In April, the Navy announced a breakthrough in transforming seawater, the earth's most abundant natural resource, to fuel. Researchers used it to fly a model jet powered with an internal combustion engine like its full-sized counterparts. What are the implications of such a technology in a world scrambling for clean, efficient energy?
According to U.S. Navy research chemist Dr. Heather Wilhauer, the new process takes roughly 23,000 gallons of seawater to produce one gallon of liquid hydrocarbon fuel. You might suspect that solves two problems at once: dependence on fossil fuels and rising sea levels. The trouble with the latter is that the excess water simply goes right back into the ocean. The first question is more complicated.
To create the fuel, Wilhauer's team extracted carbon dioxide and hydrogen bound in the water and recombined those gases in a catalyst reactor to produce the liquid fuel. The process can be applied to different metals to engender methanol, liquid natural gas, gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. "Because it's a synthetic process, you can tailor it to whatever fuel you need," Wilhauer notes.
If that sounds like the jackpot, it could be—in a perfect world. Like water that's pumped uphill using electricity and later released to generate electricity, the CO2 and hydrogen extracted from the sea end up back in the water where they started. "You have to put more energy in to get the fuel than you get out of the fuel when you use it," says Brentan Alexander, founder of the Stanford Energy Club and Senior Mechanical Engineer at Wrightspeed. "So it's still net-energy negative. When you start applying that towards generating fuel on a larger scale in the United States, you're going to run into a really hard wall to make that cost-effective, because natural gas is cheap."
But for the Navy, which moves 1.2 billion gallons of fuel annually, it makes perfect sense. "Our aircraft carriers are nuclear powered, but we still have to get fuel out to there to fly the airplanes," says Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, who works on the Navy's environmental and energy programs. Barges must frequently haul resupply fuel across oceans to aircraft carriers, and other ships protect those barges, all of which require their own fuel. "This would allow us to produce fuel at the point of consumption and basically untether that ship," says Rear Admiral Slates. It also eliminates risk of potential fuel spills during transport. "The delivered cost of fuel to our fleet at sea is obviously more expensive than what we're paying at a pump. Then [seawater fuel] becomes cost-competitive much quicker than for, say, commercial automobiles."
The same may be true for powering remote islands like Hawaii, which have unlimited access to seawater and whose fuels also need to be hauled in from afar. If seawater processing plants existed on Hawaii shores, it, too, could be untethered. The fuel could even power cars in this scenario if the price is right. And because no chemicals are added in the conversion process, there's effectively no waste, only water released back into the ocean at its initial pH. But this, too, is likely a far-away reality.
"It all hinges on whether it can scale up to produce the quantities that we need," says Rear Admiral Slates, which could take ten to 15 years. "It's clearly a game-changing, innovative technology that we're really interested in."
Want to get off the tourist-beaten track? Then look no farther than our northern neighbor, where a string of five national parks—with shifting ice and steep-walled fjords—peer over North America’s 49th parallel.
These Canadian preserves stretch from Newfoundland to high above the magnetic North Pole, offering stunning views and incredible access to the wild. But beware: these are regions where wildlife reigns supreme and humans submit to Mother Nature.
We start with the southernmost of the parks, Gros Morne, and end with Quttinirpaaq, at the tip of the continent to the north. This is what you’ll find if you follow the trail less traveled.
Location: Newfoundland Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 1,200 (south) Best Time to Visit: May through October Getting There: Deer Lake airport is less than an hour's drive. Alternatively, a ferry from Nova Scotia docks at Port aux Basques, about four hours away. Because public transportation near the park is very limited, you'll have to have a vehicle to get around.
Sheldon Stone, of Parks Canada’s Western Newfoundland and Labrador Field Unit, knows 697-square-mile Gros Morne National Park is different. “This is not the landscape that people expect for eastern Canada,” he says. “It’s bigger, wilder, and surprising.” The park was even classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1980s.
Challenge yourself by tackling the Long Range Traverse—an unmarked, multi-day backpacking route that requires excellent navigation skills and mental toughness. (Be prepared to get cold and wet.) But you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of arctic highlands and the park’s huge lakes.
Must see: Stone suggests the Tablelands. “It’s a big, barren mountain that looks like it belongs on Mars, but it’s surrounded by dense, green boreal forest.”
