Archive for 2014 May

The virtues of walking vs becoming part of the mountains

Under the heading, To Age Well, Walk, a new study written up in the NYTimes tells us what we already knew (but sometimes choose to forget). 

While everyone knows that exercise is a good idea, whatever your age, the hard, scientific evidence about its benefits in the old and infirm has been surprisingly limited.

“For the first time, we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people,” said Dr. Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the lead author of the study.

Countless epidemiological studies have found a strong correlation between physical activity in advanced age and a longer, healthier life. But such studies can’t prove that exercise improves older people’s health, only that healthy older people exercise.

Okay, but looking past Captain Obvious, how much can we expect walking to help? And what does that kind of aging look like? How do we not just exercise in a general way, but walk in the mountains as we age? How hard do we push ourselves? 

So happens that Backpacker magazine has a superb story on exactly that topic, although — to my bewilderment — I cannot find it in the Backpacker webite, even though the featured "senior hiker," Joe Kelsey, a climber still at 75, a former guide and writer, has been written up in past issues, and the writer of this piece — Hike Forever — Matt Jenkins, has a long association with the magazine.

And believe me, I looked through their site. But no matter — if and when it's posted, I'll link to it. For now let me link to a past mention of Kelsey's favorite trips in his beloved Wind River range in Wyoming and manually quote the rhetorical heart of Hike Forever, from adventurer/writer Matt Jenkins, which has some of the best such writing on the physical mysticism of hiking in the moutains I've seen in some time:

Now you might think a man in his 70's might be a little creaky for hard climbing, but not Joe Kelsey. He moves upward like a dancer. Of course, he's not the only senior hiker to remain physically fit at an age when most people are looking at photo albums, not making them. Heck, Earl Shaffer, the Appalachian Trail's first thru-hiker, hiked it for the third time at age 79. But unlike record-setters, whose feats can appear unattainable for us mortals, Kelsey's path seems like one I can follow. Keeping doing what you love. Go for a short hike if you can't go for a long one. Use packhorses if you'd rather spend your energy climbing backcountry rocks than carrying a heavy load. 

At lunch we lie in the meadow, close our eyes, and swap stories. This is the finest gift of the mountains: to be utterly unattached to the outside world. We are in an alpine meadow so close to the sky we need only reach out our arms to touch it — while the rest of humanity is far down below, entangled in a morass of emails and tweets and text messages. the spiritual freedom of this recognition gradually fills us like a snowfield fills a tarn. for a while we simply listen to the exquisiteness of nothingness, allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the landscape, to become part of the mountain like the purple fleabane and the flecks of feldspur. 

I am dozing, in a dream-like state but still conscious of the warm rock under me and the sun upon my skin, when I once again fast forward to inhabit the body and mind of my older self. I can see that I will enjoy what I presently resist: taking my time, observing more than doing, accepting limitations. I can imagine no longer constantly pushing, but rather accepting the world for what it is rather than what it should bve, and myuself, not for what I weill become, but for what I already am. 

That's why I keep going back to the mountains I guess. Haven't found a pic able to express what Jenkins puts so well, but this one — of a pinyon pine in the Mojave — gives some sense of that warmth and that timelessness on the trail. From one of the best campsites I have found on the PCT — entirely by chance. 


[at about mile 637 in Section F atop a hill beyond a water cache] 

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Happy birthday Rachel Carson! Says Google

One of the most heartening of Google's doodles ever (for me at least) comes today, in honor of Rachel Carson's 107th birthday. The inspiration she drew from nature — and the questions nature pushed her to ask of us — are with as today as much or more than ever. 

We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged, as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.


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A Nostradamus for today: 1978 forecast of Antarctic melt

On a recent book tour, promoting his delightful new memoir Little Failure, the mordantly funny essayist/novelist Gary Schteyngart — who in his last book predicted an economic crash, urban chaos, and the rise of a movement that sounded very much like Occupy — joked that he was "the Nostradamus of two weeks from now."

The joke brings to mind the remarkable achievement of an Ohio State glaciologist named John Mercer, who back in l978 precisely foresaw the break-up of the West Antartic ice sheet, which two studies published two weeks ago revealed has already begun. 

