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Chasing the Northern Lights

A trek through the Canadian Yukon to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis

I’m infatuated with the northern lights, the mysterious glow that intermittently appears at the ends of our Earth. I have lived all my life in sunny California and until recently had never experienced the extreme beauty of the aurora borealis. But when I first saw the lights in Iceland early in 2015, I was hooked. 

My travel mate and I were shocked and amazed at what we saw in the frigid winter skies above Iceland’s Westfjords. We were in complete elation as a very strong aura storm decimated our sense of reality. A month later I found myself in Fairbanks, Alaska bundled up on a dome road – a high elevation road the travels along the spine of large hills – catching an alien looking aurora storm invade the last frontier, again in complete disbelief.  

photo of the aurora over a northern landscapephoto by James StudarusThe aurora borealis in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I soon decided to seek out a new, more involved adventure and chose to head up to the Canada’s expansive Yukon. There's a remote park called Tombstone Territorial Park in the region where the aurora occurs close to 65-degree north latitude, a good latitude at which to view the lights. I decided to trek this time, to haul my food, clothing, and shelter into the far north wilderness for eight days, searching for lights and beauty.

The aurora borealis is magnetically charged plasma shot out of the sun that hits our atmosphere and reacts with the magnetically charged poles. It is a bizarre phenomenon that somehow creates colors beyond belief in the night skies of our polar regions. But it isn’t always predictable or consistent. I equate trying to find the northern lights with attempting to get a seat in a divine theater: Sometimes the universe is kind and lets you in, sometimes you are at the wrong cloudy venue. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association forecasts when the northern lights will most likely occur based on solar flaring. I discovered this information on my adventure to Iceland, and used it again for my trip to the Yukon. I knew the aurora was forecasted for a week straight in late August and early September, and planned my time in Tombstone according. The weather report looked promising – been checking constantly for the last 15 days – and the days were getting shorter and the night skies were growing longer, which would allow the aurora to take hold …more

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No, California’s Forests Aren’t Failing to Regrow After Big Wildfires

New study about low conifer regeneration based on Forest Service's timber stocking based silvicultural standards, lacks context

Recently researchers at UC Davis and the US Forest Service presented a new scientific study that suggested a dire future for forests in California. The study on conifer establishment after wildfires in California found that 43 percent of their study plots did not have conifer regeneration that met Forest Service Stocking Standards, implying that without additional management we may face a future without forests.

black oak saplings in a forest burn area Photo by George WuerthnerA 2015 image of black oak saplings sprouting in a 2013 Rim Fire burn area in Stanislaus National Forest, California.

The findings were viewed with alarm by some, with some news reports suggesting that California’s forests were not regenerating after high severity wildfires.

To be fair, the study was not intended to review all the benefits of high-severity blazes, but what it lacked was context. First, even the authors admitted that the paradigm used to determine conifer regeneration is biased towards timber production. Besides, there are many nuances in interpretation that were only mentioned in the body of the study that few bothered to review. As a result, the report has generated undue concern and panic among the public that the state’s forests may be disappearing.

With regards to context, the authors, for one, choose to focus on the increase of wildfires in the past three decades, arguing that blazes during this period were more severe and extensive than wildfires in the past. They attributed this to fire suppression, past logging, and other forest management practices which they alleged have led to this significant increase in large wildfires. While these factors likely contributed to the observed greater tree density and fuel loads in forests to some degree, the report ignores the influence of past, wetter climatic conditions on limiting wildfire, and the ongoing drought that is likely contributing to greater fire occurrence.

Furthermore, the study made statements like “the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires across much of the western United States are increasing” without providing a time factor. Inreasing, compared to what? That’s important because there is ample paleo and even historic evidence of large high-severity blazes that have occurred in the past. For instance, during the Medieval Warm Spell between 800 to 1200 AD there is evidence for extremely large and continuous wildfires across the western US, including in California.

Even more recently there was significant climate variation that influenced wildfire behavior and spread. Between the 1940s and 1980s, for instance, the overall …more

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NOAA Considering Ban on Swimming with Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins

Proposed 50-yard buffer zone intended to protect marine mammals from over-eager tourists

Imagine you're sleeping and a friend comes over unannounced. You might hang out for a few hours or you might walk them out. Either way, they eventually leave and you return to bed. You're just getting into that good sleep when another person knocks on the door. Then another and another. All night this continues. Then it happens again the next night. And the night after that.

This is the current problem plaguing the Hawaiian spinner dolphin, one of the smallest dolphin species, well-known for their airborne twisting jumps. The mainly nocturnal mammals spend their daylight hours resting near the shores of the Hawaiian Islands in shallow waters, but a growing number of tourists, tour companies, and increasing human interaction are impacting the health of the dolphin pods as well as individual dolphins.

photo of spinner dolphins in Hawai’iPhoto by USFWS – Pacific Region, FlickrSpinner dolphins in Hawai'i's Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The proposed NOAA Fisheries rule would make it illegal for people to swim within 50 feet of the marine mammals in Hawai'i. 

