CDS: Political Standing and Climate Science

CONWAY — The divide over climate change has long split along party lines, but a new report by University of New Hampshire researchers highlights just how politicized climate science has become.

“We found that most Americans are unclear about where the North and South Pole are located,” said Larry Hamilton, professor of sociology at UNH, “but they have definite ideas about whether the climate there is changing. And those ideas, along with basic knowledge, correlate with how they plan to vote in November.”

Hamilton was lead researcher on the first ever polar, environment and science survey, a joint project between the UNH Carsey School of Public Policy and Columbia University. Researchers asked Americans their views on science and climate change, their sources of information, their thoughts on the current problems and possible solutions. They also tested basic geographic knowledge related to polar regions. The survey was conducted in August, and the results came out in October.

Public views on almost everything related to climate change — acceptance of basic scientific observations, trusted sources of information, the seriousness of current problems, the need for a policy response — differ greatly depending on political orientation, the survey found.

“Trump supporters are much less likely to accept or know the scientific observations that carbon dioxide has increased and arctic sea ice declined,” Hamilton said in the report. “Logically, we could separate the scientific observation that climate change is occurring from the political question of what should be done. In public opinion, however, the science and political issues prove not very distinct.”

Ninety-nine percent of Clinton voters believe climate change is happening now, and 86 percent believe it is largely caused by humans. This, Hamilton said, is the statement most scientists support.

A majority of Trump supporters, however — 55 percent — believe climate change is occurring through natural forces. Only 33 percent believe humans are the primary cause. Another 7 percent do not believe climate change is occurring.

A similar divide occurred when respondents were asked whom they trust for information on climate change. Supporters of both Clinton and Trump listed scientists as their most trusted source, but the two sides showed differing levels of trust: 85 percent of Clinton supporters said they trust scientists for information on climate change, compared with 61 percent of Trump supporters.

For Trump supporters, Fox News was the second-most trusted source for information — 49 percent — followed by friends at 38 percent and religious leaders at 34 percent.

Only 10 percent of Clinton supporters, meanwhile, trust Fox, and 26 percent trust religious leaders. Clinton supporters trust websites, friends and political leaders most after scientists, at 44 percent, 42 percent and 42 percent. Only 18 percent of Trump supporters trust political leaders, and 22 percent trust websites.

That separation continued into policy questions, where Clinton supporters repeatedly give high priority to policy moves aimed to reduce the impacts of climate change such as renewable energy investments, lifestyle changes and a carbon tax.

But Clinton supporters are not alone here. “Trump supporters also place high priority on action to reduce climate risks,” Hamilton said, though not as high as Clinton supporters: “39 percent prioritize renewable energy investments and 27 percent consumer or lifestyle changes.”

Researchers also found a relatively poor understanding of the forces at work in global warming, paired respondents’ belief they were well-informed. Respondents had more confidence in their understanding of issues like sea level rise and melting glaciers than the data bore out.

“Objective tests suggest,” Hamilton said, “that such confidence often derives from political convictions rather than knowledge of science or the physical world.”

The survey found most respondents had limited knowledge of polar regions. “Less than 40 percent correctly place the North Pole on ice a few feet or yards thick, floating over a deep ocean,” Hamilton said.

“Similar proportions think the pole is on ice more than a mile thick, over land, while others imagine a rocky, mountainous landscape. Answers regarding the South Pole are not much better; less than half correctly place it on thick ice over land.”

Similarly, fewer than 20 percent of respondents recognized the United States as an arctic nation, with more than 3 million square miles of territory and thousands of inhabitants within the Arctic Circle.

Over the past seven years, UNH researchers have seen public acceptance of climate change “drifting upwards,” Hamilton said, and the scientifically supported view that humans are the main cause has climbed from roughly 50 percent seven years ago to 63 percent in recent surveys. “Thus, despite sharp political divisions, there is broad and rising public recognition of climate-change problems and of the need to shift our energy use in response.”


This story appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

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.

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.

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.

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.

