Tag Archives: environment

A Village Falls into the Sea

Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea

In the middle of the map, climate change can feel like an abstraction. Is a warmer, wetter summer an anomaly in the weather pattern, or part of a greater change? Is this an early heat wave just a seasonal spike?

At the edges of the map though, the impact is very real. Solid ground is literally disappearing. At Sierra, Rachel Rivera visits Shishmaref, an island village north of Nome, Alaska, and witnesses the effect that global warming — and the resulting rising sea level — has had on this remote Native Alaskan settlement.

Long accustomed to living under the most extreme weather conditions, Inupiaq communities on Alaska’s Arctic coast are facing their toughest challenge yet. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Average air temperatures are more than 6°F warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and the lack of reflective snow is causing both land and sea to absorb more solar heat. The sea ice, critical to the creatures that sustain human life here, is melting. Sea ice also serves as a natural buffer, shielding coastal communities from the direct impact of storms. Recently, Shishmaref has been subject to stronger storm surges and increased flooding. A storm in 2013 eroded 50 feet of the beach overnight—including part of the road next to the airstrip, the only way out if the village should have to evacuate.

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Found in the Attic: A Decade of Climate Data on Somalia

Climate change isn’t just about rising sea levels threatening polar bears, ecological disasters can have severe economic and political impacts: Witness the Somalian civil war. The man whose research could help, Englishman Murray Watson, was abducted in southern Somalia in 2008, and hasn’t been heard from since. Laura Heaton has the story in Foreign Policy.

A few days after the abduction, Bennett-Jones started getting calls from a Somali man who spoke excellent English and claimed to be a negotiator for the kidnappers, whom the journalist by then believed to be members of al-Shabab. The man’s demands ranged from $2 million to $4 million for the ecologist’s safe return. Watson’s family couldn’t pay, his country wouldn’t, and the trail has been quiet ever since. No group has claimed his killing. No remains have ever been found.

For years after the kidnapping, the small cadre of environmentalists still working in Somalia had assumed that decades’ worth of scientific knowledge compiled by Watson had also been lost. Without vital land surveys that vanished during the civil war, it would be hard to determine precisely how or at what rate the country’s climate was changing — and therefore difficult to design measures that could limit the damage. But a recent discovery, made more than 4,000 miles away in Britain, has suddenly resurrected the possibility of continuing Watson’s environmental work. It has also revealed the extent to which his legacy may be intertwined with the fate of Somalia itself.

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America’s Great Lake, or the Greatest Lake?

Lake Superior is the world’s largest freshwater lake. In the winter, it’s so cold you’ll only have a minute to recover from the shock, should you take a tumble into its freezing waters. At Outside, Stephanie Pearson explores the lake’s extreme history, expanse, diversity, and dangers. It’s the first time Pearson, a world traveler, has taken the time to get to know the natural wonder that is literally in her backyard.

Pukaskwa is the only wilderness-designated park in Ontario, an impressive distinction in a province that has about 1,000 polar bears, more than 250,000 lakes, and one person per square mile in its entire northwest region. With a single road in, surrounded by backcountry so dense that few people other than its original Anishinabek inhabitants have seen it, the park is a favorite of expert kayakers who paddle Pukaskwa’s raw coastline and backpackers who know they need at least ten days to hike the out-and-back 37-mile coastal trail.

That kind of toughness sums up the steely character of most folks who have lived along Lake Superior over the centuries—from the Ojibwe to the French voyageurs to Nordic immigrant fishermen.

Everyone except, perhaps, me. I can count on two hands the number of times I ventured off Lake Superior’s shoreline growing up in Duluth. In the winter, when the air temperature dropped below zero, steam would rise from the lake, shrouding the city in magical puffs of white. But on the dreariest days, the lake would reflect the lightless, bruised sky, so dark and heavy that I felt like it was crushing my spirit. My family didn’t have a boat big enough to safely navigate such a dangerous body of water. Its inaccessibility made Superior that much more mysterious—like a giant mood ring reflecting the temper of the universe. Even on the most benign summer days, its power was omni­present. Once, while landing my sister’s kayak on a rocky beach in five-foot waves, I capsized and hit my head. It made me wonder if the lake was a living entity, actively trying to kill me.

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Sometimes You’re the Bug. Far Fewer Times, of Late.

Wasp on a Windshield

At my house, we’d noticed the lack of bees this spring, but we’d chalked it up to the late arrival of warm weather and a rainier-than-usual season. Turns out our anecdotal data gathering isn’t entirely off — there are fewer bugs. Of all kinds.

