Thursday, December 28, 2017

Looking back at 2017: Top 5 most-read posts on the blog this year

Here we are once again, in the last few days of the fading year, reflecting on the past twelve months and looking forward to what the New Year will bring. Admittedly, I was preoccupied much of the year with caring for my son who was born in May, so I wasn't able to keep up with the blog as much as I'd have liked. However, as is tradition, let's take a look back at the top five most-read posts on the blog this year:

1. Environmental Issues: Plastic Pollution

While holding the title as the singular material responsible for the convenience and ease of our daily lives, plastic is also causing an ecological disaster. It's time to consider a new approach to our lives that involves less plastic. Much less. No plastic, if possible.


2. Wanderings: Saint Edward State Park (again) 

One of the best things about hiking is that you can return time and again to the same place, and not once will you have the same experience. Here, I introduce my son to one of my favorite places.


3. Musings: Behind the Scenes of my Vantage Point 

My post for the Vantage Point project, where photographers share a photo from a special vantage point and the story behind it. Can you guess where my Vantage Point is?


4. Environmental Issues: Washington State Climate Change Update 

A look at the NOAA updated climate summary report for Washington, looking at how climate change has affected our state already, and projecting future changes as global temperatures continue to warm. As is to be expected, the news isn't good.


5. Going Green: Lights out for climate during Earth Hour 2017 

When it comes to Earth Hour, it's not the act of turning your lights off for an hour that really matters - it's the commitment behind it. It's acknowledging that climate change is an issue, that it affects every corner of our planet, and that you are dedicated to being part of the solution - not just for an hour, but for as long as it takes to tackle the problem. 

As you can see at a glance, this year's articles are more focused on environmental issues rather than my outdoor adventures, which were nearly nonexistent this year. I'm hoping to get outdoors more in the New Year - I've suffered for lack of time in nature, and it's about time to rectify that situation.

Here's to a 2018 with mud on our boots, fresh air in our lungs, and perhaps a few raindrops on our heads.
 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Evergreen State Shirts are Here!

This Nature Nerd decided to take on a fun project this holiday season, and I'm excited to share with you the very first shirt design from A Day Without Rain! This design idea has been in my head for a few years, and I finally found a way to make it happen.

I'm very excited to sport my new shirt on the trails next year, and I hope you all will join me in showing your love for our Evergreen State!

Shirts are on sale now through December 14th.

ORDER HERE


Saturday, November 4, 2017

Environmental Issues: Plastic Pollution


Cannon Beach, September 2011

Salty sea breezes, crashing waves and footprints in wet sand. A visit to the beach brings back nostalgic memories of youth, offers opportunities for discovery, and leaves one with a refreshed perspective as we stand before the frothing tide and gaze outward at the vast ocean. When we look at the ocean, we see an immense body of heaving water stretching to a horizon we'll never reach. What we do not see is the alarming volume of plastic churning within those waves.

While holding the title as the singular material responsible for the convenience and ease of our daily lives, plastic is also causing an ecological disaster. I recently attended a workshop put on by the King Conservation District, Horses for Clean Water, and Plastic Ain't Our Bag on the subject of reducing our use of plastics. Although this is an issue with which I've long been familiar, even I was surprised at the information that was presented on the issue as I sat in horrified awe in the classroom at Brightwater Environmental Education Center late one Friday evening.

Plastic by the Numbers

  • 300 million tons of plastic is produced annually
  • More than 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans annually
  • Of the plastic entering the oceans, 80% comes from watersheds, meaning it is discarded on land and washed into the ocean through rivers, creeks, etc. 
  • Less than 10% of plastic is recycled. It is more cost-effective to produce new plastic than to recycle existing plastic
  • 100% of the plastic ever made is still in existence
  • 50% of the plastic in existence was produced just within the last 13 years [article]

The Problem with Plastic


Plastic seems an innocuous enough material, and we can recycle it, right? So where's the issue?

The biggest problem with plastic is that it never goes away. As noted above, every piece of plastic ever made since the material was introduced during WWII is still in existence today. Plastic does not biodegrade - if it breaks down at all, it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. These plastics typically end up in the marine environment, where they cause big problems. Fish, plankton, and sea birds consume the plastic, which either causes them to be a toxic meal for whichever predator eats them, or kills them outright as their bellies fill with non-digestible plastic, as happens to so many Laysan albatross chicks. It has been estimated that salmon ingest 30 pieces of plastic per day, and whales can ingest 300,000 pieces per day. Alarming for us humans is the finding that the average seafood-eating person consumes 11,000 pieces of plastic per year in the form of micro-plastics that we cannot see.

Another issue with plastic is its toxicity. Made of petroleum and other harmful chemicals, plastic itself is toxic enough. But set bits of plastic loose in the ocean, and they become sponges for other hazardous materials like persistent organic pollutants (POPs) present in the water, causing plastics in the ocean to be one million times more toxic than the seawater around them. One MILLION times more toxic. Makes one consider that perhaps when a piece of plastic washes ashore, it should be roped off for public safety and removed by someone in a hazmat suit.

Consider plastic's persistence and its toxicity, and you've got a recipe for another issue. Plastics and their toxic loads bioaccumulate. This means that with each step up the food chain you go, the greater the concentration of plastic toxins. This is a problem for those animals at the top of the food chain (like humans and orca whales) who can experience adverse health effects such as hormone disruption from toxins accumulating in their tissues.

