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Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

The sand dune that swallows children

In Career, The Great Outdoors on November 7, 2016 at 9:43 pm

A few weeks ago I drove 3.5 hours (one way!) to the Indiana Dunes State Park for an impromptu afternoon hike.


Because I read an article, and it stuck with me.  This amazing piece of nature/science writing by Ariel Sabar reminded me of how little we truly know about our small planet. I was filled me with wonder.

Sabar’s article detailed the very human origins of a scientific breakthrough: a lost child. Mount Baldy, a well-known feature of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, did something that sand dunes weren’t supposed to do. It swallowed a child.

With Mt Baldy closed to the public (for obvious reasons), I pulled out a map and asked a park ranger whether there was a way to get near the dune. A glimpse would do.

Bad news followed me, it would seem. The ranger told me that the main trail heading to Mt Baldy was closed and any attempts to get there on the beach would be futile since recent rains had eaten into the shoreline.

He may have been misleading me, but with limited daylight I took the advice and stuck to known trails within the state park. My hike, a nearly four mile trudge across dunes, proved much shorter but just as beautiful.


A blowout shows the wind’s power. Maram grass, on the left, helps stabilize the dunes.


Looking down from the top of the dunes, Lake Michigan seemed serene.

A note: Trail 9, at 3.75 mi,  is listed as Moderate on park maps. Beware you are hiking on sand and dunes, which drain more energy and requires more water/snackage than you’d think. Also, your shoes… they will need to be poured out before you get in the car.


5 Less Popular Animals That Are Also Endangered

In Career, The Great Outdoors on September 4, 2014 at 8:47 am

Polar bears, despite their ability to capture the collective attention, aren’t everything when it comes to the extinction list.  Extinction events at the base of the food chain (think insects or amphibians, not tertiary predators) can fracture entire ecosystems.

Here are five animals you should be keeping your eyes on.

Pteropods (Ocean Acidification)

pteropods, effects of ocean acidification,

(Steve Ringman / MCT)

Hidden beneath the waves, these Pteropods form the basis of many ocean food webs.  But ocean acidification – caused by excess carbon dioxide – threatens the small snails by dissolving their protective shells.

Ocean acidification isn’t breaking news.  It happened before during the Permian-Triassic Extinction 250 million years ago, and that’s partially what makes the vulnerable Pteropod so alarming.  The snail forces a comparison between current climate events and the those took place millions of years ago.

Pangolin (Human Hunting)

pangolin cub, cute baby animals, pangolin extinction

With more than 1 million animals traded for meat and scales over the past decade, these scaly anteaters are one of the most trafficked species groups on the planet.

Not only are they hunted for meat, but their scales are supposed to contain medicinal properties.   As supplies dwindle in Asian markets, hunters are turning to Africa to source the Pangolin trade.  Human enthusiasm for Pangolins is driving the insect-eating critters into critical endangerment.

  • Chinese pangolin – critically endangered
  • Sunda pangolin – critically endangered
  • Indian pangolin – endangered
  • Philippine pangolin – endangered
  • Giant pangolin – vulnerable
  • Ground pangolin – vulnerable
  • Tree pangolin – vulnerable
  • Long-tailed pangolin – vulnerable

Vaquita marina Porpoise & Totoaba macdonaldi (Human Hunting)

vaquita marina, baja peninsula dolphins, fishing trade hurts dolphins, dolphin hunting,

Photo Credit: Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor)

The world’s smallest porpoise – and one of its most critically endangered – has been nearly wiped out by human hunting in the Gulf of California, the species’s native habitat.  Despite fishery restrictions and government protections, regulators haven’t been able to stop illegal hunters from making the catch.

But poachers aren’t even trying to catch the porpoise. They’re going after something much more lucrative:  totoaba bladders.

Poachers use gillnets to catch totoaba, a large drum fish that only lives in the Gulf of California.  Once the float bladder (i.e., swim bladder) is removed, the fish are often left to rot on the beach.

Float bladders from totoaba are considered a delicacy in China and can fetch upwards of $10 million dollars in Asia, making it a lucrative (but illegal) fishing market.  Coincidentally, totoaba are also on a critically endangered species, though their situation is not so bad as the vaquita marina, whose population has dwindled into the 100s, according to experts.

Great Apes (Habitat Destruction)

oragutan eating, what are great apes, orangutans endangered, habitat destruction affects apes

By Eleifert (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure if you heard it, but back in July primatologist Jane Goodall warned that chimpanzees and other great apes face extinction within decades if habitat destruction continues at its current rate.

As infrastructure development continues, ape habitats get cut off from one another.  Colonies become isolated, then inbred and then weaker.

Although  developers are being pushed to adopt no-deforestation policies, more than half of African land set aside for palm oil plantations overlaps with current ape habitat.

Hellbenders (Water Quality)

hellbenders, north american salamander, giant salamanders,

Image source: NPR/Robert J. Erwin/Science Source

Researchers from Purdue University found that Hellbenders, the largest salamanders in the United States, were declining in the wild.  The Ozark Hellbender, a subspecies that only lives in Arkansas and Missouri, has been listed as endangered since 2011.

