Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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400

400

Icy landscape, View Point, Weddell Sea, AntarcticaIt’s happened: Antarctica has hit 400.

If 300 was a movie about the destructive capacity of a small band of humans, 400 is the same thing only on a much larger scale.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week that on May 23 carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole surpassed 400 parts per million (PPM) at the South Pole for the first time in 4 million years, a marker NOAA called “another unfortunate milestone.”

The South Pole has shown the same relentless upward trend in carbon dioxide (CO2) as the rest of world, NOAA said in a statement released on their website, but its remote location meant it was late to register the impacts of fossil fuel consumption, the primary driver of greenhouse gas pollution.

“The far southern hemisphere was the last place on earth where CO2 had not yet reached this mark,” Pieter Tans, NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network lead scientist, said in the statement. “Global CO2 levels will not return to values below 400 PPM in our lifetimes, and almost certainly for much longer.”

400 PPM “should be a psychological tripwire for everyone,” according to NASA Michael Gunson. “Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 PPM and much higher levels. These were the targets for ‘stabilization’ suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down.”

CO2 levels rise during the Northern Hemisphere’s fall and winter and decline during the summer as terrestrial plants consume CO2 during photosynthesis. It’s an AMAZING process, one you can watch on this video from NASA:

 

But plants only a fraction of emissions. For every year since observations began in 1958 there has been more CO2 in the atmosphere than the year before, according to NOAA. Last year’s global CO2 average reached 399 PPM, meaning that the global average in 2016 will almost certainly surpass 400 PPM.

The question NOAA scientists are now asking is whether even the lowest month of 2016 will have CO2 readings over 400 PPM.

Also concerning, the rate of increase appears to be accelerating. The annual growth rate of atmospheric CO2 measured at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii jumped 3.05 ppm during 2015, according to NOAA’s statement, the largest year-to-year increase in 56 years of monitoring. Last year was the fourth consecutive year that CO2 grew more than 2 ppm – which set another record. This year promises to be the fifth.

Part of last year’s jump was attributable to El Nino, the statement said, referring to the cyclical Pacific Ocean warming that produces extreme weather across the globe and causing terrestrial ecosystems to lose stored CO2 through wildfire, drought and heat waves.

“We know from abundant and solid evidence that the CO2 increase is caused entirely by human activities,” Tans said. “Since emissions from fossil fuel burning have been at a record high during the last several years, the rate of CO2 increase has also been at a record high. And we know some of it will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.”

So there’s that…

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

IMG_8135.JPGIt can be tough to read news about the environment. With oil spills and ocean acidification and coral bleaching and mass extinctions and rising temperatures it can seem overwhelming, just easier to just put your head down, worry about yourself and ride the doomed Earth into oblivion.

But that is only half the story. The other half is awesome.

Like this: the California Academy of Sciences announced yesterday they are partnering with coral reef conservation group SECORE to plant millions of concrete, reef-attaching “seeding units” in damaged reefs to “restore dwindling reefs with sexually-produced corals on a meaningful scale,” according to a statement on their website.

The project is part of an $8.5 million investment Cal Academy is making in coral reef research and restoration. “We’re not losing any time in our continued fight to understand, protect, and restore these majestic ecosystems,” Bart Shepherd, director of the Academy’s aquarium said.

That’s in San Fransisco. And there’s more. An article published on the Atlantic Magazine’s website on Wednesday profiles an Australian scientist who has been studying coral reefs and discovered that many of the world’s reefs in better shape than might be expected have frequent human interaction.

Contrary to what you might think, the bright spots weren’t all remote reefs, where humans were absent or fishing was banned. Instead, most were home to lots of people, who rely heavily on the corals and who frequently fished. They weren’t leaving the corals and fish alone; instead, they had developed social norms and institutions that allowed them to manage the reefs responsibly.

The study offers the evidence that it is possible for humans and reefs to coexist without the inevitable destruction of the coral.

At is an unrelated video about a chance discovery that sped up the growth cycle of slow-growing corals in Florida. It may be possible, it seems, to restore not just fast-growing corals but slower-growing species as well. More reason for encouragement.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 1.24.48 PMThen there is the work of Jason DeCaires Taylor, a sculptor who creates stunning installations underwater out of coral-accepting cements. His beautiful creations sit on the sea floor and transform over time. They become an intermixing of human and natural creation. His sculptures turn into otherworldy attractions that highlight the plight of the oceans, while at the same time offering sealife a space to thrive.

