanites are actually far more likely to celebrate the drop in pollen counts than expend a thought on starving wildlife and wounded trees.

We're not done. Two more freezing nights to go; tonight may be the coldest.

Update: The next night was the coldest, down to 13F / -11C. About 90% of forest canopy foliage killed. 100% leaf and flower kill on all oaks, hickories, poplars, sycamores. Loss of nearly all fruit, wild and cultivated, except perhaps for a few cherries and blackberries. Persimmons and walnuts also possibly spared by later bloom and leafout. Cultivated peaches, blueberries, grapes possibly suffering substantial whole plant kill, not just fruit loss. Almost no flowers on anything, wild or domesticated. The landscape is surreal...


At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you have any thoughts on all the news about declining bee populations?

At 5:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I suspect your outlook of long term tree stressing is accurate. Here in central Ky (Lexington), we had 18 degrees and similar conditions to what you describe. Of the native trees, the hickories seem to be very hard hit. Still at this late date many of the trees have re-leafed.

Steve Sheridan

ps The honey bees have already been hammered hard in recent years by the tracheal and varroea mites, excuse my spelling, I am sure I don't have the mite names spelled correctly.


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