Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Sunday, August 19, 2018

What climate change means for Utah

Last Wednesday three of my colleagues from BYU and I met with Congressman John Curtis to talk about what climate change means for Utah. The meeting was organized by the Citizen's Climate Lobby and RepubliEn.

 We met on the west side of Cascade with on the smoky morning. Photo courtesy of BYU Photo.

Representative Curtis was attentive and well informed. He brought up the point that we sometimes get too concerned about whether someone accepts that climate change is occurring and whether it is human caused. Climate change is enough of a polarizing issue that I tend to agree. I count anyone as an ally who is willing to work towards cleaning up our energy supply and using our resources responsibly. If someone is denying climate change and using that as a reason to keep consuming dirty fuels, then establishing the science becomes more important. In my experience, fighting about beliefs isn't terribly productive. If someone sincerely wants to investigate the scientific basis of climate change, John Cook has already done much of the legwork for her/him: https://www.skepticalscience.com/.

Neil, Sam, Zach, and I prepared a brief info sheet for Congressman Curtis, which I thought I'd share here.

How has Utah’s climate changed and what does the future hold?
  • It has warmed 2°F over the last century. An additional increase of 3.8°F is expected by 2050 (1). Summer and fall warming will be greatest.
  • Transition from snow to rain. Spring snowpack has decreased in Utah by ~30% on average, and more than 75% in some areas (Fig. 1). Precipitation is expected to decrease in central and southern Utah.
  • Wildfire in the Intermountain West nearly doubled from 1979-2015. More than half that change was due to manmade climate change (2).

What does climate change mean for Utah’s water?
  • Even without climate change, Utah is facing a water crisis (Fig. 2).
  • Utah has always been vulnerable to climate VARIATION, especially recurring drought. Climate change and population growth increase vulnerability to drought.
  • Decreased groundwater recharge (aquifer depletion), less reliable runoff (empty or overflowing reservoirs), and expensive water infrastructure because of increased evapotranspiration and changes to the amount and timing of precipitation

What does climate change mean for Utah’s ecosystems?
  • Fire will continue to increase in severity, extent, and frequency because of warming, lightning, invasive species, and dryer fuels.
  • Invasive species such as the pine beetle and cheatgrass are damaging ecosystems and costing millions of dollars a year3.
  • Loss of snowpack, more extreme weather, and increases in evapotranspiration are pushing many Utah ecosystems to the edge.

What does climate change mean for Utah’s people?
  • The annual human death toll from air pollution is 15 million worldwide (4), 200,000 in the U.S., and 2,000-5,000 in Utah (5). That is more than 10 times the number of Utahns who die in car accidents every year. Pollution from fossil fuels is responsible for 85% of this loss of life and 15% is from smoke, dust, and other sources, which will be worsened by climate change.
  • Quality of life depends on climate and healthy ecosystems
  • Longer hotter summers, less snow, worse summer air quality, degraded lands

What can we do about it?
  • Reduce production and consumption of fossil fuels. Most of the consequences of climate change can still be mitigated if human emissions are actively reduced.
  • Conserve water use (agriculture, industry, and domestic)
  • Protect integrity of natural systems: intact ecosystems are more resilient
  • The clean energy, technological innovation, and strong communities needed to respond to climate change are opportunities for Utah.

1. Naz, B. S. et al. Regional hydrologic response to climate change in the conterminous United States using high-resolution hydroclimate simulations. Glob. Planet. Change 143, 100–117 (2016).
2. Abatzoglou, J. T. & Williams, A. P. Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 113, 11770–11775 (2016).
3. Kurz, W. A. et al. Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature 452, 987–990 (2008).
4. Landrigan, P. J. et al. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. The Lancet 0, (2017).
5. Caiazzo, F., Ashok, A., Waitz, I. A., Yim, S. H. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmos. Environ. 79, 198–208 (2013).

