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Science for Parks conference report

Categories: History, Science
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I. Insights from the Opening Ceremony

From the evening of March 25th through the 27th, I listened to and attended lectures and brief sessions at “Science for Parks, Parks for Science: the Next Century.” This event was organized on the University of California–Berkeley campus by faculty of their conservation biology and related departments, along with directors of California parks organizations, the National Park Service, the National Geographic Society, and public television station KQED.

March of 2015 marks the centennial of two major San Francisco area events. One was the Panama-Pacific International Exposition—largely sponsored by the railroads—whose Palace of Fine Arts stands in the Marina district of San Francisco to this day. You can read more about the Pan-Pacific Exposition in Alfred Runte’s excellent article, which I linked to in my March 26 blog post.

The other March 1915 event was a national park conference, convening about 75 men at Berkeley by Stephen T. Mather, then assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Mather was soon to become the first director of the National Park Service (in 1916). An emphasis of the conference was two “best ideas” the organizers feel are related: public education and public lands.

As a long-time aficionado of national parks, I couldn’t miss this event. The organizers will produce a book about the entire conference, but I’m sure this will take at least a year. In a few pages there is no way I can sum up all that was discussed and revealed during those intense two days and more of meetings. So I’ve decided to concentrate on a few individual speakers who impressed me greatly. In the next week or two I’ll try to give the essence of what I learned from them.

I had never before connected the National Geographic Society to the national parks. But in his remarks at the opening ceremony, Chris Johns, chief content officer for National Geographic Magazine, told us that not only was the April 1916 issue of his magazine devoted to the then-existing national parks, but that the society donated eighty thousand dollars so that the National Park Service could be set up. Thus, a new division of the Department of the Interior was born.

In the very next year (1917) three scientists investigated California’s redwoods and noted their devastation. This was the beginning of the Save the Redwoods League, which now helps to protect thirteen units of big trees in our third largest state.

National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis appeared briefly and mentioned that Gary Machlis, Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University in South Carolina, has recently been appointed to the position of first-ever science adviser to a National Park Service Director. I’ll tell you more about Machlis in a future blog post.

It seems appropriate to close this first post about the conference by listing seven serious concerns facing the national parks—and the world. They were pointed out by steering committee chairman Steve Beissinger as having occurred in the last hundred years. They are: changing climate, storms and fires of greater severity, urban encroachment and pollution, invasions of non-native species, plant and animal extinctions, changing attitudes of a public that is more urbanized, and political pressures of narrow interest groups that have sometimes led to benign neglect of parks.

You can watch the videos of the opening ceremony and all other plenary sessions at: [NOTE: These videos are still available in the Live Stream category on this website as of September 7, 2015.]

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What’s the difference between global warming and climate change?

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Recently I decided to trace why we seem to read and hear the expression “climate change” more often these days than “global warming.” I’m not the only person who has noticed that the global changes we are seeing do not trend uniformly in the direction of warming. What about the many snow storms this winter, reaching farther south than usual in the U.S.? What about the apparent increase in the number of hurricanes? What about the thick air over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, not to mention the un-breathable air much of the time in Beijing, China?

I decided to Google this exact question: When did “global warming” become “climate change”? It turns out this was not the best way to word my question. I went through the first four pages of answers, some helpful but many rants by people who don’t “believe” in either global warming or climate change. But here’s what I learned.

The entire history of these two expressions is available on those pages in two or three versions. I noted an article in the New York Times on Oct. 15, 2011, that seemed to use the two terms more or less interchangeably. However, an earlier NASA article (12/04/08) preferred “global climate change” because: “Global warming refers [only] to surface temperature increases, while climate change includes global warming and everything else that increasing greenhouse gas amounts will affect.” This was an Aha! moment for me.

The articles I read or scanned quickly show a gradual evolution in preference for using the word “change” over “warming” in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe we can trace this to the fact that it was in 1988 that an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up by the United Nations.

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Living in the Anthropocene
Part II

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Part II

What is the rationale for creating a whole new epoch called the Anthropocene? Is there any reason to think Earth has changed or is changing so much or so fast that we are in a span of time different from the Holocene?

terms for geological time divisionsThe geological time scale was first developed in the 19th century to divide up geological time. This time scale continues evolving as new methods of determining the dates of the rock strata allow for more and more precision. The broadest division of geological time is the era—the Archean is the oldest, and the Cenozoic the youngest. Eras are divided into periods: the Cenozoic is divided into the Paleogene, Neogene, and Quaternary. The Quaternary is currently divided into two epochs: the Pleistocene (pleistos is Greek for “most”) and the Holocene (holo- is for “whole, complete”). The smallest category is the age: the Pleistocene epoch includes four ages—the Holocene, being relatively short, has not been divided into ages. The latest stratigraphic chart (updated in January 2013) [1] places the beginning of the Holocene at 11,700 years ago; that date reflects the end of the last major glacial epoch. Considering that Earth has now been found to be 4.57 billion years old, the Holocene seems a mere blink of an eye.

