Can radio waves harm trees?

| 37 Comments

Katie Haggerty, a woman who lives near Lyons, Colorado, thinks it is a possibility. Ms. Haggerty, who claims no academic or scientific credentials whatsoever, has performed some experiments to test this hypothesis.

According to an article by Bruce Leaf in today’s Boulder Daily Camera, Ms. Haggerty has thought for years that radio waves might be harming her geraniums. So she put some plants inside a Faraday cage, an enclosure that blocks radio waves, and thought she saw improvement in the growth of plants.

A few years ago, she graduated to aspen trees, which are dying in Colorado. Thinking that the cause might be radio waves, not drought, she performed a controlled experiment in which she placed some aspen seedlings into a Faraday cage and some in a fiberglass cage (which will not block radio waves), and also grew some seedlings in the absence of a cage.

The result was that the seedlings in the Faraday cage outperformed both groups of control seedlings: by the end of June, they had produced more biomass. In addition,

“The leaves in the shielded group produced striking fall colors, while the two exposed groups stayed light green or yellow and were affected by areas of dead leaf tissue,” Haggerty said. “The shielded leaves turned red, which was a good sign. The unshielded leaves in both exposed groups had extensive decay, and some leaves fell off while they were still green.

“It appears that there may be negative effects on the health and growth of aspens from the radio frequency background.”

Ms. Haggerty’s work attracted the attention of Wayne Shepperd of the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, and she ultimately published a paper in the International Journal of Forestry Research. I have not looked at the actual paper.

Ms. Haggerty probably does not think she is a scientist, but I would disagree. She has formulated what my colleague Paul Strode calls a research hypothesis: “If hypothesis X is true, and I perform method Y, then I predict Z as a specific, measurable outcome.” Specifically, Ms. Haggerty said to herself, “If radio waves are harmful to plants, and I perform a controlled experiment in which some plants are enclosed in a Faraday cage, then I predict that those plants will produce more biomass than the control plants.” She is the first to admit that her experiment is preliminary, proves nothing, and only suggests future experiments.

I am frankly very suspicious of the result. It is hard to imagine that electromagnetic fields so weak that we can detect them only with gobs of electrical amplification can have any effect on biological systems, even if there is a cell-phone tower nearby. The point, however, is that Ms. Haggerty used anecdotal evidence to provide a hunch and then followed up on that hunch by formulating and testing a research hypothesis. She did not consider the anecdotal evidence conclusive, nor does she consider the results of a single preliminary experiment conclusive.

The contrast between Ms. Haggerty and evolution deniers (not to mention global-warming deniers, vaccination deniers, and HIV deniers) is striking. It is hard for me to imagine, for example, many of our favorite PT trolls ever getting past the “hunch” stage. Instead of saying, “If I believe it, then it must be true,” our heroine said, “If I have a hunch, then I must test it.” Ms. Haggerty has provided a model for how to do science properly. She is a better scientist than certain creationists with advanced degrees in biology or mathematics.

37 Comments

I’ve always thought that science is a verb; it’s something you do. Having a phd in scientific field does not make one a scientist; it’s the act of formulating and testing hypotheses systematically, being open about ones methods and results, and being willing to modify or abandon failed hypotheses which makes one a scientist.

Colour me surprised. It’s one thing for someone to make claims about emf but another thing for them to actually get off their arse and do the research.

The fact that she used not only a non-caged control, but also a non-conducting cage too, is pretty fantastic.

I agree that the results are… surprising… but it’s too easy to speculate without access to the paper.

I wonder whether the paper contains measurement of actually EMF levels within the various enclosures (as well as levels of water, light, soil biochemistry, etc) in order to rule out more prosaic explanations. anyone know?

The fact that she used not only a non-caged control, but also a non-conducting cage too, is pretty fantastic.

yup, still, the only conclusion that can be made is correlational in nature at this point. There is no causative mechanism of radio wave interaction. I suspect something else entirely is going on.

The thing to test further isn’t whether radio waves have an affect on plants, but rather what other things could the faraday cages be doing. Changing localized temperatures? Maybe they heat up more during the day (being metal) and provide a slighter warmer growing area? If it were me, I would investigate local micro-climate changes induced by the different types of cages.

simple things like temp and humidity variables can be easily measured.

