GRANITE PEAK PUBLICATIONS: Accompanying travelers to the national park since 2002

Living in the Anthropocene, Part III

Living in the Anthropocene, Part III

stratospheric ozone hole images

Is the stratospheric ozone hole recovering? (Click for larger version.)

Can humans slow or counteract all the damage we’ve done? I recently learned about one bright spot (and there are probably many others). An AGU press conference in December explained why the ozone hole in the atmosphere over the Antarctic was found in 2012 to be the second smallest it had been since the 1980s. I barely remember the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone, but it was an important document [1]. Ratified by all 197 countries of the United Nations, it took effect on January 1, 1989. Since that time, controlling the production and release of substances like carbon tetrachloride, methyl chloroform, and many others has measurably slowed the shrinkage of the ozone hole. NASA scientists expect it to recover fully (with some bumps) by 2070.

The 21st century has seen a proliferation of individuals and groups interested in studying the Anthropocene and many others who are trying to mitigate its effects. There are scientific, governmental, and intergovernmental organizations working to turn around the effects brought upon us by our own actions. Although the idea of a new epoch began with geoscientists, anthropologists are getting into the act, too. The Working Group on the Anthropocene that I mentioned in Part I of this series wants to determine whether the Anthropocene should be considered another epoch in the Quarternary period or an age of the Holocene. This group is also charged with the task of deciding when the epoch or age began. The exact date may actually be arbitrary, but many people would place it at or before about 1800 A.D.; James Watt’s steam engine went into production in 1776, and the industrial age soon followed. Or did it begin when hunter-gatherers became farmers several millennia earlier? There are many options in between those extremes.

Why does a researcher and writer about Yellowstone Park care about the Anthropocene? And, more importantly, why should you care? I’ve enjoyed learning about science since childhood and, with two very different geoscientist husbands, I’ve been able to continue that interest for over half a century. I like to think about the big picture. Anyone who has children and grandchildren certainly cares what will happen to the younger generations.

Identifying a new epoch is one thing, but saving Earth from human destruction is a much larger challenge. Scientists and other scholars are looking at the problems and developing and interpreting the data. However, most solutions have to be left to governments and international cooperation. The Montreal Protocol was a step in the right direction. Now an alphabet soup of groups (GWSP, IHDP, IGBP, for three examples) work toward other solutions; there are dozens of such organizations.

Did you know there is a United Nations University? I didn’t until this month. They have groups working on aspects of Earth’s human-caused problems, such as the Global Water System Project and the International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization is studying how much of the world’s land is really arable. The International Council for Science has created a brief video about their Future Earth vision.

My next post in this series will give examples of how individuals are making a difference.

References

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the Montreal Protocol: http://www.epa.gov/ozone/intpol/ and a New York Times article about the protocol’s effectiveness from December 9, 2013.

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Landing room reservations in Yellowstone Park

Yesterday I found an excellent article by Kurt Repanshek about booking rooms in prime locations in various national parks, with an emphasis on Yellowstone and its wonderful Old Faithful Inn. Agreeing with everything I read there, I was going to write a short comment to say so and found that the well-known environmental historian Alfred Runte had written essentially what I would have commented.

I have had very much the same experiences as these two men have had and can only add that, especially for Old Faithful Inn, you should book a year or more in advance of your visit. However, I’ve sometimes had good luck calling a day or two before I needed a room and learning that a cancellation has created an opening.

The entire article and comments are on the National Parks Traveler site.

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Living in the Anthropocene
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.

References

[1] The stratigraphic timescale: http://stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics-chart-timescale
[2] Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W., and Crutzen, P. “The New World of the Anthropocene,” in Environmental Science and Technology: www.pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es903118j
[3] Kolbert, E. “The Lost World,” in two issues of the New Yorker, December 16 and 23/30, 2013.

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Special alert!

Here’s our chance to listen to one of the foremost authorities on what’s under Yellowstone explain what is known about the volcano.

Jake Lowenstern, U.S. Geological Survey scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, will talk tomorrow evening, January 23rd, at 7 pm PST about the latest understanding of earthquakes, uplifting ground, and steam explosions in Yellowstone’s caldera.

He will also talk about the amazing geological history of Yellowstone National Park and how scientists are monitoring the area in order some day to be able to forecast eruptions.

