Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his resignation to the White House Saturday, facing intense pressure to step down because of multiple probes tied to his real estate dealings in his home state of Montana and his conduct while in office.
Zinke — the first Montanan to serve in a presidential Cabinet — is the fourth Trump Cabinet member to resign under an ethics cloud in less than two years. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt also relinquished their posts after coming under scrutiny for how they spent taxpayer dollars on their travel, among other allegations.
That probe, which is still ongoing, is examining whether a land deal Zinke struck with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont., constituted as a conflict of interest.
The secretary’s final public appearance was Thursday night at his Christmas party, which he told White House staffers he wanted to have before his dismissal. He invited lobbyists and conservative activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee. Mounted animals on the wall were fitted with ornaments.
Kris Tompkins has protected 13 million acres, and she’s not done yet.
BY EMILY STIFLER WOLFE
The first time I try to call Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, she’s in Santiago, Chile. It’s a Sunday afternoon in September, and after three days with little sleep, she lies down for a nap and misses our scheduled Skype call. But I don’t really care: I’ll get to talk to Kris Tompkins.
As CEO of Patagonia, Kris helped lead the company from a small climbing gear manufacturer to an outdoor apparel titan and a pioneer for corporate responsibility. In 1993, age 43, she retired from Patagonia, married Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face and co-founder of Esprit, and moved to a remote farm he’d bought in Chile’s Lakes District.
Tompkins Conservation—the umbrella organization for the nonprofit foundations the Tompkins established—has purchased roughly 2 million acres of private land for conservation in Chile and Argentina. It has taken on ambitious ecological restoration projects including the reintroduction of native species, has donated most of its land as national parks and other protected areas, with the remaining acreage pledged for donation. Since Doug’s death in 2015, Kris and her team have also helped protect another 10 million acres of new national parklands in Chile and helped establish three new national parks in Argentina.
Kris is a world leader in large landscape and species restoration. Someone who gives all her energy, time and wealth to restoring functioning ecosystems. If you believe the idea that we need biodiversity to survive—and you should—you’ll quickly realize she’s not just saving wildlife, she’s trying to save humanity. If she needs a nap, she’s earned it.
“You’re never finished. Truly never. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, that’s the story.”
In the meantime, I call her former boss from Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard.
“She was a juvenile delinquent like the rest of us, in that she didn’t want to take the straight and narrow path,” he says. The two met when Kris was a 15-year-old surfer, and Yvon, 28 at the time, gave her a summer job packing boxes at what was then Chouinard Equipment. “She went to school barefoot, and her teacher would tell her to go to home. The next day she’d show up with leather shoelaces wrapped around her toes.”
After college, where she ski raced for the College of Idaho, Yvon and his wife Malinda hired Kris to help them launch Patagonia Inc., the clothing company. “None of us knew how to run a business,” Yvon said. “We all learned together. And we didn’t want to run a business like everybody else’s. We broke a lot of the rules, and she’s more than happy to do that. That’s what makes her a successful person, really.”
That, and she’s a very effective leader.
“She could see through all the crap,” said Richard Siberell, a clothing designer who worked at Patagonia in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “She was your big sister and your best friend and kicked you in the ass and [would suggest], ‘You got work to do. You’re going to work all weekend until you get this shit done. If you won’t, you’re not going to be demoted—the whole company is going down in flames.’”
When Kris calls from Patagonia Park in Chile the following week, she and Malinda Chouinard (whom Kris describes as “beyond my closest friend—she’s like family”) are reviewing materials for a new visitor center and museum set to open in November. They’re also prepping to turn management of the land and infrastructure over to the Chilean park service in April 2019.
Roughly the size of Yosemite, 765,000- acre Patagonia Park is a seven-hour drive on a gravel road from the nearest commercial airport. It’s spring, and the buds are just emerging, Kris says. They’re working from a guest house Tompkins Conservation has already donated with the rest of the park. Kris describes life-size photos of pumas in the living room, and windows overlooking grassy foothills into the Andean peaks. They leave for New York in three days, and the energy through the phone line is palpable.
During our two-hour conversation, I ask about topics ranging from a childhood in Venezuela and on her great-grandfather’s ranch in Santa Paula, California, about the farms she and Doug bought in Chile and Argentina, and her 2018 meeting with Pope Francis. But first I ask about the news from the Greater Yellowstone: Two days before, grizzly bears were returned to the Endangered Species List in the Lower 48, and Malinda, whom I can hear in the background, was involved in the fight.
“We’re really excited, but we also realize these things are so fragile, and the next day you have to get up and face something else,” Kris tells me. “You’re never finished. Truly never. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, that’s the story.”
