cool September morning
cool September morning
Rafters on the Hulahula River float past a bank of thawing permafrost in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Credit Christopher Miller for The New York Times
Up in the right-hand corner of Alaska, like something freezer-burned and half-remembered in the back of the national icebox, lies a place called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is the largest wildlife sanctuary in the United States. It is the size of South Carolina. It is also home to the country’s second-largest wilderness area. It has no roads, no marked trails, no developed campgrounds. The Coastal Plain, the narrow strip where the refuge meets the sea, is home to more diversity of life than almost anywhere else in the Arctic. It is the kind of place where you can pull back the tent flap with a mug of coffee in hand, as I did one morning in June, and watch a thousand caribou trot past.
The animals came slowly at first, by twos and by threes, and tentatively, lifting their black noses to catch the strange scent of 10 unbathed campers. Then they tacked across the river. Near the front was a bull with a rack big enough to place-kick a football through its uprights. Mostly they were females in dun coats, serious mothers leading coltish calves that slid and played on the snowfields that still collared the tundra’s low places. Ungainly in looks, but a natural for work — each hoof a snowshoe, with hollow fur for warmth and to buoy them across gelid Arctic rivers. The calves had been born three or four days ago. Already they could walk farther in a day than a human.
In 2013, a mutual friend brought Kat Vollinger and Nathan Richman together as rock climbing partners. Within a few years, they were married, and their shared love of climbing led them on adventures around the world. That’s how, in March 2018, they found themselves scaling Castleton Tower, a nearly 400-foot sandstone spire near Moab, Utah, with a seismometer in tow.
They helped scientists measure, for the first time, how Castleton Tower taps into the earth’s natural vibrations, finding that it pulsates at about the rate of a human heartbeat.
Castleton Tower is one of many culturally significant desert rock formations that Jeff Moore, a geologist, and his team at the Geohazards research group at the University of Utah have been monitoring with audio recordings. Like a doctor listening to the beating of a human heart, they hope to learn about the structural health of these arches, bridges and towers and how their environments affect them.
Driving across the country in a used Ford in the mid-1950s, Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank used his outsider’s view to produce what many consider the most striking and revealing collection of images of postwar America.
Other photographers were focusing on the optimism and prosperity of the 1950s, but Mr. Frank gazed through the unblinking eye of his Leica and saw a much bleaker prospect. Bedazzled but also troubled by his adopted country, he revealed a nation beset by despair and nagging inequality.
The resulting book, “The Americans,” was published in this country in 1959, inspired generations of photographers, writers, filmmakers and musicians, and made Mr. Frank one of the most important visual artists of the 20th century.
He died at 94 on Sept. 9 at a hospital in Inverness, Nova Scotia. Kaelan Kleber, the associate director of Pace/MacGill Gallery in Manhattan, which represents Mr. Frank, confirmed his death but did not cite a specific cause.
“The Americans” was, in effect, a group portrait of the nation, honest and stark and not always flattering. Out of 27,000 images that Mr. Frank took during an almost year-long cross-country journey, only 83 stark black-and-white pictures appeared in the book.
His images of lonely people, lonesome roads and smoldering tensions of urban life were a riposte to the honey-hued picture essays of such popular magazines of the time as the Saturday Evening Post and Life.
“The Americans” was often considered a visual complement to Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel from 1957, “On the Road.” In fact, Kerouac fashioned a memorable introduction to “The Americans,” writing, “With one hand he sucked a sad poem of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.’’
Mr. Frank, who had an aversion to repeating himself, would later turn to filmmaking, collage and other forms of visual art, but with each passing year “The Americans” seemed to grow in stature and influence.
Influential photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank has died at the age of 94. He died of natural causes on Monday night in Nova Scotia, Canada. His death was confirmed by his longtime friend and gallerist Peter MacGill.
He was best known for his 1959 book The Americans, a collection of black-and-white photographs he took while road-tripping across the country starting in 1955. Frank’s images were dark, grainy and free from nostalgia; they showed a country at odds with the optimistic views of prosperity that characterized so much American photography at the time.
His Leica camera captured gay men in New York, factory workers in Detroit and a segregated trolley in New Orleans — sour and defiant white faces in front and the anguished face of a black man in back.
“There is infinite hope,” Kafka tells us, “only not for us.” This is a fittingly mystical epigram from a writer whose characters strive for ostensibly reachable goals and, tragically or amusingly, never manage to get any closer to them. But it seems to me, in our rapidly darkening world, that the converse of Kafka’s quip is equally true: There is no hope, except for us.
I’m talking, of course, about climate change. The struggle to rein in global carbon emissions and keep the planet from melting down has the feel of Kafka’s fiction. The goal has been clear for thirty years, and despite earnest efforts we’ve made essentially no progress toward reaching it. Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
Even at this late date, expressions of unrealistic hope continue to abound. Hardly a day seems to pass without my reading that it’s time to “roll up our sleeves” and “save the planet”; that the problem of climate change can be “solved” if we summon the collective will. Although this message was probably still true in 1988, when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.
Psychologically, this denial makes sense. Despite the outrageous fact that I’ll soon be dead forever, I live in the present, not the future. Given a choice between an alarming abstraction (death) and the reassuring evidence of my senses (breakfast!), my mind prefers to focus on the latter. The planet, too, is still marvelously intact, still basically normal—seasons changing, another election year coming, new comedies on Netflix—and its impending collapse is even harder to wrap my mind around than death. Other kinds of apocalypse, whether religious or thermonuclear or asteroidal, at least have the binary neatness of dying: one moment the world is there, the next moment it’s gone forever. Climate apocalypse, by contrast, is messy. It will take the form of increasingly severe crises compounding chaotically until civilization begins to fray. Things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not for me.
