The Perfect Firestorm: An Interview with Author Michael Kodas

Waldo Canyon Fire
Two weeks ago, as fires burned to the north and south of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I attended a couple of talks at the Aspen Environment Forum about wildfires. On the drive home, my husband and I passed a new fire burning near Leadville, Colo. — and about two minutes after seeing a helicopter dump water on the mountainside, I watched some dude throw his lit cigarette butt out the window of his car. The next day, back in Boulder, as I sat eating gelato with a friend, she suddenly pointed at the mountains behind me.

I turned to see brown smoke filling the sky from a mountain on the west side of town. It seemed as though all of Colorado was going up in flames, including Boulder. Thankfully, firefighters were able to control the Flagstaff fire well before it got out of hand. That wasn’t the case in Colorado Springs or north of Fort Collins, where hundreds of people lost their homes and thousands of acres burned to the ground.

I called my friend Michael Kodas, an award-winning journalist and photographer who’s writing a book called Megafire (to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014). At least now, I thought, he wouldn’t have to go very far to do the reporting. With the Front Range fires fully contained (though likely to burn through the summer), but with our skies still smoky from new fires in Wyoming and Montana, I plied Michael with some strong IPA and got him to tell me everything I needed to know about our blazing forests.

HR: You’re writing this book on wildfires. Presumably you weren’t surprised by all the recent fires—but perhaps you weren’t expecting them to hit so close to home? What was your reaction when the fires started across Colorado?

MK: I thought it would happen here [on the Front Range] because everything was lined up. I’ve had a number of interviews with fire managers and people who work with wildfire who have said that what they’re afraid of is a bunch of small to medium fires simultaneously across Colorado, and particularly across the Front Range.

So people had actually predicted that this would happen?

People had expressed fear that this would happen.

To help me think about all these fires, I divide the problem into three basic causes. The first is forest management, which would include everything from excess fire suppression, to logging that leaves a lot of slash on the ground, to planting trees. Ways we utilize the forest that make it more flammable.

The second is development, the fact that we have such a huge boom of population into the forest. You have a lot more human-influenced fires. And you also have a lot of resource that has to be protected. With the Healthy Forests Initiative, the Bush plan that was supposed to make the forests more resilient to fire and also help communities protect themselves, they created all these grants for community wildfire protection plans. And communities across Colorado took advantage of these grants to put together these plans. But the implementation has not been nearly as good because the money ran out—it paid for the plans, but it didn’t pay for the actual work.

One of the points made by Headwaters Economics, a think-tank in Montana, and others is that the primary funder of a lot of these initiatives is usually the homebuilders association, and what they want is to be able to justify developing farther into the “wooey.”

Sorry, what’s the wooey?

The wildland-urban interface.

Ah. The WUI. I’ve never heard it said like that.

Oh yes, it’s the best part of writing a book like this, you get to say “wooey” all the time.

Anyway, part of a story I just did dealt with how we’ve had more than 100,000 people move into Colorado’s red zone, which is the most flammable forests, since the Hayman fire in 2002. By the way, the day of the big blowup in the High Park fire outside of Fort Collins was 10 years to the day from the big blowup of the Hayman fire.

You have this development issue. With more people moving into the forest, having fireproof homes doesn’t lower the cost. You still have to fight the fires. You’ve still got power lines and reservoirs and all kinds of other kinds of resources you have to protect.

You still don’t want the fire in your neighborhood.

Right. You’re still going to be putting it out. Which speaks to the first problem, management. You’re still going to be suppressing fires that need to burn, so you’re still going to end up with a fuel problem, with a lot of fuel around these communities.

Then the final cause is climate. That’s the wild card, and that’s the one that came down this year. By June we had 2 percent of normal snowpack in the high country. Streams dry up earlier, forests dry up earlier, the forest is flammable earlier. There are areas of the West and Colorado where it’s been documented that the fire season actually starts about two months earlier. Hence the Lower North Fork fire, which was the first or second day of spring and was incredibly volatile.

So those are the three categories of causes. [To recap: management, development, climate change.]

I was in Estes Park climbing when the fire there broke out. I’d taken a day off, had a buddy who wanted to go climbing. It was hot, so we thought we’d go up there.

I feel like I should stay away from you because a fire is going to break out.

I get that from people. I was with two rangers who showed up–one of them knew a friend of mine who’s a hotshot–so we’re chatting, and then their radio squawks that there’s a fire and it’s crowning and there are homes nearby. So these guys packed up their stuff to run out.

How far from the fire were you?

Probably five miles as the crow flies, but a two-hour walk.

The point I want to make is that those three categories all came together this year, and that’s what wildfire people are afraid of. The Estes Park fire was a wire that rubbed raw against a tree in the really high winds. It’s in the high country, which dried out months before it should have, so it’s just bone dry up there when they normally would’ve had snow on the ground. And you had this series of 100 degree days, really hot. So it all came together in these fires.

I was involved with reporting on four of these Front Range fires in a single day. And it’s illustrative to me of this is what they’re afraid of. You throw all your resources at Estes Park, only you’re a long way away from Colorado Springs, or Boulder. So you have four fires that are really volatile, and all of them are threatening property.

How much did that stress our resources?

The feds are claiming they’ve got enough resources. But the various incident commanders are worried. They’ve complained a little, not a lot, and they’ve all said that they got what they needed when they needed it. But we were already at one quarter the amount of contracted air power to fight wildfires that we had 10 years ago. If you’re an incident commander looking at these huge megafires and seeing that our air power is a fraction of what it was a decade ago, you would be worried. I would be worried.

