An Unexpected Forest

Last August, I disappeared for a much anticipated week of bicycling, camping, and hiking. I hadn’t taken a bicycle trip longer than three nights in far too long, so it felt good to get back on Rocinante and pedal away from home with no phone or internet to distract me. Despite nagging high humidity and some heavy rain during the middle of the trip, it was a blissful time when I disconnected from everything but the immediate world around me (a privilege, yes I realize, but one I’ve worked to maintain).

In total, I didn’t ride my bike all that much. It was about 140 miles, so a reasonable fit person could cover my route in two days—and a younger version of me would’ve felt antsy when taking so much time to cover so little distance, but the point wasn’t to move quickly. Instead, I sought experiences best gathered through careful observation. Each day offered new discoveries, even if they were within the confines of the familiarity that accompanies travel near your home turf. Toward the end of the trip, for example, a day-long hike showcased groves of trees that had experienced a great deal of change, and offered a chance to consider how they might change in the near future.

Bicycle with drop handle bars, gray paint, and bags on racks on front and rear. Bike is surrounded by goldenrods and other plants.
Rocinante loaded and ready to carry me on the journey.

Starting near Patten on a Friday afternoon, I headed west to the Matagamon Gate at the northeast corner of Baxter State Park where, long story short, I spent the next four nights. After a fifth night of camping closer to the small town of Millinocket and resupplying on food, I made my way north into Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument

I spent the remainder of my trip at Esker Camp in the national monument. On my next to last day, I ventured to the top of Deasey Mountain, one of the highest points in the park, on the International Appalachian Trail (IAT). While many hikers see the mountaintop and its historic fire lookout as the highlight, I find myself still thinking of the mountain’s trees. 

Maine’s modern history is intertwined with logging. A lot of trees and a lot of water to transport logs and power sawmills made the state ideal for this industry. In the 1800s, Bangor earned a reputation as the lumber capital of the world. Lumberers looked first for the tall, straight-boled white pines that were so valuable for ship masts. When Henry David Thoreau journeyed to the Katahdin region in the late 1850s, he could not find a mature standing white pine. Trees for lumber were the next to go. Then once the paper-making industry arrived, almost every tree more than a foot in diameter at its base was on the market. Harvest rates increased through much of the 1900s until the paper industry began to decline and eventually collapsed in the state.

The timber industry isn’t what it used to be in Maine, but harvesting of trees remains heavy, and anything more than a quick glance on a drive in northern Maine reveals there’s a wide variety in logging strategies depending on the landowner’s wants and the harvest company’s practices. Overall though, most of the forests you’ll see in Maine are relatively young. In a lot of the cuts I’ve visited at random, many trees are harvested at the tender age of 50 years old and sometimes younger. The national monument’s forests are no exception. On satellite images, the landscape is a checkerboard of logging roads, many of which were blazed in the last 60 years to truck out logs.

Gravel road surrounded by white-barked birch and other trees.
Young paper birch and other trees line a section of the monument loop road.
Satellite image of forested area. Logging roads and trails can be seen as scars in between trees. A large stream flows at upper right. Image taken in April 2016. Green represents spruce, fir, and pine. Brown indicates deciduous trees.
Dendritic-patterned logging roads and trails occupy much of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. This is the area near the Wassataquoik lean-to and tent site along the IAT.

Deasey Mountain’s modest height (1,942 feet in elevation) and its proximity to Wassataquoik Stream and the East Branch of Penobscot River—major river drive watersheds before road building reached the area’s forests—made its trees a prime target for logging crews. Dozens of dams, including one not far upstream of Esker Camp, were built in the Wassataquoik and East Branch watersheds to facilitate the river drives. Large, human-caused fires had also burned through the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. With so much recent disturbance I expected to hike through a regenerating forest for most if not the whole way to the summit.

The first task was to ford Wassataquoik Stream at the IAT crossing, which was straightforward due to the river’s knee-deep water that day. After leaving the Wassataquoik’s immediate floodplain the IAT utilized an old road for a brief clip that roughly followed the route used by some of the first Katahdin climbers, then ox teams in early logging efforts, then the heavy equipment of 20th century industrial logging. On the old road north from the Wassataquoik I walked through relatively young, even-aged trees. 

dense small trees, both evergreen and deciduous, surround a footpath that follows an old road
A section of the IAT follows the Old Keep Path, a long abandoned road.
Moss covered stump at lower left sits among young trees in background and forest floor covered in brown leaves and twigs
Stumps hidden among the young trees hinted at a harvest within the last few decades.