On Science

On Science

IMG_7944-1Yesterday I woke up to a bear in the yard.

He wasn’t doing anything really, just milling about. I watched him through the window, basked in orange sunlight as he snooped. Then I packed my things to go swimming.

I’m not much of a swimmer. I did a lap across the lake, pausing in the middle to lie on my back, float and stare upwards. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I let my wetsuit suspend me, limbs dangling in the water. When I exhaled I sunk. When I inhaled I rose. I watched clouds track overhead, felt the ripples as they brushed my face, then closed my eyes, floating. I stayed like that, motionless, just breathing, for what felt like hours. It may have only been a minute; I lost track of time. Then I turned into the water and aimed for the near shore.

Driving home my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. “Hi, this is Erik.”

On the other end was Gene Likens, the scientist who 50 years ago discovered acid rain. An ecologist and former Dartmouth College professor, his most recognized work took place at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, a site an hour drive from where I spent my swim. Likens co-wrote a book on the forest, and I thought it might be worthy of a story. We spent 20 minutes talking. He described the surprise of discovering acid rain.

“Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said, but “the very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” up to 100 times the normal levels.

What got them to look at rainwater? Curiosity.

“It was purely serendipity,” he said. “So much of science is this way.”

“We didn’t set out to discover acid rain,” he said. “It was there and we ran with it.”

A quote has sat on my desktop for several years:

The beauty of science is not in the answers it provides, but in the act of questioning. And each question leads to more questions. There are no answers, only infinite questions.”

It’s not a quote from some book or from anybody famous. It’s mine, just some musings I scribbled. I jotted it down one day when it popped into my head, something I didn’t want to forget, even though I’ve now forgotten the context it came from.

But yesterday I heard echoes of it in Likens. He was not studying stream water to prove some point. He was there to learn, driven by curiosity. It was a search of wonder, devoid of ego, even though it eventually made a name for Likens.

Science is built on such wonder. It is the act of questioning, of exploration and answers so tenuous they are subject to constant revision. But through the soft passage of time, through the constant brushstrokes of curiosity, a truth emerges. What emerges is the heart, the soul of our world, something foundational. But no part is so sacred it cannot be discarded, slain. Everything is open to more questions. There is something beautiful in that.

I can’t help but wonder if religion is born from the same roots, if at one point humans looked at the majesty of the universe and couldn’t help but exclaim, “Who could have made such a beautiful thing?!” and the answer they came up with was God.

That question is a perfect one. Who could have made such a beautiful thing? What could have led to this, to this world and this life? They echo the question scientists ask today. Look into the heart of the world. Whether your launch point is science or religion it is impossible not to be overcome by wonder, by beauty and grace and the perfect harmony of things larger than ourselves. How does the Earth spin around the Sun? How did life come into being? How did so much order grow out of seemingly infinite chaos?

Those questions were with me too. They were in the bear sitting outside the window yesterday morning, in the beat of my heart in my head, in the caress of the water and the color of the sky. They are questions I asked the lake lying on prone in the water, buoyed up by a force I will never fully understand, asked the sky gazing at clouds dotting a blue so striking it felt like more water. Neither revealed their secrets, but they shared gifts just the same.

Wonder. Beauty. Grace. These are both the heart of science and the heart of religion. Indeed, they are perhaps the heart of everything. The magic of creation is captured in a piece of music, a Van Gogh painting, in Shakespeare and Hemingway. In the movie that speaks to our hearts, in the play that touches our souls, in the book that we come back to and back to. Science, religion, music, art—it is all the same. It is all one thing, different versions of the same dance.

And that dance can take place in the world, with the Earth as your partner: the perfect wave to the surfer, the long winding trail to the runner, the sweep of immaculate stone to the climber. The friend that stands opposite you in dark times. The lover who shares your bed. Creations all. Art, science, religion, beauty all. Questions, infinite questions, too big to ever contain in something so small as an answer, all.

I wrote the piece on Likens today. It will never do justice to his story. But his answers are not the point. He is a scientist; the point is always the questions.

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?