Winter in the Woods

Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.

So writes Edward Abbey, in a passage that Ken sent to me nearly two years ago. The quote is now stuck to my fridge, and I abide by it as best I can.

It’s pretty easy to find areas of untouched forest within my city. Living in a floodplain, it’s only practical to leave natural vegetation growing around the rivers – it acts as a natural sponge when the water rises. In the warmer months, hiking in the woods is convenient, particularly because I can bike to the edge of the river. But in the winter, it’s not so easy. The past few months have consistently been about 10 C above normal, though, and today I found a shortcut that made the trip to the woods walkable.

The aspen parkland in winter is strange. Most wildlife travel south or begin hibernating by early October, and no evergreen species grow here naturally. As you walk through the naked branches, it’s easy to think of the woods as desolate. But if you slow down, pay attention, and look around more carefully, you see signs of life in the distance:

Black-capped Chickadee

White-tailed Deer

If you stand still and do your best to look non-threatening, some of the more curious animals might come for a closer inspection:

If you imitate a bird's call well enough, it will come right up to you

A mother deer and her fawn, probably about eight months old

The species that live here year-round are some of the most resilient on the continent. They have survived 40 above and 40 below, near-annual droughts and floods, and 150 years of colonization. The Prairies is a climate of extremes, and life has evolved to thrive in those extremes.

So maybe this isn’t the land I am fighting for – it will probably be able to handle whatever climate change throws at it – but it is the land I love regardless.

Happy Christmas to everyone, and please go out and enjoy the land you’re fighting for, as a gift to yourself.

An Unlikely Priority

A small news splash surfaced this week over a recent paper in Nature, regarding the prospects for Arctic sea ice and, consequently, polar bear populations. Until this paper was published, studies had only examined business-as-usual scenarios. We didn’t really know whether or not, if we pursued aggressive mitigation, it would be too late to save the polar bears from extinction.

The GCM output this paper analysed suggested that there is hope. They found the relationship between temperature and sea ice cover to be more linear, and the ice-albedo feedback in the Arctic to be weaker, than we previously thought. Tipping points where sea ice is beyond hope might not be such a problem. Therefore, we may still have a chance to limit damage to the ecosystem that experiences consequences of climate change earliest and strongest, and the polar bears might still make it. Nature News has a great summary for those who want more detail on the literature.

When the story showed up in my CBC News feed, however, I was bewildered at the angle they took:

Polar bears could be saved from extinction if greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced in the next decade or two, a study released Wednesday suggests.

As if that’s the most compelling reason to pursue mitigation…

Don’t get me wrong: it would be a shame to see the polar bears go. But it would be much worse to see agriculture in the subtropics go, or to see low-lying nations go. I believe that the public is wise enough to understand that sentimental notions about an oft-romanticized species are minuscule in their importance when compared to matters of human security.

Additionally, since polar bears reside at the top of the food chain, the ecological consequences of their loss – while certainly not trivial – would probably be less intense than if it were another species. Imagine the hypothetical scenario of termites going extinct – it would be much worse. Termites aren’t quite so cute and cuddly, though.

I continue to be amazed by choices that the mainstream media makes as to which studies to report on and which studies to ignore. Their picture of ordinary people’s priorities is baffling and somewhat insulting. I get it – I have a strong affinity for wildlife – but the species I care about the most is still Homo sapiens, despite its blatant shortcomings.