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Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, once walked point as a polar-bear guard on an Arctic expedition, armed with only a homemade spear. He still loves large predators and new territory, and in his latest outing, he asks us to accompany him on “the greatest adventure” ever—the peopling of the New World.

Roughly 20,000 years ago, scouts on a ridge in Beringia got their first glimpse of the “unending wild country that encompassed two continents uninhabited by humans.” Some 5,000 years later, at the very end of the Pleistocene, the climate changed; oceans rose; and the Bering land bridge flooded. The formerly ice-barred interior of the Americas opened, allowing passage south.

“I can’t think of a richer, wilder, more-perilous time to live,” Peacock writes.

There are parallels as well as vast differences between that time and ours, Peacock says. He is curious about how Homo sapiens perceives risk and how our species might survive and adapt to climate change—dealing with our own saber-toothed foe in the bush. The “bold migrations” of the past, he concedes, are “impossible in the 21st century” as a solution. But that original migration still offers us “challenging illustrations of courage and caution.”

Blending archaeology and paleontology with memories of childhood arrowhead-hunting, and evoking a keen sense of place, Peacock explores some of the colonists’ likely waypoints: Siberia’s tiger-tracked Amba River, the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves (one held a mammoth bone spear point), a 13,000-year-old burial site on the Yellowstone (yielding “10 five-gallon buckets of artifacts”), 10,000-year-old human teeth in British Columbia, and Baja California’s 8,000-year-old shell middens.

The book suffers from some sloppy editing and repetition, but Peacock’s accounts of archaeological finds ring with the excitement of discovery. His descriptions of dire wolves, lions on steroids, and leggy, short-faced bears—”monsters of the plains”—can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. “We evolved to deal with the predator,” he writes. And therein could lie the rub: “In comparison, present day ‘global warming’ seems distant, harmlessly incremental or something that happens to remote strangers.”

Still, Peacock seems confident that a species that overcame flesh-and-blood threats like dire wolves can somehow manage to confront this latter-day, more nebulous foe.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene

By Douglas Peacock

AK Press

200 pages, $15

Published in Literature

The rains had been heavy on and off for weeks, soaking the ground, washing away the soil and undercutting our yard and those of our neighbors. This happened 45 years ago, when we lived on a steep mountain ridge in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Santa Barbara, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Where once we had an ample yard, 15 feet of grass now separated our house from the precipitous edge of the slope. That led to anxious nights with images in my mind of our house sliding down the slope while I slept. Although our house never went over the edge, those feelings of anxiety sometimes recur during big storms.

A little research reveals that the worst storm ever recorded in California struck on Christmas Eve of 1861. The rains continued almost nonstop until February 1862, soaking California with almost four times its normal rainfall, and creating enormous brown lakes on the normally dry plains of Southern California. In the Sierra Nevada, the deluges filled rivers, transforming them into raging torrents that swept away entire communities and gold-mining settlements in the foothills.

In California’s enormous Central Valley—a region well more than 300 miles long and 20 miles wide—the floodwaters streaming from the Sierra produced an inland sea, covering farmlands and towns. Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown, debris-laden water, forcing residents to move about the city by boat.

California wasn’t alone in its misery: Diary and newspaper accounts suggest that most of the West Coast, as well as inland areas in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, suffered their worst floods in history.

Then there’s drought. I recall living through the severest drought on record for many Western states, which happened during the winter of 1976-1977. In California, this period is known as “the year with no rain.”

I was a teenager, and for the first time, I had to confront the realization that water was a finite resource. My family had always used water liberally, with little thought about supply, but that year, every drop counted. Washing cars, watering lawns and taking baths or long showers were banned. These “sacrifices” paled in comparison to the far harsher impacts we heard about on the news, faced by farmers with little water, ski areas with no snow, and forests drying and burning.

This bipolar behavior of our Western climate left me wondering what a “normal” climate really was.

Today, I am one of a small cohort of scientists trying to answer that question, by searching for evidence of past droughts and floods, wildfires, periods of warmth and cold and so on, over the geologic past—the period before humans kept records in the West.

If we step back and view our climate history over a very long time period—say, hundreds to thousands of years—we begin to see the forest for the trees. We can pick out extreme events and how often they occur. This natural history is written not in paper and ink, but in the earth itself, in sediment, stone, trees and ice. Like investigators at a crime scene, we try to piece together seemingly random and unrelated clues about our past climate, and eventually, we begin to see patterns.

Our discoveries are occasionally surprising, sometimes unsettling, even anxiety-provoking. Evidence is mounting, for example, that two prolonged droughts, each lasting more than a century, gripped the Southwest during medieval times, about 650 to 1,100 years ago.