Tune in to: online.wr.usgs.gov/calendar/live.html

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Living in the Anthropocene
Part I

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.

References

[1] Crutzen, P. J. and Stoermer, E. F. “The ‘Anthropocene’,” in the IGBP Newsletter, pp. 17-18, May 2000. Available at: http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/NL41.pdf

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Brits are getting into the “Supervolcano” act

I try to read only a few of the dozens of reports that keep coming out in the media since the magma reservoir under Yellowstone was found to be larger than previously thought. But when there is new research or informed comment by a scientist, it’s worth looking at.

Today there is an interview in the old (since 1821) and widely read daily The Guardian, formerly The Manchester Guardian, giving Prof. Bill McGuire’s take on the story: Explaining Supervolcanoes: big, hot, and dangerous.

The comments—totaling 82 when I looked at them—are almost entirely the same crazy mix we get in the States.

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Yellowstone wolf interview with the number one expert

As the New Year rolls out I am researching topics that interest me a lot to write about in posts for my blog and for one or two new nuggets of Yellowstone information for this website. This all takes a lot of time, so I don’t know just when I’ll be able to post these original articles.

In the meantime I found something about Yellowstone’s wolves that more people should read, so I’ll pass along the link. Doug Smith has been the number one guy who knows about and helps to manage the park’s wolves and has been on site since they were first introduced in 1995. Here are his very balanced answers to a Montana Pioneer interviewer’s questions.

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Holiday sale to end soon

The latest edition of the Yellowstone Treasures guidebook came out in August. Here’s a review of the previous edition:

“[A] magnificent catalogued resource to the full enjoyment of a huge national park and area known as Yellowstone. The author has extensive knowledge and experience in exploring the beauties of the area. . . . Altogether, Yellowstone Treasures fills an ongoing need for new generations of park explorers and appreciators. She has spent much of her life becoming better acquainted with the riches of the area and she is generously sharing her knowledge with this beautiful guidebook. It is not to be missed.”

—Nancy Lorraine, Midwest Book Review, May 2009
You can find more great comments on our Reviews and From Our Readers pages.

As we explained in our November 4 press release, the updated fourth edition boasts:

  • Color tabs to indicate the six sections of the park
  • A dozen new pictures
  • Fully revised maps that show recent road changes
  • Updated geological information to reflect current research on what’s under Yellowstone and how it works, along with new diagrams like the one excerpted below
  • A new glossary of geological and other scientific terms

Yellowstone Treasures fourth edition geological figure

Part of Figure 5. What’s under Yellowstone: Moving plates, mantle plumes, and the Yellowstone hot spot.

The comprehensive guidebook also comes as an e-book in EPUB, PDF, Nook, and Kindle formats.

To encourage sales during the time of the year when not so many people visit Yellowstone, we started a holiday sale in November. You can buy the guidebook for $19.96 plus shipping and handling, which is 20% off the list price. To get the 20% discount on the print book, be sure to type the promo code “Holidays” in the Voucher box of the shopping cart. But hurry, this coupon only lasts until midnight on January 20, 2014.

Best wishes,
Beth Chapple, Editor

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Traveling to Yellowstone in the winter

Silex Spring in winter

An island of rime-coated grass in Silex Spring’s runoff


For most of the winter, the West, East and South park entrances are closed to cars and trucks but open to skiers, snowshoers, snowcoaches, and snowmobiles. These winter activities are possible until early to mid March. Then most of the park is closed to everyone until various roads open between April 18 and 23. Call the Yellowstone National Park information office (307-344-2117) for current road information.

The one park road that is kept open all winter takes you from the North Entrance to the Northeast Entrance via Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower-Roosevelt. See the Park Map.

Only two park lodgings are open in winter—the Snow Lodge at Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Go to Xanterra’s Yellowstone site for more information and reservations.

Also, be sure to read Janet’s report about her Tauck tour of the park in 2012. The many photos give you an idea of what it is like this time of year.

Happy New Year!

Have a good journey,
Beth Chapple, Editor

Updated Jan. 2, 2014

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Heads-up about what’s under Yellowstone

Just to let you know: Yesterday Jake Lowenstern and colleagues at the USGS/Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a very clear and detailed explanation of just what the new research on the magma system shows and how it was obtained. To read it, you need to scroll down under the map on the YVO website:
Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

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