Taylor talked about his work on the TED stage:

 

Lastly, there is Norton Point, the Massachusetts-based company tackling the problem of ocean microplastics with capitalism. They are turning trash from the sea into something useful: sunglasses.

For every product we sell, even those not made from ocean plastic, we are committing to you to clean-up one pound of plastic from the ocean. In addition, we have chosen to give back 5% of net profits to global clean-up, education, and mediation practices.

Their Kickstarter campaign has exceeded its $37,000 goal by more than $5,000 this week, and there are still 20 days left until it finishes. An excellent example of how the environment inspires defender/entrepreneurs.

So instead of getting discouraged, instead of losing hope for the future of the planet and the environment, look for the bright spots, the many examples of people and organizations pushing for positive change. Look at the amazing discoveries they are making, the incredible support they are finding. Inspiration builds upon inspiration, success from success. Maybe it’s even time to join.

 

Great Reefs and Little Rats

Great Reefs and Little Rats
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Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

Outdoors On Sale

Outdoors On Sale

13116472_1487458877946859_7391871088256538032_oI have an idea.

It’s one I’ve been batting around for weeks, something I’ve been brainstorming with friends and trying to figure out how to bring to fruition. It’s pretty simple, but it has roots: I want to use the outdoor industry to change the world. I want to use the outdoors to sell, but not products. I want to sell things currently struggling to make themselves marketable: to use the cultural cache of rock climbing, skiing, surfing and #vanlife to push a conversation about the environment, about climate change, about the plastics ending up in our oceans, the glaciers melting on mountaintops, rising seas and corals slowly bleaching on reefs. I want to use the culture of outdoor athletes to sell more than just jackets. I want it to make a difference for more than just some corporate bottom line. I want it to save the world.

Tall order, I know. But the outdoors sells. In this era of the Instafamous, of Jeep and Subaru ads, Prana and Patagonia catalogs, Redbull and Rossignol videos, this can work. These brands all count on the cultural hook outdoor sports offer to sell their products, so couldn’t the outdoors also sell itself? Couldn’t we use its cool-factor to remind people the world is changing, that it is itself threatened? Couldn’t the outdoors sell something invaluable for once?

I turned down an actual job in the outdoor industry to try this. I want people to hear the word “Patagonia” and think of a place, not a company, even if the company is a responsible one. It’s a concept I would hope even Patagonia would be on board with.

I have long ties to the outdoor industry. I’ve worked in retail, am a guide and athlete and I’ve done stints working as a sales rep. That last one was the hardest—selling outdoor gear. I remember listening to conversations about how some customer would buy whatever was the nice this winter, that a new set of skis had to go with a new kit. The job was to push people to buy a new jacket so they could get into the mountains, even if they already had a perfectly serviceable jacket already.

I couldn’t do it. That was not why I fell in love with the mountains. The outdoors were a step away from consumer-driven culture, a haven in an economy all about growth. Backpacking, hiking and climbing took me away from the blaring images of marketers, away from the constant stream of advertisements. There was something beautiful in that.

But the outdoor world has been co-opted; now it’s part of the pitch. The allure of #VanLife is the adventure, but it’s mixed up with a trendy lifestyle image used to sell things. A huge part is about the gear, about tricking out your rig. Van aficionados pour over websites and forums discussing how best to achieve their van dream, sinking money into solar panels that match the stove. Keeping up with the Joneses moved to four wheels.

And it’s not just the vans. I know people who revel in the breadth of their climbing rack. Others boast about their gear closets and post pictures to Instagram. The bikes, boards, kites and ropes are called toys, and he who owns the most toys wins, even if you barely have the time to use any of it. There are outdoor magazine articles and Instagram feeds dedicated to this stuff, and people surf the pictures from their office computers.

The dedicated outdoors people I know, meanwhile, don’t care about gear. They use whatever is around. These are guides, pro climbers, the people who make their living in the outdoors; they aren’t fussy about carabiners or climbing ropes because anything will do. Whatever is cheap and will get them outside is what they want. To them climbing is about action, not accessories, and as a result they spend more time and less money on the thing they love.