Decades-long droughts have also occurred more frequently and fairly regularly, telling us that these dry periods are a normal feature of our climate.

We have also found evidence of previous catastrophic floods in the region, suggesting that the “megaflood” in 1861-1862 was not a freak event. Our studies indicate that huge floods—much larger than we have experienced in the past century—occurred every 100 to 200 years over the past few thousand years.

It’s unsettling to think about the implications of extreme climate events—and the reality that global warming may make severe weather much more frequent and even more extreme. These days, of course, my adult mind can provide diversions, and some people are getting quite skillful at outright denial. This might alleviate unease in the short run, but I know that the best long-term solution is for scientists to prepare everyone living in our Western states for a future of unpredictable and extreme climate change.

B. Lynn Ingram is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a professor of earth science at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow.

Published in Community Voices

There are all sorts of reasons to hit the highway this time of year. You might be trying to escape our recent extremes of desert heat, bound for cooler high country and the freezing plunge of alpine lakes, or bone-chilling swells along the Pacific Coast. Or, perhaps, you’re the sort whose perfect lark includes the world’s largest ball of twine or the International Banana Museum.

Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, had something different in mind when they embarked this June on their Great American Adaptation Road Trip. After earning master’s degrees in environmental policy, the young women hoped to see firsthand how people—from city planners to farmers to federal officials to neighbors—are adapting their lives and livelihoods to cope with climate change.

“We wanted to focus on what they’re doing to move past the conversation, that we find boring and not relevant, about whether climate change is actually happening or not,” says Goldstein.

Howard adds with a laugh: “And then, we really just wanted to go on a road trip.”

So it is that the pair is now looping the nation over three months, documenting various approaches and sharing them through written stories, videos, audio slideshows and more with the aim of getting the public engaged, spreading good ideas and helping inspire further innovations. (Here’s a map that shows where they’ve been and where they’re going.)

So far, they have stopped to check out everything from a solar power company on Long Island whose business is booming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to Georgian farmers who are adapting more-efficient irrigation methods to ride out expected increases in drought.

The Western leg of the Adaptation Road Trip is now under way. Goldstein and Howard visited Santa Fe, where they learned about the confluence of factors fueling today’s Southwestern megafires. They caught up with Bill Armstrong, who was the fuels specialist program manager for the Santa Fe National Forest back when Jodi Peterson wrote for HCN about federal efforts to allow fire back into ecosystems thrown out of whack by nearly a century of fire suppression.

“He showed us the stark landscapes where the Cerro Grande and Los Conchas fires burned,” and explained how prescribed burns and careful thinning projects might help keep some forests from being burned beyond recovery, says Howard. “But it was a pretty depressing message that he had. He thought that the Forest Service was not doing enough prescribed burning to make any difference in the future.”

After spending some time talking to North Fork Valley, Colo., farmers about how they’re coping with late spring frosts killing early-blooming fruit crops, Howard and Goldstein headed next to Aspen to learn about how climate is affecting snowpack. Then they moved on to Denver to explore how local water authorities are collaborating with federal officials to protect the forests that surround watersheds. Tucson, Ariz., was next—and last weekend, they passed through our area, stopping at Joshua Tree National Park.

“In Joshua Tree!” they posted on Facebook on Saturday, July 20. “Newest lesson from the Southwest: There is a reason why environmentalists are called tree-huggers and not cactus-huggers. But we love cacti too!”

They’re now heading up the West Coast and through Glacier National Park to learn how officials there communicate with visitors about the disappearance of the park’s storied glaciers, and ultimately back to Ann Arbor by the end of August.

Between the interviewing, driving, writing, editing and traveling in just about every conveyance imaginable—four-wheeler, canoe, boat, paddleboard (accompanied by dolphins)—and sampling dried shrimp (basically the arthropod equivalent of beef jerky) and other delicacies along the way, Howard admits the pair has been getting minimal sleep. But it is, she assures us, enough to drive safely on.

To follow their trip, check out their Great American Adaptation Road Trip blog.

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News, from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

On this week's extra-festive Independent comics page: Keith Knight's The K Chronicles makes its Indy debut with a look at the name of Washington, D.C.'s NFL team; Jen Sorenson tackles debit cards as paychecks; The City touts the virtues of the rust belt in this era of global warming; and Red Meat gets infested by spiders and deer ticks.

Published in Comics

In 2004, Carl Pope, then-director of the Sierra Club, tangled publicly with Capt. Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Pope was steering the club toward cooperative solutions to environmental problems, collaborating with large corporations instead of fighting them.

