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Dispatches : Nature

How Bad is the California Drought?

Winters like this one, here in Northern California, really test the fortitude of any ski-resort marketing professional. As of January 17, snowfall this season has been generally pathetic, and 2013 was the driest year on record on California. Squaw Valley has a 21" base at last check, and a 5-foot season total. Five feet. There's only so many ways to spin sunshine and artificial snow as a lure for getting us to make that 4-hour drive. It's the same story at other resorts, and down south is no better. Mammoth is clocking in with a 25-inch base at its 11,000-foot summit.

One wouldn't want to jump to conclusions about what this arid winter means (since it follows a fairly dry winter last year). Just as a deep freeze in the Midwest last week does not disprove global warming. That said, the recent polar vortex appears linked to the loss of Arctic sea ice. And here in California, "the ensemble of climate models point to an increasing frequency of warm-dry winters," says Jeffrey Mount, a geology professor at the University of California, Davis, and the founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

So, what is the upshot? In the near term: skiing in the Golden State is likely going to suck for the rest of the season. The same may be true next winter, too. That's simply part of living in our Mediterranean climate, characterized by booms and busts in terms of precipitation. More concerning may be how Mount sums up the drought, calling it unprecedented. "The combination of a lack of rainfall and warm temperatures makes this the most epically dry period since the arrival of Europeans. And it has been happening for only three years so far. Other droughts have lasted six years. I can't paint a more bleak picture."

Back in the 1976-1977 winter season, a short-but-intense California drought left Mammoth, which has an average snowfall of 400 inches, with just season total of just 94 inches. That was a different era in the ski industry, the pre-snowmaking era. Today, most sizable resorts have the resources (namely, water and power) to make enough snow to give guests something to slide on.   

Governor Brown has just declared an official drought, which means water use is about to come under tight control. Things like landscaping, that do not have a "beneficial use," are the first to be rationed. Businesses tend to get a pass, until the situation is dire enough to threaten public safety and the need for adequate urban water supply.

That said, resorts that use groundwater for snowmaking, such as Squaw Valley, will not be legally bound to use less water. That's because groundwater in California, except for in a few specific basins, is not regulated. Some policy makers have tried, and failed, to change that. "People realize [groundwater and surface water] are connected to one resource," says Chuck Curtis, supervisor engineer on the quality control board of the Lahontan water region, in which Squaw Valley sits. "But there is not political will [to regulate it]."

From an environmental perspective, snowmaking is far from benign, but more because of the energy it consumes than the water it uses, nearly all of which stays in the hydrological system. With 80 percent of our water resources in California going to agriculture, ski resorts' consumption is barely a blip. Let's not forget our own sponginess, either. When factoring it all uses, consumption has been clocked at an average of 150 gallons per person, per day, in many California municipalities.

Even with snowmaking, whether resorts will continue to meet financial goals during droughts is another question—guests tend to stay away in the lowlands when the weather is warm, even if conditions are fair to midland in the mountains.

Once we are eventually drawn up from these lowlands, it might be for extreme weather in the opposite direction. "We [in California] are going to have amazing years in the future, where it just snows buckets," says Mount. "But you'll have these stinker droughts, too."

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Will a Taser Work on a Cougar?

In short, yes. And, maybe, no. Tasers can be an effective method of non-lethal defense against cougars, ignoring other vital factors. But we’ll get to that. Before you head into the backcountry packing high voltage, you’ll want to know a few things about America’s misunderstood lion. 

Cougars once roamed vast swaths of North and South America before they were hunted nearly to extinction. Then, around the 1960s, conservation efforts and burgeoning populations of key prey, such as deer, rebounded their numbers, to a point. Aside from the occasional far-wandering individual, in North America the elusive Felis concolor—known also as the mountain lion, panther, puma, or catamountranges strictly in British Columbia, Alberta, the twelve western states, and Florida.

Cougars are survivors and opportunistic hunters. They’re also shy, and humans aren’t on the menu. If you’re a regular hiker in cougar country, especially around dawn or dusk, you’ve likely been watched or followed. Chances of escalating beyond that, however, are slim.

But attacks happen, if rarely. A 1991 study by Paul Beier, a wildlife ecology professor at Northern Arizona University, recorded only 53 attacks and ten human deaths since 1890. A handful more have occurred since. In a grisly encounter last September on Vancouver Islandwhere roughly 40 percent of attacks transpireda man killed a cougar with a boar spear after it crushed his wife’s skull. The culprits are generally rabid or starving juveniles. And they’re certainly dangerous. 