There’s also argument that we rely too much on air power. Air tankers can’t put the fire out. They can try to guide it. But it’s still firefighters that have to go in there and stomp this thing out. They seem to have enough bodies to throw at these fires. But it’s a military operation. It’s like fighting a war on multiple fronts.

And now we’re just at the start of what would normally be the fire season?

We’re finally getting the monsoon rains. But we have not had anywhere near the amount of rain we normally have. Instead we get these dry thunderstorms. A storm that comes through may be a storm that is going to dump a ton of rain—which is great if you have a fire that just got started, but bad if you have a fire that just got put out because then you’re going to have flash floods. In the Waldo Canyon fire, they simultaneously had red flag fire alerts and flash flood alerts.

The real concern is this super-thin snowpack. Because the high country forests are so dry, they can get these huge fires in the lodgepole pine forests up there where you’ve got a lot of beetle-kill and a lot of fuel. Those fuel moisture levels are much lower than normal. And that can be a problem right through the fire season. These monsoon rains aren’t going to correct the moisture deficit. It might help put out a fire but won’t help make the fuel moister.

To what extent do you think the beetle-kill trees are involved in the fires? If you’ve got a bone-dry forest that has no moisture in it, it doesn’t seem like it would make a difference whether it’s beetle-kill or not.

The relationship is really complicated. In a lodgepole forest that’s been affected by beetles, you’ve got green trees, red trees that still have needles on but are dead, and then you’ve got grey trees. The common feeling has been if we can just get through the red phase, you’re away from the immediate threat because those fires don’t crown [spread through the treetops] if they don’t have needles.

Some people I talked to said they saw that in the High Park fire, but there hasn’t been an investigation of it. It’s just from firefighters and incident commanders I spoke to. They said when it got to the grey forest it slowed down, and when it was in a red forest it ripped.

But a lodgepole pine forest has evolved to go down in these huge stand-reducing events, and when they’re dry like they are now I don’t think it’ll make that much difference if it’s a beetle-kill or a live tree.

I think what people are really afraid of is 10 years from now. Those trees die, they haven’t burned, they fall on the ground, and now the new trees have grown up. So you’ve got this potential for a really intense ground fire with a crown fire burning above it.

One of the problems is it’s so hard to do the treatments that were planned. It’s so hard to get prescribed burning done. It’s become so restrictive, there’s so much resistance from the public. So lots of times you have a plan that requires cutting the trees down and then burning them. And they just don’t.

The treatments themselves can have unintended consequence. It’s a catch-22 for these managers, because they have got to reduce the fuel load somehow. The prescribed burn that really went out of control was the one that threatened Los Alamos in 2000, the Cerro Grande fire. It was a National Park Service prescribed burn that went out of control, burned a bunch of homes [over 400] in the community of Los Alamos and threatened a nuclear laboratory.

Fuels from treatments were also implicated in the Fourmile Canyon fire. I think the figure was like 83 percent of the homes that burned there were burned by ground fires. A lot of that ground fuel was from people that had thinned their property and had these slash piles, but there’s no efficient way to get it out of there.

I wonder about that all the time when I see these big slash piles on people’s property. I always wonder, what exactly are they going to do with those?

You have to do something. There’s a researcher at Colorado State University who has said, When these fuels are on the ground, are we just moving the fuel around? Have we just turned one hazard into another hazard?

Let’s talk about the climate component. To what degree is climate change playing a role? The media coverage seems to have either portrayed it as the primary cause or ignored it.

Yeah, isn’t that the way it is? You’re either a crusader for climate or you try to ignore it? Or you’re like I was for a long time, a journalist that doesn’t understand it well enough to write it, so you’re scared of the topic?

I think climate change is seen as playing a huge role. The really thin snowpack, all these dry lightning storms that came through when we’d normally be getting afternoon rain, the high temperatures. When the Waldo Canyon fire really blew up, it was the fifth straight day of over-100 degree temperatures for Denver. The heat played a huge role.

Steve Running [a climate scientist at the University of Montana] points out that the heat has two other impacts. It increases evaporation so the fuel is that much dryer. And the temperatures stay warm at night. When the temperature drops below 70, and certainly below 60, it really slows a fire down. Wildfires tend to lay down at night. But the fires have stayed super active through the night. Many of the houses that burned in Colorado Springs burned at night. Fires can draw a huge amount of energy when temperatures stay above 70 at night.

So high temperatures at night, drought, a weak snow year, very volatile weather—the winds have been crazy this year—all those things can be attributed to the volatility you get from climate change.

Does all of this keep you up at night? I know when the Flagstaff Fire hit, I was like, am I going have to evacuate my house? How does it affect you?

I saw that fire as a nuisance. Boulder is not going to let that happen. It’s far more fire-wise, has more defensible space than a lot of communities. No, the thing that keeps me up at night is the same thing that keeps a lot of journalists up at night: Did I spell that person’s name right? Did I get that quote right? [laughs]

Yeah, but are you worried about the long-term impacts of this, as someone who lives here?

Yeah. What concerns me long term is it’s a wicked problem, and our policymakers are really bad at dealing with wicked problems. Fires are this irregular disaster, you have a really bad year and it goes away, and people have really short memories. We never seem to respond to this problem and it’s worse every time it comes back.

