Weather Weirdness for Humankind

A report from beautiful snowy Montana

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“It’s going up — (UP!) — to zero tomorrow,” said one adult in the room; “we can go sledding!” Two other adults, along with one 8-year-old, gleefully began planning routes. This reporter was planning to watch from indoors.

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Human beings, IMHO, are not designed to function in temperatures of 30 degrees below zero. Or “negative 30,” as it’s called by the good people of Montana, where I was spending the recent days of weather weirdness. Other parts of the world, including my beloved California with its recent cabinet-jostling earthquakes, have had their own weirdness problems:

Dense fog advisories, wind chill warnings, red flag alerts, assorted advisories and warnings on everything from floods to blizzards to hard freezes to a hurricane watch or two. Mother Nature is not pleased. Unwilling to send us all to our rooms — say, Mars or Jupiter or wherever — She called a December time out. Which, in Montana’s case, spells the deep freeze.

Game camera photo

Mother Nature designed all manner of creatures, not including humans, to function just fine in Negative 30 weather. Rabbits, for instance. The resident rabbit (above) is happily self-insulated and we presume warmly housed somewhere underground. As are the itinerant bears, deer, magpies and the rest of the Montana flora and fauna.

Humans, however, are on their own. When even the ski slopes are closed by the cold, that leaves throwing boiling water into the frigid air. And making plans to go sledding when things warm up to zero.

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Climate Change, Women and Hope

Gianturco & Sangster onstage at the Commonwealth Club

“Climate change is happening,” she says; “it’s real, it’s urgent.” The speaker is Paola Gianturco, a strikingly pretty octogenarian photojournalist/author, retired from a distinguished business career but decidedly not retired from anything else.

Adds her co-speaker ; “I learned about the water cycle (the continuous movement of water within the earth and atmosphere) and the carbon cycle (the process in which carbon atoms continually travel from the atmosphere to the earth and back) in fourth grade.” This would be high school freshman Avery Sangster, pointing out that those two cycles are keys to climate change.

The remarkable grandmother/granddaughter author/activist team spoke recently at an event celebrating their recently released book COOL: Women Leaders Reversing Global Warming

Photo by Melissa Bradley on Unsplash

The two spoke of the urgency of climate change in real-time stories. Alaska’s indigenous Inuit people, for example, have lived for centuries on the ice of the Arctic and subarctic regions where temperatures now reach 78 degrees and higher. “I’m not paralyzed with fear,” Gianturco says. She and her equally fearless granddaughter don’t want anyone else to be paralyzed; what they want is action. In search of climate action — and stories — they interviewed and photographed women and girls around the world who are “using intelligence, creativity, energy and courage to help stop global warming.” COOL documents the dedication and successes of several dozen of those women and girls.

They found, for example, Erica Mackie, Co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. Asked what’s special about her company, Mackie told the authors, “Well, for starters, it’s the only nonprofit construction company on the planet that’s focused on combating global warming, racism, economic inequality and gender discrimination.” The COOL women don’t tend to think small.

The author with The authors

In Sri Lanka they found several women working with Sudeesa (Small Fishers Federation of Sri Lanka) who were among 15,000 Sri Lankan women planting mangrove trees. Should you think these are simply pretty trees that help the local population by attracting fish, “mangrove trees sequester about five times more carbon dioxide than other tropical trees,” while also burying carbon dioxide under the soil.

The information and quotations in this article are all from COOL: Women Leaders Reversing Global Warning. And this is only a small piece of the climate education available in Gianturco and Sangster’s colorful book.

Back in the U.S. again the photojournalist/authors found Miranda Massie, founder and Director of the Climate Museum in New York City’s Soho district. Massie credits her own “climate crisis unease” to Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm — still the largest Atlantic hurricane on record — that, according to Wikipedia, left 233 people dead across eight countries and did more than $70 billion in damage. “Our genius, inventiveness, ambition and creativity caused this climate crisis that could obliterate civilization as we know it,” Massie says. “It’s the greatest challenge the human species has ever encountered.”

If the above isn’t enough to inspire you to become a climate activist, this reporter recommends ordering a copy (or two or three or more for your friends and family) of COOL. On the inside page there are even QR codes you can scan for six ways to help reverse global warming. Super cool.

