Serving Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey, Bellevue and Carey
April 25, 2019
Climate change is changing the seasons in the West. Their names should change to reflect reality.
Spring should become “flood.” Summer should become “fire.” Fall should become “smoke.” The jury is still out on a new name for winter, but “ice” or “avalanche” could become interchangeable.
Monday was Earth Day. U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, D-Wis., founded it in this country 49 years ago and kicked it off with an environmental teach-in to call attention to the challenges facing our little orb. Since the first celebration in 1970, Earth’s problems have only multiplied.
This is not news to anyone in the West or the Wood River Valley, which have faced major wildfires and their destructive fallout. The latest, the five or six avalanches in Warm Springs Canyon that destroyed two homes and threatened others this month, were likely the result of slopes whose mantle of trees was destroyed by fire combined with heavy rain on a deep snowpack.
The avalanches were a shocking surprise, even to longtime residents. Slopes at various places in the miles-long canyon were known to slide in exceptional snow years, but not to the extent that they scoured trenches and snapped large trees.
The wildfires, floods, oscillating droughts and rainy seasons, and avalanches haven’t penetrated the highest levels of government. President Trump’s comments on Earth Day could be summarized as “everything is fine.”
It’s impossible to live in the West and think everything is fine. It’s not, and it’s on track to get worse. Changing out light bulbs won’t fix it.
Resetting the climate requires a worldwide effort that the U.S. should lead. If American leaders don’t step up, the seasons’ name changes will stick, and generations to come will rightly blame us for the devastation.
It was October 2012 when the European weather prediction model beat its American counterpart in forecasting Hurricane Sandy’s hard left turn into the U.S. coastline. What scientists had known for years — that the European forecast model was superior to the American — caught the attention of the U.S. public and Congress.
Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with funding support from Congress, has worked intensely to improve the American model. It has boosted its computing power, improved the way it brings in data, and enhanced how it simulates weather systems at small scales. Yet, more than six years later, it still trails the European model in overall accuracy.
Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA and a meteorologist, is committed to closing the gap between the models. Since being appointed to the Trump administration, he has made one of his top priorities installing a process that will allow U.S. forecast modeling to reach its potential and become world-class.
As part of its 2020 budget request, to the tune of $15 million, NOAA has proposed the establishment of the Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC), which it says “will advance U.S. weather modeling and reclaim international leadership in the area of numerical weather prediction.”
In an interview, Jacobs blamed recent U.S. modeling shortfalls on a lack of research investment. He said the United States now spends about the same amount on operating its flagship model, the Global Forecast System (GFS), as it does on research initiatives to improve it. By contrast, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts spends roughly five times as much on research. Jacobs said he’d like to see NOAA “grow research five times” to keep pace.
But there is another reason for us to rethink our relationships with our devices. By chronically raising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, our phones may be threatening our health and shortening our lives.
Until now, most discussions of phones’ biochemical effects have focused on dopamine, a brain chemical that helps us form habits — and addictions. Like slot machines, smartphones and apps are explicitly designed to trigger dopamine’s release, with the goal of making our devices difficult to put down.
This manipulation of our dopamine systems is why many experts believe that we are developing behavioral addictions to our phones. But our phones’ effects on cortisol are potentially even more alarming.
Cortisol is our primary fight-or-flight hormone. Its release triggers physiological changes, such as spikes in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar, that help us react to and survive acute physical threats.
These effects can be lifesaving if you are actually in physical danger — like, say, you’re being charged by a bull. But our bodies also release cortisol in response to emotional stressors where an increased heart rate isn’t going to do much good, such as checking your phone to find an angry email from your boss.
If they happened only occasionally, phone-induced cortisol spikes might not matter. But the average American spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time, according to a tracking app called Moment. The result, as Google has noted in a report, is that “mobile devices loaded with social media, email and news apps” create “a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress.”
If you come across what looks like an explosive device in the San Juan Mountains this summer, don’t touch it.
The Colorado Department of Transportation is getting the word out that some explosives used in avalanche mitigation this past winter were duds. As a result, the potentially explosive bombs still sit somewhere in the mountains.
In CDOT’s southwest and south-central regions, more than 630 explosives were shot or dropped from helicopters to trigger avalanches this winter.
More specifically, about 430 explosives were shot on Red Mountain, Coal Bank and Molas passes, with the majority of that amount on Red Mountain Pass, CDOT spokeswoman Lisa Schwantes said.
More than 65 explosives were shot on Lizard Head Pass, more than 130 on Wolf Creek Pass, and about 50 on Monarch, Cumbres and La Manga passes.
Of the 630 explosives, 13 were duds. Schwantes said CDOT does not give out the specific locations of where the explosives were shot for public safety reasons.
Statewide, more than 1,500 explosives, including 22 duds, were shot at avalanche paths.