Recycling is Not the Answer


Especially not now. Just weeks ago, China imposed a ban on importing plastics and mixed paper from the United States, which has left American recycling companies without a market for these materials. You might be thinking hold on a minute - I thought the recycling companies like Waste Management and Republic Services actually recycled the things I put in my curbside bin? I thought so too, but as it turns out, those companies typically only collect and sort our recyclables, which are then compressed into bales and sold to other entities who do the actual recycling. Chinese recycling companies have found plastics coming from the US are too contaminated to be feasibly recycled, which means that because we Americans aren't rinsing our laundry detergent jugs and scraping out peanut butter jars well enough, we may now be without an option to recycle our plastic items.

I was shocked to learn of this development when I attended the workshop. Why is no one talking about this, especially the companies who provide our recycling service?! I have heard NOTHING from Waste Management about this problem, although I now have an inquiry in to them to see how they're addressing the issue. We shall see if they respond. In the meantime, the plastic items in our recycling bins may soon be destined for the landfill rather than new life as a recycled item.

[Update 11/10/2017: Waste Management replied to me with this information: The ban limits contaminated recycling from entering the country, but WM is continuing to focus on quality improvement to ensure that the recyclables are clean, high-quality products. Additionally, WM has well-developed relationships with a variety of end-market recycling companies. For example, many recyclables will be shifting to an end market in Spokane, WA by the end of the year. Good news for my recyclables, anyway...]
 

We All Contribute to the Plastic Problem


You don't have to litter to contribute to the issue of plastic pollution. Even those who dutifully recycle their plastic and who would never consider tossing that empty pop bottle or used plastic fork out the car window are still participating in the problem. If you purchase items packaged in plastic, if you use cleaning products or personal care products containing plastic microbeads, if you wear synthetic clothing, if you use any plastic in your life at all - and that's all of us - then you're complicit. We pollute waterways with plastic simply by showering, washing laundry, and cleaning the house, so it's important that we recognize our part in creating the problem, and our responsibility to address it, by making changes in our own lives and as consumers demanding that manufacturers do the same.

Just think about this for a minute... when you purchase a six-pack of soda or beer, what do you do with the plastic rings that hold them together? We all do what we were told, which is to cut the rings so that no animal, fish, or bird can become entangled in it. Then we toss it in the garbage. We are acknowledging, by the very action of cutting the rings apart, that this piece of plastic will likely end up in the environment after leaving our possession, whether in the ocean or on land, and we do not want to be responsible for entangling and killing a wild creature.

Okay, so we have a material that is persistent, toxic, produced in huge volumes, and soon may not be recyclable. This is not sustainable.

It's time to consider a new approach to our lives that involves less plastic. Much less. No plastic, if possible. It will be better for our own health, better for the oceans, better for wildlife and the environment as a whole. Plastic pollution is an enormous issue. I presented an overview of the problem here, and in an upcoming Going Green post I'll share some solutions, after I do some investigating and experimentation with my own routine to find plastic-free options that work. In the meantime, here are some simple steps you can take right away to reduce your use of plastics:
  • Reusable grocery bags. Keep them in your car, and you'll always have them at the ready.
  • Reusable (non-plastic!) water bottles and hot beverage travel mugs.
  • Say no to plastic straws and silverware: stash a reusable metal or glass straw and a spork in your bag for dining out.
  • Ban microbeads. Forego the soaps, toothpaste and cleaning products with microbeads and opt for more environmentally-friendly options with natural ingredients. Healthier for you, too!
  • Avoid purchasing products packaged in plastic. For instance, give regular old hand towels a try in place of those Costco paper towels, which are individually wrapped in plastic, then wrapped in more plastic to hold them all together. Being able to recognize excessive plastic packaging for what it is - rather than assuming it's normal - is an important first step in making these changes!
Stay tuned for more.

For more information:

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Wanderings: Saint Edward State Park (again)

Crow along the Lake Washington waterfront, Saint Edward State Park. Lainey Piland photo

One of the best things about hiking is that you can return time and again to the same place, and not once will you have the same experience. The landscape changes with the seasons, the weather, the time of day. What you notice - hear, see, and smell -  will vary depending on your companions, mood, the pace at which you're walking.

Saint Edward State Park has long been one of my favorite places to visit, and has been featured in many posts here on the blog. It was the place where, on a field trip with my college ecology class, I first forged a connection with nature in a way that piqued my curiosity, commanded my respect, and fostered a sense of stewardship. It was the first place my older sister and I hiked together, the beginning of our adventures which have since taken us to some pretty spectacular places. It was the place my husband and I frequently visited to escape the summer heat when we lived in a condo nearby. It was the first place I took my son for a hike when he was a month old, and the place our family returned to in early September, this time with a four-month old who is already beginning to love the outdoors.

Early on Labor Day morning, we pulled into the parking area at Saint Edward, hoping to get in a quick hike before the day reached its forecast high temperature in the mid-nineties. I'd spent the long, sweltering weekend shut inside my house with my son, with all the blinds closed and curtains drawn, and our faithful portable air conditioner attempting to cool much more square footage than it was designed for. Needless to say, I was going stir-crazy and starting to wonder if my eyes were permanently adapted to dim lighting.