A Drought-Relief Road Trip

Serious rain clouds ahead

After more than six months of near-total drought in Northern California, one cross-country flight to JFK and a side trip to Ithaca provided a reminder of wet stuff from the skies. It’s been easy to forget: by last May, 2022 was the driest year ever recorded in California. We’ve tried everything but the rain dance; and probably there are rain dances going on somewhere. Can we spell Climate Change? California looks as if someone might drop a match and the whole state will go up in flames.

Setting out from Ithaca to Manhattan one August morning, though, things looked promising. Cloudy skies! And we’re not talking fog here! (No offense, Karl the fog.)

Intermittently the skies brightened – enough for glimpses of leaves just starting to turn. Another east coast specialty. (The orange markers were filling in for full fall colors to come.)

Some of parched California’s favorite things? Raindrops on windshields! Especially, as in this case, when someone else is driving. It was possible to watch the raindrops ahead, and to look toward the west where the cloudy skies could be seen breaking up.

And then— rounding another mountain or two, blue skies again. For someone totally, thoroughly heart-transplanted to San Francisco, sunny skies to glorious rains in a six-hour drive across New York is still a gift worth sharing.

Author photos from the passenger seat; driving courtesy of granddaughter Connery O’Brien

Are We Listening to Mother Nature?

Andy Holmes on Unsplash

There’s looking back — — and then there’s looking wayyyy back.

Interesting factoid picked up in Pompeii, which this reporter was lucky to stroll with an archaeologist friend recently: Mt. Vesuvius’ giant eruption really shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Those early Romans, ever eager to escape the wrath of the gods, regularly predicted the future, were aware of the past (not infrequent earth tremors), and attuned to the present (a column of smoke “like an umbrella pine,” according to Pliny the younger.) But like countless others going about the business of life on that fateful day in 79 AD, uncle Pliny the Elder was caught unaware.

Before visiting Pompeii we spent another fascinating day in nearby Herculaneum. More is known of Pompeii, a much larger city that was discovered in the 16th century, than of Herculaneum, excavations of which began in 1738. Pompeii was buried under debris and volcanic ash but everyone knew there’d been a city there; Herculaneum succumbed to a landslide of lava while nobody noticed. Pliny the Elder and his friends (we know, thanks to writings left by his nephew) died of intense heat before the tsunami. None of these seem like great ways to leave the known world.

The above is offered partly as a confessional regret about how much history I never really learned, but also as a gentle reference to my own currently beloved City of San Francisco. Which happens to be built atop three seismic faults.

Photo by Romain Briaux on Unsplash

The eruption that sent burning ash, landslides of lava and, from the sea around, a tsunami didn’t just come out of the planetary blue. Zeus, or the gods and goddesses of old, or whoever you perceive as in charge of the universe, sent indications of events to come. Somewhat like little prayer flags embossed with messages like, “Hey folks! Bigger stuff ahead!” But the decision-makers of Herculaneum (for instance) just picked up the giant boulders whose weight had created sturdy walls for a time, and rebuilt sturdier walls with mortar. An early engineering genius move – but the lava didn’t notice.

In California we are clearing brush around homes and converting (slowly) to drought- and fire-resistant plants. Building codes are increasingly aimed at earthquake resistance. Higher seawalls and engineering measures incomprehensible to right-brained writers are daily being strengthened to protect civilization’s development from rising seas. So surely Whoever’s in charge of the planet should not think we’re a bunch of non-god-fearing sluggards. But still.

It’s hard not to imagine the day, some centuries hence, when future creatures inhabiting planet earth are digging around what we think of as San Francisco, and wondering what in the world kind of life existed in 21st century AD.

Which motivates me to go clean out the kitchen cabinets.

Happy Old Year from Mother Nature

Planet earthFarewell, 2019.

It’s not been the best of years for human beings. Fires, floods, extreme weather events (Hello, climate change deniers?;) migrants around the globe fleeing poverty and violence; a lot of us in the U.S. watching with horror & dismay as reproductive justice disappears and democracy is threatened on a zillion other fronts.

Arctic - bird on water
Arctic bird in flight

But here’s the good news: The beauty of Nature remains unchanged.

Oh, we can mess with it, threaten it with things like removal of environmental protections in the name of “deregulation.” (Deregulation is reflexively a great good thing? Hello again.)