Schwantes said the numbers are in line with the national average of about 1 percent chance of a bomb not exploding.
She said CDOT knows exactly where every explosive was shot, and crews will attempt to revisit the region and recover duds.
Most of the shots are aimed at rugged and remote terrain, Schwantes said, in areas not accessed by the average hiker.
“It’s not unknown for someone to come across a device that has not detonated, but they are in very rugged terrain,” she said. “We don’t want to scare anyone, but at the same time, we want to advise the public of the best safety instructions.”
Shots from a howitzer look like a huge bullet, Schwantes said, and rounds from CDOT’s “ava-launcher” are shaped more like a torpedo and usually are bright orange or yellow.
People who come across the explosive device are advised not to touch it and immediately report its whereabouts to law enforcement or CDOT.
Greenland is baking, too. In fact, its summer melt season has already begun — more than a month ahead of schedule.
Marco Tedesco is a professor in atmospheric sciences at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. He monitors behavior of the cryosphere — the part of earth’s water system that is frozen. He says melting of this extent shouldn’t begin until May. “The first melt event was detected on April 7,” he wrote in email.
Greenland melt extent in 2019, compared to normal. (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
“Air temperature anomalies were up to more than 20 degrees Celsius [36 Fahrenheit] above the mean,” noted Tedesco. His team has been eyeing Greenland’s southeast coast as ground zero for the early-season thaw. “Surface air temperature jumped to 41 degrees on April 2, up from minus-11,” he said. Temperatures dropped below freezing briefly before again soaring into the 30s, where the mercury has held steady for most of the past week.
What’s been sling-shotting this balmy air northward?
“The subtropical jet stream,” wrote Jennifer Francis, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. It’s teamed up with the polar jet to “transport warm, moist air from near Florida northward into southern Greenland,” she explained. “Locking this pattern in place has been a strong ridge — a northward bulge in the jet stream — just east of Greenland.”
A lack of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean north of Scandinavia gave this bubble of warmth a bit of an extra boost, intensifying its warm conveyor belt into Greenland.
Ms. Warren’s plan, which she outlined in a post on Medium ahead of trips to Colorado and Utah this week, promises an executive order that would prohibit new leases for fossil fuel drilling offshore and on public lands, calls for the creation of “a 21st century Civilian Conservation Corps” staffed by 10,000 young people and seeks to reduce inaccessible public acreage by 50 percent.
It also aims to undo some of the environmental actions undertaken by the Trump administration, which she said amounted to “selling off our public lands to the oil, gas and coal industries for pennies on the dollar,” accelerating a “climate crisis” in the process. Under the plan, Ms. Warren said she would reinstate Obama-era air and water protections and wield the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law, to restore national monuments that President Trump shrank.
“America’s public lands are one of our greatest treasures,” she wrote in the Medium post. “But today, those lands are under threat.”
Stopped by the Montrose public library yesterday killing some time before a late afternoon appointment. Grabbed some magazines to fill an hours read, found a comfortable chair and an interesting article on Grand Staircase-Escalante land rip off …. About half way through it I saw it was written by friend Leath Tonino … Cool … give it a read… rŌbert
In 2017, the Trump administration announced that it was shrinking the iconic Utah national monument by nearly 50 percent. Leath Tonino devised a sketchy 200-mile solo desert trek, following the path of the legendary cartographer who literally put these contentious canyons on the map.
Deanna Glover’s voice hits a high note along with her eyebrows, tone and expression conveying the same grandmotherly concern.
She’s not my grandmother—we met for the first time an hour ago—but that hardly seems to matter to the sweet, white-haired 80-year-old. “Tell me you’ll have a friend hiking with you, because it’s a lot of country,” she says. “And, you know, I start to worry.”
The Kanab Heritage Museum, in Kane County, Utah, is cluttered with arrowheads, wedding gowns, antique farm implements, and sepia photographs of the families that founded the town of Kanab in 1870. I phoned Deanna, a descendent of these Mormon pioneers, earlier this April morning, and though the museum, her baby and brainchild, was closed, she insisted on opening it so that the displays could inform my upcoming 200-mile, two-week trek through Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.
Hiking with a friend? I shake my head, and a latent anxiety rears up, the prickly fear-thrill of engaging a desert that demands resourcefulness (drinking water found in sculpted potholes), extreme caution (camouflaged rattlesnakes in the middle of the trail), and a tolerance for solitude (my girlfriend, as I hugged her goodbye before leaving for Utah, told me to enjoy peeking into the recesses of my own skull).
Recounting this quip to Deanna, I notice the grip on her walker tighten. “Oh, I’ll be praying for you then,” she says. “I’m not kidding—it’s a whole lot of country.”
Ocher buttes, umber scarps, maroon hoodoos: whole lot of country indeed. Extending north and east from Kanab, the monument encompasses one of the gnarliest stretches of the lower 48. To borrow writer Charles Bowden’s apt phrase, it’s “the heart of stone.”