… btw, people say things like:

Having a phd in scientific field does not make one a scientist; it’s the act of formulating and testing hypotheses systematically, being open about ones methods and results, and being willing to modify or abandon failed hypotheses which makes one a scientist.

which is technically accurate, but there is a REASON we all go and get that PhD. It’s because in getting it we are exposed to the knowledge base that makes interpretation of results much more based on things that actually have been proven to make sense, and have predictive and explanatory value.

I spent time working with a lot of non-profit environmental advocacy groups who all had the same issue to a greater or lesser extent:

they were often on hand to observe things, could indeed gather accurate enough data. However, they simply did not have the background information available to them to understand or interpret what the observations might mean.

So, yes, a SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT can be performed by anybody following a good design, but that still doesn’t mean you are a scientist.

got nothing to do with arrogance. Hell, anybody can play with a set of legos and learn how to build a bridge.

does that mean you are an engineer?

…and the headline used:

Can radio waves harm trees?

is exactly the kind of thing we often chastise the media about.

Is that REALLY the question you want to ask? Because this experiment doesn’t actually address that much.

Instead, a more appropriate headline would read:

Do metal cages make plants grow better?

I started reading this assuming that we were going to get another funny story of a stupid woo-ster promoting idiotic woo-woo beliefs. As I read further, I started thinking “well… OK, her idea is sort of silly, but she’s making a good first attempt at actually looking for a real answer.” Close to the end, I got a little angry because I thought you might be just telling another funny story of a stupid woo-ster promoting idiotic woo-woo beliefs. At the end, I was glad to see that our viewpoints were similar.

Whatever else someone might say about Ms. Haggerty, we have to respect that she didn’t stop with anecdote. She kept her brain running past a suspicion, and tried to create a way to test whether her suspicion was backed up by reality. Even after her experiment produced the result she was looking for, she did not claim absolute certainty.

She’s absolutely a scientist in the truest sense, at least in this situation.

I wonder whether the paper contains measurement of actually EMF levels within the various enclosures (as well as levels of water, light, soil biochemistry, etc) in order to rule out more prosaic explanations. anyone know?

The article is here. I confess that I still haven’t read it, but I searched for “temperature” and found

Two sets of a calibrated thermometer and humidity gauge were used to compare temperature and humidity readings between cages under various weather conditions and times of day and night. The monitoring devices were placed in the middle of the monitored treatment enclosure, just above the top of the pots. A board was placed south of the devices to provide shade. A lux meter was used to measure light intensity in the treatment areas. Shielding reduced light intensity by 35% for the mock-shielded enclosure and 40% for the RF-shielded enclosure. Naturally occurring sunlight intensity was not reduced for the group that was not shielded. Except for the difference in RF background intensity, conditions in the shielded and mock-shielded enclosures were very similar. The unshielded seedlings were exposed to higher light levels (full sun), higher airflow, and generally lower humidity than the shielded and mock-shielded treatments since they were not in a screened enclosure.

This is no amateurish project. I guess I would have reduced the light intensity of the unshielded seedlings, but in fact (according to the newspaper article) they did not fare as well as the rf-shielded seedlings anyway.

Yes, the rf transmittance of the Faraday cage was measured at NIST, and it was around 40-70 dB between 1 MHz and 3 GHz. She also measured the rf background once between 1 MHz and 1 GHz; it wasn’t much.

The article also provides photographs of representative seedlings.

Yes, “Do metal cages make plants grow better?” might have been a better or more-accurate headline, but that headline would not reflect Ms. Haggerty’s hypothesis, and you would not have read the article.

but that headline would not reflect Ms. Haggerty’s hypothesis, and you would not have read the article.

I say “so what?” to the first, and “you assume a lot” for the second.

and repeat my point about headlines encouraging reading articles for the wrong reasons.

your assumption indeed bears this out.

The differences in sunlight are significant if they are 35% greater for the unshielded plants.

If climate change is responsible for the stress on some plant life, the shading provided by the Faraday cages just might make a difference.

This is an interesting study, and should have some follow-up studies addressing additional variables such as whether or not the aspen decline over the last few years has anything to do with climate change.

Some control was done, as indicated in the article.

