Matthew Dickerson: Our climate through the lens of one outdoor sportsman
These nearly microscopic bottom-of-the-food chain insects munch on algae and thus provide an important connection from the sun’s energy to numerous other species farther up the chain. Without the glacier-dependent stoneflies, the whole ecosystem becomes less resilient.
I’d seen signs of it for years. One Christmas morning early this millennium when our kids were young, we arrived at the family cabin in Maine for our annual gathering with relatives to find that the lake had not yet frozen over. That being the first time in my life with open water so late in the year, we decided to make it memorable by diving into that open water. And not being real polar bears, we then got out as quickly as we could, ran into the cottage, and warmed up by the fire with hot cocoa. The next morning, a thin layer of ice coated the surface of the lake.
New England weather has always been fickle of course. We’ve always had weather events. Every year is different. Nobody knows exactly when the sap will start running. Indeed, every day can be different. In Vermont, it seems that every hour can bring a change. So it wasn’t just one year when we swam on Christmas Day, or one tropical storm named Irene, that connected what I was observing with what the scientists were calling “climate change.” It was the patterns and the trends.
Just a couple years after that Christmas day “swim,” my wife and I took the canoe out on New Year’s Day and paddled around the north end of the same lake, just to say that we did. Would I have identified those two years alone as proof of climate change? Probably not. Except that our neighbor on the lake had been tracking the date of first and last ice on the lake for decades. Over the past 50 years, the average number of days the lake was covered with ice had shrunk by nearly four weeks. We’d already witnessed and recorded that by the time I became a father in the early 1990s and really began to hear about climate change in earnest. Though the work of scientists put a name to it, and gave explanations and compelling evidence, in a sense I was already a believer.
The scientific evidence would grow over the years. As would the projected consequences of that climate change. But among my friends who are passionate about spending time outdoors, especially in traditional sports like fishing and hunting that require one to pay attention to the rhythms and responses of native plants and wild animals, we didn’t really need the proof of the scientists. This is especially true in northern and alpine environments — the very sorts of places I most love to fish, hike and camp — where climate change has been happening at twice the rate, or twice the impact.
“It’s all f**ked up. Everything is f**ked up.” I can still hear the voice of our backcountry pilot. The year was 2015. It was the first and only time in my life I have been within the Arctic circle. I had gone to a little river flowing westward out of the Brooks Range into the Chukchi Sea in order to write about the impact of a heavy metal mine, and the threat of another much larger mine in the fertile salmon-rich waters of Bristol Bay. It was an important story, I thought. Except it turned out after we got there that an even bigger story was the ravaging of northern Alaska by climate change. Everything from the annual migrations of caribou herds, to spawning seasons of salmon, to which rivers salmon could spawn up, to the condition of the permafrost was growing increasingly out of whack. The native peoples, along with hunters and anglers, had been observing it slowly getting worse for years. So at the end of our trip when the pilot picked us up on the river and learned from us that the expected run of ocean-going char had never come into the river, he gave his memorable response.
Then came 2016 when I was selected as artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. I spent the whole month of June there and never saw a glacier. The eponymous glaciers, it turns out, are disappearing at an alarming rate. They are expected to be completely gone within a decade. Then the name of the park will be a memorial. And while it is easy to think that glaciers are not especially hospitable to life, it turns out that many small and large ecosystems in the Rockies are dependent on them. For example two unique species of stoneflies can reach counts of over a thousand per square meter, but they only dwell in abundance within a kilometer or so downstream of a glacier. These nearly microscopic bottom-of-the-food chain insects munch on algae and thus provide an important connection from the sun’s energy to numerous other species farther up the chain. Without the glacier-dependent stoneflies, the whole ecosystem becomes less resilient. Then there are all the cold-water fish species like native trout and char over thousands of miles of river that depend on the steady supply of cold water from melting glaciers.
Shortly after I left Glacier National Park that summer, the fires started. One of my favorite ridges just above the artist cabin where I had spent time by three little alpine streams was decimated by one of those fires. I could go on. For me personally, though, 2019 was really the year of fires. It was not primarily the famous and economically destructive fires that raged throughout much of the Pacific and Rocky Mountain West (though those, of course, were terrible). It was the fires that were largely unreported in national news that I experienced while camping and fishing in Alaska. Every single place I visited in Alaska that summer was impacted by fire: the Kenai Peninsula, the Bristol Bay watershed, and the Denali area. And rivers where we should have seen salmon spawning were devoid of fish. The water was too low and too warm. Salmon are the lifeblood of both the terrestrial ecosystems of Alaska and of the north Pacific. When they disappear, entire ecosystems collapse.
Of course there are also the polar bears. Not the ones that jump into a Maine lake on Christmas Day and then run in to sit by the fire. The real ones. The ones that need polar ice to survive.
It isn’t surprising therefore that climate change was one of the two main topics at the (virtual) national gathering last month of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. We’ve all observed it through our lenses. We’ve all been impacted. All my fellow outdoor writers could have told their own myriad stories. In fact, many of us did. But stories are not enough. And while personal responses are important — we all need to make individual efforts to dramatically reduce consumption, change our patterns, and break free from fossil fuels — one of the sobering, but also challenging, realities is that the time for merely personal responses is long past. As is the case with the current pandemic, we need global, political, large-scale actions. We need to insist on them. I’m tempted to say that I don’t want to be an outdoor writer with nothing left to write about. But the stakes are far higher than that.
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