Happily, the air was still a comfortable temperature and I wasn't blinded by the morning sunshine as we packed Lucas into the baby carrier my husband wore and headed for the North Beach trail. It was immediately evident that the forest here was suffering as a result of the hot, rain-bereft summer. The trail was dry and dusty, the consistency of powdered sugar. Dust covered everything: sword fern fronds were caked, and the usually-glossy salal leaves were dull beneath the layer of dirt. Salmonberry leaves withered on their branches, and bigleaf maple were already beginning to drop golden leaves in our path.




The trails were surprisingly busy for this time of the morning. Other hikers seemed to have the same idea to beat the heat as we did, and many were already passing us on their way back to the parking lot and the air-conditioned comfort of their vehicles. We proceeded down the trail at a much slower pace than usual. My husband was being cautious of his footing, not wanting to take a misstep and risk a tumble while he carried our son, and I was ever more aware of the tree roots and rocks poking up, pointed them out on the path in front of us. Lucas seemed absolutely delighted to be outside (he was probably feeling as stir-crazy as me!), and would give us a huge grin whenever we talked to him.

I haven't officially introduced him here on the blog, but here is Lucas, my little adventure buddy who has added a whole new dimension to my life!



After descending to the Lake Washington shoreline, we followed the sedge-lined trail through the cool shade, passing through a grove of indian plum, the leaves of which were beginning to turn yellow as summer wound to a close. I swatted spider webs from my face, spotting them by the glimmer they gave off as the sun rose over the ridge above us and began to light up the trail. The noise from the Kenmore Air seaplanes was especially loud and noticeable this morning, likely because all else was still calm and quiet at this early hour. Again, I was reminded of Thoreau's words in Walden:
"The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side."
Despite the fact that we were hiking in the forest, seemingly immersed in nature, the sounds of civilization are ever-present. The blaring noise of each successive seaplane takeoff announced the departure of dozens of people, heading out on their own adventures while we followed our own quiet path along the lake shore.



A handful of people and leashed dogs were milling around as we reached the clearing at the main beach. Waves lapped quietly at the rocky shoreline, ducks bobbed bottoms-up in the water, and crows poked around the fallen logs. It was a peaceful and drowsy scene, one that seems common on those summer mornings anticipating the hot temperatures to come.


As is our custom, we picked up the South Canyon Trail - my favorite - to head back up to the park. We passed only two other hikers on this typically quiet trail. Again, the vegetation here looked a bit wilted and tired after the long, dry summer, although the maples in my beloved "maple cathedral" still formed a vibrant green canopy overhead. The creek running through the ravine had slowed to a syrupy trickle through its deep bed of black mud, and I was surprised to find any water there at all. One of the beautiful aspects of this trail is the way in which birdsong echoes back and forth between the hillsides, filling the canyon halls with melodies of a dozen different species. Among the voices today was that of my son... Lucas was telling his own story in his typical high-pitched squeals and delighted shrieks as we ascended the trail.


We reached the end of the uphill climb on this half-mile trail, and I was gasping, trying to move the thick, humid air in and out of my lungs as stars danced before my eyes. I was desperately out of shape, and the warm, humid air wasn't helping. As I tried to catch my breath, I looked at the canopy of cottonwood and maple leaves overhead, stirring languidly in a sluggish breeze. At least I wasn't the only one dragging today.

Emerging from the forest back onto the park grounds, I stopped to appreciate the old orchard tucked into a clearing. I haven't stopped to photograph it before, but today the old gnarled apple trees looked peaceful as they stretched their boughs over empty lawns and picnic tables. This place always occurred in my thoughts as a contemplative place to steal away and write, should I ever have the opportunity to do so.


Lucas was by now fast asleep in the carrier, his little arms and legs limp and flopping with each step my husband took. We followed the asphalt path around the back of the seminary grounds. The vast lawns which were normally filled with picnicking families were now eerily empty. The grass had gone brown and dormant during the dry summer, and the barbecue stations were covered with black plastic garbage bags to prevent anyone using them due to high fire danger.

Arriving at the car just as the morning sun was beginning to feel toasty, we loaded a now-awake and smiling Lucas into his car seat for the ride back home. He wouldn't remember his trip here today, but being able to share this special place with him created yet another new and memorable experience for me. Just wait until he's able to walk... these visits will again be something new altogether!


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Musings: Earth Day 2017

I wasn't going to write an Earth Day blog post this year, but had an eleventh-hour change of heart and am blinking blearily at the computer screen late on Earth Day Eve, trying to string some coherent thoughts together. The dire state of things in Washington DC on Earth Day 2017 has thrown additional environmental catastrophes into our realm of possibility, with potential effects that will reach far beyond the borders of our own country.

The Environmental Protection Agency has had "environmental protection" removed from its mission; the president is rolling back protections for clean air and water; tar sands pipelines are being greenlighted despite the known pollution risks and contributions to climate change; and a proposed wall along the US-Mexico border is an affront not only to humanity, but to the endangered species whose habitat spans across the border. And, as we reach a never-before-seen-in-the-history-of-humanity 410 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide, let's not forget the ever-present threat of climate change looming over our tumultuous present and tenuous future, and the ruling party of our country who proffers nothing but wilful ignorance and blatant denial of the reality of this problem.

Things are not looking good.

I can write lengthy posts about the current state of environmental policy and environmental issues in our country, and I can share the perspective from my own homeground as I did in last year's Earth Day musings, but despite my best efforts I can still fail to express the urgency with which we all need to act and participate in addressing these issues and ensuring a livable planet for the future.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is the picture that changed my mind and motivated me to write this post.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this view of planet Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn on April 12, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This is Earth, seen through the rings of Saturn. Captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft just ten days ago, this image should cause all of us to pause. That is Earth. That is us. All of us. That is a family photo of the entire human population, and the flora and fauna with whom we share the planet. Every human who has ever existed has lived and died on that planet. Every living thing in the vast universe (as far as we currently know) has evolved, existed, lived and died on that planet. We are a bright point of light in the utter darkness of space, a tiny pinprick illuminated by a blazing star that is situated close enough to keep the planet from freezing solid, but far enough away to keep us warm without being burnt to a crisp.

That tiny pinprick of light is all we have. That is our planet, and if it fails, then so do we. Where else do we have to go?

Even if we knew of another habitable planet, there is no conceivable way to transport the seven billion humans of planet Earth to a new home. And what of the rest of the living beings on Earth? Would we press our noses to the windows of our spaceship, waving goodbye and wishing good luck to the wildlife we leave behind on a poisoned, ruined planet? There is no ark to shuttle us to safety, and the Lord above isn't going to rescue us from a once-perfect creation that we knowingly ruined out of greed and arrogance.

This is it. We know how our actions are affecting the planet. We know what the problems are, and we have the technology and knowledge to fix them. What we are collectively lacking - globally, and in our country's current leadership - are the very characteristics that typically distinguish humans from other species: the ability to plan for the future, and the altruism that allows us to choose to do the right thing, even if that prevents our own personal gain. We need the wisdom and humility to recognize that sacrificing our own gain and choosing what is good for others is, in the grand scheme, the best for all of us.

Environmental issues are the most pressing problem we face. Forget the economy, forget jobs, forget petty and transient political quibbles and grammatically abhorrent presidential Tweets... without the basic life-support systems of a healthy and functioning planet, we're all sunk. Clean air, clean water, healthy ecosystems, a stable climate, and thriving biodiversity are all necessities for survival, and all are threatened by the political interests currently governing our country. We cannot sit by and allow these things - and our futures - to be destroyed before our eyes.

There is a March for Science being held today. The People's Climate March is making a comeback on April 29th. People are speaking up and fighting back. Pay attention to these marches and the actions that arise from them. Participate, speak up, and call your elected representatives.

The future of our planet is more important to me now than ever. With my first child expected to be born any day now, I have a greater imperative to do what I can to ensure a livable planet for future generations. I will now be leaving behind a human - my own flesh and blood - on that tiny pinprick of light someday, and want my legacy to be one that says "I was here. I cared. I tried."


Past Earth Day posts:

Musings: Earth Day 2016

Nature Nerd Wednesdays - April 22nd, 2015: Earth Day Edition

Earth Day Musings: The time to act on climate change is now (2014)

 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Wanderings: Seeking Spring (2017)

About to follow the trail through the "trillium portal"

Yesterday, in the warming afternoon hours following a cool and rainy morning, my husband and I headed for the Trillium Trail in the Redmond Watershed Preserve, seeking to find this trail's namesake flowers, which should have begun to bloom. We'd strolled through the Watershed two weeks ago, more for exercise and fresh air than anything else, but I'd secretly hoped we might catch a few early trillium. Alas, at that time the forest was still well in the grips of winter and there was nary a trillium to be seen among the damp humus of last autumn's fallen leaves.

The spring trillium hunt is an annual tradition for me. When I was a child, my grandpa and I walked through the woods around my house to count as many trillium as we could find. Now that my grandpa is no longer with us, my husband - who is a trillium-spotting pro - accompanies me on the yearly quest for these simple white flowers. The trillium hunt is a way to reconnect to the memories forged in those childhood rambles through the forest, as well as to seek hopeful signs of spring in the bright white flags blooming through a winter's worth of decay.

We parked at the north entrance of the Watershed to allow us to access the Trillium Trail more quickly, since being eight months pregnant has limited the distance I can comfortably walk, and I wanted to spend as much time on the actual trail as I could. Access via the south parking area requires a bit more walking to reach the Trillium Trail itself. Setting off into the woods, I immediately felt doubtful that we'd spot any trillium today. Still-bare salmonberry branches reached for us as we passed, lacking the delicate growth of new green leaves to soften the stark nakedness of their thorny limbs. Very little greenery pushed up from the forest floor, save for a few patches of lacy bleeding heart. It didn't look promising.



We followed the trail as it rounded the north shore of the pond and crossed the wide grassy swath of the pipeline corridor. Taking a deep breath, I received a pungent lungful of skunk cabbage, which was blooming with gusto in the shallow waters of the pond. Those odd yellow flowers with their undeniably skunky scent are another herald of the spring season - just not the one I was looking for!

Around the bend in the trail lay our best hope for finding trillium, if there were any to be found. We were about to step through the trillium portal, the short section of trail wherein one can usually find the motherlode of these white flowers. Hope still intact, I proceeded down the trail with slow, methodical steps and began to search more intently than ever. My gaze probed among the glistening sword fern still looking flat and tired from a long wet winter, among the vivid green bleeding heart leaves holding rain droplets from morning showers, and among the tiny clusters of unknown leaves that aggravatingly tricked the eye into believing they belonged to a trillium.

A few yards back, my husband called for my attention and pointed to something down the slope from us. My heart leapt - had he spotted one? I quickly backtracked and let my gaze follow his outstretched arm... and there it was. The first trillium of the year. No wait... there was not one trillium, but two. My mouth fell open slightly as I soaked in the sight before me. Of course, of all the trillium we might first spot, this trillium - these two trillium - would have to be it.