But to my surprise, the forest immediately changed after the trail left the old roads. Instead of spindly, closely spaced trees, i was surrounded by groves of large eastern hemlocks with plenty of big sugar maple, white ash, and spruce. Although the views from the mountain summit I experienced later that day were enjoyable, it was this section of forest which most captured my attention and curiosity.

tall trees in a maturing forest, primarily hemlock, maple, and ash.
A grove of older large trees on the slopes of Deasey Mountain

Now, these weren’t the largest trees I’ve ever seen and if you’re used to hiking through the old-growth forests of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon or the Smokies of North Carolina and Tennessee, then I’ll excuse you if you consider these trees to be modest at best. While eastern hemlocks have the potential to live more than 500 hundred years and grow more than 150 feet tall, the natural disturbance regimes in eastern North America coupled with modern logging practices and invasive insects such as hemlock woolly adelgid rarely allow them to reach their maximum age or size. 

The pocket of older trees extended along at least a mile of trail. Despite looking, I didn’t find stumps from cut trees or long-abandoned roads or skidder trails, which would have been the obvious signs of harvest in this stand during the last 100 years. I also failed to find charcoaled stumps. By a stroke of luck, this patch of forest did not burn during the large wildfires in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Parts of the Wassataquoik watershed were made near barren after an intense fire in 1903, for example. Short-lived and fast growing trees that fill recently harvested and fire-burned areas such as aspen were also largely absent, which suggests this forest hadn’t seen a major disturbance from an axe, chainsaw, fire, or windstorm in a very long time—at least long enough for the relatively slow growing hemlocks to mature to their current stature.

boles of two trees, a large hemlock at right and a large spruce at left, fill the foreground of a photo of a grove of large trees

5' 7" tall person leans against a 3-4 feet DBH sugar maple
Hemlocks weren’t the only large trees in the grove. This absolute unit of a sugar maple loomed in a shady, sheltered swale. Sugar maples of this size are uncommon in the working forests of northern Maine.

I would be surprised if this pocket of forest had not experienced at least some harvest in the last 200 years. Before the modern era of roads and feller bunchers (machines that cut, trim, and stack trees), loggers used sluiceways, ox and horse teams, and sometimes Lombard Steam Haulers to transport timber to places where the logs could be left until the river drives of spring thaw. Even the headwaters of the Wassataquoik watershed, now occupying the wildest portions of Baxter State Park, saw intense logging in the late 1800s.

Although I couldn’t find evidence of recent logging and there’s no recorded history of agriculture on the mountain, I suspect this section of forest isn’t old growth, at least not yet. The definition of old growth remains a subject of debate among scientists, yet most seem to agree that old growth forests are complex. Rather than even-aged trees, old growth stands in the northeastern U.S. contain a wide spectrum of tree ages and sizes. Certainly they often contain very large trees but also lots of dead wood. The canopy is complex with trees of different heights and broken tops. If browsing by deer and moose isn’t too intense, the understory is filled with a diversity of shrubs, small trees, and ephemeral herbs.

Other than the large trees, I saw only modest representations of these features on Deasey. Large dead trees, either standing or on the ground, were not common (although there were some thrilling examples of standing dead snags), and the understory was thin in some places. Sometimes this is the result of heavy deer and moose browse, but here I wondered if it was more of the product of the deep shade cast by the hemlocks and spruce. When storms and insects cull the live trees the subsequent gaps flood the forest floor with light, which allows the shade suppressed plants to burst upward. 

With much of Katahdin Woods and Waters in stages of early succession after 20th and early 21st century logging and fires, it’ll be many decades before large areas of the national monument’s forests grow into anything that partially resembles the structure they held before industry arrived in the region. Even then, it won’t be the same as before. Ignoring the fact that North America no longer harbors its large Pleistocene mammals which exerted great influence on plants, and the losses associated with Indigenous forestry across most of the landscape, such as burning which maintained open woodlands and prairies, the disturbance regimes now forced on the land in the last 200 years have created novel forest communities. Many forest types we consider “normal” such as stands of near-continually young birch and aspen have no past analogs. 

