Big is Beautiful

(How big is Alaska?  What is the largest national park in the U.S.?  Why did the cod fishing industry collapse in Alaska?)

 

The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.

“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.

He just looked at me.  “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”

I shook my head humbly.

“Okay then.  You’re good to go.”  I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window.  “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.

“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.

“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state.  Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”

I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos.  But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was.  Alaska is large—and in more ways than one.  Let’s talk about geography first.  To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around.  The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S.  But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.

Then there are the Alaskan people themselves.  I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback.  He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity.  It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly.  My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.”  I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life.  I feel petite.  And that’s saying something.

I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.

Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother? 

The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking.  Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet.  I can’t complain though.  Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense:  Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.

Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear.  In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots.  I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”

Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change.  Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.

According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees.  The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment.  Halibut still seems to be plentiful though.  And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge.  I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.

One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.”  Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state.  I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze.  It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.

Tap on these links for more posts on Climate Change or happenings Out West.

 

Image Credit:  All images Diana Hooley

Fired Up and Ready to Go to Alaska

Who wants to go to Alaska?  Not me, I’m not a fan of cold, dark, and dreary.  Everyone else I know though is: my daughter, my in-laws, my friends.  Keith worked as a nurse on various cruise ships and of the many places he’d traveled to in in the world, Alaska, he said, was the most beautiful.  Good thing because that is where my husband and I are headed to this week, obviously his idea more than mine.  The weather is supposed to be good in September—except for the fires.  And smoke.  Forget I ever said anything about cold, dark, and dreary.

Alaska has been hit by global warming.

Still, there’s a question as to whether Alaskans think that’s the problem.  My daughter commented that on her family’s visit to the Great Alone, they stopped at various natural and scenic areas along the way, listening to park rangers and guides address questions about melting glaciers.  She asked one guide what was behind the glacial melt but couldn’t get a straight answer.  The guide didn’t want to discuss the human causes behind climate change: our fossil fuel and carbon consumption.

I was surprised to hear this.  Public employees, with presumably some kind of science and naturalist understanding, were shying away from a full-bodied explanation of the topic.

Maybe Alaskans aren’t really in denial.  Maybe the tourist industry asks their guides and interpreters to limit commentary on melting glaciers.

It’s not only too political (whoever turned climate change into a political issue should be forced to fight fire on the Kenai Peninsula), but also, consider their audience:  gas-guzzling tourists flying, boating, and driving to the remote northern reaches of our continent for entertainment and pleasure.

My hand is up, of course.  We’re guilty, my husband and I—or going to be this week.  But wait.  It’s not simply that I’m a carbon hypocrite and wedded to the leisure lifestyle of the retired.  It’s that I’ve read the science and know that though I nobly recycle, support green energy, and fly sparingly—our climate is still expected to heat up regardless.

Richard Rood, professor of climate and space science at University of Michigan says we’re feeling the effects of a warming climate already, with an average temperature just one centigrade higher than normal (online at The Conversation, July 2017).  Rood says we can expect it to get a lot hotter, at least 4-5 degrees hotter.,   According to Rood it will take hundreds of years to rid us of all of the atmospheric carbon accumulated since the Industrial Revolution.  He also says though, whatever efforts we make to go green will help slow down global warming.

The important thing is to limit the threat to plant, animal, and even human life.  To limit extinction.  As I write this last sentence I’m reminded of a young woman I taught years ago at Boise State University.  We were talking about ways teachers can get junior high students to read their science textbook, when this young lady raised her hand.

“I don’t get what the big deal is with all this global warming stuff,” she said.

I didn’t want to mention the “extinction” word then.  At the time, it seemed like overkill.  So I talked about rising seas and coastal flooding instead.  I never dreamed of suggesting fires in frigid, wet Alaska. 

Climate change is a complex subject, no doubt, and even more importantly, we don’t really have a solution to the problem.  But we can vote.  We can vote in support of candidates who are at least willing to confront the issue.  Having said that, a gentle reminder folks:  there’s an election next year!

