Friday, September 30, 2016

Musings: Last Chance Tourism

Mount Baker still covered in white, Summer 2016

Last chance tourism is the latest trend for globe-trotting travelers. The "last chance" doesn't refer to getting in on a good deal on airfare at the last minute, or scoring a seat on an overbooked expedition after being on the waitlist forever. Nope, last chance tourism is something a bit more somber: it has to do with climate change.

As Earth warms, we're witnessing the face of the planet change forever. Some areas are melting, some are parched, some are drowning. Ecosystems are shifting and changing and many species are in decline. Unique and irreplaceable places are being lost at an alarming rate, and it is to these places - the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica, low-lying tropical islands like the Maldives - that tourists are flocking, in order to see these places before they disappear forever. Because let's face it: once the ice fields of Antarctica melt, they're not coming back anytime soon.

A recent article from the Sierra Club explains the paradox of last chance tourism. These already- sensitive places are struggling with the effects of climate change, and now the influx of tourists is putting further pressure on the imperiled ecosystems. The tourists may be hastening the demise of the very places they're racing to see before they're gone forever.

The article got me wondering: how would last chance tourism apply to our home here in Washington state? What are we losing to climate change? What places do we need to visit, what hallmarks of the region do we need to witness before they're gone? Here are a few that I came up with...

Mountain snow

With mountain snowpack less than half of normal, the winter of 2014/2015 gave us a grim look into the future, as winters will become warmer and average freezing levels race ever-higher up the slopes of the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Warmer weather means that precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, leaving the mountains with very little of that cold white stuff we're used to seeing them swathed in during the colder months.

Less snowpack is bad news for everyone. During the hot summer months, ecosystems rely on water supplied by the slowly-melting snowpack to feed rivers and streams. No snowpack means no supply of water during the summer. And during the cold winter months, the skiers and snowboarders who flock to the mountains also rely on snow - it's kind of hard to ski without it. And with our mountain passes and ski areas located near the freezing level, it won't take much warming to push that freezing line to a higher elevation and leave those ski areas warmer, soggy, and snowless.

Don't miss out: enjoy the sight of snowcapped mountains on the horizon, and get up there to play in the white stuff while you still can.


With carefully timed migration and spawning, and with their requirement for cold water, salmon species are especially susceptible to a warming climate. As the climate changes, the volume of water in rivers and streams will change from what the salmon are adapted to. The Pacific Northwest is projected to see more days of intense heavy rainfall, which will flood salmon spawning streams; damaging nests and washing away eggs. Additionally, the lack of snowmelt feeding into rivers and streams during the summertime leaves the water shallower and warmer: not a good thing for these coldwater fish. These conditions also facilitate the spread of disease and parasites among salmon.

Salmon have already suffered greatly due to human activity. I'm sure we've all heard the quotes from the Native tribe histories, where the salmon were once so numerous in Pacific Northwest rivers that you could walk across their backs to cross the river. Thanks to damming rivers and overfishing, salmon populations have plunged. Many species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Now as the climate changes, one-third of salmon habitat will be too warm for these species to inhabit by the end of the century.

Want to make a difference for salmon? Find a conservation organization or check with your county conservation district for streamside planting events, where native plants are put in the ground along creeks and rivers to provide shade and cool the water for salmon.

Don't miss out: sit on the banks of a nearby river or creek and watch these amazing fish return from their long journey to spawn a new generation of salmon. Your county or local watershed might even have salmon spawning events and a map of viewing locations, like Salmon SEEson in the Lake Washington Watershed.


Okay, the forests here in our Evergreen State are not going to disappear, but they are going to change from the forests that we've grown to know and love, as they face threats from warming temperatures and increasing populations of harmful insects.

It's no secret that the hotter, drier summers we're expected to face in the coming decades have a negative impact on trees. Last year's drought left our forests with parched conifers and thirsty decidious trees - couple that with the hotter temperatures (which speed evaporation of water from needles and leaves) and you have some seriously stressed trees. It has become commonplace to see little western red cedars or doug firs along forest edges or in highway medians that have died due to drought stress, their needles an unnatural flaming red. Even now, a year later, trees are still succumbing to the effects of drought stress - even the bigger trees. Hot, dry weather also creates perfect conditions for wildfire. Wildfires are expected to burn larger areas and cause more damage in the coming decades, and will surely consume their fair share of forestland in Washington state.