A similar cage was constructed as a control, with fiberglass screen, which is not conductive and which does not block RF signals, instead of aluminum.

1 to 3 MHz is not normally considered particularly dangerous at the low intensities we find in background radiation.

My counter top microwave oven has an output of 700 W at 2450 MHz. But microwave ovens are tuned to resonances in water that absorb energy. It seems unlikely that 1 to 3 MHz radio waves at low levels could find resonances that would dump enough energy into a plant to affect its growth. The difference in sunlight irradiance is far greater between the shielded and unshielded plants.

There are considerably more resonances in water and carbon dioxide in the near to mid infrared regions. So there is some potential here for an amplifying effect due to the more intense sunlight on the unshielded plants.

Lots of questions. But interesting.

I see that she has also noted some studies on climate change.

In several studies, climate change was found not to be a causal agent in forest decline [32, 33].

But I’m not sure this is ruled out.

One of the major things we know about living systems is that they live in a very narrow window of energy. For example, we know about hypothermia and hyperthermia in animals. This narrows the range of energies in which life can survive considerably.

One of the mechanisms underlying the effects of hyper or hypothermia seems to include subsystems that operate in a range between being shut down at lower temperatures and turning chaotic at higher temperatures. These are systems that behave much like two-state systems in which the entropy increases as temperature is raised and then it decreases as the upper states of the system become more populated than the lower states.

Plants can’t move out of the way of extremes; so they may be stressed at the upper limits of their temperature tolerances.

Ichthyic,

Can you at least pay the lady a compliment? The point of Matt’s post is that she demonstrated an attitude that is sorely lacking in creotards(among others) and the American public in general and it is the attitude that matters, not whether her experimental procedures met ICHTHYIC’S standards. Sheesh, you would complain if someone cut you with a dull knife.

Mike Elzinga said: If climate change is responsible for the stress on some plant life, the shading provided by the Faraday cages just might make a difference.

I just scanned the research article but I thought one of the other two cohorts was placed in a similar box made out fiberglass or plastic. If so, that would have a similar shading effect.

To poke a different hole in their experiment: the sample size is very small, and if you look at the in-group variation in leaf size it is huge: going from 0 cm2 to roughly twice the average. As SJ Gould was fond of pointing out, “average” means very little if your distributions are wide and overlapping.

It would be nice if they repeated their experiment with more than 9 seeds/cohort and graphed distributions of leaf sizes (along with median and mode). And if the boxes weren’t exactly the same (as Mike implies), that should be controlled too. While you’re doing that, paint both types of strut to look the same and bring the gardener and leaf-measurer(s) in afterwards, so they don’t know which cohort is which. That way, its at least partially blinded.

Having said all that, I also voice my support to the researchers. Its not a bad initial study. Its not as controlled as most of us would like, but its controlled enough to be worth repeating. And as Matt points out in his original post, controlled or not Ms. Haggerty’s response to disagreeing with mainstream science was MUCH better than any creationist I’ve seen. She thought about what evidence would help confirm or refute her claim. Set up an experiment. Did it. Published the results so the community can check for errors and repeat it in their own labs, etc.… Its science. It may not be spectacular science and the results may be wrong, but she’s doing science.

Bravo to Ms. Haggerty! She’s demonstrated that she knows how to take an intiition, convert it to a testable hypothesis, actually do the test, and present her results in the scientific literature; perhaps she should take a trip to Seattle and do some mentoring at the Discovery Institute.

Ichthyic said:a SCIENTIFIC EXPERIMENT can be performed by anybody following a good design, but that still doesn’t mean you are a scientist.

“Scientist” was intentionally coined by direct analogy with “artist”. As an artist “does art”, a scientist “does science”. That hasn’t changed. Haggerty wasn’t making trees and Faraday cages out of lego, she was doing science.

Would you also look at a painting and say “Well sure, it’s a great painting but the person who painted it doesn’t have a PhD and is therefore not really an artist.”? I think that, were such a criticism offered by someone with a Visual Arts PhD, an impression of arrogance would be impossible to avoid.

Can you at least pay the lady a compliment?

I did, you are experiencing reading fail.