One thing to keep in mind is we’ve yet to have a fire that’s of the size of the Hayman, but we’ve had two now that radically exceeded the property damage. So it strikes me that we’re a lot more vulnerable than we were ten years ago.

And a lot of that is because, as you said, people are moving into the WUI.

Right. The WUI.

Is there anything else you want to mention that we didn’t cover?

No. I don’t even need to write the book now. You can just publish your blog.

Photo credits
Waldo Canyon fire: Don Savage Photography, via Flickr
Michael Kodas: Michael Kodas

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What’s in a (Gene) Name?

Back in February of last year when I started this blog, I wrote about how important stories are to communicating science. I told of a Harvard professor who tried to make Drosophila genetics resonate with his students–to convey the magic of discovery, even to those who couldn’t care less about flies–through a tale.

So before he got into the topic at hand, he put on some classical Chinese music. The mood thus set, he recounted the myth of Jingwei, about a Chinese princess who drowned in a rowboat and then came back as a bird to exact revenge upon the sea. Her plan was to fill in the sea with twigs and rocks so that no one else could drown. Jingwei, he went on, is the namesake of a Drosophila gene once thought to be useless but “reincarnated” after a University of Chicago scientist named Manyuan Long discovered its purpose. (It’s involved in regulating hormone metabolism.) There’s no real romance in fly genes. But now that this one was linked to emperors and reincarnation and revenge fantasies, I paid attention. I learned something about genetics.

That story lured me in. And then, it seems, my story about that story touched someone else. Yesterday, I received an email from Manyuan Long himself. While searching for an image of Jingwei to use in a review article, Long stumbled on my blog post and became, he said, “deeply lost in the scene.” Long, a professor at the University of Chicago who still works on the jingwei gene, allowed me to share his email.

I returned back to the day twenty years ago when my doctoral mentor, Chuck Langley, at UC Davis challenged me: you must give a name to the new gene you just found in Drosophila, in order to win your PhD. The name has to reflect the long and beautiful culture in your old country, the story must be fitting to the biological property of this weird gene, and the recent research history of this gene should be a part of it. You were a boy who grew up in that anti-cultural social movement in the crazy time of the country, I am testing you how much you know the Chinese culture including its early history and literature. Tell me a name tomorrow or you fail in your last step of doctoral research!

That night, Long couldn’t sleep. He was overwhelmed by images from his childhood, and from contraband books of ancient Chinese mythology that his uncle had managed to spirit away, protecting them from the Red Guard’s infamous book burning during the cultural revolution. “My uncle, a rarely educated man,” he wrote, “hid his book collection and himself in a remote village in the mountainous southern Sichuan and secretly taught me the ancient Chinese literature and mythology.”

Seeking solace from the brutality around him, Long’s uncle immersed himself in mythology. And on that sleepless night, Long remembered the myth of Jingwei. Amazingly, he realized, her story was also the story of the gene’s research history. “Then you can guess that I passed the test and won my doctoral degree,” he wrote. “11 years later we figured out what the gene did functionally, [and] 20 years later, we found many genes in many organisms had the similar history of jingwei and indispensable functions. We persisted.”

I opened Long’s email on a warm Saturday afternoon when I was trying unsuccessfully to work. With deadlines and revisions looming and several other time-sensitive projects languishing in limbo, I couldn’t find creative inspiration anywhere. Despite two cups of coffee and a mugful of Earl Grey, I was slumped over my keyboard, staring at the greenery wilting in my yard. And then I read Long’s letter, and the fog in my brain parted, and by dinnertime I’d drafted a feature pitch that I’d been unable to translate from mind to sentences all week. Suddenly, it was so simple: Just tell the story. Surely I’m not the only writer who sometimes forgets this most basic of concepts? (Right? Anyone?) I’m grateful to Long for the reminder.

That was not only the story of a gene in a small fly, but a long old history [of] human beings survived by the beautiful desires they developed and the courage they worked against the brutality and stupidity, in the recent history of the old country or in the remote past of the central kingdom.

(Photo via Cultural China)

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A Few More Thoughts on the “Byline Gap”

Prompted by an interesting email exchange, I thought I’d wade back into this whole “byline gap” issue once more. In my previous post, I wrote that the absence of women among this year’s nominees for National Magazine Awards in many of the long-form categories “can perhaps be explained in part by the dearth of female bylines in the sort of magazines that publish long-form narrative journalism.”

Quick recap: My point was that the larger problem is caused in part by the lack of female editors at men’s magazines, which publish this sort of journalism–whereas the mastheads of women’s magazines, which do not publish this sort of journalism, are staffed largely by women. So the people who might be more inclined to seek out female journalists for meaty narratives (women editors) are working at the publications where meaty narratives simply aren’t part of the mix (women’s magazines).

I am by no means the only person to have made that point. In an exchange with Sid Holt, ASME’s chief executive, earlier this week, Mother Jones co-editors-in-chief Clara Jeffery and Monika Baeurlein raised an important question: Why does it have to be this way?

Why is it that (most) men’s magazines consider ambitious reporting and storytelling to be essential to their brands, and women’s magazines don’t? Every woman we’ve ever met—including all the smart and wonderful women’s magazine editors we’ve met through ASME—wishes it were otherwise.

And Holt replied that it’s partially a question of catering to the masses.

The reason long-form journalism doesn’t have a place in women’s magazines is that the audiences are too big—it’s the same reason multiplexes show “The Hunger Games” and not “Bully.” The magazines that do publish it get away with it because their business models are different—which is another way of saying their circs are smaller.