Jane Lubchenco (2009-2013), D. James Baker (1993-2001) and Kathryn D. Sullivan (2013-2017) are former administrators of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Monday brought the welcome news that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration career leaders are pushing back against political interference with weather forecasts. Craig McLean, the acting chief scientist , is investigating the agency’s apparent attempts to defend President Trump’s inaccurate statements about the danger to Alabama from Hurricane Dorian. And another career civil servant, National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, publicly defended the “integrity of the forecasting process.”
Weather forecasting should never be political. The National Weather Service, an agency within NOAA, issues forecasts and warnings that are based on science and focused squarely on public safety. For more than a century, the agency has played a vital role in protecting the lives and property of Americans across the country.
To be effective, NWS forecasts and warnings need to be accurate, timely and clear. Everyone — citizens, airline officials, farmers, fishermen, city officials and emergency managers — relies on the NWS to provide trustworthy information. Even a hint that a forecast or warning was influenced by politics would undermine the public’s trust and the ability to respond quickly and effectively under potentially life-threatening conditions.
If political appointees overrule trained scientists, imposing political concerns on scientific matters, they endanger public safety as well as the credibility and morale of the agency charged with protecting that safety.
That is apparently what happened last week. As the potentially dangerous weather conditions caused by Hurricane Dorian rapidly evolved, NOAA officials in Washington overrode sound science and undercut NWS professionals, apparently to provide cover for the president, who on Sept. 1 had posted inaccurate information on Twitter. Worse, NOAA officials, in an unsigned statement, had the gall on Sept. 6 to chastise NWS forecasters in Birmingham, Ala., for telling the public — correctly — that Alabama was not actually endangered.
The impetus for the reprimand might have come from high in the Trump administration: The New York Times on Monday reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who heads the department responsible for NOAA, threatened to fire agency officials after the Birmingham office contradicted the president.
It was bad enough that Trump’s warning to Alabamians of a serious risk from Hurricane Dorian was woefully outdated. But it would be appalling if NOAA political appointees sought to defend his mistake, while castigating the NWS office for accurately reassuring Alabamians that they were not in danger.
NOAA has a scientific integrity policy for a reason — to prevent politics from interfering with the discovery, use and communication of scientific information, and to deal with violations of its standards. Moreover, manipulating weather information can be a federal offense. To restore public trust in weather forecasts and warnings, every step should be taken to learn from this distortion of truth and breach of trust.
NOAA has been without a permanent leader since the beginning of the Trump administration, instead relying on acting heads to run the agency. The lack of genuine political leadership is all too apparent. The Senate should press the White House to nominate a qualified candidate who can restore public confidence in the non-political nature of this vital agency. McLean’s investigation is a good first step in finding out more about the breach of public trust, but scrutiny by Congress and the inspector general may also be merited. It is essential that the federal government does all in its power to reaffirm, and to safeguard, NOAA’s scientific integrity policy.
Michelle Bachelet said the Amazon fires ‘may have catastrophic impact on humanity as a whole, but their worst effects are suffered by the women, men and children who live in these areas.’ Photograph: Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA
Climate change is not only having a devastating impact on the environments we live in, but also on respect for human rights globally, the UN has warned.
“The world has never seen a threat to human rights of this scope,” she told the UN human rights council in Geneva.
“The economies of all nations, the institutional, political, social and cultural fabric of every state, and the rights of all your people, and future generations, will be impacted” by climate change, she warned.
The 42nd session of the council opened with a minute of silence for the victims of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, where at least 44 have been killed and thousands of homes reduced to rubble.
“The storm accelerated with unprecedented speed over an ocean warmed by climate shifts, becoming one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes ever to hit land,” Bachelet said.
Low-lying small island states like the Bahamas, which are heavily affected by climate change, are quickly seeing rights to water, sanitation, health, food, work and adequate housing, she warned. She called for international action to mitigate the impact there.
The UN high commissioner for human rights also denounced the “drastic acceleration of deforestation of the Amazon.
“The fires currently raging across the rainforest may have catastrophic impact on humanity as a whole, but their worst effects are suffered by the women, men and children who live in these areas,” she said.
She urged authorities in Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil to “ensure the implementation of longstanding environmental policies … thus preventing future tragedies”.
Bachelet’s comments risk further angering the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, who last week accused her of meddling in his country’s affairs after she criticised the deteriorating rights situation there.
The UN rights chief also highlighted the impact climate change is having on insecurity around the world. She cited a UN estimate that 40% of civil wars over the past six decades have been linked to environmental degradation.
In the Sahel region of Africa for instance, degradation of arable land “is intensifying competition for already scarce resources”, she said. This in turn exacerbates ethnic tensions, and fuels violence and political instability, she added.
Bachelet lamented that those sounding the alarm over the devastating impacts of climate change are often attacked.
UN experts, she said, had “noted attacks on environmental human rights defenders in virtually every region, particularly in Latin America”.
“I am disheartened by this violence, and also by the verbal attacks on young activists such as Greta Thunberg and others, who galvanise support for prevention of the harm their generation may bear,” Bachelet said.
“The demands made by environmental defenders and activists are compelling, and we should respect, protect and fulfil their rights.”