Beyond that, if people never manipulate this forest through harvest or with fire (purposeful or accidental) again we’ve already set into motion a cascade of effects that will influence the forest for many thousands of years. Introduced disease has ravaged Maine’s American beech—a formerly large, long-lived, shade tolerant tree. Hemlock woolly adelgid and emerald ash borer continue to advance and will likely kill most of the ash and hemlock they encounter. Climate change will make the area less hospitable to spruce, balsam fir, and sugar maple while perhaps improving growing conditions for oaks. Species that live farther south currently such as tulip tree and hickories could become new additions to Maine’s forests as annual temperatures rise. High levels of atmospheric CO2 may accelerate tree growth, but at the same time new diseases, new insect infestations, and increased forest fire potential—all fueled by climate change—are likely to be greater threats to these forests than today. Whatever emerges as a result of these influences will be largely a forest of our own making, whether we want it to be that way or not. 

Sometimes I wish I could live long enough to experience the distant future, mostly out of curiosity. I wonder if we have the collective foresight and the will to protect what’s left, to ensure that hemlock and ash trees aren’t reduced to functional extinction like the American chestnut. Could I return in 200 years and find hemlocks on Deasey Mountain? In 500 years?

Welcome, dear trees, to the Anthropocene. It might be a rough ride, but I hope we’ll help you get through it.

Vote on Climate

In my last post, I explored the origins of an alpine lake in North Cascades. The news cycle was especially terrible the day I wrote it, so I decided to leave out details about the causes and consequences of glacial retreat in North Cascades. But honestly, the causes and consequences are too great to ignore. It is no small irony that my insight and enjoyment into the formation of an alpine lake was inadvertently provided by people through human-caused climate change.

All glaciers in North Cascades are retreating and they’ve collectively lost over 50% of their mass during the last 100 years. This is directly due to a warming climate, a product of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil.

before and after photos of glacier.

Banded Glacier in 1960 (left) and 2016 (right) in North Cascades National Park.

Unless you’ve been living under one of those glaciers for the past century, you might’ve heard there’s an election next week and voting has begun in many states. While casting our votes, we have an opportunity to elect representatives who will work to mitigate climate change. But, we shouldn’t vote to combat climate change just because glaciers are receding in North Cascades National Park.

We should act on climate, because glacial melt water moderates summertime drought. Millions of people depend on glaciers for drinking water.

We should act on climate to lessen the risk from extreme weather events like drought, hurricanes, floods, and heat waves.

We should act on climate to ensure supplies of fresh water are not overly taxed by humanity’s increasing demands. Who wants reliable access to clean fresh water? All of us.

We should act on climate to help reduce the spread of invasive species, many of which are finding easier footholds where ecosystems are already stressed and fragmented.

We should act on climate to prevent the loss of arctic sea ice, a habitat that helps cool the planet by reflecting sunlight into space, forms the basis of a complex polar food web, and is one necessary for the survival of polar bears.

We should act on climate so coastlines aren’t flooded by sea level rise.

We should act on climate to mitigate ocean acidification, which can impact marine food chains. A lot of us eat seafood and even if we don’t, we like animals that eat seafood (whales, bears, etc.). What would Katmai National Park, my favorite place, be without abundant salmon? An impoverished place, that’s what.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

We have a moral responsibility to stave off the worst climate change impacts, because this is a human-caused issue. Collectively we can do it, but we have to take the threat seriously. We, as a nation, didn’t vote to combat climate change during the 2016 election. Thankfully, we have another chance now, but time is running out to slow and eventually halt what is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity. That’s why I’m voting for initiatives to mitigate climate change and only for candidates who take climate change seriously.

photo of Washington State ballot showing yes selected for Initiative 1631

In Washington, Initiative 1631 would authorize the first carbon tax in the U.S. This is my ballot.

I’ve been fortunate enough in my life to explore active glacial environments in many parts of North America. In Katmai, I’ve walked on pumice-covered glaciers to reach volcanic calderas, numbed my feet in icy glacial runoff, and eaten freshly calved ice (if you’re wondering, it was clean tasting but a little gritty). In the North Cascades I explored the margins of the region’s still active ice. To find an advancing glacier in modern times, however, is rare. Melting glaciers are one of our most conspicuous symbols of global warming.

