Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Joshua Trees, Giant Sloths, and Climate Change

© Jimfeliciano, Stock Free Images
I’m a big fan of the Joshua tree.  Granted, it’s not much for climbing.  You wouldn't fasten a tire swing to it, or lean against its trunk to read a romance novel and sip sweet tea.  But just seeing a Joshua tree takes you somewhere... a place far off and long ago, when giant reptiles ruled the earth and our ancestors were just sniveling, naked fuzz balls hiding in dark holes.

I've enjoyed some wonderful trips to Joshua Tree National Park with my wife and kids, and every time we drive into the park I get this feeling that I’m entering some other world—some landscape from the distant past, maybe even the rocky surface of a far-off planet.  It’s a cool place, and the trees bring it to life.

But get this—there could come a time, within the next 60 to 90 years, when Joshua trees no longer grow in Joshua Tree National Park.  Already, the climate in this part of the Mojave Desert is becoming too hot and dry for the trees to flourish, and there is growing consensus that the Desert Southwest will experience some of the greatest future climate shifts, with temperatures increasing 6 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit this century. 

Research suggests that unless humans substantially reduce carbon emissions, Joshua trees could disappear from as much as 90 percent of their current range within my children’s lifetimes.  Already, drought conditions have caused the trees to stop reproducing within the park, and the area is only expected to get hotter and drier.  Someday, when my sons bring their own children to the park, the trees could be gone.

And here’s a kicker.  The trees may not be able to spread into areas with more suitable conditions as the climate shifts—because the animal that historically dispersed its seeds was hunted into extinction by humans some 13,000 years ago.  The Shasta ground sloth ate the seed pods of Joshua trees and dispersed them across large geographic areas.  Now, only a handful of small animals eat the seeds, and they do not travel long distances. 

In fact, during the Pleistocene, Joshua trees had a much larger range throughout the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran Deserts.  But about 11,500 years ago, Earth’s temperatures rapidly increased as the Younger Dryas Period ended.  Of course, by this time humans had already stalked the Shasta ground sloth into oblivion, so Joshua trees were unable to disperse.  The trees died throughout their historic southern range, managing to hang on in pockets of what had been their northernmost limits.   

© Justinmetz, Stock Free Images
Now, thanks to human emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses, we are entering another period of rapid climate change—far more rapid than anything the planet has experience in at least half a billion years.  The Joshua tree, already reduced to a fraction of its potential range, will be further decimated.  Unless people take an active role in collecting the seeds and planting them in more suitable locations as the climate warms, the Joshua tree will only survive in small refuges at the northern edges of its current range—many miles from Joshua Tree National Park. 

J. S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

John Muir Trail

Why would you want to hike more than 200 miles with your kids?  It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once when I tell people about my family’s plans to hike the John Muir Trail this summer.  And it’s a fair question.  200 miles is a long distance.  Kids whine sometimes.

But it’s been a hard question for me to answer—not because I don’t know the reasons, but because my reasons are so deeply intertwined in my own childhood wilderness experiences and the abstract ways those experiences shaped me.  Long before I could walk miles over rugged mountain trails, my own parents carried me into wild places on their backs.  As I grew older, we ventured higher onto mountain peaks and deeper into old-growth forests, and I’m so grateful for the things I found there—the smell of rain on unspoiled earth, the whispering of summer wind through aspen leaves, a sky so black and full of stars that it swallowed me… and, most importantly, deep feelings of peace, connectivity, and meaning that will stay with me forever.

I want my kids to know those things, not just on some superficial level but deep in their bones and in the mysterious recesses of their souls.  I want them to experience wildness for weeks on end, to become a part of it.  I want them to sit under the dripping branches of a pine tree while lightning tears across the sky and thunder shakes the ground beneath them.  I want them to stand on the highest mountain within a thousand miles and witness their amazing world stretching out before them with all its endless possibilities.  I want them to know the peacefulness and simplicity of sunshine spilling across a wildflower meadow.  I want them to understand that they’re a part of all that—small and fleeting but utterly and magnificently alive.

I agree that 200 miles is a heck of a hike, especially through the high Sierras where we’ll climb a combined total of 46,700 feet during the course of a month.  But I want my kids to know they can accomplish big things.  I have faith in them.  On some deep level down in my guts I know they can do it, and I know they’ll emerge as better human beings for the experience—more confident, more at peace with themselves, more certain of their connection to the world and their ability to navigate its uncertainties.

