“A Travel Bucket List…With An Expiration Date?” by Ian McGregor – 11 August 2014
Classes have started back in the good old Bay Area, and once again 33,000 + students have swarmed the small city of Berkeley to wrap their minds around some of the most important and pressing topics we have in our society while engaging with some of the top professors in their respective subjects. They’ll network for 16 weeks running around the world attempting to build their own arsenals to prepare them to solve the world’s outstanding problems. Yet though Berkeley has its virtues like any other university, its prestige is not the focus of this post.
But it is related. This morning I had my first lab section (also called a discussion) for my class “Principles of Conservation Biology” and the GSIs, or graduate student instructors, were doing brief recaps of their summer activities to provide some background to their lives. One of them identified herself as working to put “wild” habitat back into anthropogenically-created environments, such as assisting honeybees to flourish in an otherwise planned agricultural setting compared to an open woodland. She mentioned how she went to Glacier National Park in Montana and climbed some glaciers while hiking around the park, which in itself is interesting but nothing special. Her next comment, though, completely caught me off-guard. Nonchalantly, she revealed, “Yeah, I felt like I needed to go because the glaciers in the park are supposed to be gone within 15 years.”
Now let’s hold on a moment here. First of all, the glaciers disappearing is a mantra that’s not new. We’ve been hearing about it for years now, whether they’re in Greenland, Alaska, the Himalayas, or the Alps. Second of all, we know climate change is affecting different areas of the globe differently, and that some parts of the world as we know it won’t be the same, like the glaciers in the Alps, or Venice with its subsidization or low-lying coastal areas like the Pacific islands. But those are all far away. They’re somewhere out in the world and not in our backyard – even Alaska is so far north that it just doesn’t have the same gravity to the situation as if it was the dessication of the Great Lakes.
But that’s the danger.
To have the glaciers of Glacier National Park disappear is akin to visiting Redwood National Forest and finding only birches, furs, and pines because the redwoods couldn’t handle the shifting weather patterns anymore. Or going to Crater Lake National Park only to find it barely surviving, the majority of the volcanic basin now an actively encroaching forest. This is going out to your backyard and finding out a landslide has left you with no yard at all; the issue is huge. As I’ve said, we’ve known this has been happening around the world, so really why should we be surprised if it’s happening in the US? Well, to begin with, we need a fact check.
A quick search on the interwebs unearths to us some quick answers. A guest blog on National Geographic from a year ago states how “of all the 150 glaciers that speckled Glacier National Park at its founding in 1910, only 25 remain. The latest predictions indicate that all of the glaciers [in the park] will be gone by 2030.” The National Park Service website offers some elaboration on the numbers: “only 25 [glaciers] remain large enough (at least 25 acres in area) to be considered functional glaciers,” but based on “glacier recession models” the conclusion is as grim as that of the guest blogger. As bad as that sounds, here’s the real kicker. Further searching exposed a USGS website on the subject that has a blurb from 2010, though supposedly the site was updated May of last year. Just read this excerpt from the blurb and see if you can understand why I think this is so alarming:
“A computer-based climate model predicts that some of the park’s largest glaciers will vanish by 2030 (Hall and Fagre, 2003). This is only one model prediction but, if true, then the park’s glaciers could disappear in the next several decades.However glacier disappearance may occur even earlier, as many of the glaciers are retreating faster than their predicted rates.”
