Monday, November 14, 2016

What might a Donald Trump presidency mean for the environment?

Grand Canyon National Park
I normally reserve this blog for educational purposes pertaining to various natural science topics, but the results of the November 8th election need to be discussed. I understand that there will be readers who will not like this, and those who would rather me stay out of the political realm, but the truth is that nature and the sciences do not exist in a vacuum. Politics influences science, and science influences politics. This interplay between the political world and the scientific world then influences our Earth, and those living on it. Sometimes the results of these influences can be beneficial. Many times, however, these results prove to be harmful, if not downright disastrous, for the environment.
I consider myself a nature educator. I spend my free time working on this blog to teach various readers about nature and the environment, leading various nature-themed educational hikes, and running an educational club for wildlife enthusiasts. The rest of my time is dedicated to being a student; I am currently attending Ohio University in pursuit of a degree in wildlife and conservation biology. During my four years at OU, I have gotten involved in various wildlife biology research, from salamanders to lizards and more. As you can see, my entire life revolves around nature. This personal love and respect for nature has entwined itself throughout my entire being, from my jobs to my hobbies to my philosophies. 

It is this love, and concern, for nature which has left me terrified after the results of last week’s election. Why? Because Donald Trump represents a direct threat to the environment and wildlife. 

The Earth is in trouble. Anthropogenic climate change poses a threat to not only the human race, but to all living creatures. Despite the overwhelming evidence, there is a good deal of Americans who do not accept climate change. For those Americans who do accept that the global climate is warming, only 65% believe human activity is the cause. (Source) This is a surprising figure, as there is overwhelming data to show that we humans are in fact to blame for climate change. 

And even more surprisingly, accepting the reality that humans are to blame for climate change has somehow become a partisan issue. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that while 68% of democrats say that “global climate change is a very serious problem,” only 20% of republicans agree. This boggles my mind, as climate change is not, and never will be, a true partisan issue. Climate change will affect us all, and it will affect all of our children and our children’s children. 

The fact is, anthropogenic climate change is a very, very serious threat to the creatures of the Earth, including us humans. Even the Pentagon says that climate change poses an immediate threat to the US’s national security. (Source) I don’t know why so many still reject this reality. Maybe it’s partially the fact that people are uneducated about the subject. Maybe it’s partially because scientists haven’t done a good enough job communicating the actual science behind climate change. Maybe it’s partially the fear that people will lose their jobs if we switch to cleaner energy. 

Maybe it’s the fact that change is scary for humans. Our current lifestyle is not sustainable, and in order to lessen the blow that climate change will ultimately have, we would have to change this lifestyle. We are creatures of habit, and even when a change will be good, we so often vehemently oppose it. I will say, the change that will come when the effects of climate change begin throwing the environmental and political worlds into chaos will be much greater than any lifestyle changes we could make to lessen this. It is also important to note that even if we were to completely stop carbon emissions right now, some effects of climate change would still be inevitable. We are at the tipping point between experiencing very negative effects or catastrophic effects.  

Donald Trump isn’t officially the president yet, and as such we don’t know what he is actually going to do. However, my fear stems from what he has previously said, and who he has surrounded himself with. I want to go through just a few of his beliefs, his plans, and the beliefs and plans of his colleagues.