Sadly, when it comes to outdoor adventure and physical endurance, I think we often underestimate our kids.  We tend to set the bar incredibly low and then hold them back because we’re afraid of bears, boogiemen, and whining.  But kids are biologically designed to move and challenge their bodies.  We give them opportunities to do this for short periods through organized sports—which is great—but modern kids rarely have chances to push their physical limits for long periods of unstructured, outdoor adventure the way our ancestors did for thousands of generations.  Our ancestors moved, kids included, often covering several hundred miles each year—and our bodies are designed for it.  Walking long distances over difficult terrain is good for us.

Perhaps most importantly, I know there will only be this fleeting moment in my life when my sons are on that teetering edge between childhood and adolescence—old enough now to venture bravely into this magical world they inhabit, yet still young enough to hold my hand occasionally, to sit with their bodies snuggled against me and stare entranced at a sunset burning orange and red across alpine ridges… young enough still to want to spend a month in the mountains with their old mom and dad. 

I want to seize this time with them and do something big with it.  I don’t want to watch it slip quickly past, disappearing forever into the murky shadows of memory, without grabbing it fully in my two hands and charging into the beautiful briefness—my eyes wide open to every shift of light and color, my heart open to each and every one of life’s crazy, wonderful, mixed-up feelings.

An adventure will be good for all of us at this point in our lives.  I know I need one, and I think Pam does too.  Our lives are blessed, and we’re thankful for all the gifts we’ve been given, but more than a decade of careers, parenthood, and the inescapable routines that accompany them have numbed us somehow, or at least worn us out a little.  And I feel a deep need to do something large, something that will stir an old fire that still smolders somewhere in the marrow of my bones, something that will slow me down while waking me up, something to shake away patterns of living and enliven all my senses to the mysteries of being.  I want my kids to know that person—dive into an alpine lake with him, sleep uncovered beneath an endless, star-filled sky with him, stand on top of the world with him and shout because life is just so damn wonderful!

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I have known some great walkers and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived.”  Years later John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”  I want my kids to understand and appreciate the important scientific and environmental legacy of heroes like these, so I’m taking them walking.  They may whine.  In fact, I’ll be amazed if they don’t.  But I know for certain they will also find some new magic in living, and I can’t wait to share it with them.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

We've Got Some Big Feet!

The global human population has topped 7 billion people.  There are more than 315 million of us living in the United States alone.  Those are big numbers.  They’re hard to wrap your mind around.  What are the implications of that many people running around the planet?

Here are a few facts to chew on:

  • In the United States, each of us will throw away approximately 29,700 pounds (almost 15 tons) of plastic food packaging during our lifetimes.  We’ll each drink our way through an average of 43,371 soda cans.  Together we throw away 60 million plastic bottles and 100 million aluminum and steel cans every day.  That’s enough cans to build a new metal roof over New York City every single day!
  • The average American will send 64 tons of waste to landfills over the course of a lifetime.  As a nation, we generate 246 million tons of landfill waste every year.
  • The average baby in the United States uses 3,796 diapers.  If you consider the ingredients that go into manufacturing those diapers, then each child’s diapers alone are responsible for the consumption of 1,898 pints of crude oil, 715 pounds of plastic, and 4.5 trees.  Each year, we throw away a combined 18 billion diapers in the United States alone.  That’s enough diapers each year to stretch around the world 90 times.  And the average diaper will take more than 500 years to degrade.
  • The average American will use 285 tons of coal in a lifetime.  The United States accounts for approximately 5% of the world’s population, but we use more than 25% of the world’s energy.
  • By our first birthday, those of us born in America will already be responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than a person in Tanzania will generate in a lifetime.  We are responsible for 5 times more carbon emissions than the average Frenchman and 20 times more than the average Indian.
  • We burn through more than 10,500,000 barrels of oil a day just to run all the cars in the United States.
  • Over the span of an average lifetime, we’ll lose more than 93 million acres of open space to development in the United States.  That is a chunk of land equivalent to the size of Montana.  We lose approximately 2 acres of open space every minute of every day.
  • If everyone in the world lived like Americans, we’d need more than 4 planets to meet our natural resource needs and absorb our waste and pollution.
  • Earth has been around for more than 3.8 billion years.  Humans are no more than newborns in comparison.  If we imagine that the planet is one day old, then humans have existed on it for just a few seconds.

Wow!  We’ve changed the planet in a big way in a relatively small amount of time.  But we can learn to reduce our footprint.  For some ideas on how to start, check out these tips from the Center for Sustainable Economy.

The facts listed above are demonstrated in National Geographic’s video Human Footprint.  It’s worth watching.

As always, go outside and get mud on your feet… just step lightly.

J. S. Kapchinske is the author of Coyote Summer.