Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Dawn, November 18: San Juan mountains, Colorado

Sunrise / moonset

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pisaster Disaster! When starfish wasting strikes, there's only one man to call.

Dr. Chris Mah may be the only man in the world who can correctly identify any species of starfish on sight. Growing up in San Francisco on a steady diet of sushi and Japanese monster movies, it was no wonder he was attracted to the weird, slimy invertebrates he plucked from the shores of the Bay. Now based at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, he’s an internationally recognized marine invertebrate expert who’s identified more than 20 new species. He also maintains the Echinoblog, a strangely entertaining site where starfish are posed next to action figures to show their size, feeding mechanisms are likened to wrestling moves and posts have titles like “Giant Green Brittle Stars of Death! When they Attack!

So when a diver in Vancouver, British Columbia first noticed scores of dead and dying sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) in late August, he snapped photos and sent them to Mah. Mah knew right off the bat what the trouble was: A classic case of Starfish Wasting Syndrome.

Or was it? Starfish Wasting Syndrome had struck the Pacific Coast before, causing mass die-offs of Southern California sea stars in 1983 and again in 1997. Both were during El NiƱo years, when oceans were slightly warmer, and scientists thought they had the disease pegged. This time, though, there was no sudden warming of the ocean to blame. ...

... Read the rest here:

This story was also picked up by as one of their must-reads of the week:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Smoke and rain: dreaming and adapting on the Western slope

My life is the story of water. My cells, my mitochondria and nuclei and DNA swim in pools of water. It drives me forward, pulls my feet toward its source: a waterfall in the jungle, a crystal pool high in the mountains. I drink it in deeply, let it fall over me, into me, around me, and still I lust for more.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up in New England, among trees and gardens fed by a generous sky, but for whatever reason I am drawn to the wet places of this world. After college I spent a year in the equatorial Pacific, and in a country of parched white beaches where nothing grows but palm trees, I was assigned to the one island with swampy taro patches and thick creeping jungle. While other islands suffered from drought, the seams of my clothing rotted in the humidity.

Since then, I’ve moved like clockwork. Every six to 12 months I go looking for a new job, a new adventure, and until now, I’ve always gone to places with heavy rainfall — the eastern shore of Hawai’i; the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska. Last year I surpassed even my own standards, finding myself in one of the wettest places in the world: Fiordland, New Zealand, which receives an average of 22 feet of rain a year. After  six months there, though, I felt waterlogged and weary, ready for a chance to stay in one place for a while. I’d moved 15 times in nine years.

So when learned I’d gotten a writing job in Paonia, I didn’t hesitate to fly across the world and pack up the car that I’d left at my mom’s house in New England. I headed West to chase my dreams, to find my own Big Rock Candy Mountain, following the tracks of others who’d made this migration before. The morning I left New England, tendrils of fog snaked through valleys and around barns, softening the dawn light. Then the rolling hills of the East gave way to the stubby fields and industrial cities of the plains, and I considered for the first time of how I’d adapt to life in an arid country. I knew almost nothing about Paonia except that one former editor had described it as “very nearly perfect.” But perfection, of course, is a matter of opinion.
IMG_1461The journey West was once a journey of no return, an exchange of the known for the unknown, the tame for the wild, cities for open spaces. But as the West changes, these truths become less and less so until only one remains: moving from East to West means moving from wet to dry. It means leaving a world of abundant water — water so pervasive you can feel it on your skin, see it beaded on every blade of grass — to a place where you cannot legally cache your own rainwater because it’s such a precious commodity. ...

 ... Read the rest of the essay in North Fork Scrapbook, on online record of life in the North Fork valley that began as a response to the proposed leasing of public lands here for oil and gas drilling:

Friday, November 8, 2013

preparing for the new high water mark.

It’s been over a month since rain-swollen creeks tore through roads and flooded homes in Colorado’s Front Range. While the camera crews have long since gone home, the disaster isn’t over for families who suffered property damage. Of the 20,000 single-family homes in the Boulder area, only 3,504 had flood insurance – one of the highest ratios in Colorado. Four thousand homes were damaged in Boulder alone.

Homes within the 100-year flood zone backed by federal mortgages are required to purchase flood insurance, often at subsidized rates, through the National Flood Insurance Program, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But September’s flooding swamped uninsured Colorado homes well above the 100-year floodplain – just as homes in New York and New Jersey outside the flood zone were swamped by Hurricane Sandy last year, and Vermont homes were sunk by Tropical Storm Irene the year before.

Typically, a 100-year flood has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. As climate change continues to push weather patterns toward extremes, though, many climatologists are finding these once-in-a-lifetime weather events to occur more frequently: A report released last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that human-induced climate change played a role in several extreme weather events of 2012. There’s been a push among climate scientists and private insurance agencies to update federal flood maps to reflect what HCN contributing editor Craig Childs calls the “new high water mark:” areas beyond historical flood zones that are now at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels, different runoff patterns and more intense storms.

"Old statistics on flood risk are obsolete," Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told InsideClimate News. "Increasingly, (FEMA) should be looking ahead."

... Read the rest at

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Does reality TV change the reality of Alaska?

Four years ago, when I was 25, I went to Alaska to work as a wilderness guide. I bought my first pair of XtraTuf boots and my first set of head-to-toe rubber rain gear, and between seven-week trips in the backcountry, lived above a Laundromat that smelled perpetually of halibut.

The first spring, my boyfriend and I celebrated the returning light by taking a trip to Juneau to go skiing. Only it rained the whole time, and instead of skiing we sloshed through the alleys and backstreets, lingering in bookshops and stopping at every coffee shop we could find. The last night before catching the ferry home, we stayed at the state’s oldest hotel, The Alaskan. Even on a weeknight, the bar – a former speakeasy – was utterly raucous, and the adjoining hotel was much the same. When it first opened in 1913, the building operated as a thinly-veiled Victorian brothel, and in 2010, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could imagine that it still was, that the man with the stained white beard spinning across the dance floor had just paid his tab with a sack of gold flakes and would soon slip upstairs behind a woman's lace stockings.

The wallpaper was yellowed and peeling, the wood floors scuffed and creaky; the entire place smelled faintly of spilled beer and musty sheets. The walls were thin – in most rooms, you fell asleep (or passed out) to the sound of boot-stomping fiddle music drifting from the bar. If you were in Juneau and wanted a good night's sleep, you went to the Westmark or the Best Western. If you wanted an experience to remember, you went to The Alaskan.

That was before the reality TV craze struck Alaska, turning the Last Frontier into something akin to the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” This year, in addition to “Deadliest Catch” and “Alaska State Troopers” – the old standbys – the 49th state is getting “Alaska Gold Diggers” (five Newport Beach women reviving their grandfather's old mining claim), “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” a show in which an interior designer and a consultant give hotels the touristic version of an extreme makeover. The show has been to Alaska before, to Yakutat's Glacier Bear Lodge, where celebrity consultant Anthony Melchiorri, an admitted germaphobe, was appalled by the old carpets and fish guts outside the doors. The owners reportedly spent $100,000 on renovations following his suggestions, and occupancy rates increased only 1.5 percent.

... Read the rest of the essay at
Alaskan 2

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Throwing stones.

Today, I'm thinking about rocks. Specifically, boulders, and even more specifically, the practice of rolling them downhill. Out of the many hours I've spent outdoors -- hiking, biking, reading, reflecting, being generally quite responsible and picking up other people's trash -- one of the best was spent hucking big rocks down a rocky bowl in New Zealand.

It started with a small rock, about the size of a basketball. One of the Kiwis I was hiking with nudged it with his toe down toward the lake below. It bounced once -- rock crashing against rock with an loud, echoing crack -- before landing in the water with an equally satisfying thump. We all stopped in our tracks, smiles tugging at the corners of our mouths. Then someone else picked up a rock, then another, and soon, the quiet mountain was alive with a resonant, joyous cacophony. It wasn't the noise so much as it was the giddiness of making big splashes and playing outside.

I think of another time -- the summer I spent doing trail work in Idaho, when one of the tasks was to create gravel where there was none to protect a trail. The work involved taking a large rock from nearby, placing it on a flattish rock, like a log about to be split, then swinging a sledgehammer ('doublejack,' in trail-crew speak) over your head and smashing the rock to smithereens. The work was backbreaking but utterly satisfying, and the chalky smell of powdered rock still brings me back to those days in the mountains.
These experiences, I understand, are different from the recent episode caught on video of two Boy Scout leaders toppling an ancient rock formation in Utah in front of their students. That was a poor example of leadership and not exactly how to teach kids respect for the outdoors. The backlash over the video also brought new attention to a 2011 essay by the inimitable Micheal Branch, a professor in Nevada's Great Basin who writes for High Country News. In his essay, What Would Edward Abbey Do?, Branch recreates a scene of he and three other grown men mischievously dislodging a giant, precariously perched boulder and "trundling" it into a canyon. His writing reminds me that there are certain impulses that transcend time and age, and that indulging in a bit of unadulterated fun in the natural world is often what forges a connection to it.

Some readers with a sense of humor seemed to agree, but Branch's essay also prompted a backlash of its own from readers who called his act "selfish," "bad karma," immature vandalism and worse. One particularly insightful reader, however, noted to the detractors that "your privileged North American consumer lifestyle does more harm to the so-called environment than an army of 'trundlers' could ever do." I imagine that gets at the reason why humble Kiwis not responsible for quite as much global environmental destruction were more unabashed about their rock trundling than we Americans are.

The online vitriol surrounding rock trundling in all forms brings up another issue described in David Sobel's 2012 Orion essay, Look, Don't Touch. In it, Sobel laments the direction that natural education has taken: A hands-off approach that sees nature as too delicate and easily disrupted to be explored in a meaningful way. Trying to make kids (and big kids) feel guilty about picking up frogs, taking home feathers and chucking rocks off cliffs only deepens our alienation from the natural world.

So, should you topple an ancient, beloved rock in front of children and gloat about it online? Probably not. Should you compare that action to the innocent pleasure of throwing rocks downhill, or villainize people who partake in such indulgences? Again, I think not.

People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. But if people outside want to responsibly throw stones down a hill and laugh hysterically at themselves afterward, I fully support it.

Trundle fail.

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