I see his point, to some degree. Then again, newsstand sales of Vanity Fair (323,946) are barely lower than those of Seventeen (324,741), Good Housekeeping (325,351), or Vogue (348,850). And Vanity Fair is no stranger to the ASME awards. I think it’s more to do with women’s magazines’ historic missions, which, let’s face it, had nothing to do with “ambitious reporting and storytelling.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean women’s mags can’t try to bring big journalism into their mix. Women clearly want to read these sorts of stories, and I highly doubt newsstand sales of Glamour or Elle would drop if they included at least the occasional incisive 4,000-word article.

A reader of my previous post, Jessica Langlois, wondered whether many of the magazines that publish long-form journalism have more female readers than male. I didn’t know the answer, but have since learned, thanks to another reader who didn’t want to comment publicly: They do.

Among the magazines nominated in the National Magazine Awards Reporting category, the readers do skew female: The Atlantic is the only publication on the list where women make up less than half the readers, at 41 percent. Women make up 53 percent of readers at Los Angeles magazine; 51 percent at The New Yorker, and 77 percent at Vanity Fair.

So I ask again: Why does it have to be this way? If women want to read big stories just as much as men do (which clearly we do), and if there’s no lack of top-notch female journalists to pen these pieces, then what can we do to close the byline gap?

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OMG, This Blog Post Is WAAAY 2 Long 4 My Girl Brain 2 Follow

I’m weighing in late, I realize, on the brouhaha over this year’s ASME awards, but since the actual awards haven’t taken place yet, I figure there’s still time to say a thing or two. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this; basically, the American Society of Magazine Editors awards are the Academy Awards of magazinedom, and this year all the finalists in all the long-form, narrative categories went to men.)

As Lucy Madison rightly pointed out on The Awl, the dearth of women among the nominees can perhaps be explained in part by the dearth of female bylines in the sort of magazines that publish long-form narrative journalism.

At the New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic and The Atlantic, for instance, less than thirty percent of the stories published in 2011 were written by women, according to this year’s VIDA Count, which did a gender breakdown of bylines in each magazine.

The VIDA Count is pretty fascinating; check out the interview with its cofounder at Mother Jones (which, by its own count, had equal numbers of male and female bylines last year.)

I’ve long bemoaned the fact that there are so few women represented among the contributing editors on many of these publications. (Contributing editors are the writers whose work you’re most likely to see in the mag; they either have contracts for a certain number of words a year or just enjoy a privileged relationship with the editors.) It’s also true that many of the magazines that publish narrative pieces are staffed largely by men. Part of the reason is that a lot of the narrative journalism is published in magazines targeted at men.

Take Esquire, for instance, which often scoops up ASME nominations and awards: On the masthead of the March issue, of the 33 editorial staffers listed –including the photo, art, and fashion people—only nine are women. And from what I can tell, only one or possibly two of those are in a position to assign stories.

I’m not necessarily faulting Esquire. The same is true in reverse at women’s magazines. The problem, though, is that women’s magazines don’t publish very much narrative journalism—the kind of stories that win ASME nominations and end up in the “Best American” collections. That same story from The Awl quoted two female editors of women’s magazines saying things I found seriously disturbing—and the fact that they said them so matter-of-factly only makes it worse.

Amy Astley, the editor in chief of Teen Vogue, said competing in the hard-hitting writing long-form categories would almost directly conflict with what the magazine aims to do.

“We don’t do long-form journalism,” said Astley. “We know that our girls want to read and they like our features, but stories can’t be thousands of words long, and they have to be written to them. Which makes the tenor of the whole thing very different.”

The same rule applies to service magazines like SELF— which also do win National Magazine Awards for their often shorter personal service pieces.

“Women’s service journalism is very respectful of the fact that our readers have very little time,” Danziger said. “By nature, it’s supposed to impart a lot of information in sort of a packaged way, so that you can dive in, get it quickly and go back to your life.”

I’m sorry, what? So American women can’t cope with anything longer than a recipe or five top make-up tips? And men have all this leisure time to sit around reading magazines, perhaps also drinking a manly cocktail while the Mrs cooks dinner and tends to the kids?

Guess what, women’s mags: I’m a woman, and I have a really busy life, and I read magazine stories longer than 1000 words. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Does anyone else find this attitude incredibly offensive toward women?

Alas. None of this is likely to change soon.

As far as the ASME awards go, women are unlikely to see a huge jump in nominations unless editors either start changing the process through which they assign out pieces, or more outlets exist for general interest long-form journalism targeted at women.

Or perhaps all the attention will provoke a period of affirmative action among the editors who assign lengthy stories. As my friend Paige Williams put it on her blog, “don’t assume female long-formers can’t hang or that there just aren’t that many of us out there. We’re out here.” Amen, sister.

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(Snowless) Mountains Beyond (Snowless) Mountains: A Two-Minute Interview with Mark Williams

Inspired by the 70-degree temperatures that have settled in recently, last week I invited a couple of writer friends over for lunch al fresco. While we sat in my yard under a cloudless sky, eating cauliflower-and-leek omelets and gabbing about work, the butter pooled in its glass dish and a bar of chocolate melted in its wrapper. All of which was a bit disconcerting, given that it was early March. In Boulder, Colorado.