  • Donald Trump does not believe in climate change. He tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” (Source) This is totally incorrect on two levels. First, it assumes that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax, which it is not (I am not going to spend time on this post to go over why anthropogenic climate change is real, but feel free to check out this amazingly informative series of articles about climate change or this series of articles) The greenhouse effect, one of the fundamental concepts underlying climate change, was first postulated in 1824 by the French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier. Even more so, anthropogenic climate change as we know it first came into the scientific and public eye in 1957 with a paper (Source) published by the American scientist Roger Revelle and the Austrian scientist Hans Suess.
  • Donald Trump wants to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. (Source) The Paris Agreement is a world-wide treaty which was signed by 193 countries. The countries which signed the Paris Agreement aim to reduce global carbon emissions and attempt to limit the warming of the global temperature. Combating climate change is a world-wide endeavor, and having the US pull out of this agreement would be a global embarrassment and only help to hasten an environmental disaster.
  • Donald Trump has selected Myron Ebell to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition. (Source) Who is Myron Ebell, and why is this such a concerning pick? Myron Ebell is one of the most vocal climate change “deniers” in Washington D.C. He believes that the recent unprecedented upswing in the global temperature isn’t due to humans and is “nothing to worry about.” (Source). Ebell has also spent decades trying to deregulate the oil and gas industries, which he believes are being wrongfully held down by the regulations put in place for the continued health and safety of us, our cities, the environment, and wildlife.
  • Speaking of the oil and coal industries, Donald Trump has promised to “encourage the production of [fossil fuels] by opening onshore and offshore leasing on federal lands and waters.” (Source) There has to come a point when we admit to ourselves that not only do we have to stop our dependence on fossil fuels for both environmental and economic reasons, but that the coal industry is never coming back to what it once was. Even if we step aside from all the environmental concerns surrounding coal, the industry is dying and cannot be saved. The coal jobs Trump promises he will bring back are simply gone. The market for coal is shrinking, and the waning demand will only keep decreasing as we (slowly) move away from fossil fuels. The rise of fracking and cheap natural gas has been one of the biggest killers of coal, as coal mining is more expensive than obtaining natural gas. (Source) Even then, the decades-long rise in automation of the coal mining process has eliminated the need for a large workforce. The supposed “War on Coal” that Obama is argued to be waging doesn’t exist. Changing technologies, a waning demand for coal, and the rise of cheaper alternatives doomed coal. (Source) As you can see, the fall of coal jobs isn’t due to environmental regulations as Trump and others suggest. We need to stop trying to invest in outdated sources of energy, and instead invest heavily in new, renewable sources, as – whether people like it or not – these are the future. 
  • Although Trump hasn’t announced his pick for the Secretary of the Interior, he has given a list of those who he is considering. Four of his picks have very dangerous views (and past actions) when it comes to the environment. Before I go into the potential appointees, I want to go over what the Department of the Interior oversees. The Department of the Interior’s job is to manage and conserve federal lands and natural resources. This department oversees the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the US Geological Survey, and many other services and bureaus. The following are some of the people who Trump is considering to appoint to the position. (Source) First up is Forrest Lucas, co-founder of Lucas Oil. Besides being in the oil industry, Lucas has funded several anti-animals’ rights groups and pieces. (Source) For example, he funded a film which portrayed puppy mills as misunderstood and unfairly criticized. And when a ballot measure came up in Missouri that aimed to fight puppy mills (Source), Lucas spent thousands to fight it. Second up is Jan Brewer, former governor of Arizona. Brewer has been a strong critic of the Endangered Species Act (which is overseen and enforced by the Department of the Interior might I add), which she believes is an unnecessary roadblock to other affairs (Source) Another being considered is Harold Hamm, an oil and gas tycoon who has been a major proponent of fracking. Hamm made the news in 2015 when it came to light that he tried to pressure a dean at the University of Oklahoma to dismiss certain scientists at the university because they were studying links between fracking and the unprecedented increase in earthquakes in the state. (Source) Regardless of your stance on fracking, you should not be okay with anyone trying to silence and censor research. And finally, there’s Sarah Palin. She denies anthropogenic climate change, calling it “snake oil science” (Source). She opposed listing Polar Bears as endangered. She fought for the culling of wolves to improve game populations for hunters. She also fought for more drilling in the Arctic, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Are these really the people that we want in charge of our resources, our national parks, and our wildlife?

These are just a few of the alarming and concerning beliefs on the environment that Donald Trump, his peers, and his colleagues have. And this isn’t even taking into account the dangerous rhetoric he has spread throughout the campaign, which has emboldened sexists, racists, and bigots around the country. This is a nature-themed blog, so I will keep this post to the subject at hand. If his words become actions, and the people he wants in power reach that power, we are looking at an unprecedented threat to the environment of the likes we have not seen before. His presidency could help usher in a global catastrophic disaster that we might never recover from.

For many of us, we are angry. We are sad. We are upset. We are scared.

We have to channel these feelings into something productive; we cannot hold a defeatist attitude. We have to go out and be vocal. We have to put our energy into educating and advocating. We have to hold Donald Trump and his administration accountable for every single thing that they do, just as we would hold any president and their administration accountable.

