Thursday, September 26, 2013

In the News: Mapping Climate Change

The issue of climate change is a somewhat nebulous one to picture.  We know that on the whole, our global climate is changing, but those changes will manifest differently depending upon geographic location.  Some areas are expected to grow hotter and drier, others colder and drier, and yet others warmer and wetter.  Climate change will not look the same across the globe, and that has significant implications for each country's mitigation and adaptation strategies to best cope with this unprecedented challenge.  In order to help governments plan their climate change adaptation strategies, a team of scientists recently published their research on the subject, along with a global map illustrating the variation in climate change susceptibility.

The meaning of the map colors are as follows:

Dark Gray: highest level of climate stability and intact vegetation.  These are the areas projected to experience the least effects of climate change.

Dark Green: low climate stability but high levels of intact vegetation. 

Dark Orange: high level of climate stability, but low level of intact vegetation.

Pale Cream: low climate stability and low levels of intact vegetation.  These are the areas that will likely suffer the worst effects of climate change.

The designations above are to be used in determining which regions are the most viable candidates, and will achieve the highest return on investment, when it comes to conservation efforts.  Climate change will affect all of the regions pictured above: their ecosystems, wildlife, and ability to further safeguard against the devastating effects of climate change. When limited resources are available for conservation, they must be delegated appropriately to maximize their success -- a broad, sweeping strategy implemented uniformly across the globe is not a wise solution, as the map above indicates.  So which of the above areas make the most sense to invest our conservation efforts?

According to the authors, the areas with high climate stability and high levels of intact vegetation (dark gray) are the best candidates for designation as Protected Areas.  These are the hardiest areas which will require the least effort to maintain their current ecosystems and species diversity in the face of climate change.  These are the most crucial areas to save, and luckily, they are also the "easiest" (relatively speaking...) to protect.

Areas which also deserve conservation efforts, but which will require more effort and resources, are those with high climate stability and low levels of intact vegetation.  Conservation efforts would focus on restoring vegetation to the area.  Any vegetation that is reestablished will have a good chance for survival and propagation, as these areas will remain stable in the face of climate change, and could potentially graduate to the "dark gray" category above.

The unfortunate "pale cream" areas on the map above are those least likely to benefit from conservation efforts. With little intact vegetation and low climate stability, any restoration efforts in these areas would be resource-intensive and difficult to maintain as the climate continues to change.

There are a few things that came to mind looking at the climate change vulnerability map:

Washington is looking pretty good!  The map is difficult to see, but from what I can tell, most of our state is a dark greenish-gray color.  From my interpretation of the map, I take that to mean that we have fairly high (but not the highest) climate stability, and high levels of intact vegetation, which is to be expected in a place known as the Evergreen State, I would think! 

Climate refugees. Look at all of the pale cream and light orange areas on the map-- those are the areas most likely to be hit hard by climate change, and those where conservation efforts will require maximum resources and offer minimal impact.  Will the billions of people who call those areas home be able to survive, or will they be forced to move to the green, gray, or dark orange areas?  This is one aspect of climate change that is not often mentioned: areas where resources are currently plentiful will experience stress as more people migrate to the area after fleeing declining conditions in their own regions.  We can expect conflicts to arise as a result, especially in regions of the globe that already experience political instability.

The need for action. This map says loud and clear: look at all of these vulnerable areas. Look at all of these vulnerable people, animals, and ecosystems.  With climate change occurring at an unprecedented and increasing rate, every day lost to inaction is another life lost, another species gone extinct, and even more ground that we will have to find a way to make up.  Stay tuned to my blog and read back through the older posts for ideas on how you can minimize your personal impact on climate change. Find a climate change campaign that you're able to get onboard with: is a great place to start. And be sure to support initiatives, legislation, and government leaders with a goal of protecting our environment and taking action against the biggest threat we have ever faced: climate change.

Did you find anything surprising on the map? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Environmental Issues: Deforestation

There are numerous environmental issues currently plaguing our planet and threatening the function of our ecosystems and the species they contain, which in turn threatens our own survival and quality of life.  Among these issues are pollution, deforestation, climate change and others.  In these “Environmental Issues” articles, I’ll take a closer look at each of these threats and investigate how they specifically affect Washington State.

When it comes to environmental issues today, deforestation is one of the “big ones”, and affects every part of our ecosystems: air, soil, water, and the species that live there.  According to the World Wildlife Fund, forests currently cover 31% of the planet, and are being lost at a rate of 46-58 million square miles per year due to logging, development, or conversion of forestland to agriculture. This is roughly equivalent to losing a forest area the size of 36 football fields per minute.  When we think of how important forests are to our planet, that rate of forest loss is frightening to consider!

