Change in the Air

_C1_9243We 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.

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_C1_9252It 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:

Dec-17-2007-009It’s not terrible. Here’s my try this time around, featuring some of my fellow conference-goers:

_C1_0510I 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.

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_C1_0422I love the intricate detailing of the station’s every surface.

I had a little more time Monday to wander before we Metcalf participants all went on a field trip.

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_C1_0474You’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.

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_C1_0563That 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.

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_C1_0732Tuesday 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.

Great conference, Metcalf! I’m really glad I went. My brain’s buzzing with story ideas._C1_0733---CopyThanks to you, too, reader.

Dan

Geometry

IMG_8099Fuzzy tendrils reach out from a blossom’s golden innards in a Strawberry Hill Farms potted plant in Columbia, Missouri. The farm might be the biggest plant nursery I’ve seen.

IMG_8101Columbia’s where my grandparents live, at least when they’re not out at the farm. Until a little more than a week ago, it had been maybe a decade since I was there. Their house is almost exactly how I remember — the carpet, the board games on the shelves, the crowded kitchen bar my grandma always apologizes for. The place felt a little smaller than I remembered.

It was an extended weekend of driving, first to Columbia, then up to St. Joe, where my friend Mike makes cookies and hangs out with his shy cat named Henderson.

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IMG_8169From there it was up to Lincoln, Nebraska, of course. It’s been too long for each of these places.

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IMG_8324I’ve known each of these places for years, but they aren’t the same as before. Their shapes always change. It’s the same for people and their stories, I suppose.

IMG_8172For example, take this sister and her two students, running through a big, empty field toward a Science Olympiad event just because that’s what you do in big, empty fields. Science Olympiad is a competition with a couple dozen different topics and challenges, and back in my middle-school and high-school days, I was a massive Science Olympiad nerd.

You can clearly see I’m not a nerd anymore. But the point is new nerds and new coaches have come in. Now one of my old teammates is an event supervisor, and my old coach comes mostly for old times’ sake, and they’re both working on bigger things. The state competition still happens in Lincoln, but the town has changed, too, especially downtown. Time and other forces have nudged and stretched everything’s shape.

IMG_8207The university’s new features include a rock-climbing building and a roving skateboard gang. At least some of the same trombone players are still around to climb with.

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IMG_8377I’m sorry it’s taken so long for this post, and to make it up to you, I plan to have another up today or tomorrow from yesterday’s Razorback Greenway opening here in Northwest Arkansas. Take a look, if you like.

Thanks for looking!

Vacation

_C1_4046I just got back from my first official vacation as a grown-up from my grown-up job. I used it to see places I like and people I love up north in St. Joseph, Mo., and Lincoln, Neb. Of course the camera was brought along, too.

First was St. Joe, where one of my best friends now works. Before he got off work I spent a couple of hours getting acquainted with a town that’s about the same size as Fayetteville but lacks the heavy dose of college.

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_C1_3823St. Joe sits right on Missouri’s edge along the Missouri River. Like towns across the Midwest, railroads sustained it. Now the wedge between the rail and downtown, mostly neighborhoods, is in pretty rough shape. But religious statues stand solemnly in many yards and kids found plenty to do in the afternoon.

A woman named Karen asked what I was doing walking around with a camera in a way that was somehow friendly and demanding at once. She’s raising her grandkids, she said, and didn’t like creeps. “Like that guy,” she muttered darkly, pointing to a white man walking in the middle of the street. But Karen was good-natured, busily clearing weeds and leaves from her front yard and chatting with her good friend Patty before picking up those grandchildren from school.

Later my friend took me to a restaurant that had the greatest calzones, bulging with cheese and thick dough that shone with garlic butter. The next morning, it was on to Lincoln.

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_C1_3883It was the weekend of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln football team’s spring game — essentially showing (or finding out) what next year’s team can do in front of 40,000 people. Games in the fall will bring more than twice that many.

If you’re not familiar with Husker football, I’ll tell you one thing: It’s an institution. There are no professional teams in the state, and you won’t find anyone who doesn’t at least have a relative or friend bleeding Husker red. In short, even the spring game is exciting here, and my hotel was packed (though a wedding or two also helped).

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_C1_4124If you don’t know, I played trombone for the Cornhusker Marching Band for four years, including the last two as section leader. I almost wished I had brought my trombone along. But the most important part of this trip was my friends. I can’t even say how great it is to see them. I hadn’t been up to Lincoln since August, and my pulse was up the moment I stepped out of my car. Energizing is the first word that comes to mind, but that doesn’t really cover it.

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_C1_3973On Sunday the 80-degree and sunny weather gave way to an epic cold front that dumped the hardest rain I’ve ever encountered and sent temperatures into free fall. Pelicans had arrived for their annual migration at the Bellevue lake where another friend lives.

By Sunday night, the unthinkable happened. It snowed. Good to see you, too, Nebraska.

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_C1_4207I mean that, though. Good to see you, Nebraska.

Thanks for looking,

Dan

Coming Back

IMG_9979Home, for me, has long been a complicated word. We moved from Springfield, Mo., up to Nebraska before my third grade year. A decade later, I went down the road to the University of Nebraska. A month later, my family moved back to Springfield.  As I deepen my roots in yet another state, I realize the day before college was the last time “home” was singular.

This is a time of many returns for me, though. I went up to Springfield this past weekend and remembered something I always forget — how nice it can be to come back to board games and cookouts and three-hour conversation. Life is flowing back with the spring, life I breathe in from each breeze and storm. And in a couple of weeks, I’ll be going back to Nebraska for the first time since August. This a good time for me.

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IMG_9985Having three homes is tough. They wrench time from each other. But they amplify each other, too. Nothing helps boost appreciation for something like losing it, even for just a while. In a way, I think, life has been a chain of losses and returns. The loss sure sweetens the taste of returning. Sometimes I think one home would be nicer, but with each loss I value each home with greater intensity.

On a lighter note, the same delight in returning applies to spring. I’m a broken record, but man, I’ve missed it.

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IMG_0032However many homes you have, whatever form they take and whatever takes you away, I hope you get to return.

Thanks for looking,

Dan