So will a Taser stop a cougar? Yes, if you can get close enough and, more importantly, if your aim is true. Tasers fire two probes on 15- to 35-foot lines, and to be effective, both probes must hit. When they do, 5,000 volts jam the nervous system, causing temporary paralysis and a jolt of pain. As a last resort, the drive stun on the gun itself can inflict pain without incapacitating. Cougars, which can reach 200 pounds, are susceptible to both. 

Many cougar experts, though, find the question laughable. Beier points out that these cats are ambush hunters. “The first clue is claws or teeth on your body,” he says.

Zara McDonald, executive director of the Felidae Conservation Fund, a wild cat conservation guild, thinks cougars are likely to be a tough target even if you do see them coming. "Their sensory perception, power, and reflexes blow away those of humans," she explains. In other words, you'll be hard-pressed to get that shot off.

Think of it as a last resort. According to Dan Thompson, the supervisor at Wyoming Fish and Game’s large carnivore section, standard protocol for a cougar encounter is simple: maintain eye contact, raise your arms or backpack over your head to look big, and back away slowly. If the cougar approaches, throw rocks or sticks. Should it attack, always fight back and never run. In nearly all cases, the cat will retreat.

Bottom line: pack a Taser if you’re concerned and know how to use it. Better yet, pay attention to your surroundings to avoid confrontation. “We’re animals, too,” Thompson says. “We need to trust our instincts.”

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Your Everyday Astronaut Suit

While private companies are still working on ways to get customers beyond Earth’s atmosphere, the fashion-side of space tourism is already off the ground. 

BetaBrand recently unveiled its new Space Jacket that will ship in late May—if the project gets funded, which it likely will. As of Friday afternoon, the company had raised 95 percent of the money needed to make the astronaut suit a reality.

According to the website, the Space Jacket is made from a durable, breathable DuPont Tyvek shell and silvered nylon taffeta lining inspired by the foil used on spacecraft. It has an athletic fit with realistic Velcro patches. 

Steven B. Wheeler, who formerly designed men’s technical outerwear for The North Face, initially created the Space Jacket in his free time as a one-off prototype for himself. But his contacts in private space science labs were so excited about it, BetaBrand decided to make the apparel public.    

“I've been in love with space exploration for as long as I can remember, and I loved the challenge of working with new materials in interesting ways,” says Wheeler. “I pulled together some high-tech components and drew upon my experience to design and sew the prototype myself. I chose Tyvek, Primaloft, and 15d nylon taffeta for their lightweight and performance qualities, and because of how strikingly similar they looked to various components used in the space program.”

Maybe a professional astronaut, or an intrepid tourist, will one day take it into space.

$236 (20 percent off), betabrand.com

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Save a Soaked Phone

We’ve all done it—dumped a cup of coffee onto our laptop or dropped a phone into a lake. You may even have tried stuffing the wet device into a box of Uncle Ben’s rice or poured the grains onto your keyboard vainly hoping to save it from annihilation. Hint: it never works.

What does work is the moisture-absorbing Bheestie. A zip-top bag that comes with two pouches of industrial strength, hydrophilic beads, Bheestie is the best solution I’ve found to those emergency dunkings. 

Leave your drenched phone, camera, laptop or any other electronic device in the Bheestie for up to 72 hours, and it will come back to life. You can also use the bag for eight- to 24-hour stints when the gadget just needs some routine maintenance—even a humid day or a sweaty run can corrode electronic circuitry. The beads are encased in a moisture-permeable pouch so they won’t gunk up the item you’re trying to dry. 

How do I know the Bheestie works? In the last year, I’ve dropped my phone into the toilet three times. I lost one phone to the first dunking, but a Bheestie saved the mobile after the second and third plunges.

The Bheestie, which comes in two sizes, has never released moisture back onto my dry stuff. Plus, the indicator beads inside the pouch go from blue to gray telling me when I need a new bag. At less than $30, this is a pretty great insurance policy.

$18—$30, Bheestie.com

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A Handmade Hunting Knife

The Norwegian Helle knives are functional works of art—and the curly birch-handled Tor is no exception.

One of Helle’s hunting knives, the Tor has a smooth wooden 4.3-inch handle with leather inserts for contrast. The handle is deep but narrow, with a generous contoured grip that feels natural when you hold it in your palm.

The knife’s 4.2-inch stainless steel blade is strong and I found it held an edge whether I was whittling, whipping up a backcountry feast, or cleaning the day’s catch. The leather sheath has a bear paw cutout at the mouth, and hangs from an adjustable leather belt loop.

The Tor is the tool you’ll take with you on countless adventures and that you’ll someday give to your child—or grandchild.

$169, helle.no

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