Location: Newfoundland and Labrador Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 560 (south) Best Time to Visit: Mid-July through mid-August Getting There: Arrive via chartered boat or plane from Goose Bay, Nain, or Kangiqsualujjuaq (which is in Nunavik, northern Quebec).
With no direct roads connecting it to a larger hub, Canada’s newest national park (established in 2008) is also one of the hardest to reach. Gary Baikie, Parks Canada’s visitor experience and product development manager, has been traveling here since 1981 and argues that the Torngat experience is worth the considerable effort involved in getting there. “Torngat includes spectacular views of the dramatic fjords and barren mountains that rise thousands of feet out of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Baikie. “Wildlife, such as polar bears, roam freely on the coastline, and visitors experience an arctic ecosystem that meets a southern one.”
Travelers seeking out this remote, above–tree line beauty should enter the Torngat Mountains with flexible plans and an open mind—which means being prepared for mercurial weather. Making the most of the park also means utilizing the local wisdom. “The absolute best way to explore the Torngat Mountains is with the Inuits from the area,” Baikie explains.
The Torngat Mountains Base Camp, which is all-Inuit staffed, provides everything from “Bear Guards” for warding off those predators during hikes to a memorable hospitality crew. Because the park is home to both black and polar bears, Torngat Mountains National Park requires visitors to register before exploring the region, as well as to take part in a mandatory bear-safety briefing. The park staff strongly recommends hiring an armed Inuit Bear Guard (visitors aren't permitted to carry their own firearms).
Location: Baffin Island (Nunavut) Miles from the Arctic Circle: 0 (the Arctic Circle passes through this park) Best Time to Visit: Early spring or late summer Getting There: Even though it’s the most accessible park in the Nunavut territory, traveling to Auyuittuq requires serious planning. Depending on ice conditions, the park can be reached over snow or by boat via Pangnirtung Fjord (from Pangnirtung) or North Pangnirtung Fjord (from Qikiqtarjuaq). When ice is breaking up midsummer, the park is inaccessible.
Polar guide Sarah McNair-Landry lives on Baffin Island. Boasting the largest uninterrupted cliff face in the world (Mount Thor) and world-renowned Mount Asgard, this park is a mountaineer’s dream, she says. Mountains named after Norse gods tower over the valley, and the park offers something for adventurers of every stripe: from hiking up the valley system, to traversing the Penny Ice Cap, to climbing one of the impressive peaks.
This dynamic place isn’t quiet, due in large part to its brutal climate. The blustery weather that can torment area visitors has ripped away shelters (McNair-Landry says the gales whipping through the park’s Windy Lake campsite have snatched away a number of tents over the years), and high glacial melt in midsummer turns brooks into roaring rivers.
You’ll safely enjoy the park’s incredible beauty if you do your homework ahead of time. That means reading up on local resources, including the park’s visitor-information package, and considering exploring the region with a guide.
Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut) Miles from the Arctic Circle: 509 (north) Fair-Weather Friendly: Early spring or late summer Getting There: Iqaluit, the hub airport Nunavut, offers flights to the communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay. From there, local outfitters can assist with boat or snowmobile travel into the park.
The fifth-largest island in the world, Baffin has ample room to support two of Canada’s national parks: Auyuittuq and Sirmilik. In the latter, slow rivers of ice traverse the park’s 8,571 square miles.
Visitors to Sirmilik are brought into close proximity with polar bears, so sighting one is not uncommon. The park also offers explorers the chance to observe narwhals and seabird colonies in season. Addressing the park’s diversity of wild inhabitants, Garry Enns, external relations manager in Parks Canada’s Nunavut field office, has this to say: “Wildlife-viewing in and along the park’s edges will give anyone taking the time for this trip an entirely new understanding of what ‘wild’ really means.”
Because the park is so isolated, each visitor is required to attend an orientation that includes information on polar-bear safety. Here, awareness is key: make sure you review the polar-bear safety brochure the park gives out before entering it.
Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut) Miles from the Arctic Circle: 1,113 (north) Fair-Weather Friendly: Late May to mid-August Getting There: Fly to Resolute Bay from Iqaluit, then charter a flight to the park. If you aren’t looking for an extended stay, traveling aboard an ice-breaking cruise ship will afford you a taste of the park.
