Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Orcas, the documentary film "Blackfish", and SeaWorld's Open Letter

The former head dolphin trainer for the 1960s television show Flipper turned pro-dolphin activist Ric O'Barry undertook a film project in the mid-2000s designed to expose the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji, Japan, associated with an annual dolphin hunt.  The main purpose of this hunt is to trap dolphins to be sold and then trained and used in marine mammal shows around the world.  Dolphins not selected for training are herded into a secluded, carefully guarded cove where the remaining dolphins are slaughtered for meat, that is consequently sold as "whale meat".  This documentary, "The Cove" won the Academy Award (Oscar) for best documentary film in 2009.

You can learn more about that film here:  The Cove - Official movie site

"The Cove" movie trailer: "The Cove" movie trailer

Like many of you, I grew up watching Flipper, Jacques Cousteau Specials, and National Geographic specials.  I particularly loved the ones about the ocean.  These early impressions led me to pursue training in marine biology, and I was blessed to become a college biology professor (zoology and marine biology), a career I have enjoyed for more than 20 years so far (PhD University of California, Santa Cruz)

In the late 1990s I took my family to SeaWorld in Aurora, Ohio (sold to Six Flags in 2001).  We there saw the marine mammal show, including dolphins and killer whales, as well as petting tanks for dolphins, etc.  I remember thinking how amazing and regal all of the marine mammals were, while simultaneously mourning their limited existence.  You see, I have had the privilege of seeing pods of killer whales in the wild on multiple occasions in the San Juan Islands, Washington, USA, dolphins in California, and elsewhere.

I was already somewhat soured by my experience, and after leaving the park in Ohio, decided never to return.  I did not want to support that industry.  Then about a decade later I saw "The Cove" (see above), and my resolve only hardened.  Then, just this week I finally had a chance to see "Blackfish", the documentary about killer whales in captivity, mainly at SeaWorld parks.

You can learn more about it here:  The official "Blackfish" movie site

"Blackfish" trailer: "Blackfish" movie trailer

These two films together or either alone is enough to make you weep for these intelligent, majestic animals.

The makers of "Blackfish" reportedly did due diligence in inviting SeaWorld to participate or at least be interviewed for the film, but they refused.  The film, in the meantime, has caused quite a stir, raising people's awareness of challenges and risks associated with holding killer whales in captivity.

SeaWorld claims that "Blackfish" has had no impact on ticket sales (apparently the primary measure that matters to ventures like theirs), but at the same time, felt it necessary to take out full page ads in major newspapers across the country in which they published the following open letter in response to "Blackfish".

You can see the complete letter at the Official SeaWorld website here: Open Letter from SeaWorld

This is the text of the letter with my personal comments (in red) on its contents:

SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People 

An Open Letter from SeaWorld’s Animal Advocates

Inaccurate reports recently have generated questions about SeaWorld and the animals in our care. The truth is in our parks and people, and it’s time to set the record straight.
The men and women of SeaWorld are true animal advocates. We are the 1,500 scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, aquarists, aviculturists, educators and conservationists who have dedicated our lives to the animals in our care as well as those in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned. Whether it’s a sea lion, manatee, sea turtle or whale, we are on call 24/7.
Here are some important facts about SeaWorld and our work:
  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild. Due to the groundbreaking success of our research in marine mammal reproduction, we haven’t collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years. In fact, only two of the whales in our care were collected by SeaWorld and they continue to be in our care today. In addition, our research has led to a much greater understanding of whales in the wild, giving researchers important scientific insights surrounding marine mammal reproduction.
    • My comment:  I believe this point is true.  There is no evidence of which I am aware that refutes this.  SeaWorld has become a large enough operation with enough captive animals and knowhow to staff its parks with captive-born animals.