Glaciers have come and gone in the past, of course. I grew up in a region of Pennsylvania where Ice Age glaciers terminated their last advance, leaving behind eskers and sand quarries. I lived near Lake Chelan, a remarkable inland fjord carved by glaciers. Katmai was also completely overrun by ice. Modern glacial retreat is different though, because we’re the primary cause. Climate change isn’t a hoax or some deep-state conspiracy. It’s real, it’s here, and humans are causing it. There is no scientifically plausible alternative theory that explains the changes to Earth’s climate observed since the Industrial Revolution.

I still find beauty in the ice, but each time I see a glacier I also am reminded of one of Aldo Leopold’s many maxims,

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”

The community is not well, because we’ve wounded it. Let’s step up and act. When you vote, only vote for those who take climate change seriously and, more importantly, will actively work to reduce its impact. The status quo got us here, but the status quo is no longer good enough.

National Parks Aren’t Pure

National parks are often billed as places of change and integrity (even by me), where nature can take its course. Yet, they face unprecedented challenges and are managed so that nature doesn’t take its course in many cases. Some parks cull wildlife through controlled hunts or periodic roundups (Wind Cave, Badlands). Biologists occasionally control one species to benefit an endangered animal (Cape Cod). Now, the National Park Service has developed a draft plan to prevent the extirpation of wolves from Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Plans such as this, which suggest increasing levels of intervention in ecosystem management, are the future of conservation in national parks. This is a future, and a current reality, where humans have so fundamentally altered the planet that nature doesn’t exist outside our influence. Parks aren’t pure anymore.

In the early 20th century, national parks and monuments were managed primarily for aesthetics, spectacle, and recreation. Park superintendents and rangers had preconceived notions of what parklands should look like and the experiences they should provide visitors. Caves were manipulated and became showcases to march people through sensitive areas. Predators like wolves and mountain lions were vilified and persecuted. Bears were a sideshow. Feeding them at dumps and roadsides was often encouraged. Insecticides were sprayed to control native insect outbreaks. The long-standing philosophy was: parks ought to be pretty and tidy.

As respect for wilderness and ecological integrity grew, people began to reconsider how national parks were managed. In 1963, an advisory board for the Department of Interior issued Wildlife Management in the National Parks, or the Leopold Report after the board’s chair, A. Starker Leopold. Admittedly “conceptual,” the Leopold Report fundamentally altered natural resource management in parks.

The Leopold Report catalyzed a time of real soul searching for park managers. The report asked, “How far should the National Park Service go in utilizing the tools of management to maintain wildlife populations?” It acknowledged that few parks are large enough to be self-regulating ecosystems. It went further by stating the biological communities in parks are artifacts and that management is often essential to maintain some biotic communities. The report famously recommended the National Park Service manage parklands as “vignettes of primitive America,” a philosophical shift that on the surface represents a more pure vision of what national parks should and could be—places that resemble the prevailing conditions experienced by the first Europeans.

While noble, this ideal is wrought with fallacy. The Leopold Report admitted primitive America could never be recreated fully. Just to list a few examples: passenger pigeons are extinct, American chestnuts are functionally extinct, wild bison almost became extinct, and wolves were extirpated across most of their range in the United States. It also made no accommodation for Native American use and manipulation of the land. Essentially, any recreation of “primitive America” is artificial, but something to strive for.

What should we do when the line blurs between maintaining a primitive landscape and acknowledging there is no longer any such thing? Isle Royale National Park is one of the most recent parks to grapple with this issue. Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, sitting about twenty miles east of Grand Portage, Minnesota, and most of it is designated federal wilderness. The upper Great Lakes region was one of the few places in the Lower 48 states where wolves maintained a foothold throughout the 20th century, but Isle Royale was wolf-free in the early 1900s. Wolves only returned to the island in the late 1940s after crossing the ice on Lake Superior.

Only two wolves were observed on the island in 2016 (the historical average, according to the draft wolf introduction plan, is 20-30). The population plummeted because disease (canine parvovirus) and a lack of connectivity with the mainland reduced genetic diversity. The animals are now extremely inbred and remain in a genetic bottleneck they probably won’t escape. Even though Isle Royale has numerous moose (the wolves’ primary prey), the wolves will likely disappear from the island without human intervention. Is it wrong to let the wolves disappear?