My season ski pass, meanwhile, sits forlornly in my desk drawer. Some nearby ski resorts are sill less than 100% open, and at Vail the current base is a measly 43 inches. The mountain snow reports are the same, day after day. New snow: Last 24 hours, 0″. Last 48 hours, 0″. Last 7 days, 0″.

Colorado gets its water from the mountains. It falls as snow and eventually melts into streams and rivers, which deliver it to reservoirs and city taps. Without snow, there is no water except what we’ve stored in those reservoirs in previous years of plenty. And reservoir water, while great for humans, does nothing to help nature cope with drought.

So while I confess I kind of liked reading The New Yorker in my yard in flip-flops and a t-shirt this weekend, admiring my about-to-bloom tulips, it also scared the crap out of me. What will this place look like come summer? Will whole neighborhoods go up in flames at the first lightning strike? What will the wildlife do? Will there be any water in the ditches where my dogs like to swim? Will I be allowed to water my yard?

I contacted Mark Williams, a professor of geography and a fellow at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research here at the University of Colorado. Williams is an expert in snow hydrology, and in how water moves through mountain watersheds. (He also studies biogeochemical cycling and acid mine remediation.) I figured if anyone could explain how worried we should (or shouldn’t) be, it’d be him. The good news is, I probably won’t have to stop showering this summer. But the bad news is pretty bad: wildlife, and the forests it lives in, could be in trouble.

American Pika

Q: Absent some massive spring storms, what will the lack of snow mean for Boulder and the rest of the region this summer? Are we in for severe drought? Wildfires? Possible rationing of water supplies?

A: Snow in the west is white gold. Snowmelt runoff provides somewhere on the order of 70% to 80% of usable water in the western U.S. Agriculture, energy, and domestic and municipal uses of water are all dependent on snowmelt runoff. Moreover, many of our ecosystem services are dependent on snowmelt, including the health of our forests — which are under stress from the mountain pine beetle epidemic — and sufficient water in streams during the hot summer months to maintain our blue ribbon trout fisheries. Much of the western U.S. is experiencing a below-normal snow year. Here in Colorado we were 72% of average in February, and only 62% of the snowfall at the same time last year. And it hasn’t snowed much since.

How much water becomes available from snowmelt runoff is obviously dependent on the amount of snowfall that we have. Less snowfall means less available snowmelt. However, the amount of usable water from snowmelt also depends on when the snow melts. For the same amount of snowfall, the earlier that snowmelt begins, the less available water compared to the same amount of snow but later snowmelt. The reason is that earlier snowmelt is caused by warmer air temperatures, and warmer air temperatures mean the vegetation wakes up earlier and more water is lost back to the atmosphere through evapo-transpiration. Here in the Front Range, snow has been melting for the last week at 10,000 feet at our Niwot Ridge LTER research site, a month ahead of schedule and two months ahead of last year.

The good news is that we expect little affect on water availability. Last year was an above-normal snow year with a late start to snowmelt. Thus, we had abundant flow in our streams and rivers, with excess water that was stored in reservoirs. This stored water from last year will in general be adequate to offset this year’s low flows. However, our reservoir storage is only adequate for about 2 years. Several consecutive years of low snow results in a tipping point where reservoirs storage can no longer compensate for the low snow, and water availability declines rapidly, as happened in the drought in Colorado from 2000 to 2002.

The low snow year will likely have its largest affect on vegetation that depends on snowmelt as an important source of soil moisture — our forests. A reduction in available soil moisture results in water stress for our forests, making them more vulnerable to attack from the mountain pine beetle and other insects. If the current climate conditions continue, we may see a renewed mortality of our forests from insect outbreaks. And obviously, the danger of grassland and forest fires increases dramatically because low soil moisture results in low fuel moisture, the most important ingredient for wildland fires.

Pikas are particularly at risk from the low snow year, for two reasons. Pikas are the cuddly rabbit-like critters that live in rock piles at high elevation, generally above timberline. Their presence is known to many high-elevation hikers by the characteristic whistle sound they make. Pikas are awake all winter; they don’t hibernate like marmots. Pikas need a thick snowpack to insulate their rock homes and keep them warm, a lot like a snow cave. A thin snowpack means that pikas will be much colder and can freeze to death during the winter. Secondly, pikas need to harvest enough food during the summer to last through the long winter. A low snow year means little soil moisture and a bad growing season for alpine tundra. So, there may not be enough forage for pikas to harvest to get them through the following winter.

The low snow year here in the Colorado Front Range will stress our water resources, but in general will be compensated by increased releases of water from reservoirs. The largest affect likely will be on the flora and fauna. There is a good chance that there will be increased mortality of our forest resource by insect outbreaks. The chances of more and larger wildfires are greatly increased. And our fauna, from pikas to elk, will be stressed by the poor forage year.

Pika photo credit: Chris Kennedy / USFWS (via Flickr)

Category: The West, Tooth and Claw, Two-Minute Interview, Water | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Their So-Called Journalism, or What I Saw at the Women’s Mags

Funny how women's magazines have women on the front cover yet...

I’ve been needing to get this out in the open since the excellent Science Online 2012 session that Maryn McKenna and Elizabeth Devita-Raeburn organized, on writing about science for women’s magazines.

A few years back, I went to Borneo to report on efforts to save the rainforest there, which people are hacking and burning into oblivion in the mad quest to grow oil palm trees. In the process, they’re obliterating wildlife—including the orangutan, which is sliding toward extinction. Palm oil is ubiquitous in American life. It’s in all sorts of processed foods—Oreos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Ritz crackers, margarine—as well as soaps, make-up, and many other beauty products.

