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Amid historic heat, a climate scientist’s mountain love story (commentary)

  • Amid the record heatwaves hitting North America, no community is being spared, whether they are coastal, interior, floodplain or montane.
  • A lead author on the High Mountain Areas part of a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shares a love story for these high places that are, she writes, changing rapidly.
  • “As a scientist who studies the mountains, there are many tales I could tell in a year when snow melts early, and June is unnaturally hot. I choose this one of a place I love and the people who live here.”
  • This article is a commentary, and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

The past 16 months have been challenging for many of us, a time from which we are learning how to better care for one another. And from these challenges of loss of livelihoods, racial injustice, widespread disease, and hotter, drier years, we are learning to identify our strengths. It has been a year of climbing hills towards a future we choose.

I wrote these sentiments for a briefing for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in early June. I wrote these words for me and for you, because our climate future is not destined by the models that scientists have run, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, government inaction, or the stories that are in the news. It’s up to us. We are competent and must trust in the competence of others.

We are the darkness, as we are, too, the light.

 – Barry Lopez, Horizon, 2019

Though I know the science well, the news about climate change scares me. Headlines are written with flair so that we click to read, upping the impact of a news outlet and its revenue. I often tuck myself away from the news. Perhaps you do too. I hike mountain trails alone in search of peace, snow and adventure, not calamity. How many of us are truly searching for disaster? How many are searching for love or celebrating the love we’ve found?

Wildflowers in the Colorado mountains, near Clear Lake, Silverton. Photo by KimonBerlin via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m a scientist who has been studying mountain regions for nearly three decades. I fell in love with them and the refuge they provided me then and now. In the mountains this summer, I’ve been searching for the flowers that pop up within days of snow’s departure. By late May, I could see that for snowball saxifrage – this really is the name of a mountain plant – it had grown and flowered before the heat arrived. The glacier lilies and larkspur had too.

The heat is in the news, but the species adapted to avoid it by flowering early are not. Nor does our competence or our commitment to cooperation and caring make the news as often as the threats now and in the future of climate change. It’s important these stories are also told.

As the first heat dome formed in early June and temperatures across the U.S. West soared, I woke up early and put on two coats. They were summer puffies, lightweight synthetic down coats that are my go-to jacket for the cool stretches of a mountain summer day. At 5:55 am in a mountain meadow before the sun’s appearance, one wasn’t enough. Cold mornings make hot, hairdryer days more tolerable. They are one of the gifts of mountain life.

As a scientist, I know that the presence and persistence of snow is decreasing in the U.S. West and in mountain regions around the world. Snow covers the ground for less of the year. It melts earlier. In hot summer months, there is less water when people need water most. During the heatwave, my mind conjured up images of the worst that could come this summer. I quieted my mind, cooled my face with water from melting snow and shifted my mindset to the present, lessons learned in the mountains and the capacity of people to do good.

Last June, in the San Juan Mountains Colorado, I ventured from the town of Ophir, population 193 and elevation 9,695 feet, towards Ophir Pass in my SUV to see what the road was like, how much snow was there, and to know more about the vegetation and mining past of the hillsides. There’d already been lightning by 10am. A hike was not a good idea. My then 13-year old son agreed.

We drove the road to above tree line and parked. A storm had developed overhead. To pass the time, and because it is yummy, we made hot chocolate. We wanted to see how bad the storm would be before going further uphill. The winds picked up. Thunder clapped. Lightning began. We turned around – a seven point turn with wheels shifting back and forth from ledge to ledge on the narrow road.

The felled aspen. Photo courtesy of Heidi Steltzer.

The storm ebbed on the way back down. We felt safe in the trees, so we explored. We checked out the plants re-growing in an avalanche path and revegetation of a mined area. We peered into a settling pond, seeing our reflection in the iron-rich, still water. Everything seemed great, until it wasn’t great. The winds picked up again and were gusting. Aspen were being blown down. One had fallen across the road. We were stuck.

I’d packed the car, as I often do, with 5 gallons of water, a small stove, snacks, 20-year old freeze dried dinners, chairs and a blanket. We’d be fine. How long might we need to wait? Would a walk into Ophir be a better choice? My mind raced through situations and choices that would reduce our risk. It told me, “move the car now.”

I backed up 200 yards or so to where the road crossed a landslide. There, only a very few trees were tall enough to land on our car if they fell, and the odds were low that they would fall precisely in our direction. Another gust came. Then, a thud and a crack, an aspen falling where our car had just been. Heading to town through a mile of aspen forest wouldn’t be an option until the storm was over.

We watched mesmerized by how the wind could move the trees. Swirling the tree tops. Swaying their trunks. We wondered how we’d get unstuck. However, the events that transpired after the windstorm weren’t what I imagined.

I was certain help would come from town. Instead it came from further up the mountain. After the winds ceased, a man and his five-year old son came sauntering down the road. I was an anxious-kind-of-calm. I knew we’d be fine but wanted out. They were relaxed, enjoying the walk home to Ophir.

They’d driven up while we’d been hot chocolating and stayed a bit longer up high. Aspen had blocked their path to us and all of our path to town. I wanted to talk about ways to get out. He didn’t, though as they walked on he assured he would be back.

The Maroon Bells are some of the most famous Colorado peaks. Photo by Rhododendrites via Wikimedia Commons.

The man got his pickup, a winch and a chain saw. He independently and efficiently cleared the road of fallen aspen. This too is why I fell in love with the mountains, the people. Competent, confident, neighborly folks who might not say hi or want you on their land, but know what to do if it’s crazy windy, wildly cold, or hot and dry. The mountains have taught me to trust that there are ways to get unstuck and people who will do their part.

In contrast, the news warps my mind towards stuck-kind-of-thinking. I read about extreme climate conditions that are becoming more common and more extreme. Governments doing less not more. Then, I shift my focus to the many hundreds of thousands of ways each day that a guy with a chainsaw, a woman with fire-mitigating goats, someone who has a bit of water, shade or time shares what they have or can do with someone else. I think about what I can do.

As a scientist who studies the mountains, there are many tales I could tell in a year when snow melted early and June was unnaturally hot. I choose this one of a place I love and the people who live here. In rural regions like mine, many have lost their livelihoods during the pandemic. Others risk losing them soon, because snow and water are the lifeblood for many of the good-paying jobs that remain. What will it take to get unstuck from this?

We can all do our part and respect that what others do may be different from what we would like them to do. On a mountain road after a windstorm, I wanted to plan for and be involved in the work of getting unstuck, though I didn’t have the resources or skills. I chose to trust in the competence of someone with different skills, lived experiences and likely also views than I.

Trust is the bridge that we can build from the darkness of hot times to the light.

 

Dr. Heidi Steltzer has conducted field studies in remote regions of Colorado, Alaska and Greenland to understand how mountain ecosystems are unique and valued regions of our world. She is a lead author on High Mountain Areas in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, find her on Twitter via @heidimountains.

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