We humans are causing a lot of mayhem in the natural world, according to decades of research and findings in the field by climatologists, biologists, ecologists and chemists.
First, we’ve got the use of fossil fuels flinging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at levels and speeds the planet hasn’t seen for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere lets visible light from the sun pass through to the surface, which absorbs the light, heats up and emits that energy back out as infrared, like the heat coming off of the sidewalk at the end of a summer day. In this form, it no longer goes through carbon dioxide; it’s trapped instead. There’s the greenhouse effect for you.
Then we have ocean acidification, because carbon dioxide in the air mixes with water in the oceans. Through some straightforward chemical reactions, that makes carbonic acid, a substance also found in soda that’s terribly unfriendly to the shellfish and coral that sustain oceanic life.
Put those and other issues all together, and scientists have found we and the rest of the living world have fairly dire problems everywhere we look, with thousands of species moving or going extinct every few years.
It’s all very depressing. I’ll come back to that.
I’m a county reporter, but I’ve had a few chances to report on climate, fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other environmental topics – heck, the biggest one I’ve done is here on this blog – as long as I’ve been writing. So this past weekend I drove up to St. Louis for a conference put together by the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, part of the larger National Adaptation Forum.
It was my first conference ever, so that’s neat already, but it also brought an unexpected coincidence: it was held in St. Louis Union Station, a massive metal and brick structure into which someone decided to squeeze a hotel, a mall, an artificial lake along with the former train station. A decade ago, I took some of my first digital photos there, including this one:
I got to the city Sunday and Metcalf started Monday afternoon, so I had a few hours to walk around downtown and to the Gateway Arch as storms approached. Then it was back to the hotel to meet up with some other conference participants.
I had a little more time Monday to wander before we Metcalf participants all went on a field trip.
You’ve probably heard about the trouble in California, where a significant chunk of our edible plants grow. The state’s drought, perhaps the worst in centuries, has come along partly because a warmer and drier atmosphere melted nearly all of California’s snowpack, meaning a lot of water is gone instead of giving the controlled release of gradually melting snow. Much of the Rockies’ flanks are covered by gray pine trees killed a beetle that’s spread further and further because of more warmth as well.
Our field trip was to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where researchers told us they aim to use breeding and bio-engineering to create tougher and more nutritious plants that can deal with droughts and stresses similar to those examples. It’s a good goal, though I should add our tour gave us a one-sided impression of the place. They have a slick-looking building, at least.
That evening I went back to the Arch, this time under a clear sky. I like to call this half-century-old structure the country’s largest piece of public art on the continent; in fact, apparently it’s the largest monument in the Americas. It’s 630 feet tall and narrows as it rises, creating the appearance of towering even higher above the western bank of the Mississippi. It’s stunning to see.
After the walk, some other journalists and I trekked around town looking for a bar to hang out in. I’d never had such an opportunity to meet other writers and freelancers, hear about their paths and stories and bounce some ideas around together. One participant worked at the Omaha World-Herald near my old hometown, and I met some cool folks from Colorado, Maryland and the Northwest. It was absolutely a worthwhile experience.
Tuesday was devoted to the conference, so I don’t have many photos to show from then. I said I’d get back to how environmental problems can be unbearably grim, so for those interested, I’ll give a run-down of the more uplifting theme of the day: adaptation. The word “resilience” was used dozens of times. Climate change is already happening, the speakers said, so here’s how we’re trying to deal with it.
For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society is focusing its tree-planting in some forests on species that like warmer temperatures, basically trying to mold the forest for the coming decades. It’s also preparing land near the coasts, but not directly on them, to become the next coastal wetlands as the seas rise. Kim Hall with the Nature Conservancy, meanwhile, talked about making sure land is easy enough for animals to move across, essentially making sure they can flee as the climate changes around them.
This is a perspective I’d never heard of before. It oddly sounds like giving up, cutting our losses. But its proponents cast it as also pragmatic and potentially indispensable. Much more along these lines needs to be done to prepare for what could be coming, the speakers said. Cities need to prepare for weather and water and drought, they said, and we must keep working to change our energy sources and live in better balance with the rest of life.
Anyway, I’ll stop there, but I hope these issues seem worthwhile to you. Many people, perhaps including yourself, don’t accept climate science’s consistent findings, and science in general is imperfect and human. But people who study these things have largely concluded we’re living on a warming and changing planet, and many others agree that means we need to change, too.