Yellowstone National Park’s effort to reintroduce wolves is the most famous wolf reintroduction program in history. It is also a remarkable success, from the standpoint of the wolf. The reintroduction of wolves arguably shifted the ecosystem into top-down mode where large predators like wolves exert strong influence on the behavior and abundance prey species. Yellowstone’s effort corrected a wrong—people extirpated the park’s wolves through hunting, trapping, and poisoning. Now, a strong case can be made that humans are driving Isle Royale’s wolves to extirpation, just in a less obvious way.

At first, disease and a lack of connectivity with the mainland seem like natural influences, after all Isle Royale is an isle and many diseases infect wolves. Canine parvovirus is not native to the island, however. This disease caused the wolf population to decline drastically in 1981, from 50 to 14, and the population has never fully recovered. Wolves immigrate and emigrate from the island over ice bridges on Lake Superior. A warming climate trend has drastically reduced the frequency of the ice bridges, so much so that only one formed in the first decade of the 20th century. As the climate continues to warm, ice bridges will form less and less. For those reasons, you could easily make a case that humans precipitated the decline of wolves and therefore we should intervene.

The island would become a different place without wolves. Vegetation changes would become more pronounced and happen at a faster rate. Moose browsing threatens the persistence of big-tooth aspen, red oak, and balsam poplar on the island, but vegetation changes are not tied to moose alone. Computer models indicate many dominant tree species (balsam fir, white spruce, black spruce) may disappear from the island due to a warming climate. Paper birch and quaking aspen are expected to undergo serious declines. Park managers expect that in the presence of wolves, moose herbivory would be less likely to exacerbate climate change’s influences on vegetation. Looking at the issue from the perspective of ecosystem health and biological integrity, the presence of wolves is probably necessary to prevent habitat degradation, or at least slow it. Therefore, should we intervene? The NPS thinks so, and I don’t necessarily disagree.

There is no ecological difference between humans supplementing wolves on the island and wolves immigrating naturally across an ice bridge. The only difference is mental, cultural. We’d know we did it. We’d know we manipulated the ecosystem. We know we messed with primitive America. For some people, that trammels the island’s wilderness and severely impacts its natural quality.

We need to get over any of that if we want to maintain some biological integrity in the future.

In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben argues that by burning fossil fuels, we’ve fundamentally altered Earth’s atmosphere causing global warming, and nature, as it is classically known (the physical world outside of humanity and human creations), no longer exists. Now, not even the deepest ocean trenches are free of our fingerprints. There is no place untouched by humanity. Even if we did not alter climate, humans are so numerous and so thoroughly dominate most terrestrial ecosystems that McKibben’s hypothesis would still stand. We impact the evolution of life on Earth.

Recognizing that much has changed and much has been learned since 1960s, a National Park System Advisory Board revisited the Leopold Report in 2012 and recommended the NPS manage for constant change, instead of striving for a past ideal. Isle Royale’s plan could be supportive of the old and new philosophies. Wolves are valued members of a primitive America, but under current and projected future climate conditions, Isle Royale’s wolves may indefinitely need a helping human hand to remain viable. If we value wolves on the island, then we’re probably committed to supplementing population in perpetuity. Revisiting Leopold recommends the NPS expand their management strategies to encompass a geographic scope beyond park boundaries. If parks, in order to remain ecologically viable, need greater habitat connectivity to other wild lands, then they should forcefully advocate for that. We can no longer pretend national parks are vignettes of primitive America. Wilderness areas can no longer be considered “untrammeled” and “affected primarily by forces of nature” as stated in the 1964 Wilderness Act. We have to choose what parks represent and what they protect.

I’m not opposed to any of the alternatives proposed to introduce wolves to Isle Royale. It’s probably wrong to let wolves disappear from Isle Royale because climate change limits the chances of more wolves immigrating to the island naturally, but there are a lot of threats to biodiversity and we need to choose our battles wisely. We won’t be able to intervene in every Isle Royale-like scenario.

Are we any more intelligent or sophisticated than managers, rangers, and park visitors in the 1910s and 1920s when wolves were more vilified? They could’ve left animals alone to do their own thing. They didn’t, because they didn’t want to. Because, American culture said we should do otherwise. Now, we face a lot of the same questions. What do we value most in parks? How should we protect the things we value within them?