 Neil Hansen talks about how water quantity and quality may change. BYU Photo.
 Zach Aanderud gets serious enough to take off his glasses.
I discuss the human health effects of air pollution and climate change from fossil fuels.
Sam St. Clair brings it home with an explanation of wildfire, invasive species, and forests.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How to Become a Pirate Hunter

Tanner Lex Jones' concept album How to Become a Pirate Hunter is adventurous, fun, and surprisingly emotional. The songs tell the coming-of-age stories of Samuel, Charlotte, and Eric, characters from Marty Reeder's young adult novel of the same name. Using a hodgepodge of genres including sea shanty, alternative and classic rock, indiepop, nursery rhyme, and country western, Jones creates an engaging and, at times, epic musical experience.

How to Become a Pirate Hunter could have easily been a fan-fiction gimmick, only of interest to devotees, but Jones drew me in from the first tin-whistle melody of the first track, Samuel. Solid songwriting, production values, and polished but heartfelt performance come together in an uplifting and moving album.

As usual, Jones weaves candid and piercing lyrics with full but not over-orchestrated accompaniment. He 
shows more vocal and emotional range than in previous albums, particularly in the seven-plus minute long This Boy. Like in Reeder's novel, Jones snaps between mundane scenes in a suburban high-school to 18th century sea battles. While the songs stay true to the novel, Jones' storytelling transcends the details of the plot, addressing questions of how to find one's place, wrestling with external and internal expectations, and balancing fear with safety.

Jones multi-genre musical past is apparent in the album. Influences range from Flogging Molly, Coldplay, They Might Be Giants, Decembrists, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Mason Jennings. Despite the sometimes abrupt transitions between styles, the album has a strong arc and cohesive presence. The musical diversity combined with honest storytelling kept me engaged from the first to the fifteenth listen. Jones has delivered a thoughtful and deep album that my kids like as much as I do. Five stars.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Keep Utah Lake Wet

I grew up in Orem, one of the cities wedged between the Wasatch Mountains and Utah Lake. The lake is an unlikely shallow pool in the high pan of the Great Basin. It is the largest fresh remnant of the Lahontan and Bonneville inland seas, which swelled or shrunk in these valleys depending on climate for the last million years.

The mountains were what impressed me as a teenager. Timpanogos and Cascade were too steep and wild to build on. Their avalanches and debris flows kept them clean from subdivisions and other sins. I spent a lot of time on my bike in the mountains, and from there you can’t help but notice Utah Lake.

As the sun goes down, the lake illuminates the valley, casting light into the undersides of clouds and up somber canyons. In the wintertime and early spring, the lake’s living surface breaths snow into the mountains.

Even so, I didn’t set foot in Utah Lake until I was in high school (setting foot is the right term for a lake this shallow). I remember wading a half mile out into the warm desert water one summer night. I slipped into the lakebed, just leaving my face above the water. The night herons were out skimming the water, and one flew directly over me—inches from my face—as big and loud as an airliner from where I lay floating.

Now that I’m a grownup, I study Utah Lake and its tributaries. I am an ecosystem ecologist (redundant right?) and my work focuses on the water, energy, and nutrients that flow through our soils, streams, and lake.

Lots of people think that Utah Lake is trashed. It has been described as an ecological disaster, a poison lake, and more colorfully as a cesspool by some in our state legislature. The lake is suffering symptoms of eutrophication—a condition that develops when you over-fertilize an aquatic ecosystem. Eutrophication affects about three out of four of the Earth’s inland waters, but compared to most cases, Utah Lake has a minor and curable infection. Thanks to the lake’s shallow and wide bathymetry, it is resilient to the worst effects of eutrophication (anoxic dead zones that kill all animal life), and the lake is free of more toxic compounds like heavy metals, PCBs, and pesticides. With some upgrades to our wastewater treatment plants, better water conservation, and a continuation of the invasive-species removal efforts, Utah Lake could return to full ecological function.

Some people would like Utah Lake to be something different. Its natural shape or color are not good enough, and they’d like to perform cosmetic surgery to help the lake live up to their ideal. The proposal is to rip up the lakebed and drag the sediment into artificial islands—more space for pavement and buildings—and then somehow change the lake’s beautiful brown water to an unnatural blue. The engineers and investors say that these alterations will restore the lake, but their proposal doesn’t contain any feasible mechanisms for improving the hydrology or ecology of the lake.

