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Skiing and Snowboarding : Nature

Pika: The Alpine Poster Child for Climate Change

Pika_flickr_wildxplorerA pika in its talus home. Photo: Karunakar Rayker

By Mary Ellen Hannibal

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 talus.

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.

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Yosemite Notifies 230,000 About Hantavirus

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.

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The Appalachian Mountains Have Lost a Hero

LarryGibsonLarry 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 destroyed.

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?

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Conundrum at Conundrum Hot Springs: Are We Loving Them to Death?

Condundrum_mcgoughConundrum Hot Springs party people, mid-August. Photo: Will McGough

By Will McGough, Wake and Wander

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.

The secluded 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.”

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Organic Agritourism: Good for Your Health?

Farm_shot_egan_snowPhoto: Egan Snow/Flickr

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.

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