Would you also look at a painting and say “Well sure, it’s a great painting but the person who painted it doesn’t have a PhD and is therefore not really an artist.”?

it’s not an apt comparison, for exactly the reasons I stated in my second post on the subject.

fuck me, but the posters on this site apparently have extreme reading difficulties.

here’s another one for radio wave junkies. Explain to me what Luc Montaigne thinks he is doing with this:

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/new[…]225887772305

here’s the problem: most readers here will be broadly nerdy and aware that the hypothesis is a bit far-fetched, perhaps too far-fetched to be worth studying. now the reason most people even test a hypothesis is because they believe it (e.g. because of an irrational fear of radio waves). and in amateur and/or crackpot research, there is a long history of people “proving” their pet theories. psychic research is notorious. james randi observed (in the excellent Flim Flam, and probably many other places) that psychic results correlate inversely with the quality of the experimental controls. it would appear that people are very generous about giving their beliefs the benefit of the doubt by relaxing their controls slightly, often without being aware of it (e.g. Clever Hans). an advantage of mainstream researchers is that they have a reputation to protect, so you aren’t left guessing about their standards and rigor

so … it’s a nice point that creationists are science parasites who are less inclined to do research than earnest amateurs, but the example here doesn’t arouse my interest any more than the perpetual motion machines i see on the internet. lots and lots of people are on a higher plain than creationists

Ichthyic said:

fuck me, but the posters on this site apparently have extreme reading difficulties.

I agree with the emboldened part.

I call troll pretending to be an arrogant ass-hat with a PHD.

Jimmy said:

Ichthyic said:

fuck me, but the posters on this site apparently have extreme reading difficulties.

I agree with the emboldened part.

I call troll pretending to be an arrogant ass-hat with a PHD.

Not really a troll, but yes, he sounds arrogant. But we are used to that around here.

It seems like a plant with less light would want bigger leaves. Perhaps it is an adaptation that is triggered at 40% shade but not at 35% shade. The next experiment could have mock-shaded plants at 40% and 45% shade.

Better yet, shield everything the same, and put transmitters in each cage, with some turned on and some disabled.

Sheesh. She is doing science. It’s a team sport. It’s up to the curious onlookers to suggest further ideas to examine this possibility professionally or privately. This is no different than any other scientific effort. Perhaps there are better designed experiments, better equipment, or other improvements to the process. Alphabet soups after a name have nothing to do with it- and never have. Curious and capable folks tend to gravitate towards the extra letters, but that’s about it. The senators that represent my district work as politicians, but does that make them better at political judgment than anyone else? Really.…

chris said:

Better yet, shield everything the same, and put transmitters in each cage, with some turned on and some disabled.

Exactly. Insert a broadband emitter into each cage, or the output from a broadband amplifier to sample ambient radiation into each cage.

There was a preliminary research report a couple of weeks ago that cell phones or towers are affecting bees adversely. I didn’t read details.

Amateurs have made good contributions in many fields. That they can’t break into science is a crock. Hannes Alven (missing accent mark) won a Nobel Prize for plasma physics!

Alfvén (also missing an “F”) was not an amateur – he had a PhD in electrical engineering. See here.

I am confused. I have heard that background radiation from the sun far outweighed the intensity of radiation from manmade items (especially in an isolated mountain town like Lyons). Given that, the effects of radio waves is pretty much moot.

Ichthyic said:

Can you at least pay the lady a compliment?

I did, you are experiencing reading fail.

One word in four posts sort of vaguely looks like a compliment. “yup”. With the very next word a negative contraster. I am quite willing to admit I was wrong if you care to show explicitly where this alleged compliment actually is beyond “yup”.

snaxalotl,

Does that mean we should just tell this lady to take a long flying leap into a volcano? The only way what she did was not noteworthy was if she completely ignored her efforts and simply declared her assertions valid. She did not do that. THAT is one of the two commendable things she did(along with testing her hypothesis). Encouraging the explicit testing of ideas, whether originated in irrational fears or not, and a willingness to drop the fears as a result, is a good thing. An excellent way to encourage this is to recognize it as a very good first attempt. Maybe if more people thought recognition would be forthcoming for their effort we could see more legitimately scientific thinking from more people.