I like to believe, sometime in the future, humans will have voluntarily reduced our footprint enough so that most plants and animals can evolve without our influence. We’re not there yet, certainly not with 7.4 billion of us living in a market economy driven largely by greater and greater levels of consumption. So, yeah, we should help Isle Royale’s wolves, but let’s not pretend national parks are pure wildlands. There is no purity in national park ecosystems anymore. Perhaps there never was.

(The NPS is accepting comments on the Isle Royale National Park Draft Environmental Impact Statement to Address the Presence of Wolves through March 15, 2017.)

wolf standing in snowy forest

Photo courtesy of Isle Royale National Park.

 

More Snow? Yes, More Snow.

Yesterday, I wrote about a ski trip in Stehekin Valley’s ample snow. Since I took that trip a few days ago, more snow has fallen. A lot more.

This was the scene I woke to yesterday.

Deep snow outside of home

And, snow was slowly enveloping the neighbor’s house.

deep snow covering home

This is nothing abnormal for the region, and in many way’s it is expected. In winter, the jet stream over Alaska and Canada shifts south over the Pacific Ocean. Air masses traveling across the Pacific at this time of the year are “immodestly moistened,” as Daniel Matthews describes in Cascade-Olympic Natural History, bringing heavy precipitation to Washington, Oregon and California. The Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada are effective moisture traps for these storms. When storms encounter the mountains, the air rises and cools causing it to precipitate its moisture. The Stehekin Valley in Lake Chelan National Recreation lies east of the Cascade Crest, so the area experiences drier weather than the wetter Skagit River valley to the west. However, the valley is not far enough east to experience the Cascades’ full rain shadow, hence the ample snowfall recently.

In my estimation, at least three feet (approximately 50-100 cm) of snow has accumulated over the past five days, much of it falling in the last 24 hours. Higher elevations certainly gained more. I was curious to know the exact snow depth near my house, which lies at a modest 1100 feet (335 meters). After the snowfall abated yesterday afternoon I got out the snow shovel prepared to dig in.

I chose to measure the snow out in a small meadow away from the influence of trees, but getting there took some effort. The first few feet of snow was very soft. The base to stand on, if you could call it that, was well under the surface.

After floundering my way into the meadow, I started digging…

snow shovel in deep snow

and digging…

snow shovel in deep snow

…and digging and digging until I reached the soil.

snow shovel in deep snow

The pit was over 65 inches (166 cm) deep!

Snow shovel in deep snow next to measuring tape. Tape is 65 inches long.

measuring tape in snow. Numbers at top of snow level read 65 inches or 166 centimeters.

Long time residents describe winters with lots of snow and occasional rain too. Rain compacts the snow, increasing its density but decreasing its depth. This winter, I’m told, is a bit of an exception with lots of snow, but without temperatures warm enough for the occasional rain storm.

Winter snowfall is essential to the well being of millions of people across the West, especially farmers who cannot depend on summer rain to sustain crops. Snowmelt in rivers quenches the thirst of residents in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and many, many other places. It’s a reservoir, slowly releasing its water in spring and summer when it is needed most.

Climate models indicate changing weather patterns will come to the West as temperatures rise. The North Cascades region won’t be without snow, but changes will be felt, and in a lot of ways the region is already experiencing them. More rain will fall and less snow will collect on the mountains. At first this may seem insignificant. However, this will change the timing and duration of peak stream flows. Currently, stream discharges peak in the spring and early summer when snowmelt is heaviest. The pattern seems to be shifting toward more frequent peak flows in spring and fall. Rain on snow events can cause heavy flooding, damaging roads and homes. (Stehekin River has experienced three 100 year floods since 1995.) Warmer springs temperatures melt snow faster, affecting sensitive habitats like montane wetlands, places that harbor sensitive species like the Cascades frog. Soils dry faster without snow too, increasing the risk of wildfire.

Snow is often viewed as an annoyance or danger, delaying and restricting travel, but it is a key component of ecosystems where it occurs. Snow on mountains is a water tower, one we can’t afford to lose. (It’s also a lot of fun to play in.)

Person standing in deep snow pit. Pit is 65 inches deep.

(I’m really not that short, am I?)

On Election Day, Vote to #ActOnClimate

When I think about how climate change may impact my home and the people and places I care about one example resonates strongly with me.

sockeye-salmon-jumping-brooks-falls_03_06272015

Sockeye salmon jump at Brooks Falls.

