When Chris Ray got started studying pika, she could not have
anticipated that these small rabbit relatives would one day become a poster
child for climate change, which the species has, partly through the efforts of
the Center for Biological Diversity to get them on the Endangered Species
List. Because pika live mostly in
alpine environments, are sensitive to temperature, and are poor dispersers,
they are perhaps particularly vulnerable to increasing temperatures. In late August 2011 I joined Ray, a
research associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, at Emerald Lake in
Hyalite Canyon, near Bozeman,
Montana, where she has studied pika every year for the past 21 years.
Pika live in talus slopes, which are gullies of rock making
gray stripes down the otherwise evergreen-covered rises around the canyon. Ray is gone from her tent at the
campsite before 6:30 each morning, carrying equipment to the slopes, leaving
her husband and her four-year-old son asleep. By 7:30 I head off with two young research assistants to
join her. We call in to Ray and
she gives us GPS points for her location.
The first morning I go with them, it takes us a full hour to reach her. The rocks are piled up on each other
and unsteady. The angle is
steep. I'm rather obsessed with
the distinct possibility of breaking my leg, and exhausted when we reach our
destination, before the day's work, which Ray will continue without break until
six or seven p.m., has even begun.
Ray collects data about pika presence and absence at 100
control points in a study area that is overall two kilometers by three
kilometers. She also tracks
temperature throughout the year using “iButton” data loggers dispersed around
the talus. Using four different
ear positions and five colors of tags, Ray ear-tags pika annually—this summer
she tagged 45—thus recognizing their individuality, by which she can keep
track of their mortality. To date
she has tagged and tracked 625 unique pika; she has observed some individuals
as many as nine years in a row.
Pika are saucy little bunnies, and they spend all summer "making hay while the sun shines," because they don't hibernate. One of the main things they do is cache "haypiles" in the rocks. That
means they race around with flowers in their mouths much of the time. These
little bunnies take the Goldilocks syndrome very far, with finely tuned
sensitivity to hot and cold. While
other animals have natural thermoregulatory responses to temperature
fluctuations, the pika have to deal with these behaviorally. They don't hibernate, so they need a very
insulating fur coat, which is good in winter, but in the summer it becomes a
problem. To help deal with the
winter chill, the resting body temperature of a pika is near its lethal
maximum, which is what makes them intolerant to summer heat. Pika have to be out working hard all
summer to collect enough food to last them all winter, and during the hottest
part of summer days they take refuge in the spaces under the rocks in the
While many have written the end story for pika by pointing
upward and finding nowhere for them to go as the climate warms, Ray has in the
back of her mind another idea. She
wonders if what makes pika so sensitive and evidently vulnerable will wind up
being their salvation. “Pikas are
so good at finding the microclimate they need that they may avoid climate
change altogether,” she says. Although that depends on a fairly stable mountain ecosystem.
Yosemite National Park confirmed on Thursday that a ninth person had contracted hantavirus, according to Reuters. The park visitor, from California, has recovered. The notice came a day after the park notified roughly 230,000 people about the outbreak by email, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The park had previously notified roughly 30,000 people who had slept in locations where the infections had occurred, according to Reuters. Eight people were infected while staying in the tent cabins at Curry Village. One person was infected in multiple High Sierras Camps in the backcountry. Three of the nine people died as a result of contracting the virus. Yosemite officials said they had no evidence to suggest that anyone staying in other locations has been exposed to the virus, but they wanted to send out information as a precaution.
Larry Gibson, keeper of Kayford Mountain. Photo: Vivian Stockman
The Appalachian Mountains lost a hero on Sunday, September
10. Larry Gibson, the face of the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining
in Appalachia, died of a heart attack while working on Kayford Mountain in West
Virginia. His family ancestry on Kayford goes back to the 1700s and, since 1986,
Gibson had fought tirelessly to stop the mountaintop removal mining that has
desecrated the peaks surrounding his home.
Scores of mountaintops—more than 500 of them, according to
environmental law firm Earthjustice—have been removed, literally, through
this aggressive strip mining that starts by denuding peaks and then blasting
away rock to get to the rich veins of coal beneath. After retiring early from
General Motors due to an injury, Gibson had moved back home to Kayford and
discovered that the land all around his ancestral home was essentially
He started Keeper of
the Mountains, an anti-mountaintop removal mining group, and fought this
type of mining doggedly. His outspokenness earned him tremendous media exposure—he regularly gave tours of the mining areas to groups of reporters, and can
be seen in a number of documentary films—but it also earned him numerous
death threats. Gibson fully expected to lose his life during the battle to protect Appalachian peaks.
With the sudden passing of its 66-year-old leader, what will
become of the fight against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia and across Appalachia?
Sitting in the nearly 100-degree water, among several naked
bathers in the Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen, Colorado, I looked around at
the pine trees and boulders and white clouds over the mountains, the green of
the valley below and the tight groups of Aspen trees. It’s not hard to figure
out why so many people are willing to walk 8.5 miles to get here.
location simultaneously relaxes and excites, the booze sipping and joint
passing further fueling the overwhelming feelings of freedom that the springs
incite. The beauty and brightness of the large valley provoke a free spirit in
all its visitors—it’s almost as if nature is calling you to go on, cut loose.
And cut loose they do, both in a good way and a bad way.
Uniting with a hundred people in the middle of nowhere seemed to me even more
special (and rare) than two days of solitude. But popularity can certainly tear something down in a hurry.
Overuse has become a problem in the eyes of the U.S. Forest Service, the
increase in human presence degrading the once pristine valley.
Andrew Larson, lead
wilderness ranger for the Aspen-Sopris District, told the Aspen Times in May that maintaining
the natural conditions at Conundrum is difficult due to the remote location and
newfound fame. “We're supposed to provide for a primitive experience,” he said. “A lot
of people come up here for a party experience.”
As summer wanes and garden harvests start to dwindle, this news lands with a thud: a recent study performed at Stanford University indicated that
eating organic produce doesn’t necessarily mean eating more nutritious produce.
If you figured this would raise the ire of organic food
advocates, you were right. Much of the debate that arose from this research and the
breathless headlines it generated, however, focuses on what the study did not
consider. There is no question that food raised "conventionally"—that is to
say, with the aid of any number of synthetic pesticides—does harm to those
who grow and produce the food, and to the surrounding ecosystem.
The takeaway is that while an organic tomato might not make
you healthier than a conventional one, a conventional tomato may well do more
harm to its producer. So buying organic is one way to vote for better
agricultural working conditions. It’s one way to vote for fewer fertilizers and
chemicals entering the environment. (Suggested reading for more on this is "Eat
Organic: It’s Good for Other People’s Health" over at Earth Island Journal.)
But there’s another element to organically-raised food that
we should consider: it is a conduit for connecting people and landscapes.
Without organic farms, adventure travel would suffer.