  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves. SeaWorld recognizes the important bond between mother and calf. On the rare occasion that a mother killer whale cannot care for the calf herself, we have successfully hand raised and reintroduced the calf. Whales are only moved to maintain a healthy social structure.
    • My comment:  I find this statement to be confusing at the least, and misleading at the worst.  SeaWorld states that they "do not separate whale moms and calves".  Then in the last sentence of this bullet statement they state that "Whales are only moved to maintain a healthy social structure."  So, if we look back at point one above, that no whale has been collected from the wild in 35 years, the vast majority of whales at SeaWorld have to be captive-born, so moving any of these whales removes calves (offspring) from their mothers - a bond that is permanent in the wild.  In other words, SeaWorld does not remove offspring from their mothers unless SeaWorld decides to.  

  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales. In the last three years alone, we have invested $70 million in our killer whale habitats and millions of dollars annually in support of these facilities. Our habitats are among the largest in the world today. They are state-of-the-art, multimillion-gallon environments of cooled and filtered water that allow for the highest and safest standards of care. We give our animals restaurant-quality fish, exercise, veterinary care, mental stimulation, and the company of other members of their species.
    • My comment:  All I can say about this is that "they better".  This is largely a moot point as far as I'm concerned. Of course maintaining large animals like those at SeaWorld requires a major investment in capital and maintenance costs...that's the nature of their business.  They try to keep the animals alive as long as possible and as healthy as possible, because they are their bread and butter.  A moot point in terms of the whales' mental condition or the physical risk to SeaWorld trainers - the main point of "Blackfish".

  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild. While studies continue to define the average life span of killer whales in the wild, the most recent science suggests that our killer whales’ life spans are comparable — indeed, five of our animals are older than 30, and one of our whales is close to 50.
    • My comments: Female killer whales reportedly live 50-90 years, and males 30-60 years.  SeaWorld provides ages of 6 of its whales in the statement above, presumably their oldest 6, but they provide no data on the ages of whales that have passed away in captivity.  By simply saying we have some old whales that are comparable to the average ages of whales in the wild is playing with statistics in SeaWorld's favor.  
        According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, there are currently 45 killer whales in captivity worldwide, 32 of which are captive-born.  According to one source the average age of whales in captivity is about 25 years...not the same story that SeaWorld is telling in their statement above.

  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild. We work with universities, governmental agencies and NGOs to increase the body of knowledge about and the understanding of killer whales — from their anatomy and reproductive biology to their auditory abilities. Some populations of wild killer whales have been classified as endangered or threatened, demonstrating the potential critical nature of these research opportunities. This type of controlled research and study is simply not possible in the wild, and has significant real-world benefits to the killer whales that live there.
    • My comments:  I believe this is true, but at the same time, wonder about the trade-off between scientific knowledge obtained, and the applicability of knowledge obtained from captive-born animals to native born animals.  

  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue. The millions of people who visit our parks each year make possible SeaWorld’s world-renowned work in rescue, rehabilitation and release. We are constantly innovating when it comes to this care: Our veterinarians have created nursing bottles to hand-feed orphaned whales, prosthetics to save sea turtles, and a wetsuit to help injured manatees stay afloat during rehabilitation. Whether it’s the result of natural or man-made disasters, SeaWorld is always on call and often the first to be contacted. We have rescued more than 23,000 animals with the goal of treating and returning them to the wild.
My comments:  I believe this is true.  Animal rescue work is highly commendable, and I applaud their efforts in this area.  Even so, don't look for me to visit any of their parks anytime soon, or ever.
Naturalist Baba Dioum put it best when he said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
At SeaWorld, this has been our calling since we first opened our doors 50 years ago. It is a responsibility we do not take lightly. More than 400 million guests have visited SeaWorld. We are proud that their experiences here have a lasting and positive impact on them, and on the world in which we live.
My comment:  I'm sorry, but this point makes it sound like the work done by and at SeaWorld is carried out primarily because SeaWorld is altruistic.  The reality is that this work will almost certainly be carried out only as long as SeaWorld turns a profit.  
I just checked the SeaWorld Orlando site and discovered that their day-pass tickets cost about $80 per person. Let's see...multiply that by 400 million and you've got "Merry Christmas" SeaWorld. Of course not all 400 million paid this much (over the years), but still...that's a LOT of cash.  And they will keep doing what they are doing until they are either forced to shut down (for reasons I can't foresee) or people just stop going.
The truth about SeaWorld is right here in our parks and people. Our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans. When they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job. 