In Science, Gretchen Vogel asks why we’re spending less time cleaning the windshield, and what that means further up the food chain.

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”

Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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Where Were You the First Time You Realized the Government Wasn’t Always On the Ball?

Pacific Standard writer Kate Wheeling and editor Max Ufberg wrangled a comprehensive, meticulous, and fascinating oral history of the 1969 oil spill off Santa Barbara, California, that galvanized environmental activism, ultimately leading to the creation of a slew of federal environmental regulations and agencies. The whole read is great—Wheeling and Ufberg pulled in everyone from local activists to oil company lawyers to journalists—but one section on cleanup tactics stands out as both interesting and quaint.

Bottoms: The way they cleaned it up was they brought in straw. Bales and bales of straw.

Hazard: They didn’t have the oil response teams that they have now. We were totally unprepared for it. You know, what were we going to do?

Relis: I thought these oil companies and the federal government had sort of a game plan, but this was a joke. They were throwing straw down on the beach to lap up the oil with pitchforks and hiring people off the street! I mean, this was funky.

Bottoms: And they’d throw the straw out into the harbor too, and they’d take pitchforks and get convicts down there in little barges and lift the straw out of the ocean and drive the straw up the coast to a dump.

Relis: That was kind of eye-opening — that big companies and big government can be so incompetent.

It’s true, kids! Barely more than 40 years ago, government and corporations were assumed to be generally competent and responsible. The times, how they change.

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The Outdoorsy Type’s Dilemma

At The Guardian, Marisa Meltzer looks at the self-congratulatory corporate philosophies of outerwear giants Patagonia and The North Face. Beyond the often-amusing details (like the time employees at Patagonia’s California headquarters tried to save a butterfly chrysalis they’d spotted on the sidewalk), she unpacks the complex dynamic that allows these companies to tout their ethical sourcing and care for the environment while selling luxury goods to affluent weekend warriors.

Selling professional-grade gear to people with no intention of using it professionally isn’t exactly a new trick in marketing, as the makers of SUVs, digital cameras and headphones can tell you. Most people who buy the Nike trainers advertised by Mo Farah don’t use them to run long distances.

But North Face and Patagonia are both wrestling with a more consequential paradox, one that is central to contemporary consumerism: we want to feel morally good about the things we buy. And both companies have been phenomenally successful because they have crafted an image that is about more than just being ethical and environmentally friendly, but about nature, adventure, exploration — ideas more grandiose than simply selling you a jacket, taking your money and trying not to harm the earth too much along the way. But the paradox is that by presenting themselves this way, they are selling a lot more jackets. In other words, both companies are selling stuff in part by looking like they’re not trying too hard to sell stuff, which helps them sell more stuff — and fills the world with more and more stuff.

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From Food Scraps to Profit: The Compost King of New York City

At first, I didn’t know what to make of Charles Vigliotti. You seldom hear the words “wealthy” and “composter” strung together. But as he explained his roundabout path to the energy sector, I began to sense Vigliotti’s commitment to solving some serious environmental problems, even as he lined his silky pockets.

After city landfills began closing in the 1980s, Vigliotti found he was spending too much money directing waste out of state. He began to move away from the trash business and in 1991 established with his brother Arnold a compost company in Westbury, N.Y., that transforms Himalayas of landscape debris — grass clippings, leaves, wood chips — into millions of bags of lawn and garden products. Business was good, but Vigliotti remained restless. In 1999, he opened a compost site in Yaphank, where in 2008 he began dabbling in food waste, mixing scraps from a Whole Foods Market and a small-batch won-ton manufacturer into his formula for potting soils. At this point, Vigliotti wasn’t thinking of food waste as a renewable energy source or a way to reduce the city’s far-flung garbage footprint or greenhouse-gas emissions. It was simply a way to take in more volume and thus make more money.

At the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Royte reports on “compost king” Charles Vigliotti, chief executive of American Organic Energy, who has a vision for the future: transforming the food waste of New York City into clean energy — and a profit.

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Loving the Difficult Places

The Kalmiopsis will probably never provide the kind of blissful recreational experiences portrayed in outdoor-equipment catalogs. Zach Collier, a river guide who occasionally runs trips on the Illinois and the Chetco, told me that he grills his prospective clients. “When people call me to book it, I actively try to talk them out of it,” he says. “It’s physically demanding and not much fun.”