Moving from grizzlies to South American carnivores, Kris describes the local animosity toward pumas, the same species as North American mountain lions. Here in the southern cone, massive estancias, or ranches, reign, and the animals have a price on their heads.
To form Patagonia Park, another nonprofit Kris established bought 220,000 acres of private land to connect two federally protected reserves. The majority of that land was part of a large sheep ranch in the Chacabuco Valley, and the organization, Conservacion Patagonica, has removed 400-plus miles of fencing and restored overgrazed grasslands, allowing native wildlife, including pumas, to repopulate.
Tompkins Conservation has worked from the southern tip of Chile, establishing Yendegaia National Park in 2014, to northern Argentina, where the organization helped create El Impenetrable National Park and is now doing groundbreaking species restoration in the upcoming Iberá National Park. Since purchasing 340,000 acres there in 1997, the organization has reintroduced giant anteaters, tapirs, macaws, collared peccaries and pampas deer. It hopes to release jaguars by early 2020, which would be the first large carnivore reintroduction in Latin America, according to Ignacio Jiménez Pérez, who directed the Iberá rewilding program until mid- 2018.
“The biggest challenge for reintroducing any large predator is about the reaction of society,” Jiménez Pérez said. “The response of the neighbors and the provincial and national society has been phenomenal. They are really excited about getting Jaguars back.” The largest feline in the Americas, jaguars are gone from 95 percent of their original Argentinian range and were extirpated from the Iberá area in the 1960s. Because they’ve been gone so long, the big cats aren’t seen as a threat, even among local cattle ranchers. The region is already benefitting from ecotourism, with a million annual visitors to nearby Iguazú Falls; plus, jaguars are part of the native Guarani folklore, considered a lost relative. “There is no mythology of hatred,” Jimenez said, contrasting them to wolves in the Northern Rockies.
The Tompkins didn’t start as rewilders: Their first projects, Pumalín and Corcovado parks in Chilean Patagonia, both had fairly intact ecosystems. It was a sea change in their work—a massive commitment that’s been the most difficult part, Kris said.
A lost language encoded in intricate cords is finally revealing its secrets – and it could upend what we know about Incan history and culture
By Daniel Cossins
THE Incas left no doubt that theirs was a sophisticated, technologically savvy civilisation. At its height in the 15th century, it was the largest empire in the Americas, extending almost 5000 kilometres from modern-day Ecuador to Chile. These were the people who built Machu Picchu, a royal estate perched in the clouds, and an extensive network of paved roads complete with suspension bridges crafted from woven grass. But the paradox of the Incas is that despite all this sophistication they never learned to write.
Or did they? The Incas may not have bequeathed any written records, but they did have colourful knotted cords. Each of these devices was called a khipu (pronounced key-poo). We know these intricate cords to be an abacus-like system for recording numbers. However, there have also been teasing hints that they might encode long-lost stories, myths and songs too.
In a century of study, no one has managed to make these knots talk. But recent breakthroughs have begun to unpick this tangled mystery of the Andes, revealing the first signs of phonetic symbolism within the strands. Now two anthropologists are closing in on the Inca equivalent of the Rosetta stone. That could finally crack the code and transform our understanding of a civilisation whose history has so far been told only through the eyes of the Europeans who sought to eviscerate it.
The Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, first encountered the Incas at the start of the 1530s. They were awestruck by the magnificent stone cities, the gold and treasure. But as the Spanish began to take over the Inca empire and impose their own customs, they became equally enthralled by the way the society was organised.
The Incas governed the 10 million people in their realm with what amounted to a federal system. Power was centred in Cusco, in the south of what is now Peru, but spread through several levels of hierarchy across a series of partially self-governing provinces. There was no money and no market economy. The production and distribution of food and other commodities was centrally controlled. People had their own land to farm, but every subject was also issued with necessities from state storehouses in exchange for labour, administered through an impressive tribute system.
“Break the khipu code and we might finally read an indigenous Inca history”
Historians have argued variously that the Inca empire was a socialist utopia or an authoritarian monarchy. But no one disputes its efficiency. “It was an extraordinary system,” says Gary Urton, an anthropologist at Harvard University. “Administratively speaking, it was very sophisticated and it seems to have worked well.”
Key to that success was the flow of reliable data, in the form of censuses, tribute accounts and storehouse inventories. For that, the Incas relied on the khipumayuq, or the keepers of the khipus, a specially trained caste who could tie and read the cords.
The majority of surviving khipus consist of a pencil-thick primary cord, from which hang multiple “pendant” cords and, in turn, “subsidiaries”. The Spanish described how they were used to record all manner of information. The poet Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador, noted in a 1609 account that they had “an admirable method of counting everything in the Inca’s kingdom, including all taxes and tributes, both paid and due, which they did with knots in strings of different colours.”