I will be open with you. I personally did not like Hillary Clinton at all. She represented, in my opinion, all that I hate about American politics. But I voted for her because Donald Trump espouses the disregard and disdain for the environment and our fellow humans that I loathe beyond anything. We cannot let this disregard continue it is dangerous. We must stand up and fight for a better future for us and the generations to come.

I will leave you with a quote to consider:
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” - Maya Angelou
White Sands National Monument

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fact Check: "Poisonous Canadian Caterpillar Invades Midwest!"

Every year around the beginning of Autumn I see a story passed around on various social media outlets, especially Facebook. All these stories are titled something to the effect of "Poisonous/Venomous Caterpillar Found in *assorted locations*," and they're all about the little caterpillar of the Hickory Tussock Moth. Even news outlets pick this story up. Sadly, the claims these stories make are pretty much completely wrong. Here's a fact check on the Hickory Tussock Moth.

Is the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar poisonous?
The Hickory Tussock Moth, Lophocampa caryae, is a species belonging to the Tiger Moths (Tribe Arctiini). The rather dashing adults look like this. The caterpillars, on the other hand, are black and white. These caterpillars are covered in white hairs with a central line of black hairs running down their back.

Reports of the Hickory Tussock Moth courtesy of Butterflies and Moths of North America.
The first thing I want to clarify about this species is their range. Most stories act like these caterpillars are rare in whatever state they're writing about, and that they are coming in from some other location. One of the most hilarious stories I've seen claimed this was a native Canadian species that was "invading Ohio." The Hickory Tussock Moth is actually a really common species throughout New England and the eastern Midwest. Their range also extends north to the very southern portion of the Canadian province of Ottawa. If anything, these aren't a "Canadian species," but an American one that barely extends into Canada. And these caterpillars aren't exactly rare across their range either. I've seen a dozen or so during a single hike before, and that was without trying to look for them. 

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar
But the main thing I want to talk about is their supposed venom/poison, which many stories will say is very dangerous to humans. First, let's clarify what poisonous and venomous means. Poison means a toxin that is ingested (i.e. if you eat it and get sick, it's poisonous). Venom is a toxin that is injected into you via fangs, a stinger, or some other modified part of the body (i.e. if it bites or stings you and you get sick, it's venomous). Unless you plan on eating a caterpillar, the only way it could be dangerous to you is through venom. But is the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar venomous?

Is the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar venomous?

The short answer is no, the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar is not venomous; however, it is a bit more complicated than that. So, let’s start with the basics. Many caterpillar species are covered in hairs called setae. These setae help with sensation, like how a cat’s whiskers do. Many times these setae are harmless (like in the Woolly Bear), but in some species these hairs can break off into an animal’s skin and cause irritation, sort of like a cactus’s spines or bristles. In some other species, like the caterpillars of the Flannel Moths, these setae have been modified into hollow spines, and at the bottom of the spines are venom glands, sort of like a bee’s stinger. The caterpillars with these spines and venom glands can truly be called a venomous caterpillar, but does the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar have these? The answer is no. Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillars do not have stinging spines nor venom glands (Hartmann 2009, Kuspis et al. 2001). They do, however, have the irritating setae that I previously mentioned. But, are they really that irritating?
Hartmann, T., 2009. Tiger moths and woolly bears. Behavior, ecology and evolution of the Arctiidae.
Kuspis, D.A., Rawlins, J.E. and Krenzelok, E.P., 2001. Human exposures to stinging caterpillar: Lophocampa caryae exposures. The American journal of emergency medicine, 19(5), pp.396-398. Link.

Touching a Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

People will often comment on these stories with horror stories about how either they or someone they know touched one of the caterpillars and had a horrible reaction, with some even saying they had to go to the ER. This is not the norm, at all. Some people are, for whatever biological reason, hypo-sensitive to the setae of this species. They can experience pain and bad rashes, yet the average person will not experience this. Let me give you an analogy. Some people are allergic to peanut butter, but the vast majority of people aren’t. Would you say peanut butter is poisonous/dangerous to the average human? No, you wouldn’t. It is the same with the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar. A very small percentage of people will have a bad reaction to the setae of this species, but the average person will either have no reaction, or they might itch a bit. To prove a point for science, I pet this Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar. And not just once — I pet him several times. And what happened? Pretty much nothing. I had a few itchy sensations, but nothing hurt and there was no rash or anything. So much for being a scary and dangerous caterpillar!

Is the Hickory Tussock Moth a species to fear? Not at all! These little guys are just another victim of social media getting animal facts incorrect. It's especially sad to see news organizations (like CBS which claimed this caterpillar wasn't native to the US and that is has venom glands) perpetuating these incorrect "facts." Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hiking The Narrows

A couple weeks ago I covered one of Zion National Park's most well-known hiking experiences, Angels Landing. This week I want to cover probably the most well-known hiking experience at Zion Nation Park, The Narrows.

View from Angels Landing
Zion National Park lies in the Southwest corner of Utah. Although the park is huge and has many different areas, the main and most-visited area is the famous Zion Canyon. This canyon can be broken up into two main parts: the upper canyon (The Narrows) and the Lower Canyon. The photo above shows the beginning of the Lower Canyon portion as looking up-canyon from atop Angels Landing. Where the canyon pinches off in the middle of the photo is where The Narrows, a slot canyon, begins.

Why is there a rather-abrupt change from the slot canyon that is The Narrows to the quarter-to-half mile wide Lower Canyon? It all has to do with the rock layers. During the Mesozoic Era, the area that now encompasses Zion NP used to be a flat coastal plain. Most of the rocks in Zion were laid down during the Jurassic Period. Beginning in the Cretaceous Period, this entire region of the West experienced a period of uplifting, where the layers of rocks were slowly thrust upward to heights from near sea level to over 10,000 feet above sea level. The ancestral Virgin River, through the power of erosion, began to cut downward through these rock layers as the layers were uplifted. When the Virgin River arrived at what was to become Zion NP, it hit the massive layer of Navajo Sandstone (which is upwards of 2,200 feet thick). Sandstone is a rather hard rock which isn't easily eroded. Generally speaking, soft rocks form broad canyons and slopes when eroded, while harder rocks tend to form cliffs and slot canyons (A slot canyon is essentially a really narrow canyon that is deeper than wide). The Virgin River, trying to follow the path of least-resistance to the sea, cut straight down through the Navajo Sandstone Formation. This resulting deep, but narrow, canyon became known as The Narrows.

Riverside Walk Trail Zion National Park
Heading toward The Narrows.

After the Virgin River cut through the entirety of the Navajo Sandstone Formation, it ran into the Kayenta Formation. The Kayenta Formation is a rather soft formation, and the Virgin River was able to erode a much wider canyon. The transition between The Narrows and the relatively wide Lower Canyon occurs at the transition between the hard Navajo Sandstone and the soft Kayenta Formation below it.

Riverside Walk Trail (Left), Southern Maidenhair Fern, Adiantum capillus-veneris (Right)
With this post, I want to take you on a pictorial journey through the day-hike section of The Narrows. I hiked 4 miles up The Narrows during a warm day in late July, and I have to say it was one of most fantastic and unique hiking experiences I've yet to have. There are two ways to hike The Narrows. The easiest way is bottom-up. For those wanting a more hardcore experience, you can do the top-down route. This is a 16 mile one-way backcountry experience which requires a permit and a lot of hiking experience. The most common way to experience The Narrows is the bottom-up route, which is the route I chose. It is non-technical, requires no permit, and can last as long as you want. The bottom-up route begins at the Riverside Walk trailhead, a mile-long paved trail beside the Virgin River. Although you're in the desert, the cool, moist microhabitats created by the tall cliffs and seeping springs result in an explosion of green. One point of the trail passes a marsh, while parts of the cliff walls near seeping springs are covered in plants like the Southern Maidenhair Fern (pictured above on the right).

Mystery Falls
After a mile, the paved trail ends, and The Narrows begin. There is no "trail" through The Narrows. The vast majority of your time will be spent wading through the Virgin River itself. It's a very different kind of hiking experience. You have to watch each step, as not only are you competing against the current, but the riverbed is made of large, slippery rocks. I watched dozens of people slip and fall into the water. Although I did it without trekking poles, I wish I had brought them. One of the first stand-out features in the canyon is Mystery Falls, which is the steep orange slope in the center-right of the photo above. There are several opportunities for technical (requiring specific rock-climbing equipment and knowledge) canyoneering within the park, and Mystery Canyon is one such opportunity. Mystery Canyon requires 12 rappels, and the final rappel is down the 120-foot Mystery Falls. On my return hike, I stopped to watch a few hikers rappelling down the slippery algae-covered waterfall. Seeing hikers rappel down a waterfall is a rather interesting activity to watch. If you want more info on this technical hike, visit this Canyoneering USA page.

Zion National Park Trails
The Narrows is probably the most-popular hike in Zion. When I did it, I passed hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people. People are drawn to this hike not only because of the beauty and ease of access, but also because of the opportunity to escape the harsh heat of the park. Although it was 90 some degrees out in most of the park when I went, the canyon itself was about 70 degrees. The Virgin River was very cool too, but not uncomfortable. Because of these features, tourists flock to the trail. The first mile or two can seem like an amusement park with the amount of people present, but the number of people on the trail drops off steeply after about 2 miles. I have to admit, I didn't expect it to be as busy as it was, but you quickly leave the hordes of people after about an hour of hiking.

Hiking The Narrows
The soaring walls of the canyon quickly narrow as you make your way upstream. The giant boulders and carved sandstone walls remind you of the time and power that it took the Virgin River to carve out this canyon.

Orderville Canyon Zion
About 2.5 miles from the start of The Narrows, you run into a fork in the canyon. If you hang left, you continue on with The Narrows. If you hang a right, you enter Orderville Canyon, a smaller side canyon. Orderville Canyon is narrower and darker than The Narrows proper, and it was a lovely little place to explore. Those, like me, who are doing the bottom-up trek cannot go past a certain point in Orderville Canyon. The turn around point for bottom-up hikers is just a bit around the bend in the photo above. You can, however, get a permit and do the entirety of Orderville Canyon from top-down. It does, however, involve some technical canyoneering skills (rappelling). If you want to read more about the Orderville Canyon hike, check out this Canyoneering USA link!

The Narrows Wall Street
Wall Street in The Narrows, with 1,500 foot canyon walls and the river reaching from wall-to-wall in most sections (I hiked in low water levels, so there's more exposed land than what there normally is).
It wouldn't be a post on a slot canyon without talking about the inherent dangers of hiking in one. I did this hike during the North America Monsoon season. During the late summer months, storms with torrential rain can pop up anywhere out West. Flash flooding is a serious concern, and even more so in a slot canyon. The Narrows regularly closes several times a year when there's a threat of flash flooding. Why? Because there can be literally no place to go. In some sections, there can be high ground to seek refuge on if you're caught in a flash flood. However, many sections of the canyon don't offer such protection. Take, for example, the Wall Street section of The Narrows, just upstream from Orderville Canyon. As you can see in the photo above, the Virgin River stretches wall-to-wall. There is no safe high ground. If a flash flood comes roaring in while you're here, you will die. You cannot outswim a flash flood, mainly due to the force of the current and the debris the river picks up. Imagine having trunks of trees ripped-out from the flood hurtling toward you at 30 mph; it's not going to be a pretty ending. Check out this Youtube video of a flash flood at The Narrows to see the danger of such a flood.

The National Park Service will close The Narrows to hikers if it seems a flash flood is potentially possible for that day. That doesn't mean that one can't pop up unexpectedly with no warning. Even if the sky is blue over The Narrows, a rain event out of sight at the headwaters can send a wall of water downstream. Be aware: if you hear a rumbling in the canyon, get to high ground. If the water begins to change color, get to high ground. If the water seems to be ever-so-slightly rising, get to high ground. Just be aware, and if it seems like it might be a bad day to do this hike, don't do it. Remember, in a national park your safety is your responsibility, not the National Park Service's.

The Narrows Utah
If you're ever in Zion National Park, and you can (safely) hike The Narrows, I highly, highly suggest that you take the opportunity to do so. It is not an experience you are going to ever forget. The towering walls, the interplay between the sunlight and shadows, and the refreshing water of the Virgin River all combine to create a fantastic hiking experience.

Thanks for reading!