When I lived in southwest Alaska, I marveled at the return of sockeye salmon each summer. These extraordinary fish endure weeks, even months without food after they reenter freshwater. Instincts and memory drive them upstream to conditions they cannot know until they get there. Finally, they sacrifice their lives to reproduce. Salmon are Katmai’s keystone, yet climate change may threaten these fish that sustain so much of the region’s ecology and economy.

Ocean acidification is a by-product of climate change. Not all the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere stays there. Plants use it during photosynthesis and the oceans absorb it. At first glance, the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 seems like a good thing, because less CO2 will be in the atmosphere to trap heat.

In the ocean however, high concentrations of CO2 impact the base of the food web through a process of ocean acidification. H2O plus CO2 forms a weak acid, H2CO3, also known as carbonic acid. In ocean water, carbonic acid makes the water more acidic by releasing a hydrogen ion, which combines with carbonate ions, CO32 to form bicarbonate molecules (read more about the chemistry involved).

Ocean water is normally supersaturated in carbonate, which many species of plankton need to build and maintain their shells. When ocean water becomes more acidic, less carbonate is available for certain algae and animals grow and maintain calcified shells. Calcium minerals used in shell building dissolve in acid, even weak acids like carbonic acid (that’s how most limestone caves are formed), so if you’re a tiny bit of plankton then a small dip in pH can have dramatic affects on your shell.

Plankton are the foundation of marine food webs in many parts of the worlds, including the North Pacific. In one experiment pteropod shells dissolved when placed in sea water with pH and carbonate levels projected for year 2100.  Pteropods are eaten by everything from krill to salmon to whales. If we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere at current rates, not only will the climate warm, but the oceans will acidify further. (More info on ocean acidification including a great series of photos demonstrating the effects of carbonic acid on pteropods can be found on NOAA’s ocean acidification page.)

How would a decline in marine plankton affect Katmai’s terrestrial world? Follow the food chain. Ocean acidification impacts the base of the food chain. More acidic oceans can mean less food for salmon. Sockeye salmon primarily eat aquatic invertebrates while they travel the open ocean. When they return to fresh water, salmon feed Katmai’s wolves, bears, trout, char, even plants. Katmai’s world famous bears are adaptable enough to survive dramatic climate shifts, but only if they have adequate habitat to adjust. Adequate habitat means food. Without large runs of salmon, bear densities in Katmai would plummet. The gathering of bears at Brooks Falls will become a memory and Bristol Bay’s economy, based on the salmon fishery and salmon based tourism (sport fishing and wildlife viewing) would collapse.

505-with-fish-07072016

Salmon are the most important food source for Katmai’s bears.

In a few more years, maybe it’ll be easier to grow tomatoes in Anchorage, but climate change’s worldwide consequences outweigh any potential benefits. Climate change is one of the greatest issues humanity faces, and if left unmitigated it may exacerbate every other environmental issue. Climate change is real and humans are forcing Earth’s climate to warm. That’s not political, it’s scientific fact.

Politics though drives efforts to mitigate climate change. Voters can make an impact this fall. For example, I got Washington’s Voter’s Pamphlet in the mail recently, and discovered Initiative 732 on the ballot.

P1230484.JPG

“This measure would impose a carbon emission tax on certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity, reduce the sales tax one percentage point and increase a low-income exemption, and reduce certain manufacturing taxes.”

This initiative is modeled after British Columbia’s similar carbon tax. Turns out, that the tax was effective without slowing economic growth. However, some environmental groups oppose the initiative. While they may have legitimate concerns, we no longer have time to wait for something better. We’ve waited far too long to address climate change. This situation reminds me of the debate over the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which permanently protect millions of acres of land in Alaska. The final version of ANILCA didn’t give environmental groups everything they wanted, but it gave Americans a whole hell of a lot.

We didn’t have time to waste with ANILCA and we don’t have time to waste on climate change. It’s time for all of us to step up and sacrifice a bit for the future. I’m glad to see to that Washington voters are considering taking action to help mitigate climate change. I voted early and I voted yes on Initiative 732. If you live in Washington, I think you should as well. Wherever you live, vote for candidates who will take action on climate. I vote #ActOnClimate. I do it for salmon, bears, and people everywhere.

For more information on climate change science: You can read the climate change chapter I wrote for Katmai’s Interpretation Training Manual, available for free from Earth To Sky’s website. Also check out Skeptical Science, one of the best climate science website I’ve found.