As the those crazy radicals at the Toledo Blade revealed today, Mercer wrote:

“I contend that a major disaster — a rapid 5-meter rise in sea level, caused by deglaciation of West Antarctica — may be imminent or in progress after atmospheric CO2 [carbon dioxide] content has only doubled. This concentration of CO2 will be reached within about 50 years if fossil fuel continues to be consumed at its recent accelerating rate, or within about 200 years if consumption is held constant at today’s level,” Mr. Mercer wrote in his paper.

The newspaper goes on to point out:

Mr. Mercer’s forecast was largely validated recently by evidence presented in two major scientific papers published in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

Those papers show the breakup of West Antarctica has already begun, and that the pending disaster Mr. Mercer warned about in 1978 is now virtually unstoppable.

About the only thing mankind can do is slow down the rate of melting through greenhouse gas reductions, according to the latest research.

Mr. Mercer alluded to that in his 1978 paper too, when he said the industrialized world needs “to make the changeover from fossil fuels to other sources of energy.”

Or as Wikipedia put it:

Following John T. Hollin's work (1962) suggesting that climatic warming and rising sea-level cause Antarctic ice shelves to retreat , Mercer postulated that the West Antarctic ice sheet, being grounded well below sea-level and terminating in floating ice shelves, was vulnerable to these changes and may have collapsed altogether during the last interglacial when Antarctica may have been warmer and sea-level may have been higher. In 1978, in the science magazine Nature , Mercer pointed out that "green-house" warming from burning fossil fuel could have the same effect during the present interglacial. Two studies published 12 May 2014 may appear to confirm Mercer's assumption.[1][2]

But the newspaper also took the time to give us some of the marvelous character (not to deny eccentricities) of the far-sighted Mercer, an explorer of Antarctica as well as a scientist, who perhaps not coincidentally came from England.

Johnmercer"Mr. Mercer was so focused on his research that he was less concerned about material things in life, such as his attire, almost to a comical degree.

His favorite shirt, according to Mr. Denton, was a Mickey Mouse shirt.

One of his best friends, Keith Mountain, associate professor and chairman of the University of Louisville’s geography and geosciences department, recalled one particular gaudy pair of red-and-white canvas tennis shoes that were obviously too large for him.

Mr. Mercer told people he liked them because he caught a deal on them “and the price was right,” Mr. Mountain said.

Mr. Mercer had a large office at OSU, but it was notoriously full of clutter. Piles of papers were stacked everywhere.

“John discarded nothing,” Mr. Mountain said. “But he seemed to know where everything was. It was impressive.'”


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Why the experts think the boy child will come this year

We should be properly skeptical of any image I suppose, especially in these days of Photoshop, and when an image purports to describe a before and after in colors demand to know even how the the satellite data was visualized, the colors chosen…but wow, this image knocks me off my feet, and at a gut level I believe in and believe it harbingers a shift in the Pacific.

[From the enthralling earth/nullschool site and app.]

Holy holy, as Allan Ginsberg used to say…

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On (almost) the same page: Virginia Woolf and Carl Jung

Great minds think alike, the nine zillionth example:

Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse

"She felt…how life, from being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach." 


[painting of Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell]

Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Chapter IV, Psychiatric Activies:

In many cases in psychiatry, the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of.  To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient's secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to the treatment. The doctor's task is to find out how to gain that knowledge. In most cases exploration of the consicous material is insufficient. Sometimes an association test can open the way; so can the interpretation of dreams, or long and patient human contact with the individual. In therapy the problem is always the whole person, never the symptom alone. We must ask questions which challenge the whole personality.


As must the dramatist, surely — I wonder if this is the half-secret connection between drama and therapy, the challenging of character. 

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Why are we having Santa Ana conditions in May?

Just got another Santa Ana winds warning via phone app. Winds expected through Monday. The umpteenth such warning in the last few weeks. National meteorologist Dr. Jeff Masters laid out the harsh weather experienced in Southern California this week already: 

Record May heat sent temperatures soaring above 100° in much of Southern California on Wednesday, and fierce Santa Ana winds fanned fires that scorched at least 9,000 acres in San Diego County, forcing thousands to evacuate. For the second consecutive day, the Los Angeles Airport set a record for the hottest May temperature since record keeping began in 1944. Wednesday's 96° beat the record set on Tuesday of 93°. Other all-time May record heat was recorded at Camarillo (102°) and Oxnard (102°) on Wednesday. In Downtown Los Angeles, the mercury hit 99° on Wednesday, falling short of the all-time May record is 103° set on May 25, 1896. More record heat is forecast on Thursday, and hot offshore Santa Ana winds will bring extreme fire danger.