One destination on my Borneo trip was an orangutan sanctuary run by an incredible Danish woman, who was passionate and unflappable and very photogenic. Maybe, I thought, I could interest a women’s magazine in a short profile of this woman, as a way to inform readers about the palm oil problem—which, despite sporadic publicity over the years, very few people seem to know about or understand. So I contacted a friend of a friend, a smart and lovely editor at a high-profile women’s magazine that from time to time runs articles about strong women doing worthwhile work. Her reply was quick, honest, and upsetting: The magazine couldn’t tackle the palm oil issue head on, because half its advertisers were beauty companies guilty of destroying the very same forests my Danish woman was trying to save.

Collectively, women’s magazines—by which I mean the whole field, from fashion titles like Vogue and Elle to health publications like Self and Women’s Health to the more general sex-and-diet-tips mags like Glamour or Cosmopolitan (does that even still exist?)—reach millions upon millions of readers each month. So the lack of willingness to cover globally important topics is dismaying. It’s a colossal missed opportunity. That’s why I was heartened to hear some success tales of writing about science for women’s magazines, at the Science online session. Maryn and Elizabeth write frequently for women’s mags and had largely positive experiences to share. I know enough about Maryn to know that she’s a serious, sharp, ethical reporter. (I’m not familiar with Elizabeth’s work, but I assume the same is true.) So clearly there’s some solid journalism getting out there via women’s mags.

But there are also some serious institutional problems, and these can lead to 1) lack of coverage of important topics, 2) less-than-completely-truthful coverage of important topics, and 3) complete and utter bullshit coverage of important topics. My experiences working for women’s mags have been incredibly frustrating and disheartening—and I’ve long wanted to share them publicly but haven’t, for fear of alienating potential clients. The absurdity of this is a testament to the tough economics of freelancing. Few experiences are so bad that we won’t accept a lucrative repeat assignment when it’s dangled in front of us. But as I started thinking back on some of my horror tales, spurred by the Science Online session, I realized I no longer give a shit. I feel like this stuff needs to air out.

A couple of years ago, with the economy tanking and magazine budgets going the way of orangutans, an editor at a women’s magazine called me with an assignment. I’d already sworn off these mags forever after my last debacle but, as I was in no position to turn down $5,000 or whatever it was, I agreed. Anyway, this editor insisted that this was to be a serious science story (albeit written in the publication’s from-one-girlfriend-to-another voice), for which I should conduct many interviews and extensively scan the literature. So I did.

It soon became clear that the editor had had a specific thesis in mind from the start, one that wasn’t borne out by the research. Then one day I got an email saying the story was going to press that day, and could I please give it one last read to make sure it was okay. I was confused, as I hadn’t been contacted by any fact-checkers. But upon reading it, I noticed a few instances in which scientists’ quotes had been altered. The points they made were roughly the same, but the words simply weren’t theirs.

That’s not okay in serious journalism. When I asked the editor, she said the quotes had been tweaked for clarity, and that I shouldn’t worry—that a fact-checker would read the quotes back to the scientists, and if the scientists weren’t happy with the way they sounded, they could change their wording. Setting aside the ethics of this, I felt concerned for my own reputation. If I interviewed you, and then someone read you back your supposed quote, you would likely recognize immediately that the words weren’t yours. And your immediate thought would be that I misquoted you, and am therefore a shoddy journalist. And you would rightfully decide not to speak to me again, and possibly tell your colleagues to do the same. As a freelance journalist, my reputation for professional integrity is paramount; take it away, and I’m just some girl with a laptop who likes to ask questions.

The editor and I had an email argument, I left her a voicemail, she never replied, and that was that; in the end, I think we just stopped communicating. I never saw the final version of the story and I tried to move on with other work and forget about it. A few months later, after the check came, I saw the magazine on the newsstand. I picked it up, saw my article in the table of contents, and put it back without reading it. I have no idea of the editor worked in her own spurious thesis, or what the researchers “said” in their quotes.

This was only the last of a string of bad scenes, though. I was told multiple times by editors at another women’s mag to feed a source a quote—as in, “Can you call this source back and see if they’ll make this specific point in these exact words?” These were stories about health, in a magazine women turn to for actual, truthful, information. (I refused.)

Years ago, another women’s mag so badly mangled a story I’d done for them on young breast cancer survivors that one of the interviewees called me in tears. I hadn’t yet seen the printed article, which had been cut down—without my knowledge—from a feature of several thousand words to a quarter page of little more than a “charticle,” featuring four of the eight women I’d profiled, with nothing other than a thumbnail photo, a single quote, and their name, age, and how they’d learned of their illness.

And yet, the magazine had even bungled that. The tearful woman calling me was devastated because the magazine had completely altered the facts about how she’d discovered a lump in her breast.

I dialed my editor in despair, and she blamed it on the fact-checker.

This same story had begun with instructions to find a dozen breast cancer survivors under 35 who might be good candidates to profile, from which the editors would select the ones they wanted. Presumably, I thought, they’d select the women with the most interesting or relatable stories. After I sent the list to my editor, she told me to go back and ask each woman to send a photo. Like, a headshot. Because, I don’t know, stories about unattractive cancer survivors don’t sell?