Galapagos - Turtle
Galapagos Turtle

But as the bumper sticker – too good to waste on a bumper, so it’s still on the bulletin board – some friends sent many years ago says, Nature Bats Last. We let too many glaciers melt; Nature will erode our beaches and flood our low-lying cities. (Could we flood Mar a Lago, please? Just a tiny bit?) We let the planet warm with our irresponsibility; Nature will get our attention with devastating wildfires across multiple continents. Hurricanes. Tornadoes.

Sunrise - SF 10.19
San Francisco Sunrise

Meanwhile, Nature keeps right on offering us beauty: forests, flowers, lakes, creatures of amazing varieties. Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. Just before the oil spill that threatens even that fiercely protected habitat of an amazing variety of Nature’s wondrous creatures of air, land and sea.

Georgia skies 10.19
Georgia skies

 

Earlier in this inscrutable year I was also lucky enough to visit Amsterdam in tulip season, and to walk on some of the fast-shrinking tundra and glaciers of the Arctic Circle. And to watch the sunrise and sunset over San Francisco. Same thing. Nature’s beauty is astounding, even where its carefully-protected creatures and its bountiful provisions are threatened. So here is a fond look back at just a few of the blessings of Nature I crossed paths with over the past 365 – well, 362 so far – days. And here’s hoping we humans will do a better job of expressing our gratitude in the New Year. Peace & joy to us all.

 

dove of peace

 

On Saving the Planet from Us People

Arctic - Walrus bonesBones lay scattered almost as far as the eye could see. It was a deliberate, eloquent memorial to the walruses who once roamed this frozen shore – and were almost eradicated. In the late 19th century, hunters from several continents discovered the free-roaming hordes of these wonderful beasts, who were unfortunately highly prized, primarily for their tusks. One naturalist explained, on a recent expedition I was lucky to take into these Arctic wildernesses, that hunters would gun down a few dozen as they tried to reach the safety of the sea, creating a barrier for those behind them – who would then randomly be killed. Arctic - walruses

The good news is that people from the nations involved realized the damage being done and called a halt – while still enough walruses survived to begin re-establishing their families in the Arctic. And they are carefully protected. When we approached one herd we were instructed to keep a designated distance, to walk softly and talk in whispers.

Early Arctic miners didn’t fare a great deal better than the walruses. With the discovery of abundant coal in the area, the Norwegian mining company Kings Bay Kull Comp. founded the town of Ny-Alesund (New Alesund) in 1917 and opened several coal mines in the area.Arctic - miners It was tough and dangerous work – and initially not even all that lucrative. In a series of tragedies, while mining came and went over the next few decades, dozens of miners lost their lives.

Ny-Alesund is now a research center. It’s a company town (population 30 to 35) owned and operated by Kings Bay, which provides facilities for research institutes from ten countries. It has an airport, a beautifully developed museum and a gift shop where you can buy a postcard to send home from the post office – the world’s northernmost postal address.

In Ny-Alesund, as anywhere else we thousands of tourists visit every year, it is not possible to find the tiniest scrap of litter. This may be because we were threatened with everything short of death by hanging if we dropped a tissue (or disturbed a pebble.) Nevertheless, it works.Arctic - bird on water Those pristine lands remain as Nature intended, inhabited by walruses, reindeer and polar bears, overflown by puffins and countless other beautiful birds of the air.

Now, if we could find a way to keep the entire region from melting into the oceans . . .

The View from the Top of the World

Arctic - approach
The Arctic from above

Sailing around icy fjords in the Arctic Circle? In June, when it’s 24-hour daylight, not even a twilight, let alone darkness? Which means you don’t even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. You are, however. guaranteed to freeze your nose and burn your face from the sun and snow unless you bundle into parkas and slather on ridiculous amounts of sunscreen. Who would do such a thing?

Well, it turns out, yours truly. My late, greatly beloved husband died on February 15th, his voice ringing in my head with recollected snippets – one of which was: If you didn’t have me to look after, you could go on this wonderful trip to XxxxXx. Not my favorite snippet, but there it was. So thanks to some bizarre urge that a highly trained grief counselor might be able to analyze, I found myself saying – on about February 25thwhy not?