In August, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries proposed a rule that would ban everyone from swimming with Hawaiian spinner dolphins. Under the rule, no one would be allowed get within 50 yards of spinner dolphins by any means. This includes by boat, kayak, paddleboard, swimming, and other type of transportation. 

The proposed ban has proven controversial, even among those who agree that spinner dolphins need protections. Hawaii’s economy, of course, is sustained by tourism, and local operators are concerned the ban may negatively impact their business. 


At four to seven feet long, Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) spend the night hours off Hawaiian shores in search of fish, shrimp, and squid. In the darkness, these mammals track their prey to depths of nearly 1,000 feet, communicate through echolocation, and work cooperatively to herd prey for the catch. 

As sunrise arrives, the dolphins return to the shallow coasts to socialize, sleep, and nurse their young until late in the afternoon. Dolphins remain in motion when they sleep: For four to five hours every afternoon, the dolphins will swim slowly back and forth, coming up for air when necessary, while half of their brain sleeps, a unique adaptation for dolphins and whales that are required to control their own breathing at all times. 

When a vessel or …more

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Battling Litter in Jordan’s Open Spaces

On the outskirts of Amman, a doctor spends his weekends picking up trash

As soon as spring begins in Jordan, which is to say around March when temperatures reach well above 20 degrees, so too begins the picnic season. In Jordan, picnics and weekends are synonymous. On Fridays and Saturdays, people are often drawn to the outdoors and, when possible, to a stretch of green. Such stretches are hard to come by in a country that is primarily covered in rock and desert. According to the Jordanian Department of Agriculture, only about 1 percent of the 97,000 square kilometers that make up Jordan is wooded. The worldwide average is around 15 percent, and Germany’s forests cover one-third of its surface. With that in mind, it seems almost absurd for the Facebook group “Cleaning Jordan” to host an excursion to the woods. It is really more of a thicket; pine trees, shrubs and olive trees thrive defiantly in the barren, stony soil under the burning sun about 15 kilometers north of Amman. Ramzi Tabbalat, who planned this excursion, explains: The greenery was planted in the late 1960’s by then-Prime Minister Wasfi At-Tall, who also served a few years as ambassador to Germany and was assassinated in 1971.

photo of trash in JordanPhoto by Dana RitzmannJordan’s beautiful landscapes often fall victim to litter left by weekend picnickers.

A small group of school busses depart on a Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. and takes the volunteers outside of the city, past the shopping centers, workshops, fancy villas, and the occasional flock of sheep. The forest appears at the end of a street that wraps around one of the many mountains. From there, you have a vast view of the landscape that is dotted with olive groves and farm houses. The busses are parked at a large clearing, right next to three large dumpsters — next to which lie plastic bottles, remnants of old bags, cardboard boxes, diapers, coffee cups, etc. Waste from hundreds of weekend picnics. Strewn across the park, half-burrowed in the ground, carelessly left behind. Grill trays, potato chip bags, aluminum foil, and tea bags … the list goes on. The entire ground to the right of the glade is literally buried in garbage.

“People just leave their stuff on the ground, throw all their garbage into the woods,” Ramzi Tabbalat laments. Why is that — not just here in the woods, but also in Amman, in every neighborhood, on every meadow, in every corner of the country? Tabbalat shrugs his shoulders. “It is …more

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Millions in China Start New Year Shrouded in Toxic Smog

On the first day of 2017 in Beijing pollution climbed as high as 24 times the level recommended by the World Health Organization

Millions in China rang in the New Year shrouded in a thick blanket of toxic smog, causing road closures and flight cancellations as 24 cities issued alerts that will last through much of the week.

On the first day of 2017 in Beijing, concentrations of tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs climbed as high as 24 times levels recommended by the World Health Organization. More than 100 flights were cancelled and all intercity buses were halted at the capital’s airport.

photo of smog in BeijingPhoto by LWYang, FlickrToxic smog triggered health alterts and flight cancellations across much of northern China over the New Year holiday.

In the neighboring port city of Tianjin, more than 300 flights were cancelled while the weather forecast warned thick smog will persist until January 5. All of the city’s highways were also shut as low visibility made driving hazardous, effectively trapping residents.

Across northern China 24 cities issued red alerts on Friday and Saturday, while orange alerts persisted in 21 cities through the New Year holiday. A red alert is the highest level of a four-tier warning system introduced as part of China’s high-profile war on pollution.

Decades of economic development have made acrid air a common occurrence in nearly all major Chinese cities, with government-owned coal burning power stations and heating plants and steel manufacturing concentrated in northern provinces the main source of pollution.

Smog worsens in the winter as coal burning spikes to provide heat for millions of people. China declared a “war on pollution” in 2014, but has struggled to deliver the sweeping change many had hoped to see and government inspections routinely find pollutions flouting the law.

“Why didn’t those polluting industries take a rest for the holiday,” one commenter mused on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo.