I could go on, but remembering all this has made me need some bourbon. I’ll just mention one more very quick thing, which is that for the first women’s magazine story I ever wrote, the editor told me outright that if I couldn’t find anyone who’d ‘fess up to the behavior that was supposed to be a trend (the whole point of the story), I was free to invent characters. For the record, I did not. And the story never ran because the real people I talked to just weren’t outrageous enough. (This wasn’t a science or health story, but nonetheless.)

I know that there are amazing and talented editors at these magazines who would love to publish an expose on palm oil, or a profile of a 27-year-old breast cancer survivor who doesn’t look like a supermodel. But often their hands are tied—whether by advertisers or the institutional structure or the status quo. I think women who shell out hard-earned money to buy these magazines deserve better. They at least need to know that much of what they’re reading isn’t entirely true.

Or maybe I’m being naïve? Maybe the readers all know this already, and I’m the rube who’s clinging to some goody-two-shoes rules. One thing seems clear, in any case: I probably won’t be offered any more assignments by women’s magazines.

Photo credit: jaimelondonboy via Flickr

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The Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and a Two-Minute Interview with Craig Stockwell

I’m pleased to report that I’m a 2012 Alicia Patterson Fellow. The Alicia Patterson Foundation–established in honor of the longtime editor and publisher of Newsday, in 1965–funds reporters for a year to work on a series of articles on a theme. I was surprised and thrilled that my project won, because it’s both fairly science-heavy and focused on conservation. And I’m used to conservation stories being a tough sell.

My project is called “The Evolution Fix: Saving Species in the DNA Era.” I’ll be publishing stories on this general topic throughout the year, hopefully in some high-profile venues. (Editors: hint, hint…) I’ll be exploring how evolution is intersecting with ecology, and how the advent of fast, cheap DNA analysis is affecting our conservation decisions—and ultimately influencing our view of nature itself. Tied into this are ethical and legal issues, as well as questions about what defines a species.

Earlier this month, I went to Fargo, North Dakota to speak at a media-training workshop for biology grad students. (I’ve now been to all 50 states!) There, I spent some time with Craig Stockwell, director of North Dakota State University’s Environmental & Conservation Sciences Graduate Program and a biologist who studies the evolutionary ecology of fish populations. We talked a bit about rapid evolutionary change, the idea that evolution can happen extremely quickly—over decades, rather than eons. But I confess it wasn’t until I got home that I thought to do a one-question interview. So here it is, somewhat stupidly conducted via email.

Q: Why is rapid evolutionary change so important for us to recognize and understand? What role can it play in conservation decision making?

A: Contrary to long-held dogma, it seems that evolution can occur within a few decades. Biologists have observed evidence for such contemporary evolution for populations of fish, birds, and mammals, as well as various plant species. Contemporary evolution often occurs in response to human-associated phenomena, such as climate change, invasive species and habitat degradation. In fact, the same factors that are driving the current extinction crisis also drive contemporary evolution. For instance, many populations have been shown to evolve in response to invasive predators. Further, invasive species have also been shown to evolve as they invade new habitats.

In the early 1990s, such responses were rarely documented, but over the last few decades, a large number of studies have documented contemporary evolution. In fact, some biologists wonder if instead of being a rare phenomenon, perhaps contemporary evolution has become the norm. This has led to a paradigm shift in evolutionary biology, and now researchers are examining how such evolution may affect population persistence and various ecological relationships.

Although scientists have embraced the study of contemporary evolution, the applications to conservation have not yet been applied widely by the management community. It is very likely that as we learn more it will become more apparent that managers who have historically assumed their systems to be evolutionarily static will need to incorporate an evolutionarily enlightened approach to management. For instance, assisted colonization has been discussed as one management option protecting species in the face of climate change. However, it may be in some cases that such species have the potential to evolve in situ [meaning right where they are], whereas other species have limited genetic variation for such change, making it critical to identify which species will need such assistance.

The first of my “Evolution Fix” stories will appear in High Country News later this month.

Also, my New Year’s resolution is to be a better blogger. Stay tuned.

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A Quick Check-In from Falling Walls

Science and schmoozing at the Falling Walls reception, Berlin's Museum of Communications

Berlin’s third annual Falling Walls conference just finished up, and it was a curious and mostly fascinating mix of 15-minute presentations on everything from economics to evolution, computing to catalysis, magnifying time and fixing social messes and turning iron into platinum. Even Angela Merkel stopped by, using the opportunity to talk about–what else?–debt and the need for Europe to shift course. The Twitter stream is pretty interesting; check it out at #fw11.

You can get a rundown and a feel for the conference blog. Here’s a quick take from that site on one session I attended.

I’ve watched a lot of climate models run, but never before had I seen one set to live musical accompaniment. Until now, that is–thanks to Alejandro Litovsky of Earth Security Initiative, a UK-based group that’s calling attention to the link between environmental crises and security risks. Litovsky brought along his friend Anders Scherp, who played guitar and sang a slightly haunting ballad as an NCAR model displayed rainfall patterns.

Litovsky’s point was that we need a radical shift in how we understand risk, and how that understanding translates into financial policy. Changing patterns of rainfall in the Amazon, for instance, will have a big impact on Brazil’s energy security since the country relies heavily on hydropower. But, said Litovsky, traditional investment risk models don’t understand “systemic risk”–so they don’t take into account how deforestation changes rainfall patterns in the Amazon as a whole, and how that in turn will influence Brazil’s electricity production.

So how to better communicate this type of interconnectedness? Litovsky proposed “a little experiment,” a way to “try to understand how does it all fit together and what does it mean in terms of the earth’s security.” The remaining minutes of his talk were taken up by Scherp’s musical accompaniment to the climate model. I couldn’t agree more with Litovsky’s point that disruption of the Earth’s systems represents a real security threat, and one which we desperately need to communicate and address. The music, said Litovsky, is meant to move us emotionally rather than rationally. I’m not sure it quite worked for me, but he might be onto an interesting idea.

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Two-Minute Interview: Steve Running

Only one professor at the University of Montana has a Nobel Peace Prize hanging in his office: Steven W. Running, director of the intimidatingly named Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, part of the university’s Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences. Running, a climate scientist who studies forest carbon, received the award for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Running’s group monitors global photosynthesis and evapotranspiration, specialties that involve merging satellite data with on-the-ground ecological monitoring. He’s currently collaborating with wildlife biologists–a first–in an effort to use large-scale climate predictions to inform questions about the future of animal populations. I popped in to see him yesterday in Missoula.

Q: That’s a nice plaque on the wall. What are you up to now?

A: I want to know when we’re going to reach the capacity of the biosphere to carry society. After the IPCC work, I revisited the ideas of Limits to Growth [the 1972 book about finite resources]. I found out really quick that hardly anyone remembered the book. It just wasn’t registering in public talks. Then this paper came out in Nature where another group defined these “planetary boundaries.” It’s a new conceptual framing even though it’s the same bottom-line theme.

I’m asking, Are we capable of measuring a planetary boundary for something like plant production? And if we are, can we evaluate how close to the limit we are? If we can successfully evaluate it, and we are close to the limit, the policy significance is huge.

Do people understand this deeply enough, that if we really hit capacity it’s game over? The answer in the general public is no. Hardly anyone gets paid to think 50 years ahead, except for some of us eggheads at universities. It’s not a strategic horizon that people work on.

I’m seeing if I can help quantify planetary boundaries of biospheric production. I wrote a paper in Bioscience a few years ago that’s kind of an overview of the whole thing. You start with satellite measurements, and from that we compute the current biospheric production every year. And then you evaluate, what’s the capacity to increase it? This is what the Green Revolution did for decades, increase biospheric production. What we’re seeing more and more is that we’ve probably reached the end of that rope.

All the agriculturally functional land is already under production. People think that not only is there no more water for new irrigation, but we can’t even sustain what we have in parts of the world. And in the fertilizer domain, we’re already at a point of nutrient saturation in our systems that’s causing things like the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. The idea that we can just grow food by dumping lots of fertilizer in is not in the cards.

I’m weaving together this argument: Here’s the current production, here’s the evidence that we can’t expand much more and may not be able to sustain what we have in certain areas where irrigation may run out of steam. And I’m trying to package that into the final bottom line: Do we think there’s any capacity for additional biospheric production? My indications right now, midway through this, is kind of no.

That brings me to my crossover, where I start reading economics, which is mostly what I do these days. Economists all say we need growth. It’s absolutely saturated in our economic thinking that we have to grow forever, and here I am saying we’re tapped out in our ecological production. Which is just one area of growth, but it’s the one that feeds us and clothes us.

How are we ever going to solve this clash of theories, of economics that insists we have to grow forever and ecology that insists we’re on a finite planet? If I had an answer, I’d be on the Rachel Maddow show tonight.

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Two-Minute Interview: Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman runs the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, which last year caused a stir by discontinuing its School of Journalism and Mass Communication and turning it, at least temporarily, into an entity within the Graduate School.

The university has since convened eight “discussion groups” to make initial recommendations about the program’s future, which could eventually include becoming part of a new school or institute.

Meanwhile, little has changed in the day-to-day: The same staff still teaches the same courses to the same students. Yulsman is optimistic about future iterations of the j-school, and particularly about the CEJ. I wondered about his broader vision.

[Disclosure: Yulsman was my graduate advisor when I did my MS in environmental studies at CU.]

Q: What should the future of journalism education look like?

A: I’ll start by saying what it should not look like: what many journalism schools have looked like, and that is a walled fortress, cut off from the rest of the university. My journalism program at Columbia was pretty much like that. It’s only now that I’m hearing all the wonderful things that are available at Columbia, because my son goes there, that I’m realizing how much I missed by just being within the walls of the j-school.

That, to a greater or lesser extent, has been a problem. Engineering schools are the same way. There are all these self-contained schools.

I think going forward journalism schools need to connect more with the campuses on which they sit. In the changing media environment, to be successful as a journalist it really helps to know something about a specific area, so that you can play multiple roles. With a more entrepreneurial journalistic mindset, with more people being freelancers, we are called on to play more and different roles. Maybe that includes blogging, maybe that includes a certain element of being a public intellectual. In order to do that, to give yourself that in-depth knowledge, I think you need to have knowledge about something specific—like environment, science, business.

I also think because journalism schools have been walled off, it meant that people in the university who might have benefitted from what we have to offer have had a hard time of it. We have only so many seats in our classes. But I think we have a lot to offer. Especially here at the Center for Environmental Journalism. There’s a huge demand among science PhD students to know how to communicate better. They’re not going to be journalists, but they don’t want to take traditional academic research communication classes. They want to make videos and blog and write about their research and communicate it to general audiences. So to the extent that we can facilitate cross-fertilization, that’s going to benefit communication on issues like environment in a lot of ways.

That’s the big picture. Overall, the campus needs to be more open to this sort of thing.

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