Arctic - Fran on mtn
Fearless explorer

Conveniently there was a Commonwealth Club expedition to the Arctic Circle with a bunch of climate people, even including a casual acquaintance interested in a roommate. It was somewhat of a cruise (read: too much elegant food, drink and royal treatment onboard) but it promised firsthand views of what we humans are doing to this beautiful planet. Plus countless lectures about millennia past and (hopefully) future by impressively credentialed people. So off I went. San Francisco to Paris to Longyearbyen, Norway to the Arctic fjords, the last leg aboard the small but lovely Ponant ship l’Austral. This is the first of what may be several reflections from the northernmost tip of the globe.

It is incredibly beautiful, this planet.

Arctic - wildflowers
Wildflowers on the tundra

At its northernmost tip there is a breathtaking expanse of blue, gray and white: snow, ice, sea ice (salt water turns to ice at about 28 degrees,) azure blue skies streaked with gossamer-gray clouds melting into the sea – which itself changes from shades of sapphire to emerald-blue in an instant with the shifting skies. The fjords are defined by mountains fronted by stretches of tundra and permafrost – the differences between which (tundra has vegetation, permafrost is permanently frozen) were carefully explained to me.

Accompanying our group, in addition to the impressive lecturers, were about a dozen naturalists who appeared (to this octogenarian) to have a median age of about 15. But they had PhDs and post-doctorates in things like polar ecology,  bioscience and glaciology. One of them left me with an unforgettable phrase and indelible image that sums up the Arctic experience for me. I wish I could videoconference the moment with every climate change denier, every fossil fuel enthusiast, every deregulation proponent and every grandparent who believes – as I continue to do – that our grandchildren will save the planet.

Arctic - walruses-ship
Walruses, & sea where once was ice

We had come to shore to study the wildlife (a clump of resting walruses) and wildflowers (there are over 400 varieties of tiny flora in the tundra) via inflatable rubber boats called zodiacs. Zodiacs  could navigate the distance – in this case it was about a quarter of a mile – from ship to shore.

“You see where our ship is?” said my naturalist friend, pointing toward the sea. I nodded. “This time last year, that was ice.”

 

 

 

 

Can Planet Earth Be Saved? Maybe. Still.

Wildfires 11.18One thing we absolutely know: the recent, tragic California wildfires were NOT due to “poor forest management.” Perhaps someone clued our president in on a few facts – since he did ease off the “It’s all their fault, stupid Californians” rhetoric. The facts: essentially all of the state’s publicly owned forests (including Plumas National Forest where the deadliest fire began) are controlled by the federal government. Mr. Trump recently reduced funds for cleaning up fire-prone vegetation. Meanwhile, though, who knows how many of those who simply accept Mr. Trump’s lies now have one more lie to confirm their belief that the globe isn’t warming and climate isn’t changing, and who needs to worry about the planet?Planet earth

It is our children’s and grandchildren’s planet we are playing with. Every regulations rollback that puts more pollution into the air and water, every “economy-boosting” measure that sends more CO2 into the atmosphere, every additional acre released from federal control so a few billionaires can get richer by mining, drilling, logging is lopping off health and life for future generations. That is, assuming the planet survives beyond the generations already born.

Planetary survival was at the heart of a recent Commonwealth Club program titled “A Four-Zero Climate Solution.” Climate One founder/director Greg Dalton brought together three leaders in the field to talk about the growing problem and discuss potential solutions. (Just to hear the words ‘climate’ and ‘solution’ in the same phrase is somehow heartening.) Panelists included Kate Gordon, a Partner in the Sustainability Practice of Ridge-Lane LP and a nationally recognized expert on the intersection of clean energy and economic development; author Hal Harvey (Designing Climate Solutions😉 and Stanford professor Arun Majumdar, co-director of the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Climate One 11.13.18
l to r: Arun Majumdar, KatenGordon, Hal Harvey, Greg Dalton

The panelists were talking about answers to the critical state of our plant’s climate being a four-pronged solution: getting the carbon grid to zero, switching to zero-emission vehicles, replacing (eventually – but all of this is long-term thinking) existing buildings with zero net-energy buildings, and moving toward zero-waste manufacturing. It’s complicated, politically fraught, and no easy task. But there IS a solution.

Now – if only we could start working toward it, our grandchildren might still have a planet. Most estimates – by people with working brains, that is – are that we have another 10, maybe 12 years max to tackle the problem; after that we can start looking for a way to move to Mars. But Mr. Trump just shrugs off the report issued by his own White House detailing what is clearly happening, saying, “I don’t believe it.”

We are in deep trouble.