But Peter Landres, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an expert in wilderness studies, says the very difficulty of visiting the Kalmiopsis helps it fulfill the more abstract needs that Zahniser described. “It’s exactly what we need in the age of the Anthropocene,” Landres says. “We can feel we’re a small part of this larger universe. That reinforces the feelings of humility and restraint,” feelings, he says, we need now more than ever.

The Kalmiopsis is also a superlative example of wilderness’ role as an ecological safe harbor. “Wilderness is the best place and maybe the only place that evolution can go on its merry way,” Landres says. As the climate changes, disrupting ecosystems along with it, those pockets of intact landscape where non-human life can adapt are increasingly precious. The Kalmiopsis, he says, is a perfect example of such a place. It’s rare to find a swath of low-lying hills as intact and protected as these among the alpine and desert areas that make up most legally designated wilderness areas. And the region’s plant diversity is off the charts.

In High Country News, editor Kate Schimel narrates her grueling trek into Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness with the people who voluntarily clear its impenetrable trails and swim its clear creeks, showing why America needs road-free, undeveloped areas just like it. Schimel’s piece is a love letter to the demanding places that don’t easily share themselves with us, and that many of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn to anyway.

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We’re Stronger Together: What Happens After Standing Rock?

When I first arrived in North Dakota to report on Standing Rock, I visited the State Capitol, built in 1934, the tallest building in Bismarck. The Art Deco interior has gilded everything — doorframes, ashtrays, elevator buttons. On a late afternoon in December, I stood at a window on the 18th floor and looked outside. Tiny people scurried through the streets below, and tailpipes puffed a fog of spent petroleum into the cold air. The snowy horizon was the same color as the clouds in the light gray sky, the landscape a pale abstraction that went on forever beyond the neatly gridded city. Somewhere to the south, thousands of people hunkered in the NoDAPL camps against the coming winter. From where I stood, I couldn’t see them.

In the days that followed, as I traveled through the camps and spoke to the water protectors, I had the sense that this movement, invisible though it was to Bismarck, was coming into sharp relief here and elsewhere. The Trump administration has indicated that it might push the pipeline through. If so, NoDAPL itself may be remembered simply as a brief moment of hopefulness — for the Standing Rock Sioux, social justice activists and climate protesters. Hope, though, once planted, tends to grow, to take on a life of its own. At Oceti Sakowin, it was palpable, at communal meals and in the daily teamwork it takes to keep such a sprawling encampment functioning, a feeling that people who stand together can overcome injustice and systems that do not serve them, no matter who is in power. That hope, now lodged in the memories of tens of thousands of people, will be hard to erase. “Getting well in your mind, body, spirit is what this camp really is about,” one Standing Rock Sioux elder told me. “People are coming to be healed.”

Dakota Access may yet carry oil south, and the demonstrations it has inspired may disintegrate. But if the inspiration of a new generation of “protectors” is any indication of success, maybe they’ve already won. On my last day at the casino, I met a woman who works at the restaurant there. She was exceptionally busy that week, as thousands of NoDAPL protesters passed through for a hot meal, but she took a few minutes to speak with me. “Through (NoDAPL), our elders have gained confidence,” she said. “I hope this thing leaves its fingerprints on you, too.”

In High Country News, Tay Wiles reports on how the Dakota Access Pipeline protests have spread greater understanding of environmental issues among Natives and non-Natives alike, and how they’ve inspired a new generation of protesters who are collaborating to raise awareness of and oppose other projects that impact Indigenous people, their rights, and their land.

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Twilight of the Sawfish

What happens to age-old traditions when the animals on which their symbolism depends all but vanish? At Hakai Magazine, Jori Lewis chronicles her journey along the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau coast looking for sawfish — a creature so venerated it appears on all Senegalese currency, but which few people in the region have actually seen in in recent decades.

Twelve years ago, Marine Robillard began surveying residents in West African coastal communities about the cultural importance of the sawfish. Now an environmental anthropologist at a French consulting firm called AnthropoLinks, Robillard says that most people could not believe the sawfish was gone for good. “When we were in Senegal, they would say, ‘Oh, there were some sawfish here but now they have migrated north. Go north.’ When we arrived in Mauritania, they would say, ‘Oh, there are no more sawfish here, but go south, go south.’ And when we arrived in Guinea Conakry, they said, ‘Oh, no, up north.’ People think that this is true for the sawfish, for sharks, and for fish, too. People don’t think they can disappear; they think that they have only moved.”

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