But that vision for the outdoors isn’t sexy, and it isn’t what dominates the outdoor industry today. The conversation is all about what is newest and latest and lightest. What is the best gear of this year?

Who cares? What piece of gear actually gets you outside? Your feet mostly, something you already own. Maybe you need a bike or a paddleboard, but what about all the knickknacks they sell alongside them? Some basics are usually useful, but most are useless. They are ways to make money off your desire and your passion. Most outdoors people wind up with a closet overflowing with stuff they never use, stuff they bought because they heeded the whisper of consumerism, stuff that could have been turned into time off, time outside, or plane tickets had it never been purchased. But modern American outdoorspeople are caught in the same consumer frenzy as other sectors, and they buy in. We buy in. We let ourselves get pulled back, let the consumerist urges we originally sought to escape return. They never let us stray far. They waited for us to put down our guard, and then they pounce.

That was feeling I had when I was offered the sales job, and it’s why I turned it down. It just didn’t fit. Selling to get outside stands exactly opposite of why I go outside.

That feeling was present this Sunday as well. It was my first real dive in the Pacific: Point Lobos, south of Monterey. A daytrip alongside a handful of other freedivers, all of them more experienced than me. I showed up with a surfing wetsuit, $5 dive fins I bought off Craigslist and a cheap mask and snorkel. It’s the stuff I’ve used since the day I started a year ago, some I accrued, some I sought out, some I borrowed. It is cheap, and it works. Everyone else had $200 freedive fins, top of the line low-volume masks and dedicated 7mm freedive suits. I got suited up, no gloves and no booties, and attached my bright yellow snorkel to my mask. The crew looked at me and laughed. “You did a course with those?” my friend Mika said, pointing to my short little U.S. Diver fins. “They let you do that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

“They’re not freedive fins,” he said. “If you can keep up you must be twice the diver of any of us.”

He was right, and I was not. I watched the other three speed beneath the surface with each drop, kick after kick sending gushes of water upwards. Their equipment far outpaced mine, and they got deeper because of it.

But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to set records, I was there to explore the Pacific, to see the kelp forests and learn more about freediving. I was there to meet new people and to keep practicing this sport I’d discovered a year before, to get a glimpse of the underworld aquarium we call the ocean, to take a step outside of climate controlled and see the world in its raw state. There was no race. I wanted to be outside, in the water, and $5 fins were fine for that.

“I love the gear,” Mika told me later. “Half the point of any sport is getting the gear.”

Consumerism has found us. Going into the outdoors is no longer an escape.

But the originals, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Ed Hillary, Royal Robbins, they didn’t buy in. They may have made millions from the outdoors, but their own adventures were about making due. They figured out how to survive and adventure with what they had, never bought their way in. There wasn’t even the option in those days. They pressed things not intended for adventure into service, made them fit the fight. The first climbs of Royal Robbins were with a clothesline. The first ascents of Yosemite bigwalls required pitons carved out of stovelegs. Those were the hours of adventure, the moments of invention.

Not that we need to go back to stovelegs though. Without modern ice tools, screws, ropes and gear I would probably quit climbing—the risks those pioneers took were too much for me. Were I to attempt a grade five ice route with the equipment of their first ascent I would cower in fear. I know that. It is part of what makes original ascensionists so inspiring—they did it, and they did it with less. They did it when the oceans of rock above them were still a mystery, when there was no guidebook, no topos. They have shown us what original mettle looks like.I can only chase their accomplishments. There is something beautiful about that, something the advances technology can never equal.

I will eventually get freedive fins, and I will eventually get a dedicated freedive suit. But they will always be secondary, the necessary accessories rather than the point. Consuming is a part of existing—the lion eats, as does the mouse, and we are no different. It is neither good nor bad. But it is a pursuit in itself that remains without a purpose. Consuming for the point of consuming—I strove to escape. I went into the woods so I could live deliberately. And it has followed me here.

So I want to turn it around. I want the world to look at beauty I discovered in mountains, on cliffs, on the ocean and in the woods and see what I see. I want people to see the rawness of it and instead of thinking about buying think about saving. Think about the places so precious and rare, so tenuous and so perfect. I want them to think about those places as places, not brands. I want them to want the places to survive more than they way the goods to explore them.

I believe that is what the outdoors truly sells. I believe there is a market for that too.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.