On a more fundamental level, Utah Lake is one of the only wet spots in a vast sea of dry land. Before we fill it in, let’s take a long look from the mountains and from the lake shore at what we could lose forever. As for me, I believe we should keep Utah Lake shallow, clean, muddy, warm, beautiful, and at the very least . . . wet.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Public opinion of environmental issues

I've been meaning to finish a post on global environmental crises and the most promising solutions since last February. To take advantage of my boundless fecklessness, I've put together a brief survey to get your opinions before I blabber on about mine. Please be candid and honest in your responses. This isn't a test or judgement. I just want to know what you think, what you value, and how you see the world. I'll summarize the results in a post next month.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Seeing peace

Though I am grateful for so many things in my life, one virtuous emotion I have felt little of lately is peacefulness. Even when things are quiet, I hear an internal hum of restless activity. This chronic sensation of speed, pressure, and productivity is heavy and sticky.

I say yes easily and probably move too much. Sometimes I feel my life depends on making a deadline or taking on another project. This is fantasy and bad fantasy at that. Life would go on if I slept through the day. Life would go on if my computer wouldn't boot.

Though I carry this world of worry and reminders wherever I go, I am surrounded by peacefulness. The dust on the moulding and the bare wires that silently feed the bulb on the wall do not move or hurry. The creak of the hinge on Caspian's door and the guy lines on the dead spider's web out the window do not know how many tasks are stacked for tomorrow. The problem is not a lack of peacefulness, it's my inattention to seeing peace.

A February a few years ago in Fairbanks on my bike, I saw a woman standing beside her car on the shoulder of Chena Ridge. It was 9 am and the sun had just begun to glow in the southeast. She had stopped her rush and was standing in the dry cold Boreal morning, taking pictures of sunrise. When I got to my office, I told my friend Allison about the pictures, and asked if she thought having a camera all the time in our pockets makes us notice more of less of the beauty around us. She said it helped her notice more and that she now looked for truth in her dog, child, or ski boot that she hadn't thought to before.

Clearly, our devices can take us away from peace, but they can sometimes help us see it. I do see peace in some of the pictures and videos I've taken. Sometimes it's peace I intentionally tried to net with my megapixels. Other times, it's peace that crept in without consent. Here are a few (feel free to add your own).

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Gods and in the image of God

The paradox, in a nutshell, is this: humans are grown so powerful that they have become a force of nature - and forces of nature are those things which, by definition, are beyond the power of humans to control.
-Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade

Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
-Genesis 1:26-27

Don't worry, this post isn't a plea to care about the planet. I figure you are burned out on being told the world is going to pot and it's your fault. This post is about our godlike power as a species and our collective impotence. 

I know you don't have any particular reason to trust me. I’m a Mormon ecologist so whether you are skeptical of environmentalists and government-funded science, or if you break out in hives at the mention of organized religion, I’m bound to push at least some of your buttons. But if you can turn off what you are supposed to believe for a few minutes, I promise not to tell you what to do with the environment or your soul

The following are facts. Not model predictions or bent statistics from a press release. These are observed changes wrought by the communal and cumulative power of human activity.
  1. Humans have plowed, paved, burned, or built 75% of the earth’s ice-free land.1 
  2. The combined weight of humanity (anthropomass) is tenfold greater than all land vertebrates, and our livestock weigh more than twice what we do. This means that we and our domestic animals account for 98% of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians on earth.2,3
  3. Human agriculture, resource extraction, and construction move approximately 20 times more dirt, rock, and soil as all natural processes combined, including rivers, glaciers, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.4
  4. The combined effects of habitat loss, invasive species, and direct human consumption has increased the extinction rate 1,000 times over background. We drive 2,000 to 10,000 species to extinction every year.5–7
  5. Air and water pollution cause approximately 12.6 million deaths a year (34,500 people every day), primarily due to premature heart failure, respiratory disease, and neurological disorders.8,9 For context, 1.3 million people die annually from car crashes, 55,000 from war, 40,000 from natural disasters, and 9,000 from terrorism.10–13
A few springs ago in May, my friend Sarah talked to me about God while we were dragging permafrost cores back to camp on the North Slope of Alaska. She tactfully told me that it seemed incredibly self-centered and irrational to believe in an anthropomorphic god. In her opinion, this kind of belief was evidence that man had created god in his image, not the other way around. She also worried that an anthropomorphic god encouraged exploitative relationships with the earth and other creations, since it gives humans special status. It does seem implausibly convenient that the creator of the universe just happens to look like us.

Before and since that interaction with Sarah, I've been asked versions of this question by believers and nonbelievers. While I see how belief in an anthropomorphized god could predispose us to some forms of environmental negligence, I’ve come to hold that this exceptionalist theology also carries fundamental truth about our relationship with the earth, whether or not you believe in God.

When God described the creation to Moses some 3,500 years ago, the prophecy that man would dominate the earth must have seemed laughable. Even Moses didn’t buy it initially, responding, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” There were eight million species on earth at that time, and Homo sapiens was not on anyone's short list to become the top dog (so to speak). A slow-reproducing primate with no particular gifts in strength or speed, we didn't have any claws or teeth to speak of, and we'd given up the safety of the trees. There were no ecological or evolutionary reasons to believe that we were exceptional or more like God than any of the other creatures.

Nevertheless, God was right. It turns out we are exceptional. Our species now has dominion over the air, the earth, the sea, and all that moves within them. Believing that we are the image of God prepares us to accept that we are not just another species. What we do with that knowledge depends on whether we have understood what Voltaire, Spiderman, and Churchill have been trying to teach us: with great power comes great responsibility. If we don’t take our stewardship seriously, we could fall into the trap of believing that because we are exceptional, the rules don’t apply to us. As Dr. Gould said, “Look in the mirror, and don't be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.”14

Our situation is particularly precarious because our dominion of the earth is godlike in its magnitude but decidedly human in its unwieldiness. Our grip is strong but our control is blunt. Many people are in denial of one or both of these conditions, potentially leading to what I call selective belief in imaginary solutions. A few examples of this phenomenon:
1.     Humans are too insignificant to change the climate, but if we ever did, we'd be able to fix it.
2.     Communal action to prevent environmental catastrophe or conserve resources is politically impossible, but when things apart we’ll produce a technical solution on demand.
3.     If we hobble the economy to protect the environment we might stifle innovation that would have allowed unlimited growth and sustainability.

Last October, an acquaintance I’ll call Mr. Smith gave a particularly compelling example of believing in man’s exceptionalism but ignoring his limitations in an epic Facebook thread on whether we should regulate development to preserve habitat. He wrote:
For example. Cost of DNA sequencing is dropping exponentially. Costs per megabyte of data storage are also dropping exponentially. At some point (likely in the next 20 years) it will be economical to decode al the DNA of all the living organisms on the planet. Generic cloning of organisms will also likely be economical in the next 20 years or so. At which point we are one step from restituting any extinction events. This is a robust sustainable long term policy. It should have higher priority than many of the short term fragile policies currently espoused.

I’ve met many people with such beliefs, some from sloppy reasoning, some from willful denial, but most from missing the two lessons God taught Moses on Mount Sinai: you’re different and you’re in charge. The trick is remembering that we need to take care of the environment not only because we’ll get in trouble with God if we don’t (though we will), but also because our survival is completely dependent on maintaining the life-sustaining functions of the earth.

I know I promised not to tell you what to do with your soul or the environment, but a quick note about the goings on in DC. I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of terrorists, but anyone claiming to protect the safety and health of the American people while undermining the EPA and laws that protect our water and air is a barefaced charlatan. Since the year 2000, pollution has killed more than 1,400 times more Americans than terrorism—200,000 a year from air pollution alone.15 I don't care who the special interest is or whether you believe in climate change, our lives should not be for sale.

I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine. But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low. For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
-Doctrine and Covenants 104:13, April 1834, Kirtland Ohio

1.         Ellis and others. Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 586–606 (2010).
2.         Smil, V. Harvesting the biosphere: The human impact. Popul. Dev. Rev. 37, 613–636 (2011).
3.         Pelletier, N. & Tyedmers, P. Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock production 2000–2050. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 107, 18371–18374 (2010).
4.         Wilkinson, B. H. Humans as geologic agents: A deep-time perspective. Geology 33, 161–164 (2005).
5.         Sala, O. E. et al. Global Biodiversity Scenarios for the Year 2100. Science 287, 1770–1774 (2000).
6.         Mora, C., Tittensor, D. P., Adl, S., Simpson, A. G. B. & Worm, B. How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLOS Biol. 9, e1001127 (2011).
7.         Vitousek, P. M., Mooney, H. A., Lubchenco, J. & Melillo, J. M. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 277, 494–499 (1997).
9.         Brauer, M. The Global Burden of Disease from Air Pollution. in (AAAS, 2016).
10.       Golstein, J. Think Again: War. Foreign Policy (2011).
11.       Country Reports on Terrorism 2015. U.S. Department of State (2015).
12.       The plague of global terrorism. The Economist (2015)
14.       Gould, S. J. Life’s Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin. (Random House, 2011).
15.       Caiazzo, F., Ashok, A., Waitz, I. A., Yim, S. H. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmos. Environ. 79, 198–208 (2013).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What happened to the Never-trump Mormons?

A couple weeks before the election, I passed through Utah for a job interview. My mom and I visited my grandma in American Fork. We talked about her new nursing home, my cousins, and inevitably Mr. Trump. I asked her what would happen if he became president. She had been completely composed and calm up to that point, but on hearing my question, her aged frame erupted in a whole-body shudder.

"I can't even imagine," she said slowly but decisively. "I am voting for McMullin."

I grew up in Utah and during previous elections, it looked like Christmas in October, there were so many Republican signs and billboards. This year, walking around my childhood neighborhood in Orem, the only indication that it was an election year was a "Dump Trump" sign on the Thorne's lawn.

The most famous Mormon besides Jesus, Mitt Romney, had spoken out against Trump, and even Glenn Beck, the conservative talk-show-host-turned-Mormon said that no true Christian could vote for the man. Needless to say, on the flight back to France, I was excited and confident that Utah would reject an unacceptable candidate and go independent.

The day after the election, my Facebook and Twitter feeds came alive with posts citing exit poll numbers such as Pew's analysis on how the faithful voted:

"So much for all my NeverTrump Mormon friends. A higher percentage of Mormons voted for Trump than literally any other religious group."

"Mormons hypocrites crawled back in bed with the Republican party."

"I'm trying to forgive Utah right now. Even though, I know I have no right to be mad at them voting how they did. Your vote belongs to you alone. But I still feel disappointed."

I was disturbed that Trump won nationally and personally disappointed that he won Utah, but when I looked at the numbers, something else stood out to me. Mormons and Jews were the only two groups that moved away from Republicans relative to prior elections. They were the only two groups that responded to the Trump factor.

In the table above, the "Dem' change" column shows a 4 point uptick in the number of Mormons voting Democrat (25% in this election), which along with the 2% increase among Jews is the only shift to the left. That is dwarfed, however, by the "Rep' change" (not shown in the table), which is a 17% decrease. About 80% of Mormons voted for Bush and Romney (the only other elections reported) versus 61% for Trump. All religious groups except Jews and Mormons moved towards Trump, including Hispanic Catholics (go figure). Even the religiously unaffiliated voted the same as they did in 2012. The only two groups that statistically disapproved of the gratuitously offensive and flippantly dangerous antics of Trump were Mormons and Jews.

Trump still won Utah and still won the presidency (unless this is an extended dream) but a 17% shift in a demographic is a sea change. I wish we had done more, but hopefully this represents a movement away from party loyalty and towards thoughtful politics in Mormon circles.

There are more detailed splits in the the Fox News polls, which are totally worth a read. Spoiler alert, Hillary won 66% to 26% on "Has good judgement" and 90% to 8% on "Has the right experience", but Trump blew her away on "Can bring needed change" 83% to 14%. Also 70% of Americans support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

As an aside, today Trump announced that he may pick Romney for his secretary of state. First of all, I think it is a surprising sign of maturity that Trump would invite someone who had been so openly critical of him to his cabinet. Second, call Mittens a hypocrite or flipflopper if you want to, but I hope he accepts. Since only 26% of us think Trump has good judgement, I hope somebody sane can bring some stability to the Trump train.

I haven't spoken with my grandma since the election, but when I do, I'll thank her for being a part of the 17%.