My comment and conclusion: As for me, as a marine biologist, I do not believe that marine mammal shows are essential.  I actually believe the opposite, that we show our arrogance and disdain for these majestic animals and for nature when we keep them in captivity.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I published a Kindle book - Ichthyology A Laboratory Manual

I always kind of thought in the back of my mind that someday I'd like to write a book.  I mean, I write all the time for work, so I didn't seem too large of a leap to do a book.  OK, don't get all excited, it's not the sort of book you'd whip open to pass some time while basking on a beach or flying from here to there.  It's a laboratory manual, on the biology of fishes.
 Jump to the book's site at

I am a biology professor, so the writing I do is mainly technical, non-fiction, and teaching related.

Ichthyology, together with marine biology, invertebrate zoology, and limnology (freshwater biology) are courses I teach regularly.  When I started teaching ichthyology there was no laboratory manual out there that matched what I wanted my ichthyology students to do in lab, so I started pulling together materials and generating lab exercises on my own.  This went on for a number of years. Then I decided that I was tired of using this set of exercises that looked and felt mismatched and hodgepodge.  I needed to standardize them, giving  them the same look, feel, and focus.  My opportunity to do this appeared when I was granted a sabbatical for the Fall 2013 semester.

I pulled out my materials and stared writing and re-writing, doing dissections, taking LOTS of photographs, and producing ink line drawings.  I ended up with 12 laboratory exercises by the time I was done.  Perfect.

My original intent was to generate a lab manual I could distribute free of charge to students in my class.  And I'll still do that.  At the same time I thought, why not publish this lab manual as a Kindle book?  After all, the reason I wrote the thing in the first place is that there were no manuals out there that supported what I wanted my students to do.  Maybe, just maybe, it'll help someone else who's looking for materials to support their lab.

As a Kindle newbie, I found that the learning curve for Kindle publishing, though real, is not insurmountable. It's not hard at all, assuming you know how to use MS Word.  I had to go back into my original document, do some re-formatting and develop a book cover.  I did all of that in a day.  The entire process was quite interesting.

Frankly, I don't know if anyone will buy this lab manual, but at $7.50/copy it's extremely cheap as laboratory manuals go.  Biology laboratory manuals published by traditional textbook companies tend to retail for anywhere between $30-$100.

Science textbook prices have gone through the roof!  This is another reason I wrote and then decided to publish my manual as a Kindle book.  I'm also looking into making it available as a hardcopy book via Createspace for about $15.00/copy.

I have to admit that it gives me a bit of a thrill to see something I wrote at  


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bucket list - release baby sea turtles - Visit to the Nuevo Vallarta Sea Turtle Preserve - Nayarit Mexico

Olive Ridley sea turtle - hatchling

By the 1970s the tortoise shell, sea turtle egg, and sea turtle meat trades had caused almost all species of sea turtles to be anywhere from vulnerable to endangered.  Ongoing efforts of concerned biologists, however, managed to bring their plight to the attention of the global conservation movement.  This attention gained enough momentum that all sea turtle species are now protected under the Endangered Species Act and the international CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) agreement.  Even so, nearly 40 years later all sea turtle species remain ecologically vulnerable, threatened, or endangered.

What makes sea turtles so vulnerable?  There are a few main threats to their survival.  One is an ongoing illegal trade in sea turtle eggs, meat, and tortoise shell.  Sadly, as long as there is a market, someone somewhere will supply that demand.  Second, sea turtles often feed on jellyfishes.  Sadly, turtles are not adept at discerning between jellyfishes and floating plastic bags.  They ingest plastic that then clogs their digestive tracts and they starve to death.  Last and probably the greatest threat is that human coastal development encroaches and destroys sea turtle nesting beaches.  