They were unusual. Two trillium, facing one another with their white three-petaled buds only partially opened and bowed with the weight of clinging rain droplets. They leaned against one another, rain-sodden leaves wrapped together, each holding the other up. I felt like I was witnessing a private moment between two people.

Now, I'm not a fan of incorporating one's own life story in the telling of nature experiences. When writing them myself, I typically prefer that the experiences remain unfettered by our own agendas and narratives and just be what they are, because those experiences stand alone in their simple beauty without us imposing sweeping life lessons or revelations on them.

But in this case, I couldn't help but stare at those trillium and think of the week I'd just had. After enduring a week that was anything but normal, I had stepped into the forest today not just to look for trillium, but also to seek the hope and reassurance that some kind of normalcy still existed in the world - in feeling the mud squish under my feet, the clean earthy air filling my lungs, and in finding these flowers that come without fail every spring. Without getting into the details, I'll just say I had to spend several evenings in the hospital this past week being monitored for what appeared to be preterm labor and was poked, prodded, and frowned over by enough doctors and nurses to make one feel rather nervous. In the midst of wondering whether our baby was okay; whether I was okay; whether we were all going to be okay; my husband and I had just one choice: we leaned on one another. Like the two trillium, we held each other up as the anxiety and fear rained upon us, weighing us down with uncertainty.

And now I stared at the two trillium before me that had endured their own storm and still held one another in a wet, leafy embrace. Everything had turned out okay. I was fine, the baby was fine, and my husband and I were just fine, although coming out of this we are perhaps holding each day a bit closer, a bit more carefully. We now stood before comforting proof that trillium were blooming once again this spring, as they do every year. The world wasn't completely upside-down, then.

Continuing for another quarter-mile down the trail, we spotted a handful more trillium before my increasingly sore hips and back determined that it was time to turn back. Many of the trillium hadn't bloomed just yet, and were still holding their buds tightly closed, like someone squinting against the rain. A few lacked even buds, and were just small stalks with three glossy green leaves.



Comparing this year's trillium sightings with those of years past, it appears that our colder-than-normal winter may have convinced these delicate flowers to slumber in the ground a bit longer and wait for warmer days before sprouting. However, those that have emerged early and braved the rain were met with grateful appreciation from this nature nerd desperately seeking spring.

Check out previous trillium hunts here:

Wanderings: Seeking Spring (2016)

Wanderings: Seeking Spring (2015)

Wanderings: Seeking Spring (2014)

 

 

 


Monday, March 20, 2017

Going Green: Lights out for climate during Earth Hour 2017


Ready... set... lights out! Well, not just yet. Make plans to turn off your lights for Earth Hour on March 25th at 8:30pm local time to demonstrate your solidarity in the fight against climate change. With more than 170 countries and millions of individuals participating, Earth Hour is truly a global event during which we can come together and commit to fighting this problem affecting us all.

The need for action and solidarity in the fight against climate change has never been greater. In 2016, a year that was globally the hottest on record (surpassing the longstanding record set way back in 2015), atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hit 405 parts per million (ppm). No human being in the history of our species has lived on this planet with carbon dioxide levels that high, until now. It seems like just yesterday we passed the 400ppm milestone, and now we find ourselves on a rapidly warming planet, staring down the likelihood of reaching 410ppm this year or next - a number well above the "safe" upper limit of 350ppm that would allow us to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change.

It is well-established that CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat and warms the planet. It is also well-established that human activity is causing CO2 levels to increase. We know what the problem is, we know what's causing it... now where are our solutions?

Take a look in the mirror. Look out your window at your neighborhood, at your city. Look to your state capitol. These are the people, are the places, from which climate action and solutions will arise. These are the places in which you need to become involved. As we face a new administration in Washington DC that is distressingly unwilling to acknowledge the reality of climate change - which is in fact, actively rolling back any progress our nation has made on the issue - actions at the individual, community, and state level are ever more important, and will likely lead the fight on climate change going forward.

So, coming back to Earth Hour... how will shutting off our lights for an hour help fight climate change? When it comes to Earth Hour, it's not the act of turning your lights off for an hour that really matters - it's the commitment behind it. It's acknowledging that climate change is an issue, that it affects every corner of our planet, and that you are dedicated to being part of the solution - not just for an hour, but for as long as it takes to tackle the problem. Which in all likelihood, will be the rest of our lives.

Now the next question is, what do I do during Earth Hour? The lights are out, the candles are lit... now what? Do whatever it is that will build community, inspire solutions, and encourage you to make efforts in your own life. Write something. Read something. Meditate. Get friends together. Call or write your representatives. Participate in an Earth Hour event near you. Make plans to host an Earth Hour event next year (in years past, events in the Seattle area have included a prayer vigil at St. James Cathedral, or for something completely different, a glow-in-the-dark Bingo/root beer/recycling event hosted by the City of Bothell). Write your City Council and encourage your city's participation in Earth Hour next year.

The state of our climate is dire, but there is hope to be found in the actions we can all take within our sphere of influence - a sphere which is much larger than you may realize.

My Earth Hour two years ago: reading Orion Magazine by candlelight.


For more information on reducing your carbon footprint, check out the Going Green page here on the blog.

Related posts:
Environmental Issues: Washington State Climate Change Update
400: A sobering milestone
In the News: National Climate Assessment 2014 
In the News: Maps Show a Sweltering Future for the U.S.



