I Am The WiMax and I Speak for the Trees


A breathless report from IDG News yesterday spread like a forest fire: Wi-Fi kills trees! Kills 'em dead! Oh n03s!!

Radiation from Wi-Fi networks is harmful to trees, causing significant variations in growth, as well as bleeding and fissures in the bark, according to a recent study in the Netherlands. All deciduous trees in the Western world are affected, according to the study by Wageningen University.

Hurray for credulity! Thousands of media sites and blogs picked up the story, adding new details, and rarely questioning the bizarre claim, despite the statement later in the same news item that only 20 trees were tested in one city, that researchers were not named, and it wasn't noted whether or not the study was published or peer reviewed.

I turned, as I always do, to Gawker's Valleywag to bring sense and perspective to an issue. Wait. What? No, seriously. Valleywag's Adrian Chen found a public statement from the Dutch spectrum regulator (translation). The study took place indoors for three months with a variety of plants exposed to six Wi-Fi devices. Previous studies showed no harm. The work hasn't yet been published.

I suppose BoingBoing readers are used to hearing sensational claims based on small-cadre studies issued in advance of peer review. Nonetheless, this one seemed particularly strange. Perhaps it was the combination of environmental harm, the fear of radiation (electromagnetic or otherwise), and the imprimatur of a university. Urban trees, which were apparently part of the focus of this study, are under tremendous stress, and tree cover in cities worldwide has been drastically reduced, although efforts in many places are underway to counter this. My hometown of Seattle has a loosely organized plan to plant hundreds of thousands of new trees in the coming years, for instance.

Remember what happens when the trees get pissed off.

fall_leaves.jpgUpdate! A commenter warns that all Northern hemisphere deciduous trees are currently undergoing some sort of chromatic die-off producing vast amounts of ground pollution and decay.

Top photo from Pripyat near Chernobyl by Timm Suess via Creative Commons. Yes, that's Suess, not Seuss. Photo of leaves by mksfly via Creative Commons.