“New Year’s morning in Beijing, I thought I was blind,” said another, attaching a photo of a window completely darkened with grey haze.

Similar posts appeared on Twitter.

China’s middle class is increasingly less tolerant of the deadly air, and in December tens of thousands of “smog refugees” decamped to clearer skies. Top destinations included Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and the Maldives.

That bout of smog saw 460 million people, a population greater than North America, breathing toxic air, according to Greenpeace.

As pollution covered swaths of the country on New Year’s Eve, China more

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Celebrating a Half-Century of Environmental Discovery in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest

In Review: Hubbard Brook: The Story of a Forest Ecosystem
Richard T. Holmes and Gene E. Likens
Yale University Press, 2016, 288 pages

In 1951, University of Wisconsin ecologist Arthur Hasler, while working at the Notre Dame Environmental Research Center that straddles Michigan and Wisconsin, built up an earthen dike and divided a single lake into two, transforming the one water body into Peter and Paul Lakes. Hasler was studying fresh water acidity and the food chain. He deposited lime, which is known to reduce acidity in Peter Lake and observed its effects on transparency, the food chain, and on the ecological conditions of the water body relative to Paul Lake. Hasler found the food chain changes he anticipated, but the investigation’s fame rests largely with its status as the first whole-lake experiment, setting the example for ecosystem-manipulation research to which scientists today are turning to understand climate change impacts. 

photo of a forest lakephoto by Mariel Carr, Chemical Heritage Foundation Videographer, Wikimedia CommonsThe Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest watersheds drain into mirror lake.

While Hasler’s Peter and Paul Lakes experiment and other large scale ecological explorations, such as Great Britain’s 170-year-old running Rothamsted Research center in southern England – famous for its soil and plant health agricultural investigations on small plots and in the news recently with biotechnology testing – have shed much light on nature and socio-ecological systems (e.g. agriculture and forestry), no American ecosystem study is as famed or as impactful as the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Hubbard Brook recently celebrated its 60th anniversary as a designated experimental forest and fifty years as a focused ecological study, making it a landmark ecology research hub: Scientists have monitored the 3160-hectare, nine-watershed site for six decades, conducting Hasler-type alterations and yielding findings, that have transformed the field of ecology and environmental policy, including the discovery of acid rain. 

Today, science at Hubbard Brook is active and robust, and on the occasion of its 60th anniversary, long-time Hubbard Brook scientists Richard Holmes and Gene Likens, who is a co-founder of the Hubbard Brook study, have put together a coffee-table book, Hubbard Brook: The Story of a Forest Ecosystem, published in 2016 by Yale University Press. The book has beautiful photos and many informative graphs, and Holmes and Likens have written lively chapters for a public readership on the science, policy impacts, and dynamic ecology of Hubbard Brook. 

Holmes and Likens begin the book with a sense-rich “Prologue” that describes the four seasons in the Hubbard Brook forest, which is representative of a northeast hardwood forest: the summer …more

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Obama Designates Two New National Monuments, Protecting 1.65 Million Acres

Protecting Bears Ears in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada mark Obama's final push to safeguard environmentally fragile lands

President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect two large areas in the western U.S. The new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah preserves 1.35 million acres containing 100,000 significant Native American sites, while the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada sets aside 300,000 acres, also home to Indigenous archeological sites.

Road Canyon Citadel at Bears Ears, UtahPhoto courtesy of US Bureau of Land ManagementThe new Bears Ears National Monument in Utah preserves 1.35 million acres containing 100,000 significant Native American sites.

Protection for both of these sites has been supported by Native American tribes. Looting and desecration of artifacts has been common in these areas.

"The rock art, ancient dwellings and ceremonial sites concealed within these breathtaking landscapes help tell the story of people who have stewarded these lands for hundreds of generations," said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. "Today's action builds on an extraordinary effort from tribes, local communities and members of Congress to ensure that these treasures are protected for generations to come, so that tribes may continue to use and care for these lands, and all may have an opportunity to enjoy their beauty and learn from their rich cultural history."

A coalition of the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray and Zuni Tribe will serve on the Bears Ears Commission, making the tribes co-managers of the national monument along with the federal government.

"For the first time in history, a president has used the Antiquities Act to honor the request of Tribal Nations to protect our sacred sites. In doing so, he has given the opportunity for all Americans to come together and heal," said David Filfred, Navajo Nation council delegate.

"This is a historic moment," the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an independent citizens organization that has worked to help establish Bears Ears, said in a statement. "The new national monument—the result of a proposal from an unprecedented coalition of Tribal Nations—will safeguard more than 100,000 cultural sites and protect an incredible natural landscape for generations to come."

Outdoors retailer Patagonia, which has been active in support of these national monument designations as well as others, also applauded the announcement.

"In protecting Bears Ears, the president recognizes the leadership and historic vision of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition representing five tribes, and the strong grassroots support from climbers and conservation groups," Patagonia CEO Rose …more

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