Weekend Reading: The End of the Outdoors

In this new weekly roundup, we scour the Web for our favorite long-form magazine and newspaper articles, collecting them here and on Longreads.com and Twitter. This installment focuses on fires, beetles, and the politicians who threaten our forests and parks.

A forest fire.     Photo: H. Dragon/Flickr

Lonesome George is no more

Lonesome George is no more

U.S. Forest Service-Northern Region/Flickr

Lodgepole pines dying from beetle kill

Spraying trees

Trees are sprayed to kill the mountain pine beetle

Exploiting Antartica

The race to exploit Antarctica is on

Colorado is up in flames. Lonesome George is dead. And sea levels are rising so fast on the East Coast that a mere Nor’easter could soon devastate Boston. To put it lightly, things are not looking good for the outdoors.

June has been a rough month, and the news keeps getting worse. Not only is the water rising—it’s getting dirtier, too. And if you thought Colorado's forests were set to recover from the recent fires, think again. Get yourself ready to say goodbye to green mountains. A perfect storm of warm winters, long-lasting drought, and beetle infestation (think drill bits, only smaller and more efficient) are set to transform the West. In the summer of 2012, fires no longer clear the way for rebirth; they climb into the canopy and doom regeneration. Our forests are changing, and there might not be a thing we can do about it.

Meanwhile, the African savannah is set to become dotted with the very greenery the West is losing, if you believe a new study published in Nature, because atmospheric carbon dioxide is fertilizing plant growth. With open savanna set to become forested by 2100, the unique plants and animals that call the continent home are coming under threat (on the upside, seeding forest growth across a swath of Africa might be a good way to sequester carbon).

To add to the ecological mess, politicians are doing their best to do no good. Park closures threaten our enjoyment of the outdoors. In May, California announced that it will be closing 70 of 279 state parks. While valiant local and regional efforts have lowered that count to 54, the message is clear: Nature is on the chopping block. A mere $22 million California state park budget shortfall threatens to close such gems as a Monterey surf break at Moss Landing and climbing routes at Castle Rock. (To put that in perspective, a Denver Olympic bid would cost between $27 and $45 million, albeit covered by private sponsors.)

Beyond the doom and gloom, there is actually some good news: Progress is being made on establishing a large and economically productive national park in northern Maine and a federal appeals court has ruled in favor of allowing the E.P.A. to regulate greenhouse gas emissions because they do, in fact, contribute to global warming.

If the theme of the week is ecological disaster and its intersection with politics, these are the five articles you should be reading this weekend:

How beetles no bigger than a grain of rice are killing lodgepole pines nearly 100-feet tall and what that means for the West. Alan Prendergast, Denver Westword

"Since the 1970s, warmer weather along the Front Range has allowed the beetle not only to operate in forests above 9,000 feet, where it's scarcely been seen before, but it's more than doubled its flight season, from 50 days to up to 120 days. And the effect on the beetle population is potentially exponential; instead of one female generating 60 offspring a year, those offspring could, in theory, generate an additional 3,600 pine-munching hordes in the same season."

It might be dense, but it’s the best guide to what the East faces with rising waters. David Abel, The Boston Globe

"In recent years, state officials have changed codes to require developers building in areas prone to coastal flooding to erect the lowest floor of any new development or substantial renovation at least two feet above where water levels now rise during the most powerful storms. The state also now requires development projects in flood zones to be able to withstand sea-level rise for the life of the buildings."

Is Boston the next New Orleans? Possibly. And even if it isn't, the threats facing New Orleans aren't getting any less scary, as this rediscovered article shows. Joel K. Bourne, Jr., National Geographic

"Sinking is only part of the city's elevation challenge. Over the thousands of years when the delta beneath the city was being formed, sea level was almost stable. But as climate change warms the oceans and melts glaciers, sea level is rising by three millimeters a year. In February a United Nations panel on climate change predicted that seas would be more than a foot (0.3 meters) higher by 2100. And one of the nation's top climate scientists thinks that forecast is far too modest. James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, notes new data from satellites showing accelerated melting of the vast ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica. 'If we go down the business-as-usual path,' he says, 'we will get sea level rise measured in meters this century.'"

It’s not just the forests that are under fire. The Arctic is warming up, and it has a message for us. Gabrielle Walker, The New York Times

"But looks deceive. In the past few decades, scientists have discovered that parts of Antarctica have been warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. Icebergs appear to break away more frequently (though we don’t know for sure, since we haven’t known the continent long enough to make a fair comparison). On the northernmost and hence warmest part of the continent—the Antarctic Peninsula stretching toward the southern tip of South America—there is almost a perceptible sense of change: the drip, drip, drip of a freezer that is beginning to defrost. Entire ice shelves there have shattered. Rather than regard Antarctica as robust and mighty, we have begun to see it as a pristine but fragile wilderness in urgent need of human protection."

The aquifer you've never heard of and how its depletion could mean the end of Great Plains agriculture. Wil S. Hylton, Harper's Magazine

"Ancient, epic, apparently endless, it is the largest subterranean water supply in the country, with an estimated capacity of a million-billion gallons, providing nearly a third of all American groundwater irrigation. If the aquifer were somehow raised to the surface, it would cover a larger area than any freshwater lake on Earth—by a factor of five."

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