Did you see that? While the consensus from last year was that all the glaciers would be gone by 2030, in 2010 the consensus was that we still had “several decades” left?! In only three years time, we’ve realized that instead of having gigantic sheets of ice withdraw from the landscape about 70 years, they’ll vanish completely in, oh, less than a quarter of that time. With all the research that has been happening since the 1970s and 1980s, how could we be that far off in our calculations? I know people could spend days playing the blame game and pointing fingers while debunking this theory and throwing out another, but that’s not going to help anything. Nor is it the point. The crux of this issue is that the destruction of natural occurrences that are the vestiges of the Earth’s own history are no longer happening in the future – the future is now. With just this example, the United States is rapidly losing one of its core characteristics of its landscape. It’s losing something that played a huge part in its own expansive history and in the lives of the countless numbers of people before the arrival of Europeans. See, what’s scary to me about this is more than the fact that we’re on a runaway train with this thing. It’s more that we don’t know what’s coming. What else are we going to find in the next three years from now that will suddenly say, “Oh we have more research, and remember how we said Miami would be underwater in 100 years? Well, make it 18.” Alright, maybe that’s a bit far-fetched of an example, but it serves the point. Think of it like the Endangered Species List. The case of Glacier National Park is like having an animal be labeled semi-at risk one year and two years later jumping up to severe risk, with a bottleneck population system ensuring the inherent demise of the species. When we wake up tomorrow, what other places are suddenly going to be on the “Severe Risk” label? What other places around the world are going to disappear before I even become 70 years old? Another great example of this is the Indian Ocean island nation of the Maldives, which is directly at sea level (or I guess, barely above it). Basically, the slightest rise in ocean water levels will completely submerge the islands, and the government has already tried getting world attention focused on its plight by staging underwater signing of documents listing its grievances to the UN, but I think it’s safe to say very few have listened/done something about it (at least as far as I know).
And this why I titled this post “A travel bucket list with an expiration date.” We all know that bucket lists are for putting those dreams you want to do one day in hopes that when you win the lottery or retire you’ll eventually cross things off the list. With this, though…let’s just say you have some incentive. There aren’t many things you can put on a bucket list that may not be there anymore by the time you think you’re able to go. I can only recommend, start looking at ways to get to these places now. Educate yourselves and others, and be conscious of how many other places like this there are out there, away from your stable, habit-centric life. The places I personally know about are the places mentioned in this post: Glacier National Park in the state of Montana, and the Maldives. Other places based on google searches yield the following, equally at-risk yet amazing places:
1. Snow-capped Kilimanjaro (the snow line has been receding fast for decades)
2. Arctic polar bears in the wild
3. Snow line in the Alps (and glacial presence like I mentioned)
4. Tigers in Rajasthan (wild tigers becoming extinct in our lifetime)
5. Antarctica (because it’s thawing. and because I don’t want to try to go late just to find nothing of the majestic icebergs we know about today)
6. Great Barrier Reef (because bleaching from pollution and erosion)
7. Dead Sea, due to dessication from diverted water
8. Venice, Italy, which has been sinking at a constant rate since its construction
9. Easter Island and Macchu Picchu/Choquequirao (not directly environmental, but with increased focus on development and mass tourism, these places will be affected)
10. Seychelle Islands (also in the Indian Ocean, and for the same reason as the Maldives)
There are certainly other places out there that are facing imminent decline, but this is a quick list to give you some kind of an idea. It’s not supposed to make you feel depressed in any way. It’s supposed to make you aware and conscious of what’s going on out there. It’s supposed to show you a new lens through which you see the natural world and its fragility. And Iit’s supposed to make you enraged and inspired enough to do something about it. Why do you think I have this blog and am studying conservation? Get out there and educate people, go volunteer, go read articles, go conduct research! If enough people realize what’s happening, I know something will be done. My worst nightmare is waking up one day years down the line with headlines of “These world treasures are gone; why did no one do anything?” Please don’t let that happen.
And since I don’t want to leave you all too sad, here are a couple pictures I got in the Berkeley hills the other day overlooking the Bay. It was so clear you could see all the way from the Dumbarton Bridge in the south to the Richmond Bridge in the north, with the Golden Gate fighting back the fog in the background.
As always, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and if you have any questions, just send me an email! It’s been a little hectic here with the start of the semester, but I’m hoping to at least do a new post on the blog once every week and a half to two weeks, time permitting. We’ll see how that goes, but in the meantime, vi ses!
Ian McGregor is a guest blogger from Cela’s Trek where he is the Owner and Creator. Visit his blog here!