Insect pests are another threat to forests in our state. Many species of bark beetle exist in our region's forests, and these tiny pests have the power to kill entire stands of mighty trees. The warmer winters (lack of freezing weather), and the hotter, drier summers that leave trees already stressed and vulnerable are the two major factors contributing to the success of these insects. On the east coast, the wooly adelgid is responsible for decimating eastern hemlock trees, and in California nearly 30 million trees have succumbed to the pine bark beetle. We should be prepared for these scenarios to play out in the forests here in Washington as well.

Don't miss out: hike, walk, sit, study, soak in the forests that give the Evergreen State its name.


Fall is a season of change, and this season itself will change along with the warming climate in coming years. Hold on to your pumpkin spice... autumn is going to look a little different. This Grist article outlines a few of the ways climate change will affect autumn across the country. Here in Washington, one big change that we're noticing already this year is in the leaves. Normally we can expect a splendid show of oranges, reds and yellows as the leaves on deciduous trees turn color and drop to the ground. It is these colors - the wading through ankle-deep drifts of gold with a canopy of the same spreading out overhead - that really speaks autumn to us.

However, you may have noticed that things are a little less spectacular this year, especially in regard to many bigleaf maple trees in the area. Some maples are dropping their leaves early, and others have leaves that aren't changing color at all, but rather shrivel and turn brown on their branches before dropping to the ground in crispy heaps. Researchers are pointing to last year's drought and the continued warmer weather this year as a likely culprit for the bigleaf maple's fall foliage bust. The stressed trees simply don't have the resources to keep their leaves, and are forced to drop them early and hope for rain. As hotter, drier summers (and perhaps drought conditions) become the status quo in the coming years, we may need to get used to seeing less of those fall colors we love.

Don't miss out: enjoy those autumn hues in their full glory. 

There are many other wonders and places in the Pacific Northwest threatened by climate change, but the list above is a big-picture look at some of the most noticeable ones. And while nothing will happen overnight and while not all of those listed above will disappear completely, many of these losses are already in progress - although it might be a long "last chance," the day will still come when mountain snow, forests, salmon, and autumn are forever changed, along with our climate.

We will have to adjust to a new normal, but we don't have to face an inevitable goodbye to these hallmarks of Washington state, if we can find a way to act on climate and minimize the impacts of climate change on this beautiful place we call home. Let's keep that in mind as we go about our daily lives - in the personal choices we make, and in the leaders we elect - so that we don't have to become "last chance tourists" in our own home.

For more on the anticipated effects of climate change in Washington, check out my summary of the 2014 National Climate Assessment

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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...

This week, I'm feeling the need to slow things down, sit back, reflect and observe... and so will be sharing a post from the Nature Nerd Wednesday archives, from almost exactly a year ago. Enjoy revisiting these musings with me, which were gleaned during a trip to the magical Methow Valley.

"Whenever I renew a commitment to studying raptors or gulls or crows or the birds in my backyard, more are given, more show themselves... The more we prepare, the more we are "allowed" somehow to see."
~Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Crow Planet
I find Lyanda Lynn Haupt's writing on urban wildlife to be endlessly lovely and inspiring, and so many of her observations ring true in my experience, both in the urban wilderness and the "out there" wilderness. The more I've dedicated myself to studying and observing the world around me, the more I notice, whether it's watching the hummingbirds outside the window of my home, or learning the names of plants and trees I find along a trail in the remote Cascade Mountains. Each interaction with nature where I apply conscious effort toward learning and study helps to develop my eye and leaves me even more prepared to notice more of the same, further enriching my connection to, and fascination with, the natural world.

The quote above reminded me of an experience I had during a recent trip to the Methow Valley. My husband and I were walking the trails through the lonely hills at twilight, appreciating the scenery, wide-open vistas, and fresh air. My husband has a knack for finding wildlife sign, and pointed out a game trail crossing our path. Looking up slope from the trail we were traversing across a hillside, he pointed and in a hushed voice informed me there was a deer up the hill from us. I scanned the brushy hillside, its warm autumn hues turning cool in the blue twilight. It took me awhile to find the female mule deer whose large, intelligent eyes surveyed us coolly from her hiding place, where only her head was visible. Take a look at the photo above: can you find the doe?

Being in the Methow Valley, I knew we were bound to see some deer. But I didn't know how to see deer. This is something my husband has studied, but I have not. While my husband can point out a well-camoflauged deer that's several hundred yards away and barely visible, the best I can usually do is to point out a deer grazing in a grassy green field a few dozen yards away... the kind of deer you'd only miss if you were walking around with your eyes closed. Had I known how to see deer before this, how many more deer would I have seen in my wanderings? How many deer -- or other wildlife for that matter -- have I missed, lacking the knowledgeable eye attuned to spotting them?

I just love how these moments cause us to reflect on our own awareness of the world around us; how little we know and how much more there is to learn. How, after moments like this, we step out our front doors, gaze out the window, hit the trails more fully tuned in and prepared to see those delights which were previously beyond our ability to notice. And how much the richer we are for it!

Oh, and that doe? She's right here:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

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...

Autumn arrives tomorrow! The vine maples of the PNW are already dressed for the party.

With the arrival of the autumnal equinox at 7:21 PST tomorrow morning, we'll officially bid farewell to summer 2016 and welcome autumn, with its promise of cooler weather, changing leaves, foggy mornings and shortening days. We've gotten a preview of this already here in western Washington, as summer appears to have made an early "unofficial" exit. It seems as though the trees have decided to drop their leaves early this year, and the migratory barn swallows vacated our barn weeks ago, leaving the dusty rafters vacant and silent.

This film from Nature 365 reminded me of the quintessential autumn morning in the rural Snoqualmie Valley where I grew up; every morning the bus carried us through farmland socked in with thick fog, dew-coated spiderwebs waved in the tall grasses as the bus blew past, and a huge orange sun rose through the haze - haze thick enough that you could actually look right at the sun without hurting your eyes. I was always amazed at how enormous that sun is.

Have you seen signs of the changing season? What autumn memories come to mind at the sight of fog or falling leaves?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

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...

Sauk Mountain: one of my summer adventures.

Summer is winding down, and along with it the long days spent outdoors hiking, biking, beachcombing, berry picking, and adventuring. As the days become noticeably shorter and we return back to work and back to school, memories of those blissful summer days spent in the sunshine leave us yearning for more adventures in the great outdoors.

And while there is no substitute for actually being out in nature, breathing the fresh air and stretching your legs in the company of leafy trees and chirping birds, I've found a great film that might be the next best thing. While through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is not within the realm of possibility for most of us (me certainly included!), you can experience this feat vicariously through the eyes of hiker Mac of Halfway Anywhere. He compiled one second of footage from each day he hiked the trail, and this fun video is the result:

Did you see the Redwoods of California? Could you tell on exactly which day he reached our lovely Evergreen State? While I'm not a fan of the music, I'm certainly a fan of the scenery. The west coast of the US is an ecologically diverse and beautiful place that we are so fortunate to inhabit!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nature Nerd Wednesday

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...

"There is no
Life I know
To compare with pure imagination
Living there
You'll be free
If you truly wish to be"

Lately the song Pure Imagination from the classic film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been playing in my head over and over, perhaps due to the sad news of Gene Wilder's passing last week, and perhaps due to the two Josh Groban concerts I attended the week previous, both of which Groban opened with his lovely rendition of the song.

These lyrics call to mind the scenery in nature most comparable to the wonders of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory: Pacific Northwest alpine landscapes resplendent in all the hues of autumn.

Blue Lake ranks among my top three favorite hikes of all time, and I had the good fortune to explore this relatively short trail in the North Cascades during the height of autumn last year. The larches were neon green, mellowing to gold; the huckleberries were flaming crimson; other vegetation burst into yellows and oranges. It was the most colorful, magical scenery I'd ever encountered, and left me feeling like I'd stepped into a childhood crayon drawing, an imagined wonderland manifest in reality.

How lucky are we to have this wondrous scenery within reach? Autumn is quickly approaching and the high country will soon be transformed into a scene that could only be contrived from pure imagination. If you haven't witnessed the spectacle in person, be sure to head for the mountains in late September to mid October! You'll leave with feelings of awe, enchantment, and exhilaration that persist within longer than an Everlasting Gobstopper.