Okay, on my way over to look at methodology, but thinking: Aspen are notoriously difficult to work with in any case. For a very long time no one had succeeded in getting them to grow from seed – in the wild, they tend to sucker out from one lone beginner, so a stand of aspen can be genetically identical. Consequently, a bunch of aspen will sometimes die off from something that would not be so serious but for the genetic similarity.

Plus, aspen are notoriously short-lived, and they are more sensitive to air pollution of all kinds than most of the other botanical species in their ecosystems. Dust on the leaves will kill an aspen next to an unpaved road.

Very interesting experiment. Lots of questions.

Does that mean we should just tell this lady to take a long flying leap into a volcano? The only way what she did was not noteworthy was if she completely ignored her efforts and simply declared her assertions valid. She did not do that.

Unfortunately, it seems that the author failed to address the variations in humidity, air flow, and sunlight intensity that she actually identified in the paper. In my opinion (at least) of equal importance is that the experiment was conducted at an altitude about 400 meters lower than the lowest “natural” occurrence of Aspen in Colorado. Aspens do not fare very well at lower elevations in Colorado, an observation that also should have been discussed in the paper.

While the effort on the art of a non-scientist truely is commendable, and I am sure that the author meant well, it does not seem to me that the inference made in the paper is actually supported by the data presented in that paper.

Ed Darrell said:

Okay, on my way over to look at methodology, but thinking: Aspen are notoriously difficult to work with in any case. For a very long time no one had succeeded in getting them to grow from seed – in the wild, they tend to sucker out from one lone beginner, so a stand of aspen can be genetically identical.

I have Aspen in my garden…about 200m lower in elevation than the location of the experiment, but in the same watershed and so not so far away geographically. Except for the occasional mowing of suckers (fully intentional), they are undisturbed by me, including by accidental herbicide application (not allowed in my garden).

This may be a bit anecdotal, but the first- and second-year scions that do grow in my garden display the same variability as the experiment soes…maybe even more, as my cloned population includes a few non-mowed deaths. Whle I cannot rule out anthropogenic RF emissions, I am reasonably sure that the primary cause is elevation.

Can’t say the experiment isn’t correct on RF damage – but I’m not convinced.

For a couple of summers I worked with the Air Pollution Laboratory of the Engineering Experiment Station at the University of Utah. My job was to put native plants into a gas chamber where carefully controlled concentrations of air pollutants were delivered, to see what the damage looked like on leaves. We gassed the plants in situ, with portable plastic chambers and host of pollutant spreaders, measuring the concentrations of pollutants with the same methods we used for all ambient air sampling. A lot of the work was under contract to power companies, New Mexico Public Service, Arizona Public Service and Utah Power & Light – but some of the stuff was done with grants, and there were publications by Dr. A. Clyde Hill and others, in journals like the Journal of the Air Pollution Control Association. Frankly, I don’t remember if any of the dozens of photographs of the damage made it into publication, but somebody working on this project, or questioning it, ought to go see, and compare the photos of damage. (Perhaps here.) At that time there were people who specialized in looking at damage to plants to determine what sort of air pollution had caused it, or not caused it. (I worked with a Dr. Tom Brown from Arizona State who could quite accurately tell concentrations of SO2 just from looking at the necrotic spots on wild grasses; part of our work was to establish just what such researchers should be looking for.)

The damage on the aspen leaves in Ms. Haggerty’s paper looks a lot like NO2 or NOx damage, to me; SO2 damage usually produced red coloring around the necrosis, as I recall (hey, it was more than 30 years ago). Especially with the interveinal damage to the leaves, I’d wonder about some form of air pollution: SO2 and NOxes ought to be limited these days, but ozone could still be a problem – and depending on the location of the experiment, other pollutants from autos should be considered. Dr. A. Clyde Hill is retired in Pleasant Grove, Utah, as of last year – researchers may want to contact him for better consultation.

What sort of gaseous pollutants might be reactive with the aluminum mesh, and therefor be filtered out by it? I don’t know.

I was also interested in the potting medium. I’m not sure of the soil acidity tolerances of aspen in the Rockies, but the peat moss struck me as creating a medium probably a lot more acidic than the native soils – which might make the leaves more prone to some sorts of damage from certain pollutants.