Just like salmon return to the stream where they hatched to spawn, sea turtles return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs.  If those beaches are replaced by other structures - docks, piers, sea walls they have an extremely difficult time finding someplace to lay their eggs.  Also, once beachfront property is developed for recreation, increased human activities and light pollution discourage turtles from crawling up on the beach and laying their eggs.  Plus, as humans move into an area so do opportunistic predators such as raccoons, coatimundi, dogs, etc.  These predators can become skilled at locating and decimating newly laid nests.

In order to offset these challenges, many countries with sea turtle nesting beaches participate in programs where these beaches are patrolled during nesting season, eggs are collected, they are hatched under protected conditions, and hatchlings are released into the ocean in large groups.

Mexico participates in this effort.  One of the Mexican sea turtle preserves is located at Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit, Mexico.  I was fortunate to visit there in October 2013 and learned how they work to conserve sea turtles along the southern coast of the state of Nayarit, Mexico.

This sea turtle conservation site has a web site you can visit to find additional information: Association for Mexican Environmental Unity

The protected area patrolled by biologists at this site are part of the Mexican National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP). 

I was able to visit the Nuevo Vallarta Sea Turtle Preserve that is located right on the beach about 0.8 miles up the coast from the mouth of the Nuevo Vallarta marina.  It was a memorable and fantastic visit. 

This is a hatchling Olive Ridley sea turtle making its way down the beach toward the water.

All you see if you walk along the beach and glance up toward the preserve is a wire fence that has tarps over parts of it for shade.

If you stop and look under the tarps you'll see lots of little plastic markers.  Each one indicates eggs, their species, when they were collected, and when they are expected to hatch.

Biologists place mesh-sided buckets over the eggs as their hatching dates approach.  This way the turtles can be collected and held safely after they emerge, until they can be released later the same day as a cohort.

Sometimes birds get into the enclosure, upset the buckets, and attack the baby turtles.  The turtle in this photo was pecked by a bird when we walked up to the fence.

Where do the eggs come from?  Biologists use 4-wheelers to patrol an 8-mile stretch of beach every night. When they come across a nesting turtle they note the turtle's species, collect the eggs, and bring the eggs back to the preserve.

Sometimes baby turtles escape the preserve singly or in pairs when they emerge.  The turtle in the photo below is one we saw heading out of the preserve while we were on a morning walk.  You can also see one of the egg markers up close.  We happened to visit in the middle of the main Olive Ridley turtle hatching season - though this species does nest year round on this beach.  We shadowed this little turtle all the way to the water, you know, to keep it from being stepped on my joggers, picked off by a bird, etc.

Made it to the surf zone! (below)

...and into the water...

...don't forget, they breathe air so they have to come to the surface regularly.

We would happily put the little turtle in a bucket, but there wasn't one below the sign.

Biologists collect the turtles that hatch during a given day and release them at twilight each night.  Prior to the release, biologists give presentations about turtles, turtle biology, and the purpose of the sea turtle preserve.  They actually give two talks at the same time each night.  One is given in Spanish and is mainly for Mexican children who come to the preserve to help with the release, and the other one is in English for tourists who are staying in the condos and time-shares along the beach.

This is one of the staff biologists (Irving, a biology graduate from the University of Guadalajara) at the preserve giving the English presentation.

The work the preserve does is important for the continued health of the sea turtle populations that nest on this beach.  Only 2-3 of every 1000 hatchlings survives to adulthood.  This is why it is important that as many eggs as possible be collected and protected.

The biologists at the preserve ask for a small donation, whatever you want, but 50 pesos is typical (a few dollars) from people at the presentation to help support the work at the preserve.  For this small donation visitors are invited to release a sea turtle of their own.

This is the ventral view of a baby Olive Ridley sea turtle.  The small tan spot where you might imagine a belly button would be is all that remains of the egg's yolk sac.  There is enough energy still in it to support the turtle for a few days.  If the baby turtle is not able to start feeding by then it will not survive.

These are some of the turtles that hatched in one day at the preserve.

Turtles are released early each evening.  Biologists lay ropes out along the beach and ask people to line up, up slope from the rope.  The biologists then walk along and distribute turtles to the people there.

Before you handle a turtle you need to cover your hands in sand so the oil from your skin won't come in direct contact with the turtles.

When the biologist gives the word, people let their turtles go and cheer them on as they make their way toward the water.  We were able to help with the release of about 500 hatchlings this evening.

Here are turtles moving down the beach to the water.

Not all nesting turtles are spotted, and not all eggs are relocated to the preserve.  Some of these nests are successful, and young hatch, emerge from the nest and make it to the water.  Here is a baby turtle emerging from a successful nest.  You can tell the nest is successful because the opening to the nest is small and there are no broken egg shells around it. (I still can't believe our fantastic luck in spotting this emergence.)

Many turtle nests are destroyed by animals that dig them up in search of eggs.

This nest, for example, was dug up, and, sadly, the animal that did it apparently did not eat the young turtles. These turtles were still alive when we came across the nest, but they were too premature to survive.  The lens cap in the center of this photo gives you a sense of scale.  The white things are egg shells and the dark objects are dying baby turtles.

This photo shows eggs dug up from another nest.  These eggs are at a stage sought after by small mammals.  The eggs are freshly laid, and they are still full of energy-rich yolk.

These photos show footprints of the likely culprits that dug up the nests we saw...probably raccoons or maybe coatimundis.

Many kinds of birds come in and pick through the remains of eggs after the mammals have dig up  nests and eaten their fill.

This nest was only partially excavated, and some of the eggs were undamaged, though it is highly unlikely that these eggs, now uncovered will complete development.

Sea turtle eggs are nearly spherical, with tough yet flexible shells, not oblong and brittle like chicken eggs.

Here I am with a baby Olive Ridley sea turtle we found on the upper beach about 1/2 mile south of the preserve.

This photo shows its release, along with another turtle we found and hovered over as it flapped its way down the beach.

This was a fantastic experience!  I now have a much better understanding of the work that these conservation biologists do, the challenges they face, and the successes they have.  The only thing we didn't see during our trip was a female digging her nest and laying her eggs.  Still, this was AMAZING!

"Gracias" to the hard working staff and volunteers at the Nuevo Vallarta Sea Turtle Preserve!  Keep up the good work!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Highlights from the IPCC 5th Assessment Report - Summary for Policy Makers - Humans are driving climate change!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a draft of its Summary for Policy Makers report on Friday 9/28/2013.

This posting is a summary of the main points from that document.  The parts in bold font below are direct quotes from that document.  I inserted some additional comments clarifying or commenting on those quotes in the text in brackets below each quote.

You can read the entire document by clicking this link - it's about 30pp long:

Point #1 - Overall state of the climate:
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of  greenhouse gases have increased.

(In other words, the climate is changing, and not for the better - an observation, not a prediction, not a model)

Point #2 - State of the Atmosphere:
Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any  preceding decade since 1850

(Not only is the Earth's surface temperature warmer than it used to be, decade by decade it's getting even warmer - an observation, not a prediction, not a model)

Point #3 - State of the Ocean:
Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence). It is virtually certain (=99-100% confidence) that the upper ocean (0−700 m) warmed from 1971 to 2010 

(The upper ocean is warmer than it used to be - an observation, not a prediction, not a model)

Point #4 - State of the Cryosphere (frozen regions):
Over the last two decades, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have been losing mass, glaciers have continued to shrink almost worldwide, and Arctic sea ice and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have continued to decrease in extent.