Watson, an advocate of direct action whose group blocked environmental despoilers with living bodies or ships, wasn't having it.

"I want the Sierra Club to … fight for what is left," wrote Watson in an open letter to Pope. "We need to get in the face of the destroyers … to force people to sit up and take notice that … our political, economic and cultural systems are laying waste to the entire planet.

"As things get worse," he concluded, "my approach will become more appealing."

When Pope stepped down in 2010, his legacy included an advertising campaign with Clorox and $25 million in donations from natural-gas companies. Watson is in exile at sea—both Costa Rica and Japan want him arrested for allegedly ramming and vandalizing whaling and shark-finning ships. Many in the environmental movement believe his extremism has not been helpful to the cause.

But his prediction has come true; conditions on the planet are measurably worse. The Mauna Loa Observatory recently logged an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 394 parts per million, well above the safe upper limit, 350 ppm. Drought, wildfire and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy have made the consequences for the climate plain.

Yet even under a president who pledged his candidacy would mark the moment "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," the United States is no nearer to solving the climate problem than in 1989, when a House energy bill to address the greenhouse effect was laughed out of committee.

Now, the U.S. State Department might allow completion of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport a particularly dirty form of oil south from Alberta's tar-sands. Current Sierra Club director Michael Brune calls the project "a climate disaster."

And Watson's approach—or at least a nondestructive version of it—has indeed become more appealing to some: The Sierra Club and climate activist groups 350.org and the Hip Hop Caucus planned the first act of civil disobedience the Sierra Club's board of directors has sanctioned in the group's 120-year history. On Feb. 13, Brune was arrested along with other activists after chaining himself to a White House fence. 

"A team of select leaders and prominent Sierra Club supporters face arrest to elevate discussion about a critical issue," Sierra Club board president Allison Chin elaborated in a video message. "The future of the planet demands no less."

Civil disobedience comes in many forms. One involves physically standing in the path of destruction—between the whale and a harpoon, for instance—"the classic Greenpeace action," says Celia Alario, a communications consultant specializing in grassroots groups that employ such tactics. Another is personal, like Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes that would fund a war he opposed.

The participants in the Washington, D.C., protests intervened at the "point of decision," Alario explains, deliberately trespassing and saying, "'I will break this law, because a greater law is being broken.'"

Brune is deeply familiar with such methods. While he was executive director—or "chief troublemaker," as he called himself—at the Rainforest Action Network during the George W. Bush administration, his organization used pranks that skimmed the law to pressure Home Depot and Citigroup to give up forest-destroying practices; in one, RAN activists commandeered Home Depot loudspeakers to satirically promote old-growth wood for sale in the store. Brune also fought his way through clouds of tear gas during the 1999 demonstrations outside the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, an event that sparked a movement against global economic injustice.

Those protests stopped cold after Sept. 11, says John Sellers, who, along with Brune, was among the key players. The former director of a nonprofit activist-training group called the Ruckus Society, Sellers finds the resurgence of nonviolent direct action encouraging, and points to Wisconsin union supporters, Occupy Wall Street and the "DREAMers"—children of undocumented immigrants who've spent most or all of their lives in the U.S.—as groups that have used such methods to change the national conversation.

Pipeline opponents have long been after a similar shift in the debate. In August 2011, 350.org founder Bill McKibben and 70 others spent three nights in jail for trespassing on the White House steps; several agitators in Texas and Oklahoma have tried to block the construction of Keystone XL's southern leg with their bodies.

So far none of those actions have sufficiently dominated the news cycle. The Sierra Club's imprimatur could change that. Alario remembers the days when she lobbied California lawmakers on behalf of Humboldt County's ancient redwoods back in the 1990s. "They'd always ask, 'Where is the Sierra Club on this?'" … The Club "has the reputation of being the clear, reasonable voice that elected leaders turn to when issues get complicated. And now (the board members) have leveraged that reputational capital to say, 'We're willing to hold the line on this with our bodies.'"

Alario suspects Obama might actually be grateful for that. Two years ago, at a meeting with the Energy Action Coalition, Obama told the young activists, "You have to push me," Alario says. There's a way of seeing the Sierra Club's protest much like Brune has pitched it: Not as a protest against the administration so much as a boost to its expressed ideals.

Sellers isn't convinced Obama is listening, but he does believe the time has come to march in the streets. "Direct action gets people to realize they have power," he says. "The same kind of power that broke the back of Jim Crow in the Deep South. And there's been a long enough arc in the Obama presidency (for environmental groups) to say, 'I want action.'"

This article originally appeared in High Country News (hcn.org).

Published in Environment

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