Fittingly, the Inuit name for this remote Canadian park means “on top of the world.” Here, expect wildlife—including arctic wolves, hares, and Peary caribou—to approach closely and without fear of humans.
Harsh weather is another reality. “Very few visitors really understand the meaning of ‘weather permitting’ until they’ve been caught in a fog that threatens to stay for weeks—maybe months,” says Enns. “Anyone planning a trip to this area must allow extra time.”
Because any emergency help is far away, you have to take the time to slow down. Bring topo maps and a GPS. Decisions that are usually of little note in other areas (traveling when visibility is low) can turn into a life-or-death situation in a place this remote.
Released today, the Coast Guard’s report on the Bounty’s sinking on October 29, 2012, squarely places the blame on the Bounty’s owners and captain, citing multiple “acts of negligence.” There were “many causes” for the sinking and subsequent deaths of captain Robin Walbridge and crewmember Claudene Christian, writes Captain J.C. Burton, USCG Director of Inspections and Compliance. “The most critical was the failure of the Bounty’s management and master to exercise effective oversight and risk management in the overall operation of the Bounty.”
According to the report, both the ship’s owner, Robert Hansen, and its on-shore manager, Tracie Simonin, lacked the maritime experience needed to make sound decisions about the vessel. “This lack of maritime expertise or background with vessel regulations led the organization to manage and operate the vessel in a way that was markedly different from most professional maritime companies."
These “outlier practices” including a legacy of deferred maintenance and decisions made based on financial considerations “sometimes to the detriment of safety.” This includes decisions about the ship’s stability that may have contributed to its capsizing off the coast of North Carolina.
The report found that Walbridge had “utter and total clarity on the size, scope and forecast of Hurricane Sandy”—that he knowingly sailed his ship into that storm, despite an inexperienced crew, his own firsthand knowledge about faulty pumps, and a report of significant rot in the ship’s frames.
The Coast Guard did not recommend any enforcement action, nor did it recommend further action taken against the Bounty’s officers. It did announce its own investigation into the classification of vessels like the Bounty—floating tourist draws that are only required to meet safety regulations for moored attraction vessels, but often take on volunteers and advertise passage for hire.
With its wholesale condemnation of the Bounty’s operation, the report could also influence the course of civil lawsuits against the Bounty organization, including those filed by Chris Barksdale, the ship’s engineer, and the family of Claudene Christian. While Coast Guard reports are themselves inadmissible in court, maritime lawyers say, expert witnesses regularly rely on them while shaping their own testimony. And this report offers them plenty of ammunition.
On Tuesday, environmentalists and adventurers threw up a collective cheer when a Chilean committee rejected a plan to dam two wild Patagonian rivers. The HidroAysen project, proposed by the Spanish company Endesa and the Chilean company Colbun, would have erected five megadams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, along with a 1,000-plus mile transmission line carrying power to the central part of the country. It would have been the largest energy project in Chile’s history.
This week's decision came as a welcome surprise in the U.S., where anti-hydro sentiment is gaining steam thanks in part to the film DamNation. But it was less of a shocker in Chile. HidroAysen was met with great and occasionally violent local protests, and Chile’s new president, Michelle Bachelet, spoke out against the dams during her campaign. But Endesa and Colbun are heavy hitters, and the energy-intensive copper mining interests that wanted the juice from the Baker and Pascua have enormous political influence.
The fact also remains that Chile is energy poor, relying on domestic hydropower for nearly 40 percent of its energy and imported fossil fuels for most of the rest. So when the country’s ministers of agriculture, energy, mining, economy and health voted unanimously to reject HydroAisen based on problems with the project’s environmental impact assessment, people celebrated in the streets in Santiago. A Twitter hashtag, #chaohidroaysen, took off. Stateside, Patagonia rejoiced. Ditto International Rivers.
“We’re usually pretty reluctant to declare victory as emphatically as we have in this case,” Jason Rainey, executive director of International Rivers, told me.
But how could he not? A country with a long history of building dams rejected five huge ones due to problems an environmental impact assessment commissioned by the very companies behind the project. Goliath was on the mat.
But not for too long. Yesterday I spoke with Juan Pablo Orrego, international coordinator of the Patagonia Defense Council, who has led the fight against the dams for the past six years. “We had this victory yesterday,” he said, “but you have to wonder if it’s a mega chess game between the companies and the government.”