Scientists aren’t convinced that Hellbenders are dying off – just that they aren’t where they should be in the wild.  Some guesses as to their whereabouts include:

  1. They moved, pioneer-style, in search of faster flowing rivers
  2. Silt and other debris gathers in the crevaces of the river, leaving young salamanders homeless and vulnerable to the environment
  3. The deadly fungus, which affects amphibians on a global scale, found the Hellbenders

So how do you help stop animal extinction?  A good first step is just to care.  Be conscious of where your products come from.  Try to buy animal-free toiletries from companies that don’t do animal testing.  This is harder than it seems because it basically rules out anything from Johnson & Johnson or Procter & Gamble.

You can spread awareness of animal trafficking, habitat destruction and water quality issues.  Humans are smart when we want to be, and I firmly believe development doesn’t have to mean the end of the animal kingdom.  We just need to plan better and to care about coexisting with nature.

If you are especially dedicated, offer up some time to organizations that fight against habitat destruction and animal trafficking.  The WWF is just one dedicated to conservation around the world.  If you don’t like them, find one that suits you.

Waterworld: Becoming the Kevin Costner Movie We Didn’t Know We Could Be

In Career, The Great Outdoors on April 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Why Sea Level Matters – Even if We’re Not Waterworld

Environmental textbooks like to emphasize that ours is a water world, driven by a complex hydrological system that both regulates global temperatures and nourishes the land.  But that’s not the kind of water world I’m talking about.

I’m talking about Waterworld, the 1995 post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie starring Kevin Costner.  It’s a bizarre film – and not just because its eco-friendly protagonist sports webbed toes and gills.  Waterworld’s western parallels play out on a vast, post-apocalyptic ocean where the desert is made of water and all the horses are boats.

Costner plays The Mariner, a drifter whose very nature makes him unsuited for civilized life.  The gruff nomad finds himself drawn into a woman’s quest to find Dryland, a mythic place in this distant future where the polar ice caps have melted and drowned all dry land.

dystopian sci-fi, waterworld dystopian sci-fi, climate change in pop culture,

Check out what the world will look like after the ice melts!

The good news is that scientists think it will take up to 5,000 years for all the ice on Earth to melt – not the mere 500 years it took in the movie universe.

The mechanics of sea level rise are fairly simple.  Heat absorbed from the sun is warming ocean water.  Warming water expands, its extra space contributing to higher sea levels while its heat melts smaller ice caps and glaciers.

Most of the Earth’s warming over the past 40 years has been hidden in the ocean, and that’s unsettling because it took scientists almost as long to figure that out. Meanwhile, the combination of atmospheric warming and ocean warming has helped global sea levels rise 1.0 – 2.5 millimeters per year over the last century.

At the same time, global warming patterns are expected to speed glacial melt and increase tropical sea temperatures.  Sea levels are difficult to predict but could rise between 6 – 37 inches by 2100 … if Antarctica holds.

WAIS, antarctic ice sheets, map of antarctic ice sheetsThere’s a reason most research on sea level rise leads to the Antarctic.  The continent, which is covered in snow and glacial ice, holds more than 800,000 years of climate history in its ice.  With ice shelves extending off 75 percent of its coastline, Antarctica is the Big Boss for climate change.

Glaciologists agree that the Come-to-Jesus moment for sea level rise will happen when and if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) collapses.  A marine ice sheet, the WAIS could become unstable if ocean warming trends continue.  If this one ice sheet melts, it could raise sea levels more than three meters (about 10 feet).

Evidence from sediment samples in ice cores suggests the WAIS melted in previous interglacial periods.  Keeping a watchful eye is not unreasonable, especially after the recent collapses of two major Antarctic ice shelves:  The Larsen A in 1995 and the Larsen B in 2002.  While studies have since shown the Larsen A previously melted and returned, they also concluded that the Larsen B Ice Shelf was a permanent fixture during previous warming cycles.

This begs the question:  Is Waterworld even possible?

Nope!  Melting polar ice caps will not drown the entire known world – but they would rewrite it. If the polar ice caps, land ice and glaciers all melted, the Earth’s sea level would rise more than 200 feet. Swaths of North America would disappear into the Atlantic and whole countries erased, but there would still be land.

While this isn’t exactly Waterworld-type ocean rise, it would devastate already at- risk coastal cities and upend today’s geopolitical structure.

And that’s kinda the point of the film.

For a film that doesn’t openly discuss ecology, Waterworld is surprisingly preachy.  The reluctant hero is a man whose mutations enable him to live in harmony with the environment.  The antagonists, pirates who cobbled together smoke-belching combustion engines, terrorize society from an old oil tanker called Exxon Valdez.  Even its premise evolved with the idea that humans created ecological factors resulting in their own destruction.

“What was different about [Waterworld] was that it had to do with an ecological conflagration, a whole world covered in water because of human stupidity and greed,” said director Kevin Reynolds in a 1995 interview.

the mariner boat, exxon valdez waterworld,

Scientists don’t expect Antarctica to melt any time soon.  The continent, which is buried beneath feet of ice sheets, can survive warmer climates for some time before it gives way.

For now, Antarctica’s western ice sheet is safe.  But should it fail in the future, we may well be on our way to the water world Kevin Reynolds and Peter Rader envisioned.  And, as in the movie, it would be society’s destructive practices that caused it.

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