Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

A recent study (featured in this Huffington Post article) reported that people who spend time in a forest deliberately engaging with nature experience lower stress levels.  This is a fact that many of us know intuitively and have experienced firsthand after a walk, hike, bike ride, or other activity in nature. We don't need any research to confirm that fact.  Even the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson recognizes that being away from nature can in fact be detrimental to our health and stress levels:
Who leaves the pine-tree, leaves his friend,
Unnerves his strength, invites his end.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Woodnotes"
We certainly don't want to "invite our end," so join me in deliberately engaging with nature via this lovely photo from Washington's own Olympic National Park. Although not the same as being there in person, this photo is still amazing and will inspire you to get outdoors!

NPS Photo
Peace and tranquility just emanate from this photo! Thoreau's "sweet and beneficent society in nature" is perfectly illustrated in this scene, as the vine maples seem to invite you to lie down in the soft green grass beneath their mossy branches and let your cares fade away.  

I can feel those cortisol levels dropping already!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

As a source of inspiration and wonder, and as a means to put things in perspective and connect with something larger than ourselves, there is nothing on earth that can beat the night sky. As mentioned in last week's Nature Nerd Wednesday post, the night sky is certainly at the top of my own list of the most beautiful natural sights (not) on earth.

Here is a stunning image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope:

Hubble Ultra Deep Field: NASA
What is so stunning about this image?  Take a close look and you'll notice that each of those bright lights are not stars. They are individual galaxies, each comprised of billions of stars and situated billions of light years away from earth. (There actually are two stars that show up in the foreground of the image: one more or less in the center, and one in the bottom center.  They are distinguishable by their "starburst" of light). 

What should really knock your socks off about this photograph is the miniscule area of night sky that it represents.  According to the description on the Hubble website, the area of the night sky in this photo is equivalent to the amount of sky you would see if you stood on earth and peered up at the heavens through a drinking straw. When you consider how many drinking straw-sized copies of the photo above it would take to completely cover the night sky outside your window, the implications are astounding. There are numbers of galaxies beyond imagination out there, hidden in plain view by the immense distance of outer space. Our own Milky Way galaxy is similar to the spiral galaxy in the lower left corner of the photo, and our sun an invisible pinprick of a star hidden among its hazy outer fringes. And our earth an even smaller speck yet. Talk about perspective.

When we look up at the night sky, we see countless stars.  Without images such as the one above, we would never be able to conceive that the seemingly empty spaces between the stars are actually filled with innumerable far-distant galaxies that are invisible to the naked eye.  It draws us to the realization that our universe is so much more expansive than we ever thought - or that we ever will be able to comprehend. (Is your brain hurting yet? Because mine usually does when I start thinking about these things!)

Although the awe-inspiring scene above won't be visible to earth-bound backyard stargazers (since I'm afraid most of us are lacking the required super-powerful telescope capable of capturing infrared light...) the night sky still holds plenty of interest. With an inexpensive telescope or pair of binoculars, anyone can enjoy a night of star-, planet-, or moon-gazing. On a clear night, just make some hot chocolate, grab a blanket, douse the outdoor lights on your house and head outside to admire the magnificence of the unfathomable universe wheeling overhead.  It will be time well spent.

To find out what planets or other astronomical items of interest are visible in the sky tonight and where to look for them, check out EarthSky, or for more detailed options look at Tonight's Sky.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Environmental Issues: Are Protected Wilderness Areas Still "Wilderness" in an Era of Climate Change?

Lainey Piland photo
"In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States... leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
These are the opening lines of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.  This crucial act has protected 110 million acres of designated wilderness in the United States.

Although there are 618 million acres of federal wildlands, only a portion of those are protected as wilderness; areas described in the Wilderness Act as being places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain... an area of undeveloped land retaining its primeval character and influence... affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable... has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..."

The picture here is quite clear.  Wilderness areas are those which--although visited by humans--have been unchanged by our presence.  However, on this 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, many people are beginning to question whether wilderness is still wilderness in the era of climate change.

Our society has burned fossil fuels without restraint, raised the atmospheric carbon dioxide level to the highest it has been in human history, and is causing our global climate to change. Although designated wilderness areas may remain "untrammeled by man" in the sense that we're not paving over the forests and building Wal-Marts or luxury resorts, these previously wild areas are very much affected by the climate change humans have created.

In the eyes of the Federal government, lands preserved under the Wilderness Act are still designated as wilderness.  However, in reality, do they still retain their primeval character? Are they still affected primarily by the forces of nature? Are they still untrammeled by man? It seems as though we are coming to the realization that no, these descriptions no longer apply to our 110 million acres of protected wilderness.  Humans have become a force of nature, and by means of climate change we're trammeling the heck our of our wilderness areas.

How are our wilderness areas going to be affected by climate change? This New York Times opinion piece offers great examples: a warming climate could lead to the extirpation of Joshua trees from the National Park that bears their name.  The giant redwoods of California may not survive in a drier climate. As tree species migrate to more favorable climates, Tuolumne Meadows in John Muir's beloved Yosemite is at risk of becoming a forest.  And the list goes on.

With these significant effects in mind, the question then turns to a touchy subject for many people.  Do we do anything about it? As suggested by the NYT article referenced above, do we start managing and meddling in the wilderness areas to try to retain the natural features which caused them to be protected in the first place? Or, as others may prefer, do we adhere to the sentiment of the Wilderness Act and leave things alone; simply accepting a Joshua tree wilderness with no Joshua trees, or Tuolumne Meadows that are no longer meadows but now a forest?

I stand somewhere in the gray area between these two options.  In situations where we can reasonably intervene to protect the flora and fauna of a particular Wilderness area, I believe we should do so.  However, there were a few questions that stood out in my mind that I believe we should consider before taking any such action:

1. Will it exacerbate climate change?  Any actions that are energy or resource-intensive or which involve removing trees and other vegetation (which store carbon) could potentially contribute to climate change. The end result would be a worsening of the problem that necessitated these actions in the first place.

2. Is there a possibility of a successful and sustainable outcome long-term? We need to consider whether it makes sense to strive as long as possible to stave off changes that are inevitable. For instance, if we decide to irrigate a redwood forest to keep it alive in a hotter, drier climate in the coming decades, will we continue to irrigate the forest for decades after that, when the climate grows hotter and drier yet, and when water will be in short supply? Tragically, there will likely be many cases in which practicality wins out and we will have to step back and let nature take its course, and take some of our treasured landscapes along with it.

But... if our global society makes a serious commitment to address climate change, perhaps we can maintain certain wilderness areas in the meantime, preserving them for a future in which the worst effects of climate change have been avoided, and these areas can once again flourish on their own, in their original glory.

Lainey Piland photo
I've come across several articles questioning whether the Wilderness Act is still relevant. In terms of protecting wilderness in its original "primeval" state unaffected by humans - no. Climate change has ruined that possibility. In terms of protecting large natural areas of our country from development - absolutely! Wilderness areas provide wildlife habitat, clean the air and water, and offer tremendous opportunities for outdoor recreation and inspiration.  We absolutely need to keep these areas under protection--and continue expanding them--for those very reasons.

I spent a great deal of time outdoors as a child, and I remember traipsing through the woods near my home, stopping every so often to look down at the dirt beneath my feet and wonder "has any other person stood on this exact spot before me?" I truly believed that the rubber soles of my child-sized Keds were the first to touch that exact patch of earth.  Perhaps the earth two feet to my left had already been touched by another person, but the exact earth under my feet - nope, I was the first. I remember feeling completely awe-inspired at the (perhaps fictitious) notion of discovery and untouched wilderness.  A visit to our nation's lands protected under the Wilderness Act can allow any person to experience that same feeling upon encountering sweeping meadows, an old-growth forest, or soaring mountains, existing in the complete and utter absence of any human development.  How sad that the authenticity of such an experience is equally as threatened by climate change as the very landscapes that inspire it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

 Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

My vote for Most Beautiful Place - The Snoqualmie Valley. Lainey Piland photo

Typically, I like to share nature photos from the Pacific Northwest on Nature Nerd Wednesdays, but let's face it... even I will grudgingly admit that there are other parts of the planet just as beautiful and awe-inspiring.

So, this Wednesday, get out your bucket list and take a look at this Mother Nature Network photo gallery of "30 of the most beautiful places in the world".  Although for some reason the creators of the gallery overlooked the place on earth that I consider most beautiful (the Snoqualmie Valley here in Western WA) there are still some absolutely amazing photos of natural scenery that in some cases could be considered otherworldly. Actually, number 31 is literally otherworldly... and probably my personal favorite on this list.

What about you?  What place on earth do you consider to be the most beautiful?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

It can be difficult to cope with situations or periods in our lives where we feel out of place; where the scenery surrounding us is unfamiliar and lacking the sense of comfort and home to which we are accustomed.  But these situations can also be opportunities for new discoveries.

For the majority of my life, I lived in areas surrounded by trees and nature. Birds were chirping, the air was fresh, and towering doug fir, maple, and cedar trees watched over the comings and goings of my life.  The last few years however, I've been living in a small condo surrounded by freeways and parking lots. There are a few trees around, but not enough to block out the noise and view of nearby street traffic and make this place feel like home.

When we find ourselves in new situations or surroundings, it commonly happens that we find something new to appreciate, something new to which we can attach a sense of belonging.  Instead of verdure, my current abode offers amazing views of that great expanse of sky stretching overhead which heretofore has largely been blocked from view by my beloved trees.

This Nature Nerd Wednesday, I wanted to share with you an accidental photo project that has been about nine months in the making.  It started out with a photo of lovely fall foliage on a brilliant sunny day, and continued from there as I occasionally wandered out onto my balcony and snapped photos of clouds, sunsets, blue sky... whatever beautiful sight captured my attention at that particular moment. 

These were all taken from the same place and for the most part, I was able to frame the photos between the same treetops.  So here we have it: a new aspect of nature I've been able to connect to in my new home... represented in four seasons of sky photos.

Photo #1 - Autumn
Photo #2 - Winter snow day

Photo #3 - Winter sunset
Photo #4 - Raincloud
Photo #5 - Early spring afternoon
Photo #6 - Spring storms
Photo #7 - Spring storms round two
Photo #8 - Moonrise
Photo #9 - Lazy summer afternoon
Photo #10 - Dusky summer evening
Photo #11 - Last rays of light
...needless to say, I have gained a whole new appreciation for the depth of a clear blue sky, and for the beauty and ever-changing magnificence of clouds!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nature Nerd Wednesdays

Welcome to Nature Nerd Wednesdays, your mid-week nature break to reconnect with the calming, refreshing, and inspiring effects of nature. Take a deep breath and enjoy...

Mount Rainier over the Snoqualmie Valley.  Lainey Piland photo
This Nature Nerd Wednesday, we'll be focusing on the words "cold" and "refreshing" in light of the recent hot weather that has settled over western Washington.  Yesterday, temperatures outdoors quickly reached the upper eighties... maybe even ninety.  What a way to kick off the month of July!

Driving home from the grocery store yesterday and still sweating after lugging heavy bags of groceries through a sweltering parking lot to my car, I was seriously in need of relief from the heat. Visions of popsicles, iced coffee drinks, and cold swimming pools were dancing through my head as I crested a hill on the freeway, and there before me rose the imposing, icy white countenance of Mount Rainier.

Talk about refreshing! Just one look at that mountain was nearly enough to give me goosebumps.

For more "cool" views, be sure to check out the National Park Service webcams at Mount Rainier. The Sunrise and Camp Muir webcams are now back up and running, and offer awesome mountain views.

National Park Service webcam at Sunrise on Mount Rainier
According to a recent CNN article, Mount Rainier is the most ice-covered peak in the lower 48 states, which is certainly easy to believe! Perhaps that explains the goosebump-inducing view...

If you're planning to visit the mountain in person this summer (which of course you should!) this Seattle Times article has great tips on what areas to visit, when to go, and where to stay.