Ash trees are dying all over the United States, with six species critically endangered and another ten in trouble. Science writer Gabriel Popkin recently told their story as one example of an even worse phenomenon: humans are causing an unprecedented mass extinction of plants and animals around the world.
According to a new United Nations report, “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.” A million species are threatened with extinction, the greatest loss of biodiversity in 65 million years.
Popkin highlighted the ash in his article because “biodiversity” is an abstract term that won’t move people’s hearts. Focusing on one example near home, however, “demonstrates that real, visible and consequential ecological catastrophes are playing out all around us.” For example:
When these trees are gone, dozens of other species will disappear, too. More than 40 insects and other little critters are known to live only on American ash trees, and this is surely only a partial tally. Many birds prefer ashes for feeding and nesting. A 2013 study found that tadpoles grow larger when feeding on ash leaves than on maple, which is replacing ash in many places.
A tree like the ash is the Vito Corleone of the woods. He held the family together. When he lost his grip, everything fell apart. It’s counterintuitive in the age of mass extinction, but the total disappearance of a native tree species is an almost unheard-of event. The ash extinctions would be the first in America since Franklinia alatamaha , an extremely rare tree to begin with, vanished from its native habitat around 1800. But the loss of a tree as a significant piece of the forest has become a grimly regular occurrence, thanks to a reckless, cowboy-style global trade system that moves just about anything across an ocean that can be sold for a profit. In the past century, imported diseases have wiped out the mighty American chestnut and American elm as functional forest species, and insects are now doing the same to eastern hemlock and all the ashes. A new and mysterious disease could make American beech the next major forest tree to succumb. Our pines face assorted beetles of varying voraciousness.
Blessed by biodiversity unmatched in the temperate world, our eastern forests have withstood the losses so far. If you walk in the forest, it still feels like a forest.
But scientists and forest managers increasingly express a fear that the system is being pushed to the brink. Perhaps most worrisome, our oaks and maples face diseases and insects that are already here and could explode without warning: oak wilt and sudden oak death for oaks; Asian long-horned beetle for maples. If either of those widespread and hugely important tree genuses go, we could find ourselves facing the ecological apocalypse that the U.N. authors warn of.
Read more at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Photo: “Dance of the Ash Trees,” by Giles Watson. Creative Commons license. Original cropped and lightened.
This post relates to truth, humility, love, and even justice, placing it firmly in the gold portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.