Natural History Education in the News

Our paper (Tewksbury et al. 2014 BioScience) on the value of natural history to science and society, continues to generate discussion. Here are links to some thoughtful pieces that support our findings and opinion:

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/natural-history-is-dying-and-we-are-all-the-losers/

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/80-percent-of-young-environmental-scientists-could-use-more-natural-history-training/

http://www.biographic.com/posts/sto/remembering-the-stories-of-nature/

I’ve excerpted some of the most cogent points from the latter piece, written by Jonathan Foley. If you read nothing else, scroll down to the part I have highlighted where Foley describes his daughter’s experience in a biology department bereft of natural history:

This field of study is key to unlocking the secrets of how life on this planet works, and has made major contributions to solving a wide variety of problems in other fields, including human health, disease ecology, food security, environmental toxicology, and ecosystem conservation and management. Without natural history, we’re simply incapable of fully understanding our living world—and its future.

So you would think, given the paramount importance of understanding Earth’s organisms and ecosystems, and how they’re responding to the current environmental crisis, that natural history—and its associated expeditions, observations, and collections—would be thriving today.

But you’d be wrong.

Natural history has all but disappeared as a major discipline in biology. Expeditions are dwindling, and field observations of biology are increasingly dismissed as unimportant. And the support for building, maintaining, and studying natural history collections has declined significantly in recent years. Museums around the world, where much of this work has been done, have struggled to maintain support for their research, expeditions, and collections.

This is not because the museums lack interest in natural history. They simply lack funding. Collections, in particular, are expensive to maintain, and there is almost no outside funding for them. Unfortunately, in the U.S., federal science agencies have largely turned away from supporting natural history and collections-based research. Plus, there are no obvious corporate donors, and no major private foundation giving grants in this area. It’s a virtual funding desert, and it’s getting worse.”

Sadly, the decline of natural history is not just a funding crisis. It has a deeper and more insidious root—the increased reductionism in biological science.

This echoes my own experience as a university professor for over two decades. Hardly any biology students were taking courses focused on natural history, or even anything related to organisms, populations, or ecosystems. Instead, most students took numerous courses in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. They seemed to be headed to pharmaceutical research, biotech companies, or medical school. Few, if any, knew anything about the living organisms around them. In fact, I have to wonder how many biology majors today could name the species of birds and trees found in their region, or would understand the flows of water, carbon, and nutrients in their local ecosystem?

I have seen this unfold during my twenty-one years as a university professor. But this recently became even more real for me: My oldest daughter called me up, in tears, saying that she just recently dropped out of her college biology major. When I asked her why, she told me she hated it, and that in two years, she only studied chemistry and genetics, and hadn’t seen a single living thing. Thank goodness there are other, more interdisciplinary majors where she goes to school, like ecology, forestry, environmental science, and geography, which integrate different fields of knowledge, and where you can actually see and study living things. But it’s sad that a typical biology major does not. Biology majors are missing out on a major part of their education, and much of the science about how the natural world works.”

 

ENVIR 280: Documenting 2014-2015 retreat of the Nisqually Glacier

I often tell my students that naturalists are society’s “canaries in the coal mine” when it comes to noticing changes in the natural world. The difference in the extent of glacial ice at the snout of the Nisqually Glacier from just one year to the next astounded us as we held last year’s photo in front of us and compared it to this year’s view.

Nisqually Moraine 2014

Nisqually glacier terminus, on October 12, 2014. For purposes of comparison to the the 2015 photo below, note the location of the light colored triangle shaped deposit on the lateral moraine opposite of the moraine the student is standing on. I’ve outlined the triangle with red. Also, I’ve attempted to trace the outline of glacial ice, which is covered in rock debris for the most part. But note how the snout of the glacier extends well beyond the apex of the aforementioned triangular deposit.

Nisqually 2015 Tim outlined

View of the Nisqually Glacier terminous, from October 16, 2015, approximately 1 year after the first photo. I have used the same red triangle from the first photo to show the location of the triangular deposit on the opposite moraine. I have also traced in the approximate location of glacial ice from October 2014, in red. And I have outlined in yellow the extent of glacial ice on October 2015. Note the massive amount of retreat and ablation from 2014 to 2015! Using subalpine fir trees (approx. 20m tall) on the opposite moraine as a scale bar, you can see that the length of the glacier has shrunken by plus or minus 100m depending on how you measure it. It has also lost a significant amount of width, and has almost certainly lost some depth too.

With my course, we always compare the current extent of the Nisqually Glacier to historical photos and evidence for past glacial activity which we can find on the landscape, but to have created our own historical photo with the class in 2014, and to go back and document change in 2015, was a particularly unique opportunity. No doubt, the warm winter and record low snowpacks of 2014/2015 were a huge contributor to this striking change. Based on recent historical trends, the Nisqually Glacier will likely continue to retreat this year, but it will be exciting to go back in October 2016 to see if the retreat is as drastic as it was in the past year.