Monday, February 20, 2017

Musings: Behind the Scenes of my Vantage Point


This post was inspired by Light... read on to find out more. 

Maple cathedral, Saint Edward State Park. Lainey Piland photo

There's always some self-doubt and second guessing involved. The trees begin leaning in at the right angles, the ravine sweeps and curves in that familiar way. Click, click. I squint at the screen of my camera and frown. Nope, this isn't it. I follow the trail another hundred feet or so, curve around a corner and stand on my tiptoes to aim my lens over a thicket of salmonberry brambles that grow taller and make this endeavor slightly more difficult with each succeeding year. Click, click. Again, I look at the camera screen and this time everything is perfect: the maple trees arching overhead, sheltering the salmonberry and devil's club-filled ravine below, where the trickling seasonal stream meanders through, unseen.

Of all the trails, nature preserves, and parks I've wandered and photographed, this right here is my favorite vantage point: two square feet of muddy trail clinging to the hillside above the ravine on the South Canyon Trail in Saint Edward State Park. From this vantage point, one has the perfect view of the place I like to call the Maple Cathedral.

Craning to look above the salmonberry, you feel as though you've flung open the heavy doors of some high and holy place: a cathedral formed by bigleaf maples leaning from their anchors on the steep slope, trunks and branches curved to form a vaulted ceiling above the lush ravine far below. Birdsong fills the canopy and echoes through the void in a song more melodious than could be produced by any church choir or pipe organ. It's a view that makes you say "Oh" as you stand in awe, feeling both gloriously empty and lavishly full at the same time. You draw a breath as though it's the first one to ever fill your lungs. Heaven.

I've visited this place many times, in all seasons, and still when I hit those magic coordinates I feel the same overwhelming reaction. The photo above was captured on April 2nd of last year, and shows my Maple Cathedral in the full glow of late afternoon. Although the maples were still bare from the winter and hadn't leafed out yet, the ravine below was filled with salmonberry resplendent in the vivid green leaves of spring, and they caught the afternoon light in a spectacular way.

It can be challenging to take good photographs in the forest on sunny days such as this one, where there is a harsh contrast between light and shadow. Your pictures end up looking like stripes of black shadow interspersed with stripes of glaring green foliage or washed-out tree bark. I was fortunate to arrive at my favorite vantage point during a time when the light was more hospitable and offered a softer, glowing image. It was a rewarding moment to capture.

This Nature Nerd is not a photographer, but loves to tote her hefty Nikon D5000 on all of her adventures in the outdoors to capture some of the beautiful, breathtaking, or interesting sights that exist in nature and share them with others here on the blog. Earlier photos on the blog were all taken with my iPhone 4, but a few years ago I was gifted with the Nikon, and it has been my beloved companion (okay, along with my husband...) on the majority of my adventures. But I know that a digital SLR does not a photographer make, so I'm always shooting with humility and am pleasantly surprised when I can come away with photos like the one above that are actually representative of the scene I witnessed in person. Of course, having a naturally photogenic subject such as my favorite vantage point certainly helps in those endeavors!

So now let's get back to the inspiration for this post. Recently I learned about the Vantage Point project, where photographers share a photo from a special vantage point and the story behind it. The project was created by Light, a company that makes the most intriguing camera I've ever seen. Take a look at the gallery - there are photos from all over the world! I'm glad to contribute a photo from my favorite little corner of the planet. And while you're at it... click on over to the Light website and take a gander at their cutting-edge Light L16 camera that utilizes folded optics technology to create DSLR-quality photos in a small, streamlined design. Look at all those lenses - how cool is that?! With its high-quality images and compact design, this looks like an ideal camera for a nature-wandering blogger who also loves to take photos! Hmmm...


A rare shot of the Nature Nerd behind the scenes. On a rainy hike to Blue Lake, with my beloved camera stuffed under my jacket in an attempt to keep it dry.



Monday, January 16, 2017

Environmental Issues: Washington State Climate Change Update


The Masonry Pool in the Cedar River Watershed, showing low water levels in summer 2015. Lainey Piland photo

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information recently released updated climate summary reports for each of the fifty states, looking at how climate change has affected each state, and projecting future changes as global temperatures continue to warm. As is to be expected, the news isn't good.

I perused the summary report for Washington state to see how conditions and projections may have changed since I reported on the 2014 National Climate Assessment nearly three years ago. Here are the three "key messages" of the updated climate summary:
  • Key Message 1: Mean annual temperature has increased approximately 1.5°F over the last two
    decades. Winter warming has been characterized by a far below average number
    of occurrences of extremely cold days since 1990. Under a higher emissions pathway,
    historically unprecedented warming is projected by the end of the 21st century. 
  • Key Message 2: Rising temperatures will lead to earlier melting of the snowpack, which plays a critical role in spring and summer water supplies. Along with more precipitation falling as rain instead of snow, this may also lead to an increase in springtime flooding. 
  • Key Message 3: Wildfires during the dry summer months are of great concern, and the frequency of wildfire occurrence and severity is projected to increase in Washington.
The key concerns remain largely the same between the 2014 NCA and this updated summary report, but some of the figures in the recent report are new and unsettling. This one in particular drove a cold chill right through me:



This graph shows how temperatures in Washington have deviated from average (average temp represented by the straight black line), both historically (orange line), and projected future changes based on the decisions that we make right now about carbon emissions. We can see from this graph that no matter what we do, temperatures are expected to increase, and remain above, the historical average. The green shaded area represents the range of temperature increase (between 1.5 to 8 degrees F of warming) we could expect to see by end of century if we slow the rate at which we're pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And now - the scary part - take a look at that red shaded area. This represents the range of temperature increase (between 4 to 14 degrees F of warming) we could expect to see by end of century if our rate of carbon dioxide emissions continues to grow at its current pace.