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mage Credit: Map of Alaskan fires         Image Credit:   Glaciers melting

To Fly or Not to Fly

When I read the tragic news about another crash of a Boeing Max 737 jetliner, this time in Ethiopia, and how the pilots fought the programming and the automatic controls to keep the plane in the air, I remembered a sci-fi movie I watched about a coming war between man and machines.  This movie might have been a “flight” of some screen writer’s imagination except that the imminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking worried about the peril of intelligent machines. Hawking believed AI or artificial intelligence had the potential to threaten mankind.  Still, I doubt he ever considered malevolent autopilots becoming a problem.

Nervous flyers might be hesitant to fly after hearing about the Max 737 crashes.  I get it.  I’m not a fan of flying either.  I’ve fought irrational fears of flying for several years.  In fact, one time I boarded a one-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, and in a martini fog (acquired at the airport bar trying to bolster my courage) I staggered up from my aisle seat and blew alcohol fumes into the stewardess’s face when I begged, “Miz?  Hey miz?  I wanna get off the plane.  Can I?  Pleeze?”

There are other, more rational reasons to reconsider flying as your form of transportation, which have nothing to do with machines running amok or phobias.  According to Sciencefocus.com the amount of CO2 spewed by one jumbo jet traveling a distance of 400 miles is the same as 336 cars driving that same distance.

So, the approximately 20,000 flights taking place daily across our planet emit a tremendous amount of destructive greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

That’s why, despite having largely conquered my flying phobia, I decided on a recent trip to New York City to fly one way—and take the train home.

I felt very good about taking the train back from NYC—noble even. After all, rail transportation accounts for only 2% of total transportation greenhouse gases.  I could rest easy riding the rails—and I did.  I took numerous naps in my deluxe sleeper, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train on the tracks.  Due to the research I’d done I knew taking the train meant my carbon “shoe” was a modest size 2 instead of a clown flipper size 14.  I was relaxed until our train slowed down coming into the Philadelphia rail yard.  Then I blinked my eyelids open and gazed out the window to see dozens of CSX rail cars loaded with coal.

The thing about taking a train is that you share tracks and rail yards with other trains, especially freight trains.  Coal is primarily moved by freight trains.  For some reason, pure black carbon in the form of coal seems much more threatening to me than the nebulous greenhouse gases blown out of a jumbo jet.  Our train passed one coal car after another in Pittsburg, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake.  I finally stopped seeing coal cars when the train dropped me off in the middle of the night at a lonely passenger shelter in Elko, Nevada.

Traveling green can be challenging no matter what form of transportation you choose to take.

The good news about flying is, there are ways to go greener. Check the airplane statistics when you book.  Many jets now use biofuels.  Also, most major airlines offer carbon credits you can purchase to support various green initiatives.  Of course, if you really want to lessen your carbon footprint, nothing beats staying home.  But then you’d miss out on a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and who wants to do that?

image credit: airplane

Hot Flash in the Age of Global Warming

The starlings are swarming in the trees over the Snake River this December, and I’m wondering why they haven’t migrated. More importantly, where’s our snow? We did get maybe an inch or two last night, but the weatherman on TV was very non-committal about a white Christmas for south central Idaho this year. For some, this is great news. With no or little snow, driving is less hazardous, you don’t have to shovel the sidewalk, and moving anywhere outdoors is easier with flip flops than snow boots. Our ski resorts though, need snow and I for one, find the white, wispy stuff almost comforting. It feels as if weather-wise, all is as it should be.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, if in a hundred years, we’d call this time period we’re living in—the early 2000’s—the in-between time of climate change, when winters in Idaho were mild, but snow still happened most of the time. The full effects of a warming planet had not yet hit us. I think about this every time I read that NASA has issued another warning about our average global temperatures climbing.

But wet snow, the kind it seems we’re more likely to get this winter, is great for snowman-building. I found this out a few weeks ago when we had that 4-6 inch snowfall, enough for the grand-kids to play in. Then I bent over, hamstrings screaming, and tried rolling a syrupy little snowman ball along the ground. It was no easy task. The ball kept breaking apart because the snow was almost too wet.

“We’re making a snowman, huh Gan-ma?” my granddaughter Cora asked as she watched me push my snowball around the backyard leaving a ribbon of frozen green grass in its wake.

“Yep.” I said, breathing hard and thinking, the things we do for our grand-kids.

When my snowball was finally big enough for a respectable snowman belly, I took mitten handfuls of snow and tried to round out the torso. And Cora, despite being hobbled by her thick snowsuit, managed to kneel down and grab her own clump of snow to pat on Mr. Snowman’s tummy. Then we put some rocks on his lumpy face for eyes and a carrot became his nose. The finishing touch was a ratty old farm cap for the top of his head and a checkered scarf around his neck. Cora’s eyes shone when she saw the big snowball suddenly transformed into a man. The world for her was a magical place.

Later, I stood in the kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in my hands and watched out the window as Cora and her brother ran around and around our drippy snowman. They were laughing and throwing globs of snow at each other. Looking at this scene made me thankful we still had a world full of natural beauty that included, sometimes, a white winter. It may not always be like this. Wise men know. They watch the sky.

Staying Warm in the Winter

images frozenHow Will We Stay Warm this Winter?

How will we stay warm this winter? Two hundred years ago that was a real concern, even a hundred years ago. Most of us are not like Elsa, the Disney character in the movie Frozen, who famously sang, “The cold never bothered me anyway.”

Before central heating, families had large oil stoves in the center of their home. Or, there might be wood stoves in the living room and coal furnaces in the basement. Beds were warmed like Grandma Doris did, with a thick, heated Sears and Roebuck catalog tucked at the foot between the sheets. All of our methods for staying warm in the past emitted lots of carbon and almost all, regrettably, still do. But in this age of climate change and climate peril, there are alternatives and I’ve been thinking a lot about finding a way to go toward the greener side of a white winter.

Maybe we could use the naturally occurring, geothermal groundwater in our desert valley to heat our home this winter? Several artesian wells dot the valley, and at least one family in the past had geothermal water piped into their house to help heat it. When my brother and sister-in-law moved here and rented an old house on the other end of the valley, they piped in geothermal water. I remember they used to bath in a claw-foot tub sitting out in the open on the back porch. Loey explained the way they took a bath was to first fill the tub up with artesian well water to heat the tub itself, and then drain it and refill it again to bath in. That was their recipe for a low-carbon, low-cost, hot bath.

No doubt water is a good insulator and has a higher capacity than air, to absorb heat. Remember radiators? You can still sometimes find them in old buildings. Last month I stayed in a tiny room in an historic hotel in Quebec that had a radiator under the window. But, I first discovered how well water absorbs and transfers heat when I was a student living with a family in eastern France during a particularly brutal winter.

My French family didn’t heat their bedrooms, so I often found myself studying and reading my textbooks, huddled under the bed clothes, wearing my coat, ear muffs, and mittens. Then I had this brilliant idea. I could warm up by taking a bath. In order to do this, every evening I had to walk across the hallway to the bathroom, in plain view of my French family. They were always sitting in the living room watching TV. I remember them tracking me with their eyes as I made my nightly trek across the hall to the bath.

One night I heard Freddie the father say, “Que fait-elle?” (What is she doing?)

Simone, the mother, replied, “Je ne sais pas? Les Americains sont fanatique pour prendre au bains.” (I don’t know. Americans are fanatical about taking baths.)

Another watery idea I’ve had to heat our home this winter is installing solar panels to charge a water-heat pump. However, Google tells me air-heat pumps are more efficient. My husband and I’ve also talked about generally increasing our home’s heat efficiency by sealing off the second floor of our house with a door. There’s a lot we can do to stay warm without using our carbon-spewing, diesel furnace. But all these changes take an investment of time—and money. Everything costs, one way or another. We either pay upfront—or we all pay in the future, when fossil fuels have our climate in a choke-hold. Then my biggest worry won’t be staying warm in the winter, but cool in a blazing, hot summer.