It's natural to suspect that clmate change might lead to an increase in hot dry Santa Ana winds, but interestingly the leading study on the question — from Alex Hall et al at the clmate lab at UCLA — found that during the traditional season for these winds they had actually decreased in recent decades. 

But that's from October to March. The Santa Ana winds experienced this week came in May.

That's all but unheard of. That's a fact.      

"I've lived here my entire life, but I've never seen these Santa Ana winds — these devil winds — in May," said Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors [of San Diego County]. "We're now in a situation where there is a year-round risk of fire in San Diego County."

The science (from a study on Santa Ana forecasting) shows the accuracy of her observation. Almost no incidence of Santa Anas in May


Further, the study also shows how rare it is for a Santa Ana condition to last for more than a day or two. 


Again, almost no examples of Santa Ana conditions lasting a week. We're in uncharted territory here, folks. Science has some interesting theories, but at this time we don't know why this is happening.

As a UC Berkeley researcher told National Geographic recently:

"What we're seeing right now is just a real anomaly," said Norman Miller, an expert in regional climate and hydrology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Whether it's part of natural variability or climate change, we need to have a longer record of occurrences so we can construct a trend and make sense out of it."

Meanwhile the LA Times (the on-line edition) came up with a great headline: 

Ash is the new "May Grey" in Southern California

And pics, too: 


From the Tomahawk Fire near Fallbrook, east of San Diego. Still burning.

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The blindness of GOP climate denial: USA Today

As those radicals at USA Today put it:

The National Climate Assessment, released this week, adds to a mounting and overwhelming body of evidence that the effects of rising temperatures are here and now — and that even higher sea levels, more extreme weather and water shortages are in our future if nothing is done.

Addressing the threat won't be easy, or popular. But denying that a problem even exists — which is common among the most vocal of Republicans — risks branding the party as one that is anti-science and refuses to participate in constructive governance.

Or as Tom Toles drew it (referencing two studies on the Antarctic released Monday


These politicians risk their party's future. We fear the loss of the future itself. 

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What we can do about climate change: the Monarch

A funny thing about climate change: contrary to popular opinion, individuals can make a difference, here and there, for other people and other species. 

Example? The Monarch Butterly. Ask the experts at Monarch Watch, the leading conservation group devoted to this iconic species:

In California, Monarchs aggregate in more than 25 roosting sites along the California coast each winter. In the coastal forests, Monarchs find forests with all the right characteristics for overwintering. Many people, however, would also like to live along the California coast, which raises property values and increases the pressure to build, remove trees, and otherwise develop the land. With this in mind, conservationists created the Monarch Project in 1984. The Monarch Project works to protect California overwintering sites, most often through conservation easements of land. In a conservation easement, landowners set aside a portion of their land permanently as protected Monarch habitat. Often, conservation easements come about due to the collaborative efforts of the Monarch Project, government officials, land trusts, parks, public agencies, scientists, developers, and conservationists. In 1988, Californians gave this process a boost when they passed a bond for $2 million to buy Monarch sites. The Monarch Project has also worked to include information about Monarch sites in zoning laws and land-use plans, especially in areas such as Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz where large aggregations gather each year. Although there has been some progress towards protecting Monarch overwintering sites in California, high property values and the resulting pressure to develop land along the coast continue to threaten Monarch habitat.

In other words, habitat — and the species of milkweed they depend on — matters as much or more than climate. Plant milkweed, experienced SoCal gardeners say, and the Monarchs will show up to feed on it.

Frankly, I didn't believe it. But within days of planting — whatdya know. 