Keep in mind that this graph is specific to Washington state.

Fourteen degrees of warming. Remember the drought of 2015, caused by a warmer-than normal winter and lack of mountain snowpack? That warmer-than normal winter was only 4.7 degrees F warmer than average. 4.7 degrees warmer, and it caused problems statewide for water supplies, salmon runs, forest health, and led to the state's worst wildfire season on record. If 4.7 degrees of warming gives us the Okanogan Complex wildfire, sets fire to the rainforest, gives us record-low streamflows and reservoir levels, gives us flaming-red dead evergreens on forest edges, and causes us to lose our sense of home... then what in the world will fourteen degrees of warming cause?

The idea of 14 degrees of warming is too frightening to entertain, and that's why we cannot allow it to happen. Now - more than ever given the new, climate-denying administration taking over this Friday - we need to push for climate action in our communities, in our states, and at the national level. It's time to join the movement, join the conversations, be a part of the solution. There are many ways to get involved, and if you need help getting started, take a look at organizations like 350.org or the Sierra Club, both of which are very active in the climate fight. For tips on doing your part to lower your personal carbon footprint, take a look at the articles on my Going Green page.

A report released last week indicated that humanity is running out of time to stop climate change before we surpass the 1.5 degrees C of warming considered "safe". By some calculations, we have just one year left to stop emitting carbon dioxide, or risk surpassing the 1.5 degree mark and entering into calamitous and irreversible global warming. One year is not a lot of time.

As I read these reports and consider the implications for my beloved home state, my mind keeps returning to the places I've wandered over the past year, from oceans to mountains to rivers to old growth forests. These places that inspire, restore, and literally sustain us are all at risk. They could all be lost. For the sake of our Evergreen State, for the sake of the places we call home, for the sake of our neighbors (human and wildlife) around the world... we desperately need to act.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Wanderings: First Day Hike at Saint Edward State Park

Seminary Trail, Saint Edward State Park. Lainey Piland photo

For the fourth New Year's Day in a row, my husband and I headed out to one of the fabulous Washington State Parks for a First Day Hike in the chilly winter sunshine. In previous years, we've visited Deception Pass State Park, Wallace Falls State Park, and Cama Beach State Park. Thirty-two state parks hosted official First Day Hikes this year. Although Saint Edward State Park wasn't one of them, we decided to revisit this familiar and favorite place for a leisurely hike, knowing these trails were still within the ability of my nearly-six-months-pregnant, tired, achy body.

With temperatures hovering right around freezing and the previous night's trace of snowfall still an icy crust on the ground, we bundled up in the car and then made a brisk beeline for the South Canyon trail. There were just a handful of cars in the parking lot, and I could count on one hand the number of people we passed on the way down the cold and shaded trail, greeting each with a jubilant "Happy New Year!" This was the quietest I'd ever seen the park.



Quiet was the rule of the day! As we hiked down toward the shore of Lake Washington, all that could be heard was our footsteps squishing into the muddy trail, the trickling creek running through the canyon below, an occasional chirp in a forest normally bursting with birdsong, and the constant pattering noise as rain dripped from the blue sky above as frost and snow melted from sun-warmed branches overhead. Licorice ferns waved silently from mossy bigleaf maple trunks.


The lakeshore was a bit more crowded, as a handful of small groups scattered along the shoreline and squinted over the waters of Lake Washington gleaming in brilliant sunshine. I watched a tiny fluffball of a ruby-crowned kinglet flit among the rocks at the water's edge, searching for something, it seemed. After warming ourselves in the sunshine, we headed for the Seminary trail to hike back up to the park.


I generally avoid the wide, graveled Seminary trail because it is the most heavily-used trail here. But on this day, even this trail was quiet, and we didn't pass a single person on the entire half-mile hike from the lakeshore back up to the park. This trail was on a sunnier side of the hill, and warm light shone through tree trunks, filtered by thin veils of fog.

We emerged from the woods to the park's vast grounds and imposing seminary building flooded with sunshine. It didn't feel so chilly anymore, I thought as my out-of-shape and overtaxed lungs gasped for air and my cheeks flushed red from exertion. My hips and lower back were screaming at me as well. Was I really the same person who hiked Mount Si just seven months ago? I tried not to feel badly about being so wiped out after a hike that just nudged the two-mile mark. After all, I am hiking, and breathing, for two right now!

Two crows supervised from the seminary steeple as I limped back to the car with my husband, passing more First Day Hikers who were heading into the forest. I was glad to see so many young adults and families choosing to spend a cold New Year's Day in the outdoors. Hopefully they'll create a tradition of it as well, and use January 1st of each year to explore and learn more about the history and ecology of the wonderful parks we have in Washington State.



Sunday, January 1, 2017

Environmental Issues: Light Pollution

United States at night. Image from NASA Earth Observatory

Growing up, I lived high on a hill above the Snoqualmie Valley, where most nights the lights from the prison in Monroe suffused the night sky with the orange glow of perpetual sunset. The glow was particularly noticeable on overcast nights, when the cloud ceiling dispersed the orange light over even greater distances. At the time, I had no idea that what I was seeing was, in fact, pollution. Light pollution.