Our forests are not just pretty to look at-- they also provide essential ecosystem functions:

Carbon sequestration: forests are “sinks” for carbon, meaning that trees and other forest vegetation store carbon in their tissues and prevent it from being released into the atmosphere. Deforestation is responsible for an estimated 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions per year

Clean air: trees and other vegetation take in carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into oxygen.  I think we’ve all experienced that wonderful moment when you walk into a forest and take a great deep breath of air so fresh that it’s nearly intoxicating.  We can thank the trees for that!

Clean water: forests help to keep waterways clean by holding soil in place and preventing it from washing into streams and rivers.  Additionally, trees can take up contaminants from water and soil, preventing them from contaminating our water sources.

Habitat: forests provide habitats for innumerable species of animals.  The biodiversity of tropical rainforests alone is astounding: an estimated 80% of known and documented species can be found in these forests.

Deforestation is the gravest threat in areas of the world containing tropical rainforests.  In the Amazon and areas of Indonesia especially, rainforest is being plowed over or burned for conversion to agriculture, cattle ranches or palm oil plantations at alarming rates.  Already, 20% of the forest cover in the Amazon has been lost, and along with it, the environmental stability and biodiversity of those areas.  Deforestation is a major problem in many parts of the world, but I always wonder…

What about Washington?
Is the Evergreen State suffering such alarming deforestation rates as other parts of the globe? A US Forest Service report for the years 2002-2006 indicated that Washington State is actually faring pretty well at the moment. Today, the forest cover in Washington is at about 50% of total land area, and is being converted to other uses (agriculture, development, etc.) at a rate of around 0.37% per year. Despite the slowly declining forest cover, Washington forests are currently a net sink for carbon. This means that tree growth in our state exceeds the rate of tree harvest and mortality, so our forests are actually helping to curtail greenhouse gas emissions rather than contributing to them.

The horizontal notch in this cedar stump at St. Edward State park in Kenmore is evidence 
of the logging that occurred here earlier in the 20th century.  Loggers inserted a springboard 
into this notch to stand upon as they chopped the tree down.

My research turned up two major causes of deforestation in our state: Our well-established timber industry and a growing population resulting in conversion of land from forest to subdivisions and developments.

It is common knowledge that Washington has had a healthy timber industry since being settled over a hundred years ago—in fact, much of the forested land that surrounds us is actually second growth forest that thankfully returned after the area was logged decades ago.  For the most part, the timber industry in our area manages their forestland well by replanting trees and selectively logging different areas, so to avoid clearcutting large swaths of land all at once.  These sustainable forestry practices protect our natural resources and ensure that tree harvest rates do not exceed the forest’s ability to regenerate. Drive through the Weyerhaeuser logging areas in southwest Washington and you’ll be able to see new forests in varying stages of maturity after the land was logged and replanted years ago.

Although the timber industry in our state seems to be doing well overall with sustainability, the land development side of things has unfortunately not kept pace.  A Department of Natural Resources report notes that with the population of our state expected to increase significantly over the next few decades, increasingly more forestland will be developed to sustain the influx of people. New subdivisions with paved streets and non-native landscaping are replacing forests at alarming rates in some areas. These subdivisions create costly problems with pollution and increased stormwater runoff, which the forests once used to mitigate. In our state, deforestation due to conversion of land to subdivisions is expected to have the highest rates in the Puget Sound area and along the I-5 corridor.

New housing in the Issaquah highlands.  

With a growing population and increasing rates of deforestation, what are some of the threats that are a particular concern in Washington?

We love our salmon here in Washington . Along with apples and evergreen trees, they are among our state’s most well-known natural resources. However, it would not be possible to have salmon without the forests which are so critical to maintaining ideal salmon habitat.  They shade the rivers and streams and prevent water temperatures from becoming unsuitably warm.  Trees also help to hold soil in place along stream and river banks, controlling erosion and keeping the water clear and clean.

Wildlife such as bears, cougar, deer, owls and others are being displaced as their forest habitats are cut down and converted into other uses.  These days, stories of bears or coyotes wandering through someone's backyard are considered newsworthy.  However, human-wildlife encounters should only be expected to increase as humans continue to build their homes in the formerly forested areas where these animals once lived.

Polluted Rainwater Runoff
In our rain-drenched climate, rainwater runoff can become a serious problem in areas that have been subjected to deforestation.  When an area is logged, leveled, paved over and crammed with new homes, the trees that once took up the rainwater are no longer there.  As a result, there is no place for the rainwater to go except to wash down streets and into storm drains, where it is then funneled into nearby waterways.  This can lead to pollution of creeks and rivers, as the runoff contains oil, heavy metals, and other pollutants picked up along the way. 

Landslides and Erosion
Without tree roots to anchor the soil, hillsides and riverbanks will become unstable.  We’ve already seen news stories about homes in danger of sliding off the edge of a hill after heavy rains instigated massive landslides.  

Loss of Identity
What a sad day it would be if we ever get to the point where Washington is no longer known as the Evergreen State.  I truly hope that we do not ever see the day where we have removed so much of our forest land that our very identity is altered.  A Washington with barren hillsides covered in rows of cookie-cutter houses, muddy waterways bereft of salmon, and skylines comprised solely of buildings instead of treetops is not Washington to me. Thankfully, a portion of our forests are either under state or federal protection, and will not be in danger of deforestation.  When it comes to private landowners, the Forests and Fish Law provides  management practices to ensure that activities on privately owned lands are protecting salmon habitat and clean water.

It is encouraging to see that deforestation, as of right now, is not an out-of-control problem in Washington State.  Yes, forest cover is decreasing each year as land is converted from forest to other uses, but there are protections in place to help keep potential deforestation threats from getting out of hand.  And let’s not dismiss the potential of millions of Washingtonians who are passionate about their Evergreen State and want to keep it that way!  Together, we can have a very formidable and powerful voice to ensure that our forests do not disappear.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Musings: Before and After

As all of us well know, there are some experiences in life that, once we've gone through them, forever divide our life story into "before " and "after". Major events such as getting your driver's license, getting married, having children, losing a loved one - all of these are instances where our lives "after" the event are radically different than they were "before".  This phenomenon came to mind during a recent hike as I realized that there is another "before and after" in my own life: nature experiences before my ecology education, and nature experiences after my ecology education.  I found that going on a hike armed with knowledge about the ecological history of our region was a much different experience than when I had hiked it previously, in blissful ignorance of the history that was writ in the scenery all around me.

The hike of which I speak is the Big Four ice caves, located in the midst of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  Most people in the area have either heard of or hiked this beautiful, well-maintained trail that slopes gently uphill toward the ice caves nestled at the base of the imposing Big Four mountain.  I first hiked this trail when I was a child, but I unfortunately have a horrible memory and so don't recall very much about that experience.  The second time I hiked to the ice caves was a few years ago, when I was just beginning my environmental studies education, but yet still didn't know enough to tell a hemlock from a Douglas fir. During this hike, I marveled at the beautiful scenery, breathed deeply the intoxicating fresh air, tilted my head back to squint at the treetops against the rainy gray sky, and had it not been for the manicured gravel trail and boardwalks, I could have easily been convinced that I was the only human to have ever trod on that piece of earth. I felt as though I was in an undiscovered wilderness.

The feeling was entirely different during my most recent excursion to the ice caves.  Immediately after setting foot in the forest, I was thrown off by an overwhelming sensation that something didn't feel right here. Scanning the trees around me, I quickly realized what the problem was: I stood in a homogeneous forest comprised almost solely of hemlock trees.  Forests are not supposed to be homogeneous.  Typically in this region, you would expect to see varying combinations of hemlock, western red cedar, Douglas fir, maple, and alder, among others.  These trees would be at different stages in their lifespan: some young trees still in the early years of their growth, some towering mature trees, and some older trees that were in their declining years, ready to topple over in the next windstorm. However, none of those sights were to be found: all of these trees were hemlock and they were nearly all the same size.  That got me wondering: was this was a second-growth forest that took root years ago after this land had been logged?  Clearly, this was not "undiscovered wilderness" after all.

Yep.. nothing but hemlocks...

After doing a little extra research after returning from my hike, I found that in fact, in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, there was a busy mining and logging industry in what is now the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  There was also plenty of recreation for the wealthy to be had at the Big Four Inn. Built in the early 1920's, the inn featured a golf course, man-made lake, tennis courts, and of course - the hiking trail to the Big Four ice caves. Eerily enough, the inn was burned to the ground 64 years ago today, on Sept. 7th, 1949, and all that remains is the fireplace, currently located at the Big Four picnic area. 

 The Big Four Inn and cabins at the base of Big Four mountain.  

There certainly was a great deal of human activity in the area, and although I can't verify for sure that the forest surrounding the Big Four ice caves trail was logged at some point in its history, all of my ecology studies tell me that it probably was.  Without the knowledge gleaned from my ecology courses, I would never have thought to investigate the history of the area and find out the story behind the scenery.  Before: blissful ignorance of feeling as though this was untouched wilderness.  After: noticing incongruousness in the ecology of the forest that leads to a revelation that in fact, this piece of nature has been significantly altered by the presence of humans.

Is there something wrong with feeling as though you're in an undiscovered wilderness when in fact, you likely stand in the midst of a second-growth forest that has not escaped the impact of humans? Should everyone be expected to recognize historical human impacts in the ecology of a certain area?  No, not at all.  You know why? That lost-in-the-wilderness feeling, that feeling of discovery and connecting to wild nature-- that is what makes people fall in love with it.  That is what fosters a sense of awe and respect for nature, and what inspires people to protect it.  So while knowledge is a good thing, at the same time, I think both the earth and ourselves will benefit from having more individuals experience that feeling of discovery.  Not everyone has to be an ecologist, but if we can somehow find ways to connect with nature that causes us to fall in love with it and fight for its protection, then in some way, each of us can be an environmentalist.  And there is nothing wrong with that!

I would say this is worth protecting!