(Ice is melting and ice masses are in decling everywhere - an observation, not a prediction, not a model.)

Point #5 - Sea Level:
The rate of sea level rise since the mid-19th century has been larger than the mean rate during the previous two millennia (high confidence). Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19 [0.17 to 0.21] m 

(Sea level has risen 10" - so far - since 1901 - an observation, not a prediction, not a model)

Point #6 - Carbon and other Geochemical Cycles:
The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification. 

(Burning fossil fuels together with land use changes produced unprecedented levels of CO2 compared to its levels over the past 800K years - an observation, not a prediction, not a model)

Point #7 - Drivers of Climate Change
Total radiative forcing is positive, and has led to an uptake of energy by the climate system. The largest contribution to total radiative forcing is caused by the increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1750.

(Radiative forcing is the term used to determine whether climate is warming or cooling.  Positive forcing is warming, negative forcing is cooling.  So, the largest contributor to current climate change is CO2 emissions - a conclusion based on many observations.)

Point #8 - Understanding the Climate and its Recent Changes
Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.

(What humans have done and are doing affects climate.)

Point #9 - Evaluation of Climate Models
Climate models have improved since the AR4 (4th assessment report - 2007). Models reproduce observed continental-scale surface temperature patterns and trends over many decades, including the more rapid warming since the mid-20th century and the cooling immediately following large volcanic eruptions (very high confidence)

(Climate models are better than they used to be, and are now quite good at modeling observed climate history and observed current trends in climate change)

Point #10 - 2 Quantification of Climate System Responses:
Observational and model studies of temperature change, climate feedbacks and changes in the Earth’s energy budget together provide confidence in the magnitude of global warming in response to past and future forcing.

(In other words, the accumulated mass of observations collected so far, together with improved climate models increase our confidence that what we think is happening [i.e., human-driven global warming] really is happening.)

Point #11 - Detection and Attribution of Climate Change
Human influence has been detected in warming of the atmosphere and the ocean, in changes in the global water cycle, in reductions in snow and ice, in global mean sea level rise, and in changes in some climate extremes. This evidence for human influence has grown since AR4. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century.

(The term "extremely likely" correlates with a statistical significance of 95% confidence, which is about the same degree of scientific confidence we have about the link between tobacco use and cancer.  So, the data now show that we are in the realm of scientific certainty that human activities have been the dominant cause of recent observed climate change.  Bottom line - HUMANS ARE CAUSING GLOBAL WARMING.)

Point #12 - Future Global and Regional Climate Change
Continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and changes in all components of the climate system. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

(Translation - if we just keep doing what we're doing, pumping CO2 into the atmosphere with reckless abandon, things will just keep getting worse.  The only way to mitigate the climate change problem is to cut back, way back, on carbon emissions.)

Point #13 - Future of Atmospheric Temperature
Global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900 for all RCP (modeled) scenarios except RCP2.6. It is likely to exceed 2°C for RCP6.0 and RCP8.5, and more likely than not to exceed 2°C for RCP4.5. Warming will continue beyond 2100 under all RCP scenarios except RCP2.6. Warming will continue to exhibit interannual-to-decadal variability and will not be regionally uniform.

(No matter what we do, the atmosphere is already on a warming trend that will continue for some time to come, even if we cut carbon emissions to zero immediately.)

Point #14 - Future of the Atmosphere: Water Cycle
Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions.

(Most likely wet areas will get wetter, and dry areas will get drier, with some exceptions.  Get ready!)

Point #15 - Future of the Ocean
The global ocean will continue to warm during the 21st century. Heat will penetrate from the surface to the deep ocean and affect ocean circulation.

(The ocean will continue to warm, no matter what we do - this will affect the movement of water, and consequently of heat around the planet)

Point #16 - Future of the Cyrosphere (ice regions)
It is very likely that the Arctic sea ice cover will continue to shrink and thin and that Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover will decrease during the 21st century as global mean surface temperature rises. Global glacier volume will further decrease.

(There will be less ice on average, everywhere.)

Point #17 - Future of Sea Level
Global mean sea level will continue to rise during the 21st century. Under all  RCP scenarios the rate of sea level rise will very likely exceed that observed during 1971–2010 due to increased ocean warming and increased loss of mass from glaciers and ice sheets.

(No matter what we do, sea level will continue to rise for a prolonged period of time.  All we can do now is limit how fast and how high it will rise - this is linked to carbon emissions.)

Point #18 - Carbon and Other Geochemical Cycles
Climate change will affect carbon cycle processes in a way that will exacerbate the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere (high confidence). Further uptake of carbon by the ocean will increase ocean acidification.

(Emitting even more carbon will make things progressively worse, and will drive ocean acidification - a change that will almost certainly affect marine ecosystems and probably cause the extinction of many marine species)

Point #19 - Climate Stabilization, Climate Change Commitment and Irreversibility
Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.

(There is no stopping anthropgenic climate change now, our actions from this point though will determine how far it will go.  It's our call.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Backpacking in Yellowstone National Park - Bechler Region

I hike and I like to camp, well, except for the sleeping part, but I've never been backpacking...until this summer.  

Some friends and I went backpacking for three days and two nights in the back country of the Bechler Region of Yellowstone National Park (the SW corner of the park).  This area is accessed by taking Cave Falls Road east from Idaho State Highway 47.  Stay on Cave Falls Road until you see the sign on the north side of the road to the Bechler Ranger Station.  BTW, you need to pay either $25 for a one-time YNP pass or $50 for an annual pass to park there and enter the park. You are also required to view a back country safety video before you will be issued a camping permit.  

We stayed at different camp sites each night.  On Day 1 we hiked 10 miles in to campsite 9B6, and on Day 2 we hiked two more miles toward Three River Junction to camp site 9B8.

Here is our crew in a "before" shot, mid-morning on the first day.  See how clean and chipper we look?

So, Day 1 we covered 10 miles.  When/if you start to feel "hot spots" on your feet STOP!  I learned this the hard way...I waited too long, and proto-blisters became the real thing.  Sadly, I was one of the two people who got blisters mid way through the first day.  I haven't had blisters in I don't know how long!  I don't even get blisters while running a half-marathon...sheesh!

I think that I got blisters because of my shoes, either that or a slightly modified gait due to a knee injury (ACL) I had this Spring.  I did everything you are supposed to...wear broken in reliable shoes and wicking socks, stop and check feet when "hot spots" show up, and apply moleskin as needed, but no matter what I tried blisters happened.   Enough of that...for now.

A few miles into Day 1 we crossed Boundary Creek.  There's a nice suspension bridge over that muddy creek.  Make sure you take it easy as you cross, one person at a time, and step in the middle of the planks as you go over.  If it weren't for this bridge we would have been muddy at least from the knees down, and that's not really what anyone wants when you are not even halfway through a 10-mile day.

Once over the bridge we pushed on, toward Bechler Meadow.

Bechler Meadow (see below) is huge.  I hoped/expected to see moose or elk or deer there, but all we saw was meadow, meadow, and more meadow, oh, and trees, hills, and mountains in the distance.

The Tetons were visible to the south.  Beautiful!

We had only one river crossing on Day 1.  It was at the north end of Bechler Meadow.  Here we are changing into water shoes/sandals before crossing (below). Lightweight pants with zippers at the knees so the bottom half of the pant legs can removed were a good investment.  

Once across we took a break, relaxed, filled our water bottles, and had some lunch.

Pretty soon we entered for forest for good as we moved toward the mouth of Bechler Canyon (below).  The shade was a welcome change.  

We heard that the mosquitoes can be thick from the ranger station through Bechler Meadow, but, thank the Maker, we saw/heard very few of them.  

This hillside marks the mouth of Bechler Canyon.

The rest of  Day 1 we hiked up  beautiful Bechler Canyon (below).

Here are a couple of must-see waterfalls on this trail.  The first major one is Collonade Falls (below). 

A few miles farther up the canyon is Iris Falls.  You have to hike off of the main trail a hundred yards (meters) or so to an overlook to see it, otherwise you'll walk right by.  Watch for a sign on the left side of the trail.  Don't skip it!  Go and see it, after all, why are you in the park, anyway?

Here's the crew, still grinning while at Collonade Falls.

We saw lots of berries as we moved farther up the valley.  We ate wild blackberries and huckleberries too!  This is the sort of place I imagine you could see bears, but I guess we were making such a racket that if they were in the neighborhood they hot footed it out of there.  Come to think of it, we didn't see any wildlife larger than birds the entire trip.  That was kind of a let-down, but IMO that's better than having run-ins with bears.

Here's one of the huckleberry patches. 

The photo below shows campsite 9B6 where we hoisted a bear bag containing all of our food, toothpaste, deodorant, and other things that might bring in bears.  The bear bag was well off of the ground so bears can't get to them.

Bear bags MUST be used.  In fact, park rangers come by regularly to check and make sure everyone is following good back country bear procedures.  The rangers' main job is to keep the visitors, the park, and the wildlife safe.

The photo below shows the right-hand support of the bear bag hoist.  The marks are where a black bear(s) climbed the pole to try to get to bear bags.  This didn't happen while we were there, but bears had obviously been there in the past!  

Even in the middle of summer, nights can be COLD in Yellowstone.  I found that out the hard way.  I don't care for mummy style bags, but I should have brought mine...instead I opted for a bag that wasn't rated as cold...brr...I froze that first night, even with a knit hat.  

Luckily, dawn always follows even the darkest night, and a fire and a bite of hot breakfast helped me gather myself for the day.

We broke camp and hiked another two miles to 9B8 - our second camp site.  This short hike required two river crossings.  

Here's the bear bag hoist at camp site 9B8.

On an aside, it's imperative that you have one or two good water filters (below) when you go backpacking, because water is HEAVY and you want to carry as little as possible.    

Day 2 was used mainly to take a day hike to see some waterfalls and a hot pool.  My feet were in so much pain from Day 1's blisters that after about 100 yards of the day-hike I turned around and went back to camp where I put my feet up.  That was, I believe, the only way I was going to have a prayer of hiking the 12 miles back out the next day.

After the group returned some of them took advantage of a fantastic way to cool off.  The water was actually warmer here than it was father downstream because of hot/warm springs at several spots along the river.  It wasn't "warm" but it wasn't frigid either.  

Night 2 went much better for me than Night 1 for two reasons:  1) I wore ALL the clothes I had with me to bed...pants, shirt, sweatshirt, socks, knit hat, etc., so I wasn't as cold as I was on Night 1, that's not to say that I was warm, I was just not AS cold; and 2) I knew that the next day we would head home. Yeah!

The morning of Day 3 I checked my blisters...installed new mole skin around each one, laced up my shoes, bucked up my faith and courage, and set off...with pain in every footstep.

We made it back to the ranger station 7-8 hours later, around 5pm.  We forded the river three times and covered 12 miles.  I literally kissed the ranger station sign when I saw it again!

Once I got home I removed all of the moleskin and checked out my feet.  This is what I found.  I had to cover 12 miles, step after step, on these blisters.  Luckily, if you just embrace the pain and keep going it's not all THAT bad.

I had three blisters on my left foot.  This is the blister about the size of a quarter below my second toe and another one on the little toe of my left foot...

This blister was on the side of the heel of my left foot.

My right foot had only one blister, but it was a doozy!

In retrospect, I have to say that the scenery was beautiful, the friendships good, the park was amazing, and the outing was overall an unmitigated success, but for me personally, the hike was from hell.

So, what's my impression of backpacking?  At least for now if someone asks if I want to go...I'll pass.