I share Bob Park’s skepticism for RF damage. If it’s RF damage, it should mimic heat damage, most likely – since that’s what RF waves do to living tissue, usually: Cook it. (Right? I’m unaware of studies showing other damage, though there could be, I suppose.) I’ve never cooked aspen leaves to see how they’d die, especially in the long, slow cook RF waves would deliver.

The author, Katie Haggerty, cites very few air pollution studies. I’d be more convinced if she had done more to rule out plain old air pollution damage.

I’m skeptical of the explanation that ambient RF radiation may be triggering some seasonal or other evolved response to natural RF radiation, since the damage looks like simple necrosis from a pollutant rather than a seasonal or rhythmic response – at least to me.

Were the trees really seedlings? Greenhouse work with aspen has come a long, long way in 30 years.

This may be a bit anecdotal, but the first- and second-year scions that do grow in my garden display the same variability as the experiment soes…maybe even more, as my cloned population includes a few non-mowed deaths. Whle I cannot rule out anthropogenic RF emissions, I am reasonably sure that the primary cause is elevation.

You don’t say what your actual elevation is, but yeah, elevation could play a big role.

Where did you get the aspen for your garden?

I had rescued several small aspen from a bulldozer while doing that research. It’s one of my favorite trees, and my parents both loved them, too. I transplanted them to my parents garden in Utah County, just below 5,000 feet elevation – they did not thrive. I had worried about elevation as the cause – but the following spring, suckers sprang up about ten feet away, in native soil (I had planted them in the lawn), and those did well for several years, until my mother sold the house and moved. I actually tried to transplant aspen three different times unsuccessfully before the suckers took. We couldn’t get them to survive in the greenhouse, either – but my career took a different path.

Another tree guy I knew said that aspen would never do well in a lawn because of too much water, and too much fertilizer. That would explain the suckers doing better in “poorer” soil, with less water and no fertilizer.

All that just goes to my experience that growing aspen is difficult, and the plants are quirky. I hope someone will try to repeat the experiment.

Dornier Pfeil said:

snaxalotl,

Does that mean we should just tell this lady to take a long flying leap into a volcano?

my position is that an adult doing science at the level of high school science fair deserves to be ignored … neither abused nor fawned over. an amateur has the burden of demonstrating they are doing something noteworthy - when she has irrefutable results it shouldn’t be too hard to knock some doors down. if you are unsure of the problem with paying attention to every pretender to scientific relevance, I would suggest a survey of even a tiny portion of the internet … perhaps the many geniuses who have recently sprung up with solutions to the oil leak. imagine if you were ordered to evaluate all those examples because someone bowed to pressure from fox news’ complaints that a goldmine of homespun american know-how was being ignored

snaxalotl said:

…perhaps the many geniuses who have recently sprung up with solutions to the oil leak…

better example: how many people here toss and turn at night over the patchy positive results obtained by people who play music to tomatoes?

Ed Darrell said:

You don’t say what your actual elevation is, but yeah, elevation could play a big role.

Where did you get the aspen for your garden?

My house is at about 5100 feet. I inherited the aspen from the previous owner(s), so they have been here for a while. Not thriving, perhaps, but not entirely dying either. I pretty much let them be, only cutting away dead branches (and trees) when necessary.

I also hope that someone tries to repeat the experiment, but with a much more rigorous design.

snaxalotl,

Thank you for poking me in the gut of my false choice. I should have been more careful.

I would like to believe that the valley between abuse and fawning is sufficiently wide that we can err on the side of fawning a little, at least without smacking into the cliff face of obsequiousness. I could care less about the quality of her work nor do I think her hypothesis is valid anyway, only that she demonstrated a mindset which is so sadly lacking in America today. The internet quackery you cite is exactly symptomatic of it. She is the counter-example of how the public should be thinking how science works. Why discourage it?

People shouldn’t be too quick to assume that something has no effect on the ecosystem. We laugh at the ancient Romans for using lead pipes for water; we might do well to imagine that in a few hundred years’ time, people (such as they are) will laugh at some of the things we assume are harmless. A curious example - a friend of mine is convinced that the Wifi being on gives her a specific type of headache. I was highly sceptical, until one day several weeks later I had switched on a Wifi box in my place for the first time, and when she visited me she said, “I’m getting one of those headaches, did you install Wifi?” Many things we do have unknown effects.

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