Jim Hansen, an icon himself as a climate scientist, has been tracking the fate of the Monarch, which on the East Coast is in a frightening decline. He speaks about this often, mostly recently at MIT, as notes from a student show: 

As long-time gardeners know, climate zones have been consistently shifting Northwards. Previously, this shift is now happening at the rate of a few kilometer per year, making it very difficult for many species to react. Hansen used the Monarch butterfly as his example of species extinction pressure, talking about his personal experience over the years with Monarchs on his small PA farmstead. The pressures on Monarch butterflies are not only climate but the elimination of one of their primary food sources, milkweed, although climate change is certainly one of the reasons for the diminishment of their habitat, both here in the US and Canada as well as Mexico.

But one can create habitat for these wonderful creatures, for almost nothing, and yes — magically, they will appear. Or such has been my experience. 

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What moved Obama to act on climate change: the disappearance of the CA snowpack

According to a great story in the Washington Post by veteran environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin, this is the image that shocked Obama in February, and moved him to act to slow climate change, in spite of opposition in Congress.

Missing in action: the California snowpack, on which tens of millions of us depend. 


Eilperin writes:  

The satellite images viewed by President Obama before a meeting with eight Western governors were stark, showing how snowpack in California’s mountains had shrunk by 86 percent in a single year.

“It was a ‘Houston, we have a problem’ moment,” recalled White House counselor John D. Podesta, one of two aides who briefed the president that February day. Obama mentioned the images several times as he warned the governors that political leaders had no choice but to cope with global warming’s impact.

Hence today's Presidential focus on the release of the third National Assessment (of climate change) an 800-page report, broken down by regions, which I will try to unpack, at least in part, for California in days and weeks to come.

Feel strangely nostalgic about it, as the first reporting I did on climate change came around the first assessment, released for California eleven years ago. Was a lot less accessible than the latest version, which has some powerful graphs, well-introduced. 

Here's an example: a chart of frost-free days, indicative of heat stress in our region. 


Note: This is not a projection of future impacts. Speaking of impacts, off tomorrow to a California water conference: Will be interesting to hear the talk about the impacts of climate change from managers and experts — if they don't already take it for granted. 

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A letter home (on global warming): Neil Young

Neil Young just let slip news of a record relase, in a paradoxical, almost confusing way, embedding the release in a voice and a raw 1947 technology that has to be heard to be believed (and appreciated). 

It's called A Letter Home, a reference to the remarks below. It's richly appealing and enjoyable, about as good as folk music gets, and Young's best recording in years, though the mid-century technology has a lot of flaws, and crazily he doesn't include any of his own songs in the selection. (He did in performance, as he's been touring across two nations and a continent these past months in similarly naked style — solo.) 

The record's not available on CD, at least not yet, though it is available on vinyl, and iTunes, and (streaming) via the Rare-ish Music channel on YouTube

The streaming in this case turns out to be a richly ironic experience, with no song titles, no way of knowing how long a song will run, and a lo-fi sound worthy of a Woody Guthrie in his prime. It sounds as if it was recorded in a phone booth — which it was — but it's a wondrously warm, rich sound.

Before beginning to sing and play, Young speaks right to us. Let me transcribe such, to make these remarks searchable for the curious: 

Hey Mom. It's me again…my friend Jack [White] has this box, that I can talk to you from. Its still going in here, I can still do this. Listen, Jack and I, well we've discovered a lot of old songs, we've rediscovered the songs I used to sing, you know, at Grosvenor, from the records I used to play?

So I'm going to send some of these to ya:

And he goes on to sing and play some wonderful songs that we all know, such as Early Morning Rain, and a few wonderful songs that almost none of us (myself included) know, and it's a great great experience, but before he begins, he says (in part):

You know how we used to watch the weather all the time? On the TV? And you know how we used to know what was happening up there in Winnipeg? Well I met this this guy named Al and he's the weatherman for the whole planet, if you can imagine that. And he's sometimes not popular. And this is very strange but people can turn on the weatherman. When the weather is going to be bad, they actually turn on the weather man, and they put him down. Things haven't been that great lately, I mean, most of the time, day to day, it's fine? Most of the time the weather is good, but now and again all hell breaks loose, all across the planet? It's like nothing I've ever seen before, and it seems to be happening everywhere. Here and there and everywhere, all over the planet. So even though Al's forecasts are good, he gets in trouble. So I thought I'd tell you about that, and I miss you Mom. I'll be there eventually but not for a while… 

His first song is Phil Ochs' "Changes"…a song that he says inspired his own "Harvest." 

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