What has led scientists to consider declaring a new epoch? Why should this be done soon and not a few centuries or millennia from now? After studying the subject, I will try to answer my first question, but I am not sure anyone can answer the second, unless the answer is that humans may not be around long enough to care about such things.

The first half of the 19th century was an important time for people who cared about Earth and how it may have been changing before they were born. Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) helped start the discipline of paleontology, which establishes units of geological time by studying the differences in fossil remains. He also recognized as early as 1812 that some thing or things (presumably floods) had caused mass extinctions. Another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) developed the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Later, two English friends, geologist Charles Lyell (1797–1875) and Charles Darwin (1809–1882) had the strongest influence on scientific thought for some hundred years, both believing that changes occurred gradually and extermination of species had always been a slow process. Still, the fossil record clearly showed there were periods when flora and fauna of certain types had quite suddenly disappeared, and very different types of critters had appeared practically overnight.

By the latter part of the 20th century, stratigraphers and other geoscientists had proven that major and quite sudden mass extinctions had occurred five times between about 440 million years ago (mya) and 65 mya, and there were many less-drastic extinctions. Now geoscientists and anthropologists are pondering whether we are plunging headlong into a sixth extinction. If so, what is causing it? How fast is it happening? Is it inevitable or can we act to slow, halt, or reverse it? If we are in a new epoch, just when did it begin? These are some of the questions that must be answered.

Let’s look at evidence of how humans have “altered the course of Earth’s deep history,” as expressed by paleontologist Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester, U.K., and his colleagues [2]. Take human population: huge increases have occurred in a short span of time (about the last two hundred years); with the consumption of fossil fuels, megacities have grown larger and larger; world population may reach 9 billion by 2050. In a record trapped into Antarctic ice that is almost a million years long, we can trace the recent rapid acceleration of chemical and biological effects on Earth. The increase in worldwide temperatures is causing changes that are unprecedented in their extent, severity, and speed, such as the rise of sea levels, species migration and extinction, and ocean acidity.

To name two of the chemical effects lumped together by Zalasiewicz, there are the well-known effects of excessive carbon dioxide on the atmosphere and the fact that black carbon particles, falling out of the air continually and appearing even in Arctic ice, are now classified as a major human carcinogen, in addition to their effect on climate. These were mentioned by Sybil Seltzinger of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) when she spoke at AGU.

I had been pondering these subjects for some time, but a very accessible article related to such questions fell into my hands late last month and precipitated my writing this essay. I read the two articles titled “The Lost World,” by the excellent New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert [3]. To Zalasiewicz’s list of effects on Earth traceable to human actions she adds another of his favorite subjects—rats. Rats “have followed humans to just about every corner of the globe, and it is his professional opinion that one day they will take over the earth.” Kolbert has expanded her 2009 article, “The Sixth Extinction,” into a book of the same name to be released next month.

My next post in this Anthropocene series will continue on from pointing out some ways humans have changed the Earth to whether we can counteract any of these effects and why we should care.


[1] The stratigraphic timescale:
[2] Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W., and Crutzen, P. “The New World of the Anthropocene,” in Environmental Science and Technology:
[3] Kolbert, E. “The Lost World,” in two issues of the New Yorker, December 16 and 23/30, 2013.

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One of the greatest pleasures of researching and writing is encountering ideas that are new and interesting to me. The concept of the Anthropocene is one such idea that I have looked into in some detail and want to share with my blog readers. My thoughts on the subject will come to you in a new series of posts.

The concept was new to me when I first heard the word Anthropocene at the fall 2012 annual San Francisco sessions of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). I have since discovered that although the word was recently popularized, fundamental justifications for its existence have been in the minds and writings of physical scientists for some time before that. This discussion has been taking place mostly among scientists and conservationists, yet is important to us all.

First let’s consider the word itself. It seems that British scientists have generated most of the interest in whether we humans have changed the earth enough to warrant the naming of a whole new epoch. People used other terms, mostly including the Latin prefix “anthropo-“ for human, here and there in the late 20th century, but they did not catch on. The suffix “-cene” means recent, as in Holocene, which until now has been the universally accepted term for the most recent geological epoch. How to pronounce Anthropocene? In lectures I listened to, most American speakers stressed the first syllable and most Europeans stressed the second.

Ever since Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany, and Eugene F. Stoermer of University of Michigan—Ann Arbor proposed the term [1] in 2000, the stratigraphic branch of geology has been debating whether or not to formally accept Anthropocene into their lexicon and when it can best be said to have begun. (Stratigraphy is the branch of geology that deals with the origin, composition, distribution, and succession of strata.) A Working Group on the Anthropocene has been set up to decide questions regarding the new word by 2016, a year chosen to coincide with the International Geological Congress.

My next post on this subject will discuss the issues involved in the decision.


[1] Crutzen, P. J. and Stoermer, E. F. “The ‘Anthropocene’,” in the IGBP Newsletter, pp. 17-18, May 2000. Available at:

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