Ever since President Clinton established the monument in 1996, it has been contentious: old-timers versus newcomers, Republicans versus Democrats, advocates of using the land versus advocates of protecting it (as if these were mutually exclusive agendas). Conservative politicians in pressed blue jeans and blazers tend to see it as an affront to economic growth. Dirtbag adventurers in Chaco sandals deem it one of the epicenters of North American slot canyoneering. In Kanab, mention Edward Abbey, the Southwest’s iconic nature writer, and you’ll receive either a high five or a tirade, depending on your interlocutor.
The latest dispute began on December 4, 2017, when President Trump cut the nearly 1.9-million-acre monument into three units, reducing the overall protected area by almost 50 percent. The White House’s stance, as outlined in the official proclamation, was that the Clinton administration had designated far more terrain than the law allowed. Deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas played no part whatsoever in the decision, obviously. Environmental organizations immediately filed lawsuits, arguing that Trump lacked the authority to shrink an existing monument. Nevertheless, the Bureau of Land Management went ahead and drafted several plans, one of which, if implemented, would open almost 700,000 acres to mining and drilling. With the final decision on those plans tied up in court, nobody can predict whether the original boundaries will be reinstated.
My interest in the place is personal. Working for the Forest Service in my twenties, I resided in a cabin an hour south of the original monument: bought my groceries in Kanab, thrashed myself silly every weekend in the intricate backcountry of arroyos and yuccas and coyotes. It was upsetting to picture the wilderness ransacked for profit, to sense my cherished memories of the region disappearing into the abstraction we call news.
Thankfully, I didn’t forget Almon Harris Thompson.
Nicknamed Prof, Thompson was a school-superintendent-cum-cartographer from New England who wore a bushy mustache, abstained from smoking tobacco, and, according to a colleague, was “always ‘level-headed’ and never went off on a tangent doing wild and unwarranted things.” John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran famed for boating the Grand Canyon’s whitewater in 1869, was Prof’s brother-in-law and boss. Together they were employed by the federal government; a congressional appropriation funded their brave, meticulous research into the geography of the Colorado Plateau’s remote canyonlands.
Remote is an understatement. An 1868 map indicated a massive blank space in this area of Utah. In 1872, at the age of 32, Prof led a small party into the unknown country. The final river to be named by the U.S. government (the Escalante) quenched his thirst that spring, and the final range to be named (the Henry Mountains) registered his horse’s hoofprint.
Emotions rarely inflect the spare prose in Prof’s diary, a document devoted to mileages, elevations, the shapes of watersheds, the dips of strata, and, tangentially, cold rain and “a sort of dysentery attack.” What does come through, however, is a seriously badass route that, by chance, flirts with our modern monument’s boundaries, weaving in and out of both the Clinton and the Trump versions.
For the next two weeks, I’ll attempt to retrace Prof’s route (he took roughly 25 days), mostly by walking, occasionally by hitching. The itinerary that earns Deanna’s worry has me heading northeast from Kanab: up Johnson Canyon, past the Paria amphitheater to the Blues badlands, along the headwaters of the Escalante River, through the Waterpocket Fold, and, finally, over the 11,000-plus-foot Henry Mountains. In my pack I’ll carry a sleeping bag and headlamp, two single-liter water bottles and a four-liter reserve dromedary, and not much food besides instant coffee, pita bread, and salami. Hopefully, beer and potato chips will greet me at the few and far between gas stations—in Cannonville (pop. 175), Escalante (pop. 802), and Boulder (pop. 240). I’ll lug no tent, no toilet paper, no GPS, no smartphone.
The goal is to drop below politics—to find, and hear out, the lovers of this unique landscape. Even better, to drop below conversation, below language, and viscerally, with my ache and my thirst, contact the land itself.
April 10 is my departure date, until it’s not.
The visit with Deanna runs long, so I decide to spend the afternoon riding shotgun beside 43-year-old Charley Bulletts, the soft-spoken, quick-to-laugh cultural-resource director of the Kaibab Band of Paiutes.
A local boy, Charley left for a spell—tried his luck in Cedar City, Utah, and Mesquite, Nevada—but now he’s home for good, raising his kids in the same desert where he was raised. His late grandfather was one of the last medicine men of the tribe. If the Kanab Heritage Museum situates the monument within a frontier context, Charley’s perspective, which he shares as we drive the outskirts of town, links it to an even deeper oral history.
“This is so bad it’s comical,” he says early in our tour, parking with the windshield framing a cartoony mural on a supermarket’s cinder-block wall. The painting depicts a procession: covered wagons, livestock, dogs, young men carrying rifles. “I get a kick out of it, I really do—the happy Mormons entering an ‘unpopulated territory,’ following their destiny.”