Orrego had just received word that Colbun, which is owned by a hugely influential Chilean family, the Mattes, would appeal the decision, possibly amending their proposal and scrapping plans for an inefficient and destructive dam on the Baker River. He was also concerned that Colbun and Endesa would parry by ditching the hugely controversial transmission line in favor of an underwater transmission line offshore.
“The Achilles tendon of the project is the transmission line that would have crossed 51 percent of the Chilean mainland,” he said. “If they do it underwater, the impacts are way less.” Out of sight, out of mind.
Chile is one of a few countries that has entirely privatized water rights. Private companies, many of them foreign, have owned the country’s water since 1981, when General Augusto Pinochet signed into effect a controversial piece of legislation known simply as the Water Code. Recently, a few senators proposed nationalizing the water rights. I asked Orrego about this. Might this initiative, combined with President Bachelet’s opposition to HidroAysen, signal a new era of river conservation?
“We have a very difficult legal problem,” he said. “We are one of few countries in world where generation, transmission, and distribution of energy is 100 percent private, and water is also totally in hands of companies.”
Undoing that, he said, would require expropriating water rights—which sounds a lot like socialism.
“The situation is complex,” he continued. “The thing is, it’s amazing how awareness about these issues has come up. Even high school kids are now going to tell you that in Chile there is a structural problem—the constitution, water code, the mining code. Now these issues under eyes of everybody. Before, these were submerged issues.”
This is wonky stuff, to be sure, but it’s crucial to understanding the future of Patagonia, the crown jewel of the adventure world. Copper mining is Chile’s dominant industry. It requires huge amounts of energy, and much of it takes place in the Atacama desert. The government hopes to develop solar there, but in the meantime, many have warned of an impending energy crisis. Which means that the pressure to increase power output remains. For his part, Orrego sounded prepared to continue fighting.
“Yesterday was a beautiful day because at least for a moment we stopped five dams,” he said. “But have to see what will happen. And Patagonia Without Dams is alive and very alert.”
Next summer, some 110 million visitors will enter America’s National Parks. Among the most enthusiastic will be the paddlers running whitewater sections of the Merced River through Yosemite. That’s because, for the first time since the invention of modern whitewater kayaks and rafts, the National Park Service is allowing them on parts of the river that offer some of the most scenic and challenging rapids anywhere in the world. The opening up of the Merced is part of a much larger project, five years in the making, that will attempt to alleviate road traffic problems, as well as roll back some of Yosemite’s early, ill-conceived development—the ice rink in the shadow of Half Dome will be moved—while allowing more access for some of the sports that have come to define modern adventure.
The Merced River Plan, as it’s called, is a small but significant example of a transformation under way in our national parks. Last October, in a speech before the National Press Club, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an “ambitious initiative … to inspire millions of young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors.” Among her goals is getting ten million urban kids into the parks by 2017, a response to the country’s evolving demographics and the aging of park users. At Yosemite, the average age of visitors is 38, with the largest group between 46 and 50.
Jewell’s vision of inclusivity should be enthusiastically supported by anyone who cares about the future of our park system. I say this despite the fact that it falls well short of what we need. Because, while she has the right idea in reaching out to new communities, like her predecessors, she’s ignoring the people who are most desperate to be allowed in: the paddlers, mountain bikers, and other adventure-sports athletes who are banned from many of the nation’s best natural playgrounds. It’s an outdated stance that overlooks the role these activities now play in our relationship with wild places, and it seriously undercuts public support for an expansive and growing park system.
Since the Park Service was founded in 1916, managers have struggled to decide which activities to allow. The congressional mandate is to leave the land “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” “Not dented, not scratched, but unimpaired,” says Mike Finley, a former superintendent at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and several other national parks, who now heads up the Turner Foundation, media mogul Ted Turner’s family land-conservation outfit.
Of course, “unimpaired” and “enjoyment” have always been fuzzy concepts, open to interpretation by whoever happened to be making the rules at the time. From the outset, commercial cattle grazing was grandfathered in at a number of parks. Then, in 1957, Congress approved Mission 66, an unprecedented ten-year, $700 million series of construction projects intended to improve infrastructure by building thousands of miles of roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, gift shops, and maintenance bays. The parks as we now know them are a reflection of this single act. In his 2007 book, Mission 66, Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes that the act “came to symbolize … a willingness to sacrifice the integrity of park ecosystems for the sake of enhancing the merely superficial scenery by crowds of people in automobiles.”