There are reasons to think khipus may record other things, including stories and myths – the sort of narrative information that many cultures write down. De la Vega was among many chroniclers who hinted as much, writing in one passage that the Incas “recorded on knots everything that could be counted, even mentioning battles and fights, all the embassies that had come to visit the Inca, and all the speeches and arguments they had uttered”. True, he was prone to ambiguity and contradictions. But about a third of the khipus in collections seem to have a more elaborate construction than the others, as if they contain a different sort of information. For decades the point was moot, however, because no one could read any of them.
The first hints of revelations from khipus came in the 1920s, when anthropologist Leland Locke analysed a bunch of them housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He noticed that the knots are organised in rows almost like beads on an abacus (see diagram). He demonstrated that each row of knots at a certain height denoted units, tens, hundreds and so on. That made sense, fitting with the decimal system the Inca used to divide up groups for tribute purposes.
Hard knot to crack
The discovery sparked a wave of interest in khipus. By the 1990s, though, we still had no idea what the numbers meant. “Say you read off the number 76 – what does it refer to?,” asks Urton.
There are all sorts of varying factors in khipus: the colour of the strings, the structure of the knots and the direction in which they were hitched. Having spent countless hours poring over them, Urton began to think that binary differences in these features might be encoding information. For example, a basic knot tied in one direction could mean “paid”, while in the other it would mean “unpaid”. By 2012, he had developed a more specific hypothesis, proposing that the direction in which knots were tied, the colours of the strings, or some combination of the two, corresponded to the social status of the people whose tributes they recorded, and even individuals’ names. Without a khipu translation, however, the idea looked destined to remain untested.
Then in 2016, Urton was browsing his personal library when he picked out a book that contained a Spanish census document from the 1670s. It was what the colonists referred to as a revisita, a reassessment of six clans living around the village of Recuay in the Santa valley region of western Peru. The document was made in the same region and at the same time as a set of six khipus in his database, so in theory it and the khipus were recording the same things.
Checking it out, Urton found that there were 132 tribute payers listed in the text and 132 cords on the khipus. The fine details fitted too, with the numbers on the cords matching the charges the Spanish document said had been levelled. It seemed to be the match he had been looking for.
Even so, Urton was struggling to pick apart the detail of the connections between the Santa valley khipus and the Spanish documents. He ended up letting a Harvard undergraduate student named Manny Medrano take a look. He turned out to have the perfect complement of skills for the job. He was a native Spanish speaker and, majoring in economics, he was a whizz with spreadsheets. Medrano painstakingly generated tables of the khipu data and combed through them in search of matching patterns. This year, he and Urton showed for the first time that the way pendant cords are tied onto the primary cord indicates which clan an individual belonged to.
“It is a really important achievement,” says Jeffrey Splitstoser at George Washington University in Washington DC, who specialises in khipus from the Wari empire that preceded the Inca. “It gives us a new way to interpret these sources. Gary has made things a lot more tractable.” Yet the question of whether the khipus also contain stories still hung there.
As extreme drought marched northward from Arizona and New Mexico and parked itself squarely over the Four Corners in early 2018, many turned to one tool to understand the change: the U.S. Drought Monitor.
The map is updated weekly, and it continues to show poor conditions in much of the Southwest.
“Droughts are like the Rodney Dangerfield of hazards. They just don’t get any respect,” said Drought Monitor co-creator Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Standing watch for the drought typically happens under the radar. TV crews are quick to cover hurricanes and wildfires. They seldom rush out to stand in front of a desiccated farm field or talk about the federal money set aside for crop losses.
As with many government initiatives, the Drought Monitor got its start after drought struck Washington D.C. 20 years ago. Today the once-obscure resource is used by water planners who decide resource allotments, farmers who need water for their livelihood and federal bureaucrats who it to calculate aid for the Livestock Forage Disaster Program.
The U.S. Drought Monitor tracks the encroaching drought in Colorado through 2018.
U.S. Drought Monitor
Citizen scientists like Dave Kitts outside of Sante Fe, New Mexico are keen to the insights the drought maps provide.
“I think it’s a little obsessive. But I check it every Thursday,” said Kitts, who’s lived on the same 2-acre spread in New Mexico for decades.
He watches the map because he can chart progress on his land. Good wet years mean normal conditions. Dry years crust the soil and kill his pinyon trees.
“It’s just upsetting and depressing to me,” Kitts said. “And when it moves the other direction it definitely lifts my spirits.”
In bad drought years, the map can appear to be yellow, orange and red crayola crayons melted in a haphazard jumble. Each color signifies a level of drought, with deep crimson being the worst. White patches signify normal, moist conditions.
The colorful blobs are intentional, driven by dozens of data points.
Svoboda pointed out they cover everything, “from groundwater, stream flow, [to] temperature.”
Right now all eyes are on the dark red bullseye in Four Corners.
Any weekly adjustments to that bullseye — for better or worse — often take into account input from hundreds of people. It all starts with recommendations from state climatologists on any potential changes.
Assistant Colorado Climatologist Becky Bolinger is personally “feeling a little bit more hopeful“ about recent rain and snow translating into a smaller blotch hovering over the confluence of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
State recommendations aren’t always based on professional weather watchers. Ranchers and farmers from across the country also send missives to state and national offices.
“We’ve gotten some very specific examples of like, ‘Well, I went out to put in a wood post and the surface was wet and three inches deep the soil was bone dry,’” Bolinger said.
Once recommendations from around the nation arrive, then comes the hard work. Every single national Drought Monitor map is authored by one person who coordinates reports from around the country.
David Simeral, of the Nevada-based Desert Research Institute, is one of those authors. He said the map is “a physically and emotionally draining process,” that starts with data and then he digs into the recommendations. If that sounds like an 8-hour workday, think again. Fortunately, the map author job is rotated between creators every two weeks.
The lines of the Drought Monitor are both a science and art — and a high stakes proposition. Since 2011, the Drought Monitor has triggered $7 billion to ranchers through the Livestock Forage Program.
Each public map has the author’s name printed on it, so Simeral and his peers quickly develop a thick skin. He often finds himself justifying decisions to everyone including politicians who watch federal aid tied to the map, the ranchers who do or don’t receive it and everyday people like Dave Kitts.
He picked up the phone and called the Drought Monitor a few weeks ago after multiple storms moistened the soil on his small ranch. But he didn’t see any changes on the monitor.
Simeral was ready to listen.
“[Kitts] told me it was the most he had seen in the 25 years he had lived in that area,” Simeral said.
So, Simeral wrote down the information and included it in the reams of data for the the following week’s author to review.
Kitts was pleased.
“It even seemed as if my little bit of data was important to [Simeral] and the other authors of the map,” he said.
After that conversation even more rain fell in New Mexico. One week later, when Kitts’ routine brought him back to the drought map, he saw a small improvement for drought classification in his New Mexico county.
There was another change, too: A new appreciation for the Drought Monitor, and the hundreds of people behind it.
On Wednesday, representatives of the Colorado River Water Users Association, a consortium of seven western states, as well as representatives of the federal government, opened a meeting in Las Vegas. Nearly 20 years of drought conditions combined with increased usage in those states have shrunk reservoirs and generally depleted the water supply to the point where drastic—and, very likely, painful—collective action has become immediate and vital.
When the meeting was first called, its purpose was to develop a plan for that action, and a method by which the states that depend on the Colorado River and associated water could share the sacrifice that everyone agreed was necessary and imminent. That, alas, didn’t happen. From the Wyoming News:
Arizona has been the holdout, with farmers, cities, Indian tribes and lawmakers in the state set to be first to feel the pinch still negotiating how to deal with water cutbacks when a shortage is declared, probably in 2020.”There will be cuts. We all know the clock is ticking. That’s what a lot of the difficult negotiations have been around,” said Kim Mitchell, Western Resource Advocates water policy adviser and a delegate to ongoing meetings involving the Arizona Department of Water Resources, Central Arizona Project, agricultural, industrial and business interests, the governor, state lawmakers and cities including Tucson and Phoenix.
Getty ImagesJustin Sullivan
In Arizona, unlike other states, a final drought contingency plan must pass the state Legislature when it convenes in January. Federal water managers wanted a deal to sign at the annual Colorado River Water Users Association conference beginning Wednesday in Las Vegas, and threatened earlier this year to impose unspecified measures from Washington if a voluntary drought contingency plan wasn’t reached.
The water associated with the Colorado River supports 40 million people and irrigates millions of acres of prime agricultural land, and, right now, today, all of that is in desperate shape, and there is no time remaining for dilatory measures.
After 19 years of drought and increasing demand, federal water managers project a 52 percent chance that the river’s biggest reservoir, Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam, will fall low enough to trigger cutbacks under agreements governing the system. The seven states saw this coming years ago, and used Colorado River Water Users Association meetings in December 2007 to sign a 20-year “guidelines” plan to share the burden of a shortage. Contingency agreements would update that pact, running through 2026. They call for voluntarily using less to keep more water in the system’s two main reservoirs, lakes Powell and Mead.
This spring, the Colorado River Research Group, an independent team of scientists focused on the river, labeled the climate transition in the Colorado River Basin “aridification,” meaning a transformation to a drier environment. The call for a move away from the word “drought” highlighted the importance of the specific language used to describe what’s going on in the Southwest: It could shift cultural norms around water use and help people internalize the need to rip out lawns, stop washing cars and refrain from building new diversions on already strapped rivers.
Essentially, it means that dry places are getting drier, and that the transformation is likely to be permanent, unless human beings radically alter their behavior toward water usage. From the Colorado River Research Group:
Perhaps more importantly, moving forward means abandoning the mindset that current changes to climatic and hydrologic regimes are a temporary phenomenon. We are not likely to ever return to normal conditions; that opportunity has passed (Milly et al, 2008). Rather, there are two possible new normals.
First is a continuation (and likely acceleration) of the current drying trend and the accompanying increase in variability, an outcome largely “baked into” the system by existing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.
Getty ImagesJustin Sullivan
A second, and better, new normal would be to establish regional hydrologic conditions at a steady new level—a step change—that results from the stabilization of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at some new equilibrium. Achieving this second outcome will require many actions taken across the globe, and in sectors beyond water management. Nonetheless, the Colorado River management community can still be a leader in promoting and contributing to such actions.
There is much to gain in the basin by leading on these larger issues, as well as by exploring local opportunities—such as dust suppression—to slow or halt ongoing environmental changes. It is time for water managers to both adapt for the profound changes the future holds and to advocate within the political sphere for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. A very modest starting point is to admit words such as drought and normal no longer serve us well, as we are no longer in a waiting game; we are now in a period that demands continued, decisive action on many fronts.
This has been your now-almost-daily Water Apocalypse update.
It was not so long ago—only 108 years, within a great grandma’s memory—that a person’s eyes first beheld the South Pole. When Roald Amundsen made it to the bottom of the world in 1911, it marked a new chapter in the human story. Our curious, inventive, and adaptable species, born on the sunny savannah, had reached that last spot of remote desolation on our home planet.
Little did we know that less than a century later, the hustle and bustle of our society would alter that ancient landscape forever.
The pristine environments at both poles of the Earth are changing, perhaps irreversibly, according to a new pair of federal studies. On Monday, a new nasa report warned that ancient glaciers in Antarctica are “waking up” and beginning to dump ice into the sea, which could eventually raise sea levels.
The following day, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its new Arctic Report Card, which finds that the top of the world is also thawing, melting, and breaking down. The Arctic is undergoing a period of “record and near-record warmth unlike any period on record,” the report says.
Emily Osborne, a scientist who leads Arctic research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, repeated this warning while speaking at a major geoscience conference on Tuesday. “The Arctic is experiencing the most unprecedented transition in human history,” she said.
The finding at the bottom of the world is in some ways the most shocking. Antarctica is split into two massive ice sheets, the East and the West. Researchers have long considered the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to be less worrisome: Though it contains enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 173 feet, it sits at a high-enough altitude to withstand the first century or so of warming.
The new finding may complicate that conclusion. Using a new database of global ice movements, NASA scientists found that several glaciers in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are quickening their march toward the sea. Since 2008, a set of glaciers that feed Vincennes Bay—which is due south of Australia—lost about 9 feet of overall height. Their speed has also increased, suggesting that these glaciers are dumping more ice into the ocean than researchers previously expected.
The Vincennes Bay glaciers are important because they block the inland Aurora and Wilkes ice basins from tumbling into the sea. If both basins collapsed, they could raise sea levels by 92 feet. “Taken together, they’re about four Greenlands [worth of sea-level rise],” said Catherine Walker, a glaciologist at NASA, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Monday.
The Arctic is experiencing a multi-year stretch of unparalleled warmth “that is unlike any period on record,” according to the 2018 Arctic Report Card, a peer-reviewed report released Tuesday morning from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency within the United States Department of Commerce.
The report states that human-caused climate change is transforming the Arctic, both physically through the reduction of sea ice, and biologically through reductions in wildlife populations and introduction of marine toxins and algae.
The report is yet another study from part of the US government indicating that climate change is real and having a profound impact, despite denials from the President and senior members of his Administration.
The year 2018 was the Arctic’s second-warmest year on record behind 2016. The top five warmest years have all occurred since 2014.
Temperatures in the Arctic are warming more than twice as fast as the overall planet’s average temperature, with temperatures this year in the highest latitudes (above 60 degrees north) coming in 1.7 degrees Celsius (3.1 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981-2010 average. These were the second warmest (behind 2016) air temperatures ever recorded during the Arctic year, which runs from October through September to avoid splitting the winter season.
The five years since 2014 have been warmer than any other years in the historical record, which goes back to 1900. Although Arctic temperatures have been subject to wild swings back and forth through the decades due to natural variability, they have been consistently warmer than average since 2000 and at or near record since 2014, the report states.
“The changes we are witnessing in the Arctic are sufficiently rapid that they cannot be explained without considering our impacts on the chemistry of the atmosphere,” Thomas Mote, a research scientist at the University of Georgia who authored part of the report, told CNN in an email.
Mote expressed than any natural cycle or mechanism that would lead to the amount of warming and ice loss that has been observed would take much longer than the few years over which we have seen these drastic changes.
A vicious cycle
Since 2000, Arctic temperatures, shown in red, have been higher than the overall global temperature anomalies, shown in gray. In 2018 the Arctic was shown to be warming at an alarming rate, twice as fast as the average global temperature.
The rapid warming of the Arctic is known as “Arctic amplification,” which is due to multiple feedback loops that the report describes. Warmer temperatures lead to less ice and snow, which means less sunlight is reflected and more is absorbed by the darker oceans. This warms the ocean further, which in turn decreases the sea ice even more. The lack of sea ice and more ocean surface leads to additional cloudiness later in the fall season, which keeps the Arctic region warmer even later into the winter.
“What starts in the Arctic isn’t confined there,” Mote noted. “Changes in sea ice influence ocean currents and the jet stream in ways that can affect weather in lower latitudes, including the United States and Europe,” Mote said.
The report highlighted several of these events over the past year as an example of how Arctic warming can influence day-to-day weather.
Sea Ice Continues To Decline
As you would expect with the trend of record warm temperatures, sea ice has seen dramatic declines over the past 20 years as well, with 2018 continuing that trend.
According to the 2018 Arctic Report Card, this year featured the second-lowest winter sea-ice extent — the amount of the Arctic Ocean that is covered with sea ice — since the satellite record began in 1979. The summer minimum sea ice was the sixth-lowest over the same time period.
While winter sea ice extents have decreased at a much slower rate compared to the ice extent during the summer, there has been a significant change to the ice pack during the winter.
Old ice — ice that lasts through four or more melt seasons — seen in 1985, left, and 2018, right.
The ice is much younger than it used to be. According to the report, fewer than 1% of Arctic ice is considered “oldest ice,” meaning it is at least four years old and has survived multiple melt seasons. Older ice tends to be thicker and more resilient to changes in temperature.
Since scientists began measuring the age of the ice in the mid-1980s, multi-year ice in the Arctic has decreased in size from 2.54 million square kilometers (roughly the size of Mexico and all of Central America combined) to 0.13 million square kilometers (roughly the size of Nicaragua in Central America) — a 95% reduction in a little over 30 years.
“Sea ice cover has transformed from a strong, thick pack in the 1980s to a more fragile, younger, thinner, and more mobile pack in recent years,” the report states, where “the thinner, younger ice is more vulnerable to melting out in the summer and has contributed to the decreasing trend in the minimum ice extent.”
The Arctic has been warmer over the last five years than at any time since records began in 1900, and the region is warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet, scientists said Tuesday.
The rising air temperatures are having profound effects on sea ice, and on life on land and in the ocean, the scientists said. The changes can be felt far beyond the region, especially since the changing Arctic climate may be influencing extreme weather events around the world.
Those assessments were part of the latest “Arctic Report Card,” issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a federal agency, and presented Tuesday at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington.
“We’re seeing this continued increase of warmth pervading across the entire Arctic system,” said Emily Osborne, lead editor of the report and manager of NOAA’s Arctic Research Program. “That’s having implications for both ocean and terrestrial systems.”
The new edition of the report, which is published annually, does not present a radical break with past installments, but it shows that troublesome trends wrought by climate change are intensifying. Air temperatures in the Arctic in 2018 will be the second-warmest ever recorded, the report said, behind only 2016.
Susan M. Natali, an Arctic scientist at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts who was not involved in the research, said the report was another warning going unheeded. “Every time you see a report, things get worse, and we’re still not taking any action,” she said. “It adds support that these changes are happening, that they are observable.”
The warmer Arctic air causes the jet stream to become “sluggish and unusually wavy,” the researchers said. That has possible connections to extreme weather events elsewhere on the globe, including last winter’sseverestorms in the United States.
The more rapid warming in the upper north, known as Arctic amplification, is tied to many factors, including the simple fact that snow and ice reflect a lot of sunlight, while open water, which is darker, absorbs more heat. As sea ice melts, less ice and more open water create a “feedback loop” of more melting that leads to progressively less ice and more open water.
Sune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.
It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.
For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed?
Riis watched his son, flying through the beautiful day, not eating bugs, and was struck by the melancholy thought that his son’s childhood would lack this particular bug-eating experience of his own. It was, he granted, an odd thing to feel nostalgic about. But he couldn’t shake a feeling of loss. “I guess it’s pretty human to think that everything was better when you were a kid,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t like it when I was on my bike and I ate all the bugs, but looking back on it, I think it’s something everybody should experience.”
I met Riis, a lanky high school science and math teacher, on a hot day in June. He was anxious about not having yet written his address for the school’s graduation ceremony that evening, but first, he had a job to do. From his garage, he retrieved a large insect net, drove to a nearby intersection and stopped to strap the net to the car’s roof. Made of white mesh, the net ran the length of his car and was held up by a tent pole at the front, tapering to a small, removable bag in back. Drivers whizzing past twisted their heads to stare. Riis eyed his parking spot nervously as he adjusted the straps of the contraption. “This is not 100 percent legal,” he said, “but I guess, for the sake of science.”
Riis had not been able to stop thinking about the missing bugs. The more he learned, the more his nostalgia gave way to worry. Insects are the vital pollinators and recyclers of ecosystems and the base of food webs everywhere. Riis was not alone in noticing their decline. In the United States, scientists recently found the population of monarch butterflies fell by 90 percent in the last 20 years, a loss of 900 million individuals; the rusty-patched bumblebee, which once lived in 28 states, dropped by 87 percent over the same period. With other, less-studied insect species, one butterfly researcher told me, “all we can do is wave our arms and say, ‘It’s not here anymore!’ ” Still, the most disquieting thing wasn’t the disappearance of certain species of insects; it was the deeper worry, shared by Riis and many others, that a whole insect world might be quietly going missing, a loss of abundance that could alter the planet in unknowable ways. “We notice the losses,” says David Wagner, an entomologist at the University of Connecticut. “It’s the diminishment that we don’t see.”
Because insects are legion, inconspicuous and hard to meaningfully track, the fear that there might be far fewer than before was more felt than documented. People noticed it by canals or in backyards or under streetlights at night — familiar places that had become unfamiliarly empty. The feeling was so common that entomologists developed a shorthand for it, named for the way many people first began to notice that they weren’t seeing as many bugs. They called it the windshield phenomenon.
To test what had been primarily a loose suspicion of wrongness, Riis and 200 other Danes were spending the month of June roaming their country’s back roads in their outfitted cars. They were part of a study conducted by the Natural History Museum of Denmark, a joint effort of the University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and North Carolina State University. The nets would stand in for windshields as Riis and the other volunteers drove through various habitats — urban areas, forests, agricultural tracts, uncultivated open land and wetlands — hoping to quantify the disorienting sense that, as one of the study’s designers put it, “something from the past is missing from the present.”
When the investigators began planning the study in 2016, they weren’t sure if anyone would sign up. But by the time the nets were ready, a paper by an obscure German entomological society had brought the problem of insect decline into sharp focus. The German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent.
Riis learned about the study from a group of his students in one of their class projects. They must have made some kind of mistake in their citation, he thought. But they hadn’t. The study would quickly become, according to the website Altmetric, the sixth-most-discussed scientific paper of 2017. Headlines around the world warned of an “insect Armageddon.”
Mayan ruins in the southern state of Chiapas, Palenque, Mexico. (National Institute of Anthropology and History/Reuters)
Victor Lichtinger is Mexico’s former secretary of the environment and was the first director of the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Homero Aridjis is a writer, environmentalist and former ambassador to UNESCO. His latest books are “News of the Earth” and “Maria the Monarch.” This article was translated by Betty Ferber.
MEXICO CITY — During his inauguration speech on Dec. 1, Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, made bold promises to “purify public life in Mexico” and ensure that the “poor come first.” As part of his image as a man of the people, AMLO, as he’s known, has ordered two national referendums since his party, MORENA, took control of Congress on Sept. 1.
The latest one, which took place on Nov. 24 and 25, included a controversial vote on the construction of a train that would link Mayan archaeological and tourist sites in five southeastern states — and will also be used for freight. When the results came in a day later, 850,527 voters, a scant .65 percent of Mexico’s population of 130 million, made “the people’s will” known in favor of the “Mayan Train,” even as environmentalists and indigenous peoples fiercely protested. As “democratic” as the referendum may seem, it has no validity under current law, and the speed at which this initiative was put to a vote and the lack of public information on a project that will cost $6 to $8 billion are extremely concerning.
Despite such concerns, AMLO has stated he plans to move forward with the train. It is intended to run on 932 miles of track, nearly one third to be laid through tropical forests. It will pass through Campeche, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and the Yucatán, where some of Mexico’s most important natural and archaeological treasures are located. These states are also home to critical habitats of stunning biodiversity. Mexico is one of 17 megadiverse countries, hosting the world’s second largest number of ecosystems. But its forests and mangroves are disappearing at an alarming rate.
On Nov. 15, hundreds of scientists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, cultural figures and non-governmental organizations addressed a letter to AMLO, condemning decision-making by inadequate public consultation and asking for a cancellation of the referendum. “High biodiversity sites must be preserved according to the most stringent international standards,” they wrote, “taking into account the indigenous peoples who have been the guarantors of their territories and custodians of the natural and cultural wealth of our country.” In response, AMLO uploaded three videos touting the train to his Twitter and Facebook followers and accused the signers of the letter of elitism, telling them they needed to “rub shoulders with the people.” The train is meant to promote economic development in and around the region’s principal tourist centers.
An endeavor of the train’s magnitude cannot proceed without a wide-ranging evaluation of its environmental, cultural and archaeological impacts. The environmental impact assessment must then be evaluated by federal authorities and open to public consultations. It also requires permission from the indigenous peoples through whose territory the train will run. The 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention states that indigenous communities must give free, prior and informed consent “to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly.” Mexico’s National Indigenous Network threatened legal action if work begins on the train in violation of international law. As Mayan communities in the Yucatán peninsula have said, “There’s nothing Mayan about the train.”
Laguna Ana, a salt lagoon near the entrance to the Pali Aike National Park in southern Chile. Credit Tomas Munita for The New York Times
By Joshua Hammer
The hiking trail leading to the Morada del Diablo volcano (the Devil’s Dwelling) crossed a field of blackened lava, congealed during the last ice age. Black lizards covered with white speckles, known as lagartijas Magallanicas, skittered across the ground, and the desiccated corpse of a guanaco, a wild grazer related to the llama, baked beneath the sun. A puma had probably killed it, my Chilean companion, Alvaro Soto, said.
I picked my way across the crust, pocked by holes just large enough to twist an ankle. After a mile, we climbed over a heap of rocks that slid beneath our feet and emerged at the summit of the crater.
Mr. Soto and I gazed across the maw at a scene of otherworldly bleakness: A curving wall, tinted green, splattered with bird feces, or whitewash, and riven with crevices, formed the volcano’s lip. Steep slopes of scree and soil laden with red-tinted hematite fell away into the abyss. The cries of buff-necked ibises, large rodent eaters with cream-and-russet throats and curving gray bills, echoed off the canyon. A peregrine falcon rose, plummeted into the crater, circled back up and disappeared inside a crevice.
We were deep inside Pali Aike National Park, one of the least visited, yet most dramatic reserves in Chile, 110 miles north of Punta Arenas. The Tehuelche hunter-gatherers who once dwelled here called this moonscape both “the place of desolation” and “the devil’s country,” and believed that evil spirits possessed it. It’s not hard to see why. The area is studded with volcanoes, formed during the Jurassic era 100 million years ago, by the collision of the Chile Rise and the Peru-Chile oceanic trench.
Three eruptions — the first taking place 3.8 million years ago, the most recent 15,000 years ago — covered the steppe with spills of black lava and pillars, columns and parapets of basalt, which glow yellow, red and greenish-gray in the harsh desert sunlight. Half a dozen craters and collapsed cones loom over the terrain like broken teeth.
An Obscure Stop on the Route of Parks
Despite the bleakness, this 31-square-mile reserve, established by the Chilean government in 1970, teems with wildlife: hares, tuco-tucos (mole-like rodents), skunks, armadillos, gray foxes, pumas, guanacos, lizards and dozens of species of birds unique to Patagonia. Chilean flamingos, splashes of pink and orange in a charred landscape, gather in the park’s soda lakes. Buff-necked ibises build nests high in trees or inside the extinct volcanoes, sharing the ledges with peregrines — a symbiotic relationship rare among birds of prey.
Pali Aike is among the most obscure attractions on Chile’s new Route of Parks, a 1,740-mile wilderness trail that was unveiled earlier this year. The route was the culmination of a yearlong process that began in April 2017, when Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of the North Face founder, Douglas Tompkins, donated to the Chilean government one million acres of Patagonian wilderness through Tompkins Conservation, the nonprofit umbrella group of conservation initiatives that she co-founded and now leads. Out of that land, Chile carved two new reserves, Pumalín National Park Douglas Tompkins and Patagonia National Park Chile.
As part of the deal, the government set aside an additional nine million acres to enhance the country’s national park network. A total of 17 national parks have now been linked by the Route of Parks, a hiking trail that winds past mountains, glaciers, volcanoes, forests and arid steppe, and roughly follows the Carretera Austral, the country’s storied Southern Highway (also known as Route 7) through Patagonia.