While light seems an innocuous thing (and in the case of the prison, a necessary thing), when it occurs at the wrong time of day or year, in too great a quantity, in the wrong color, or without direction, light can be a harmful thing for the environment, for wildlife, and even for humans.

Impacts on the environment


Light pollutes the night sky, and energy used to produce the light can pollute the air and atmosphere with carbon emissions, since much of the world uses fossil fuels to produce this energy. Our climate is changing and earth is warming due to humanity's carbon dioxide emissions, and to think that a portion of those emissions are coming from unnecessary light pollution is dismaying.

Impacts on wildlife


Birds, fish, reptiles, mammals, amphibians and insects are all adversely affected by light pollution. Many of the basic life functions of these species such as feeding, reproduction, and migration are governed by light and dark, by the waxing and waning of daylight hours as the season change. Artificial light can disrupt and confuse these basic life functions, leading to the demise of individuals and causing entire species to be threatened. As our communities creep further into previously undeveloped areas, greater numbers of wildlife are subjected to the impact of our presence.

A 2016 State of Our Watersheds report prepared by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe states that salmon may be adversely affected by light pollution. On their long journey from the ocean back to their natal streams, salmon travel up rivers running through urban areas that are well-lit at night. Salmon are attracted to artificial light, and may be led off course or into the waiting mouths of predatory fish and birds that hunt by sight and who take advantage of the extra nighttime lighting.

Migratory bird species are also harmed by light pollution. Birds often migrate at night, and can become confused or thrown off-course by bright, artificially-lit cities. Many of these birds are killed after flying into the windows of high-rise buildings left lit up at night. The Audubon Society has started a Lights Out campaign as part of their Bird-Friendly Communities program, aiming to protect birds by encouraging building owners to turn out their lights when bird migrations are occurring.

Impacts on humans


Light pollution adversely affects humans as well. Our very health can be impacted by artificial light: both the light from our screens and devices, and the hazy nighttime glow illuminating the cities and neighborhoods that comprise our habitat. Just like wildlife, our bodies run on circadian rhythms that respond to the changing light of day and night. When we artificially extend the daytime with light, our bodies can lose touch with those circadian rhythms which causes difficulty sleeping and a host of other health problems. In addition to these health impacts, I think we can all attest to the annoyance caused by a too-bright streetlight shining right into our window when we're trying to sleep at night!

Here's another way light pollution can negatively impact us: it prevents us from seeing the night sky. While illumination of the night sky and blotting out of the stars is the most obvious impact of light pollution, it's probably the one on which we spend the least amount of time pondering how it harms us directly. Where would we be, as a society and as individuals, had we never had the opportunity to stand before a dark night sky and stare in wonder at the stars overhead? There is value in the wonder and the perspective provided by a starry sky, where we are faced with the cosmos from which our very planet was created. National Geographic - among other outlets - reported a few months ago that 80% of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way, the cloudy band of stars and dust, the center of our galaxy, that arcs across the sky. There's something intangible but immensely important lost when we draw a veil of light between ourselves and the stars.

What can we do?


When darkness falls, our cities, neighborhoods and streets are set ablaze with light. While necessary for safety and so that we humans with poor nocturnal vision can see where we're going, this light is often excessive, wasteful, and poorly thought out. With a few thoughtful choices, we can minimize the impact of light pollution in our communities:
  • Ensure that all outdoor lights are shielded. This means there is a hood or shield on the fixture that directs light in the proper downward direction, rather than casting light upward toward the sky. We can change the exterior lights on our homes, and can urge our cities, power companies, and other responsible jurisdictions to retrofit or replace streetlights that need shields.
  • Only use light bulbs that give off warm light. Longer-wavelength red, orange, and yellow light is less perceptible and less disruptive to wildlife than the glaring blue light often given off by LED and fluorescent bulbs. If you have those blue-spectrum bulbs, it's time to replace them! Pay close attention to the packaging when you shop - you should be able to find these same energy-efficient bulbs in warmer colors. 
  • Turn off all unnecessary lights. This includes indoor lights that may shine out through windows, and exterior lights that just aren't needed. I have a light that floods my backyard, but only turn it on during those rare occasions when I'm outside after dark, taking out the garbage. All of my neighbors keep these lights off as well, which actually creates a pleasant dark space in the shared sky of our closely situated backyards. Not only will you help minimize light pollution, you'll also decrease your energy usage.
  • Get involved. Find a local chapter of the International Dark Sky Association, the Audubon Society, or other group involved on the issue, and make a donation or volunteer your time to support their light pollution programs. Contact your local jurisdiction about light pollution ordinances, and encourage their adoption if there aren't any already in place. See unshielded streetlights or notice a park ablaze with light well after hours? Contact the responsible jurisdiction and let your voice be heard!
We don't need to live in darkness in order to minimize the impacts of light pollution. With some thoughtful choices and a little effort, we can be good stewards of those starry night skies and ensure a better environment for ourselves and the other species with whom we share these habitats.

Seeking to escape the yellow glow that represents the Puget Sound region on the map above? The Washington Trails Association has compiled a list of dark places in our state, where starry skies and the Milky Way can still be seen.

For more information, watch this short video from the International Dark Sky Association called Losing the Dark: