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 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: