A Collaborative Dance

A Collaborative Dance

Moz-1020781Nothing gets accomplished alone.

We are a country of rugged individualists with celebrity dreams. We dream of making it big, succeeding, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, a metaphor that indicates we can create our own salvation.

But nothing happens alone.

I have amazing friends. Some are climbers, adventurers, others photographers, videographers, others writers, teachers, environmentalists, businesspeople. Massage therapists and waitresses. Nurses, engineers and retirees. Together they make my world.

I have big ideas. All the time. Once I came up with writing a book. It died on the vine. Once I tried to fly to Haiti after the earthquake. That didn’t go anywhere either. Another time I came up with another book idea. It ended the same place as the first. All of these were ideas I took on alone.

Once I had an idea to go to Iraq and work as an embedded journalist. This idea I shared with a friend who also happened to be the news director at New Hampshire Public Radio. “Alright,” he said, “let’s make it happen.”

Three months later I was flying into Baghdad, utterly terrified about what I’d gotten myself into.

But I wasn’t alone. That made all the difference. Three weeks later I flew home having done what I set out to do. Nothing else compares to that.

klementovich-20160531-_JCK2368A few weeks ago I came up with an idea. It’s an idea bigger than I am, one that has to do with writing, reporting, adventure, the environment, the future of the Earth and the human race. It’s an idea I don’t want to let go of, one I don’t want to die like so many ideas before it. It’s an idea I need help with. So while it was still fresh, instead of rushing headlong into it I did something simple: I picked up the phone. I called my friends.

My friends can do anything. I watched them climb mountains, write books, build rock gyms, start photography businesses, start nonprofits, reinvent themselves and then reinvent themselves again. I’ve watched them change the world. I’m lucky to have such friends.

But I never understood how they did it. I always looked at my efforts, looked at my ideas, how quickly they withered, and wondered what they knew that I didn’t, what they had that I lacked.

Then one of them asked for my help. She had an idea, a project bigger than herself, something involving climbing and mountains and scientists and conservation and a documentary and college kids, something overwhelming and beautiful. She asked for my help, and then she asked for help from everyone who would listen. And the project grew. It built speed, became something real, took off. There were setbacks, but she kept pushing. It was a beautiful, inspiring dance, one I was honored to have a hand in. It was so big, so complex and powerful and challenging and different, I couldn’t understand how she kept it all going. But then I realized: she asked for help.

Want to do something amazing? Don’t do it alone. Share your idea. Trust it with people who inspire you, with people whose vision matches yours. Let them water it alongside you. Loosen control. Let it see where it takes you. You will not be disappointed.

I am making phone calls now. And my friends, those people capable of doing anything, are answering. It’s almost as inspiring as my idea. Maybe more so.

King of the Reef

King of the Reef

image1I didn’t expect much.

I left on the 1 p.m. boat. The captain had warned me the waves were up, that it would be a bit rough for snorkeling. “Everyone else will be underwater,” he said, “but you might have a hard time.”

But I wanted to go anyway. I’d come to dive, and day one had already been too windy. I figured I could handle a little chop, so I climbed onboard alongside 25 other passengers.

But they were different than me—each one had a wetsuits, rebreather, buoyancy vest, mask, fins, dive computer, camera, seemingly everything. Mountains of gear lined the benches, stacked next to silver airtanks. The hiss of venting tanks filled the air. A teenager struggled into his neoprene. A middle aged women fitted her buoyancy vest.

I took a seat and opened my book.

“Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness—how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things?”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The boat roared to life.

“You’re not getting dressed?” the woman next to me asked.

I looked down at my chest and scanned myself all the way to my feet. I was wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip flops. I looked at her. “It doesn’t take much,” I said.

“But aren’t you diving?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Or, no. Not scuba diving.” I pointed to my hat, a souvenir from my course in April, Frontline Freediving smeared across my forehead. “I just need a mask, snorkel and fins. I won’t be long.”

She blinked. Paused. “Your snorkeling,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Something like that,” I said. She smiled. I went back to my book.

Something like that.

When the boat slowed everyone started their final fiddling. I didn’t. I grabbed my mask, tucked my fins under my arm and walked to the back of the boat.

“You’re ready,” the captain joked.

“I am,” I said.

“Pool’s open,” he said, smiling.

I jumped.

The water was warm, 82 degrees, felt almost bathwater. Fish hung lazily beneath the boat. Sand sparkled 30-plus feet below. Ridges of coral meandered out like starfish arms. I kicked, letting my fins carry me.

The divers slowly made their way in after me. They descended to the floor, casting of long streams of bubbles. I hovered above, letting the air trickle over me, caress me, the photo negative of a shower. I breathed deep through my snorkel, feeling my pulse slow. Then I flipped, kicked and dove.

The act of freediving is built on the first word: FREE. There is no tether, only what your lungs can handle. It is light and fast and peaceful and silent. The scuba divers cross the ocean floor like SUVs, exhaust spewing skyward with every breath. I float silently. It is beautiful.

Three other divers saw the manta. I had just dove, was aiming for the bottom, when a shadow passed overhead. A big shadow. I turned. A kite the size of a coffee table with a mawing hole for a mouth glided by, beating giant wings as he went. Remoras clung to his underside. I froze. My camera was in my back pocket. I fumbled for it as he arced past me. I beat my legs to get astride him, but the great waves of his body sent him slicing through the water at a pace I couldn’t match. I let go of the idea of capturing him digitally; I wanted only to see him, to behold his magnificence. He looked like a king inspecting his subjects below, attended to by two courtiers. He paid no mind to me, just kept flowing.

 

I returned to the surface. I have no idea how long I was down. But my heart was pounding.

The dive continued. I was up and down, up and down, for two hours, saw a black-tipped shark, a nurse shark, a young sea turtle and several lobster. I saw thousands of beautiful, graceful, brightly streaked fish, and corals of every shade. It was all amazing. And the manta had inspected it all.

I came you at the end, last to climb the ladder back to the boat. I was covered in goosebumps, nearly shivering from diving to the cold waters of the deep. One of the divers looked up at me as I boarded. “Are you the freediver?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I got a great shot of you.”

I smiled.

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

Gulfside Fire, Light and Life

IMG_8066We pulled in after dark. A burning orange sun had plunged into the Gulf, streaking clouds red and purple and gold, and now the sky was a cool bluish-black. The night was warm and wet as lion’s breath. A stiff wind blew palm fronds skyward. Waves slapped the jetty. Our houseboat, Lil’ Bamboo, sat rocking at the pier.

“It’s perfect!” Sineah said. “I call the hammock.” Bethany laughed. We all went inside.

The ceiling hung low but the cabin was spacious, with three beds, a small kitchen, a bathroom and good air conditioning. One bed sat tucked under the helm. “I feel like Harry Potter,” Bethany said crawling in. Another hung in the back; I took that. Sineah claimed the third, a deep bench couch that served double duty. Our host showed herself out, but not before pointing to the roof deck: “Best sunsets in the Keys,” she said.

The three of us made our way topside without a word. Waves licked the hull 10 feet below, pushed tall by the breeze. We sat quietly, a bamboo awning overhead surrounded by miles of Gulf sky. Sineah was right: it was perfect.

The next morning the stiff wind held. I called a dive company to ask about going to the reef. “Anyone who takes you snorkeling today is just stealing your money,” the man said. “It’s three-to-four foot seas, far too rough for snorkelers. Tomorrow will be better.”

I hung up the phone and looked outside. Even here on the Gulfside there were whitecaps, I could imagine what things would look like offshore. But I was here to dive. The whitecaps outside didn’t look imposing, mild chop, so I grabbed my fins and mask. “I’m going in,” I said.

“I’m going with you,” Sineah replied.

Sometimes wildness seems far away. Sometimes it lives at your doorstep.

I waded into the water, fins tucked under my arm. The bottom was sandy, but soon it turned to seagrass filled with upside-down jellyfish. I would need to lift my feet and be swimming before I got to the grass, even in water barely waist-deep. I spit in my mask and rubbed it around the lenses, then pulled the mask over my head and put the snorkel in my mouth. Sinking into the water I pulled the fins on and set out. Sineah followed close behind wearing goggles.

We swam. 40 feet from Lil’ Bamboo was barely eight feet of water. The seagrass swayed everywhere, festered with bottom-dwelling jellies. Parrotfish jetted about. We dove and resurfaced, dove and resurfaced, exploring the world beneath the waves. Anemones hung from pilings and drowned mooring buoys, two-foot barracudas lurked nearby. Even here there was much to see. I held my breath and dove, clearing my ears as I sank, awash and floating in Caribbean warmth.

That’s when it came: dark, the size of a small grizzly floating just beneath the surface—a manatee, mere feet away. His face looked like a bulldog, nose pressed too close to his eyes. He flaunted a disk the size of a large pizza for a tail. It swayed up and down like a tremendous wave propeller. His body, both fat and sleek, glided. I saw him first, but Sineah was right at my side. I let out a shout through the snorkel, a twisted version of “OH MY GOD!” His head hovered a few inches from the surface as he drifted past, an underwater ghost. Nothing so ungainly ever looked so graceful.

I did not follow him. He moved peacefully, and I didn’t want to disturb him. He disappeared into the inky distance. In his wake the water seemed quieter.

“If you want to see wildlife, it is on foot, and quietly, that you must explore a forest. It is the same with the sea. You must stroll at a walking pace, so to speak, to see the wealth and abundance that it holds.”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

Sineah and I kept swimming, kept poking around for more, waiting for another encounter with such a majestic sea mammal. But the show was over. We worked our way back to the beach. Climbing out I pulled my fins off.

“What time do you think it is?” I asked, spitting out my snorkel.

“I don’t know,” she said, “maybe 9 a.m.?”

Morning of day one. Welcome to the Keys. ⛵️

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

PP-1030179How long does it take to turn a ship? How long does it take to change course, to do something different, to avoid the metaphorical icebergs?

I say “metaphorical icebergs” because the risk of real icebergs is dwindling. It’s a warming world. Things they are melting, and there are real risks hiding behind the warmth: rising sea levels, drought, severe storms. These are the icebergs. Which of the levers do the turning? Does anyone understand the controls?

I spoke to ecologist Gene Likens last week, the scientist who discovered acid rain in North America. It took a generation to get from initial discovery to the passage of legislation aimed at curbing the pollution that caused it, or as Likens puts it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

There are important things to note in that timeline: his first study, for example, came out 9 years after the discovery, meaning 27 years falls to 18 from when the information was publicly available. And it wasn’t until a 1974 study that newspapers picked up the story. That’s when acid rain really became a household issue; now we’re down to 16 years.

16 years is not the generation 27 years nears. It is, however, a long time. Likens said his science faced pushback from industry. Entrenched interests like oil and coal rejected the premise they had any responsibility for acid rain. It took proving that link scientifically to end the argument.

Of course such proof is important—there is no use in regulating an industry innocent of the charges. If it wasn’t oil and coal those laws would have just been more wasted time.

But every day that passed was a lost opportunity. More acid fell from the sky. There is a saying that the only two days that are impossible to change are yesterday and tomorrow. A lot of todays, however, went by in inaction, todays that could have turned the ship.

arctic-death-spiral
Arctic sea ice volume since 1979.

Now we face a different iceberg. Scientifically climate change is undisputed. The argument over human involvement remains, but the planet is getting hotter. And every today gets us closer to whatever comes next. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it is catastrophe.

Likens compared the struggle over acid rain science with what’s happening today with climate change. “The pushback was just like it is now,” he said, again pointing to entrenched interests. Another generation-long fight could be in store.

A decade ago An Inconvenient Truth exploded the conversation about climate change, much like the New York Times coverage of the 1974 acid rain report. So if we benchmark the two, we’re at 10 years. Maybe we can match 16; maybe some course alteration will come down in 2022. That is a long way off, but it’s also almost here.

And what would it mean? What would turning the ship at this moment do? Are we surrounded by icebergs already? Are the coming changes beyond our power to affect? Are we simply too late, caught in a disaster impossible to avoid?

Who knows.That falls to tomorrow, one of those days you can’t change. But we can change today. But to do that we need to have faith in science, something seemingly in short supply with some.

spiral_optimized
An illustration of global temperature change for the last 166 years.

Science is not the conspiracy of one man. It’s multilayered work, an exploration of chance, a process of search more than an answer. And while it can be mistaken (think of early experiments aimed to determine whether light was a particle or a wave—it behaves like both), those missteps are part of the process. The call is always daring to be proven wrong. Scientists strive for that, and yet climate change is not proving wrong.

Industry, meanwhile, as Likens pointed out has a mixed record, much more so than science. Tobacco companies, for example, showed the willingness of big business to subvert science for their own ends. Science’s agenda, meanwhile, has no choice but to bend toward truth. It’s built into the method, the practice of the discipline. It may be hard to put the two on a scale, but if you could the weight of replicable results would trump corporate claims, particularly when huge revenue losses enter the conversation. The skeptic sees industry with strong motivation to deceive; scientists, meanwhile, do not gain by being controversial, or by being wrong. They succeed by being right, precise and verifiable.

And these debates are the fulcrum on which the ship turns. Is there still time to spin the wheel? Even science doesn’t know. But we may all get a chance to find out. Tomorrow.

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

IMG_7875The ocean hides amazing things.

I grew up on the ocean. As a kid I spent my summers playing among schist outcroppings and granite boulders on the coast of Maine, hopping from rock to rock and splashing in tidepools.

In middle school, however, my relationship with the ocean changed: I got my lobster license, a dingy and a handful of traps. A 10-year-old kid, my working days began early, often before sunrise. I would row around, hand-hauling traps off the stern, collecting lobsters, rebaiting as I went.

It sounds idyllic—summer sunrises over a glass-calm ocean—but to middle-school-me it was not. It was hard work, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember finding out I’d brought in several lobsters that were just under the legal limit; I didn’t understand at 10 that “close” didn’t count in measuring shellfish. No one had gone over it with me step by step. I had a boat. I had traps. But when it came to the details, I was on my own.

Everybody has to muddle their way through youth somewhere. Much of mine was done on a lobster boat. The fish oil would permeate my skin, causing my hands to swell then the skin to die, peeling off in long strips. Back at school each fall I would have to explain why my hands were shedding. I spent off days working sternman (think “lobsterman assistant”) for a friend of my stepfather’s. His name was Earl. He was older, groaned every time he had to sit or stand, but he was kind, loved to tell jokes.

He also loved cheap cigars. And his black lab came fishing every day. I spent 1o hours a day filling baitbags with dead fish, breathing a combination of them, diesel fumes and cigar smoke. It was enough to put me off the ocean.

That was when I was 15. Almost 20 years later, after two decades spent among mountains, the call of waves came back to me. The space I needed from water was over.

Then last week I came across this:

 

I spent my youth at the ocean’s edge, whether that was at the shore or the surface. But of late I’ve been looking below. Or more accurately, within.

Today I fly south to spend more time within: the Florida Keys. I’m headed there for four days on the water, in the water, within the water. My blown eardrum is hopefully healed, and the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season is hopefully going to blow out to sea, leaving the water calm enough to enter. We’ll see.

But a dream of mine is a cyclone of another kind: the one of manta rays pictured in Peschak’s talk. That is a rekindling of the oceans draw that might leave me spinning, but this time I wouldn’t object.

Next trip. Or soon at least.

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

Free Pens, Fish, and the Effort to Outlast

IMG_7896I love free pens.

As a reporter and someone who writes copiously in my free time, always scribbling in notebooks both for work or for myself, free pens are awesome. They’re like being sponsored—free equipment!

If I had a pen sponsor the company would have to be TD Bank. Their pens are basically my go-to: every time I pop in to deposit a check I grab one, maybe two. Green TD Bank pens are stashed in four different spots in my car, live in my computer bag, hide alongside my notebooks and ride shotgun all day in my front right pants pocket.

In exchange TD Bank gets lots advertisement out of me. The other day I was in line at the post office and a woman was looking around for a pen. I pulled one out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Keep it,” I said, “I get them for free.”

Cashiers and servers are often impressed when you pull your own pen out of your pocket to sign the slip. “TD Bank” — there it is again.

And there’s no feeling more satisfying than using a pen until it’s bled dry. When it scratches its way across a notepad, empty of its usual inky glide, I feel a sense of accomplishment: it’s proof I’ve dedicated a certain measurable amount of time to writing, that I’ve invested in my craft. Years ago I never used to run pens dry; I would lose them well before that was ever a risk. But these days I write enough that it occurs fairly regularly.

Lately, however, I’ve been looking askew at those stacks and stacks of pens. Every one I run dry makes me wince. I toss them in the trash after their last word and I hesitate: isn’t that a lot of waste?

Think about it: when I run a pen dry, it still works. The spring mechanism that clicks the point from retraction into action still operates perfectly. The plastic shell is intact. Even the ink cartridge remains. Everything about the pen is fine, still in perfect working order, it’s just out of ink.

But for my TD pens, this is the point they becomes useless. The only thing left to do is discard them, then swing by the bank to grab two more.

It’s a bit like driving a car until it runs out of gas and deciding to walk away: there’s no problem with the machine, but the liquid that makes it useful is spent. Fill up station? No, there are none of those.

When I just lost pens I never had to think about it—they disappeared without me ever considering their end. But when I’m running them dry, bleeding them to the point they have nothing more to give, I am forced to stare their untimely death in the face. And like I said, as a writer I find myself doing this a lot.

But then I go into my local TD Bank branch, where the bucket of pens is always full. From one perspective there is an endless supply; the cars will keep running out of gas, but there will always be another full one available. And apparently for free.

But really? Are these pens really “free”? I don’t mean in a monetary sense; I mean in the sense of consequences, in the sense of an endless supply. Plastic pens are not apples—they do not grow on trees. They are not the result of some miraculous act of nature that transforms sunlight and rainwater into ballpoint and ink. Pens are plastic, an oil-based technology. They require fossil fuel to make, and when they find their way into the garbage they do not decompose. They are offered up as free gifts, but the are only “free” in the banking sense of the word.

In the global sense, however, plastic is plastic, and it’s not going away. It is turning up everywhere: filling landfills, clogging up the oceans, killing wildlife. A new study found that microplastics—tiny shards of polymers now found throughout the world’s waterways—are stunting the growth of some young fish and killing others.

Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce.

The growing problem of microplastics – tiny particles of polymer-type materials from modern industry – has been thought for several years to be a peril for fish, but the study published on Thursday is the first to prove the damage in trials.

Microplastics are near-indestructible in natural environments. They enter the oceans through litter, when waste such as plastic bags, packaging and other convenience materials are discarded. Vast amounts of these end up in the sea, through inadequate waste disposal systems and sewage outfall.

“Convenience materials.” That sounds like my pens. And my grocery bags (I have two fabric bags, but I don’t always remember them). And my food packaging. It sounds like so much and so many of the everyday things we buy: toothbrush packaging and the toothbrushes itself; sunscreen bottles; electronic accessories; a new windshield ice scraper. Kayaks. Car parts. Tupperware. Printers. Plastics. Plastics everywhere. They are literally everywhere.

IMG_1043What does “disposable” mean? Where does “disposable” go? These are questions we don’t really wrestle with. There is not time to wrestle with them. They are big and unwieldy and quite frankly depressing. They seem too big to tackle, a societal issue that will never get solved.

But it has real implications. In the Pacific Ocean there is a patch of floating garbage roughly the size of Texas. It is called the Pacific Trash Vortex, a place where discarded refuse goes to swim. And as most of it is plastic, it will swim forever.

Add that to climate change, to ocean acidification, to coral bleaching and glaciers melting. There is a Texas of trash out in the ocean. And the Texas estimate is a conservative guess.

But I get free pens. So it’s convenient at least.

This is not someone else’s problem. This is something that is happening because of my doing, my contribution. Like so many of us, I live in a world of convenience. Like so many of us, I recognize I’m contributing to a bleak outcome but have no idea how to approach it differently. How do you change a society? How do we change our reliance on ease, find our way back to an era when what we “threw away” had a shot at actually going away? Even more basic, how do I change myself, my habits that make up a small part of the whole? Can I even do that.

That is ours to wrestle with, and we better wrestle fast: Trash Texas is growing. If our habits remain unchanged it will eventually cover the Earth.

I read a book recently by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. In the final chapter he wrote:

I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, for hundreds of times longer, that is, than we have even been in existence. We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct.

What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes that we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For Earth they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed…

Watching another pen fall into the trash, I can’t help but hear his words echoing in my ears. I too wonder if we can outlast them unscathed.

 

Note: In researching this I found a place in California that recycles pens! Not enough to solve things, but hey, it’s a start. Also TD Bank recommends removing the internal mechanisms and recycling the plastic shell with other plastics. They were very quick in getting back to me:

IMG_7994

A Tale of Two Studies

A Tale of Two Studies

9129d-ski-1080245The scientist who uncovered acid rain in North America 50 years ago now sees a parallel struggle waging around climate change and the effects of global warming.

“The pushback was just like it is now,” ecologist Gene Likens said on Tuesday, talking about how his research in the White Mountains was received when it went public in the mid-1970s. Big vested business interests and their allies rejected his findings, he said, until he and his teams could show scientifically where the pollutants causing acid rain were coming from—industrial polluters in the Midwest.

From initial discovery to the enactment of new rules limiting those polluters took nearly a generation. Or, as Likens likes to put it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

Now, he said, he’s watching something similar happen with climate change.

Likens research and his legacy are intimately tied to the White Mountains. It began in 1963 when Likens was a professor at Dartmouth College. He was the lead scientist of a team studying streamwater chemistry in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest outside Lincoln, the U.S. Forest Service’s forest-laboratory of the White Mountains. His team wanted to know how the forest worked, to understand the inputs and outputs, what made it tick. They weren’t looking for anything specific, Likens said, but what they they found surprised them: water infused with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, a concoction capable of leaching aluminum from the soil and depositing it downstream in lakes and rivers, and also capable of killing insects, fish and plants along the way.

What they found was acid rain.

“The very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” said Likens, with acidity levels 100 times above normal. “Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said. “It was pure serendipity. So much of science is that way. We didn’t set out to discover acid rain. It was there and we ran with it.”

Their research led to an article in the journal Environment in 1972. Two years later Likens, now a professor at Cornell University, replicated the experiment in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, where again they found sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides in the water. He and a colleague published again published their findings, this time in the journal Science.

That’s when their research got noticed.

“It was picked up by the New York Times,” Likens said. “It ran on the front page.”

The year was 1974. Acid rain for the first time was in national headlines. It would be another 16 years before Congress passed revisions to the Clean Air Act to curb the industrial pollution that was the cause.

From acid rain’s discovery in 1963 to Congressional action in 1990, all of it started in the White Mountains, in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, which Likens calls one of the most studied ecosystems on the planet.

“We are much more effective stewards when we have long-term monitoring to guide us,” Likens said, “but the reality is such studies are quite rare.”

Likens research has included collecting decades of stream water chemistry data and associated rainfall information, creating one of the longest such records for any site on Earth. “And I’m still doing it,” he said.

And scientists in other disciplines have been doing similar work, leaving long records that allow researchers to see trends over time.

“So with climate change we can say what happened,” Likens said, “and what is happening.”

Birds in the forest, for example, are arriving earlier. Buds sprout earlier. Mirror Lake, “probably one of the most studied lakes in the world,” he said, is now covered by ice 20 days less each winter than in years past. The planet is definitely warming.

But when it comes to climate change some people push back against the science. And they doubt human involvement. Likens said he seen this before, that it was the same debate over causation that raged with acid rain.

But as a researcher, Likens said, his job is not to get lost in those arguments. A researcher’s job is to continue working, he said, to explore and examine, to collect data and ensure a record exists of what happens in the world.

“I’m not an advocate,” Likens said. “I’m not a politician. I’m a scientist.”

 

A version of this story ran in Saturday’s Conway Daily Sun.

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

Plastics, the Environment and the Economy

IMG_5458Sometimes the economy and the environment are at odds.

In recent weeks I’ve been reading a lot about plastic, and plastics in the ocean in particular.

It started in April with a stop at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Wandering the exhibits I came across a pair of displays in the Sant Ocean Hall that caught my attention: two piles of trash. One was pulled from the stomach of a seabird, the other from the stomach of a whale. In each pile were hundreds of scraps—pieces of bags, bottle caps and boat parts—almost all of them plastic. Both animals died as a result of their ingestion choices. Plastics look bright and shiny, similar enough to edible tidbits these creatures have eaten for generations to be deadly. So they gobble it up. The result is a belly full of trash.

That was the first thing that got me thinking about plastic. Then I stumbled upon a “say no to straws” campaign highlighting the amount of plastic used each day for the completely arbitrary task of getting our drinks out of our glasses and into our mouths. It seemed absurd: like there isn’t another way to drink a drink? Is that really what we are doing, filling our oceans with garbage in exchange for saving us the trouble of lifting our glasses?

After a bit more research and a few conversations with friends I learned about this initiative:

 

Apparently the answer is yes, that is exactly what we are doing. Plastic is everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the ocean, ground up into little bits so small we can’t even see them, rolling among the waves.

That is plastic in the environment.

Then there is plastic in the economy. This morning a news piece from Marketplace.org called “The Next Global Glut: Plastics” popped up on my news feed. The gist is this: with crude oil prices at record lows production of oil-derived goods like plastic are going to increase.

Several new petrochemical plants are being developed, especially around Houston and Louisiana. Vafiadis said the high output from the natural gas industry in the U.S. makes it financially feasible for companies to spend billions of dollars in new plants. 

“There’s enough natural resources available to make the majority of the projects that are being considered today viable,” Vafiadis said. 

As new plants come online, global plastic output will swell. IHS expects that more than 24 million metric tons of new production capacity of polyethylene alone will be added to the market by 2020. About a third of that new capacity will come from the U.S. and will come online within the next few years.

Not mentioned in the story is with increased production comes increased disposal. The giant pile of trash already swirling in ocean will grow.

The environment and the economy—when it comes to plastics there seem to be two distinct conversations: one about growth, the other about impact. Watching these conversations unfold in tandem and without intersection is like watching someone with multiple personality disorder argue with themselves. It’s two halves of the brain unable to connect directly. There are questions of demand, but also of impact. Where is that, the complete conversation, supposed to live?

10,000 Seafloor Clicks

10,000 Seafloor Clicks

13235224_1490935110932569_1854608173923259447_oIt’s a long drive from Monterey Bay to San Diego, punctuated by towering seacliffs and emptiness. It’s the kind of drive were you find yourself pulling over every five minutes, where the landscape looks sculpted by god. Big Sur. Kerouac’s coast. Every photo looks magnificent, but none are able to capture the spirit of the place.

I spent the morning at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where you can pet a stingray, watch bluefin tuna and hammerhead sharks grow frantic around shimmering clouds of sardines, see hoards of jellyfish from inches away and marvel at octopus species so different one looks like graffiti and another like camouflage. It took hours to wander through the exhibits, past giant bass and sharks and sea anemones.

One small crustacean I barely took notice of was a shrimp. He was a few inches long, with a pair of lobster-like claws, one substantially bigger than the other. His name? The snapping shrimp. I definitely saw one stowed underwater and behind glass, but I barely took notice. It was just another weird little ocean creature, nothing as majestic as the large pelagic predators or as striking as the brightly colored fish. It was just a shrimp.

13235634_1490935080932572_338291320125641097_oThen I started driving. I skirted my way out of Monterey, past Carmel and onto the Pacific Coast Highway. Hours clocked past. The landscape grew into lofty hills above an azure sea. First cell phone coverage faded, then the radio stations. “Next gas 62 miles,” the sign said.

But I come prepared for such terrain: I plugged my iPhone into the auxiliary jack and scrolled through my podcasts. Suddenly one of my favorites caught my eye—Radiolab.

The episode was called “Bigger than Bacon,” and it was about this strange sound emanating out of the ocean: a crackling, like the popping of bubblewrap. What was the culprit? Snapping shrimp!

But more amazing is the power of that sound, as well as the phenomena that accompany it. The snapping is masked by water, muffled, but in reality each snap is roughly 220 decibels, or about as loud as a jet engine. The claw closes at 60 miles an hour, but it occurs in a space so small something amazing happens: at the base of the ocean where no air sits, the snapping shrimp’s claw closes so quickly it forces away all the water, literally vaporizing it, creating a vacuum, an air bubble. Suddenly a void exists where previously there was none, a brief spot of emptiness created by a couple-inch-long organism.

And when the water rushes to fill that space it does it with a vengeance. Molecules slam into one another at such a pace that the space that was once a bubble heats up to 5,000 degrees, the temperature of the surface of the sun. On the seafloor. In the claws of a shrimp.

Seriously. This is no joke. This is real. Scientists even captured it on video:

 

But here’s the best part: as I listened I drove. And I drove. I drove past the pristine shores of central California, past Santa Barbara and Ventura and the megapolis of Los Angeles, to San Diego, to friends and surf and southern California beaches. I spent a week there, surfing, eating tacos and diving; swimming through Pacific waters in a mask, fins and snorkel, chasing sea lions and Garibaldi fish and leopard sharks.

And the whole time I heard snapping. Every time my ears broke the surface I heard it. I’d never noticed it before, never paid enough attention, but now whenever my head went underwater it was an orchestra. The shrimp were everywhere. I could hear the snapping of their claws at the surface, and when I dove it only got louder. I never saw them, but I could picture the little crustaceans scampering across the seafloor, smashing their claws together like Marvel Comic heroes generating plasma-like heat rays in their palms. The floor of the ocean was on fire, but only the shrimp could see it. And me.

(The full Radiolab is definitely worth a listen. Maybe on a drive?)

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/radiolab/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F603688%2F

Saving Caucasian Snow

Saving Caucasian Snow
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Part of our team on the north summit of Aragats. Tim Terpstra photo

Last September I took a flight from Boston to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a country I had barely heard of and knew even less about. Tucked in between Turkey, Iran and a handful of former Soviet republics, it is an arid plain with a history of invasion and cross-invasion.

It is also home to the Lesser Caucus Mountains, part of the mountain range that divides Europe from Asia. I was there on an American Alpine Club climber exchange, teamed up with Americans, Armenians and Iranians climbing our way across Armenia and Georgia, everything from single-pitch sport and trad routes to alpine snow and ice up 5,000 meter peaks. It was a tremendous three weeks, one full of new friends and meaningful connections.

One of the mountains we climbed along the way was Mount Aragats, the tallest peak in Armenia. (Historically Mount Ararat was the tallest peak in Armenia, but it’s now part of Turkey, and the border is closed. This is a painful fact for Armenians.) Aragats has four distinct summits, the north being the tallest at 13,420 feet. Climbing it means clambering over loose shale and boulders to windswept ridges. Most of the mountain feels unstable, like stacked blocks barely held together. There was one small patch of snow tucked beneath the southern and western summits, but otherwise it was dusty, dry and hot.

Historically, however, the snows of Aragats have held through the summers. They have kept creeks flowing in hotter months. Prior to escalating global temperatures, Aragatan snowfields would last through the year and provide a stable source of water through dry times.

Today, however, high temperatures melt things quickly, leaving the valleys flooded in the spring and parched by fall.

This short documentary by Armenian filmmaker Vardan Hovhannisyan lays out what is happening, and what local scientists are trying to do about it:

 

Yep. Thermal blankets. Several of us noticed them on our descent—white mounds squirreled away beneath the south summit. We didn’t realize what they were, that they were an attempt to save Aragats’ last few patches of snow. I remember discussing them when we got back to camp, but no one could tell exactly what they were. Now we know.

Blankets. Is that the solution to global warming? For now, the answer in Armenia seems to be yes. But it’s a lot of pressure for a few swath of fabric. What if the blankets insulate too well? Or not well enough? How many do they need to makes sure there is enough water? Do they have to cover the mountain? What happens if things don’t last through the summer?

These are complex questions, ones previously left to nature to ponder. But lately her answers have left Armenians parched. Now it’s up to Armenian scientists to see if they can do better.

When we were there in September our team didn’t know the difference. We didn’t realize we were walking over fields usually covered with snow. We scrambled the bare rocks unaware they normally would be entombed by snow.

To us Armenia was just dry. Now we know why.