As Carr notes, Mission 66 certainly opened the parks to more people, but it was widely viewed as a disgrace for the Park Service. Oddly, the backlash hasn’t so much been against cars or hotels or sprawling RV campgrounds but against recreation, which many preservationists came to see “as the primary agent of … destruction.” Officially, superintendents, who have wide latitude in determining what’s allowed in each park, weigh the impact of activities like kayaking against that “unimpaired” mandate. Unofficially, though, as Finley explains, the debate is both simpler and more philosophical: “You can’t roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel, nor should you.” Which is to say that adventure sports are banned in parks for cultural reasons.
What all this has left us with is phenomenal natural areas that are for the most part managed like drive-through museums. Meanwhile, a growing number of outdoor athletes, who should be among the most committed park stewards, have been ostracized. The nonprofit Outdoor Alliance, a Washington, D.C., umbrella group for human-powered-advocacy organizations like American Whitewater, climbing’s Access Fund, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), has 100,000 members and skews toward a Gen Y demographic. By comparison, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the historical champion of the national parks, has 500,000 members with a median age in the sixties.
“There’s a real relevancy problem with the parks,” says Adam Cramer, Outdoor Alliance’s executive director. “They’re shutting off vectors like bikes and kayaks for people to have the kinds of meaningful experiences that are the genesis for a conservation ethic.”
Indeed, many young people fall in love with wild places by playing in them. And yet, in a number of instances, park authorities have taken moves to curtail sports. Last December, Death Valley National Park canceled the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, citing safety concerns for runners in the heat. And despite intervention from Colorado senator Mark Udall and governor John Hickenlooper, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was denied a permit to use roads that pass through Colorado National Monument.
“It’s a case where the paperwork hasn’t kept up with the sports,” says John Leonard, a ranger in Denali National Park, which requires guides and clients to be roped together much of the time on Mount McKinley, effectively banning guided skiing. “Out of one side of our mouth we’re saying we want millennials to come to the parks, and out of the other we have all these bureaucracies in place that make everything difficult.”
The result is that many wilderness-loving athletes find themselves opposing new public-land designations because the added protections would get them barred from areas they currently use. This dynamic was revealed starkly in 2011 when bikers and climbers sided with motorized off-roaders in opposing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado, which would have locked out all three groups. (In the end, the IMBA and others successfully advocated for backcountry land that was bike-friendly but not open to development.)
In another instance of odd bedfellows, last February Cynthia Lummis, a Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, introduced the River Paddling Protection Act, which would give the Park Service three years to figure out how to allow boats on Yellowstone’s waterways. In February, it passed the House of Representatives. It’s hard to say whether the bill was a politician representing her constituents or a shrewd way for a conservative to divide environmentalists, but it effectively set paddlers against the NPCA, which opposes boating on the park’s rivers.
Within the parks, much of the progress has been due to the efforts of advocacy groups. In Yosemite, long an outlier in welcoming athletes—hang gliding has been permitted since the late seventies—the Merced River Plan was championed by D.C.–based American Whitewater. In 2011, the IMBA helped convince managers at Texas’s Big Bend National Park to perform an environmental assessment and allow a comment period for the new Lone Mountain Trail.
If anyone understands the need to evolve the Park Service’s attitude toward recreation, it’s Jewell, who spent 17 years at REI before she was appointed by President Obama. So far, though, she has ignored the topic. If Jewell truly wants to build a park system that will endure, her next move should be to issue a directive for superintendents to study where and when outdoor sports might be appropriate. Nobody is demanding that bikes be allowed on every trail, that kayakers be given license to bomb every creek, or that climbers be granted blanket permission to start bolting routes. But there is room for more sports alongside the quiet reverence.
Imagine the possibilities. You could park near an entrance point, grab your bike, boat, climbing gear, or even wingsuit, and, you know, roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel. When I asked IMBA executive director Mike Van Abel what his dream trail would be, he was ready with an answer: circumnavigating Grand Teton National Park and connecting to Teton Village. Then he offered something more provocative: “There’s some real interest in winter fat biking on the roads in Yellowstone. Wouldn’t that be cool?”