We are lucky to live in a time and place where we can see active glaciers. Seeing “living” glaciers and the landforms they create, helps us understand the history and formation of landscapes in the Puget Sound Region, and gives us insight into the effects of climate changes past and present. If the Nisqually Glacier continues to retreat at rates of 50m to 100m a year, however, it is not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when courses like ours will no longer be able to study active glaciers in this region. The Nisqually Glacier is one of the longest in the Puget Sound Region, and is about 6km long currently, if you assume its start to be near the summit of Mt. Rainier. Presumably the lower elevation portions of this glacier, maybe the lower 3-4 km of it, will be gone in the next 50 years. If I ever have grandchildren, they will not get to experience the Nisqually Glacier or other valley glaciers like it in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, if my own children go to college and take ENVIR 280, and hike to the same viewpoint, the view they see below them will certainly NOT include glacial ice. Is this a problem for me or for society? Certainly I stand in a privileged position to be able to fret about what my view will be like, or whether my hikes on Mt. Rainier will be on ice or rock, or whether species like the ice worm (see previous blog post) will go extinct. But the loss of glaciers will have implications for society at large. Melting glacial ice keeps our rivers cold and deep, even after winter snows melt. Diminished glacier ice means diminished summer and early-fall stream flows, which will mean water conservation issues for humans, and severe consequences for aquatic life, particularly salmonid fish, which need consistent strong, cold flows all summer long. If the Nisqually River, and other rivers like it are reduced to a warm trickle by summer, this will have profound consequences for river ecosystems across the northwest.  I tend to be fairly objective in my feelings when it comes to environmental change; afterall, there is much evidence on the landscape for dramatic climate swings throughout recent geologic time, and indeed our Pacific Northwest glaciers began retreating before the onset of anthropogenically induced warming. Some species always end up as “winners” and some as “losers”. But when I think that the current acceleration of climate change and drastic warming is caused largely by the actions of humans, I have trouble not viewing the loss of our Pacific Northwest Glaciers as a tragedy. I hope that you can get out and enjoy them now, and be thankful for them, while you can.

Nisqually snout 2014

Close up of the Nisqually Glacier terminus in October, 2014.

Nisuqally snout 2015

Close up of the Nisqually Glacier terminus in 2015.

ENVIR 495C: Ice worms, a legacy of the ice age

The warmest year on record (2015) since 1880 when such records were first recorded  is not the year you would expect to “discover” a glacier and an unusual link to the last ice age. But this is just what happened this year with my class, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the story.

In this photo, we are posing by a small snowfield on the off-trail traverse from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass. The snowfield is labeled 2112:9 in the photo below. On this warm day, we were enjoying the cool blast of air coming out of the stream-carved tunnel from under the snow, an activity I have many times enjoyed in Washington’s mountains. As we stood there enjoying nature’s air conditioning, however, I began to notice some things that told me this was not simply an ephemeral snowfield.

I’ve been hiking the off-trail traverse from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass for at least 10 years now. I usually hike it in early to late July, a time of year when the remnants of the previous winter’s snows still blanket most of the route. This summer, however, was perhaps the most anomalous summer in recorded history in the Olympic Mountains. With less than 14% of the normal winter snow pack, the only snow remaining in the mountains, and indeed on the route from Cedar Lake to Graywolf Pass, was snow that has accumulated (and never melted)  in shaded, sheltered pockets in years of much greater than average snow pack. I have always assumed that many of these snow pockets simply melt away during lean snow years, and build up again during strings of above average snow years. Some of these snow pockets, however, take on characteristics of glaciers–that is, they form ice in their interiors as snow compacts and crystals deform, and they start to develop crevasses as they slide downhill under their own weight. In these cases, I’ve always wondered if these were small glaciers that built up during a cooling period 250 years ago, or if they are remnants of the extensive glaciers that covered these mountains 16-17,000 years ago during the last ice age.

Graywolf glaciers

The snowfield depicted in the image above is labeled 2212:9 in this image provided to me by Bill Baccus of Olympic National Park. This snowfield is one of the permanent ice features identified in their recent glacier survey. Unbeknownst to me (until now) this little pocket of snow typically does not melt out even at the end of summer–at least according to aerial surveys that have been done here since the 1980s. I have always assumed that these little pockets of snow probably did melt away completely on strings of dry warm years (of which there were many prior to the Little Ice Age, and a few since the Little Ice Age) and probably reappeared after strings of colder wetter years. Either that, or they were remnants of small glaciers that formed during the “Little Ice Age” 250 years ago, but not remnants of glacial systems that formed during the last major continental-scale ice advance (~17,000 years ago).

 

https://timbillo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/5f477-dsc_0605.jpg?w=1066&h=1600

As we stood by the mouth of the stream coming out of the snowfield, I noticed some features above that appeared to be crevasses–which would indicate movement of the snowfield. This kind of movement (and crevasse feature) is usually associated with true glaciers, but can sometimes be associated with temporary snowfields. So we went up to check it out. What we found astounded me. The snowfield actually consisted of about a 3 meter thick layer of what appeared to be glacial ice–very dense and blue. Some temporary snow features are underlain by ice snow, but this had the distinct appearance of the dense ice of a glacier. This snowfield, then was actually the remnant of small (and probably stagnant, i.e. no longer very active) glacier, and this feature was the remnant of a crevasse that opened when the glacier was active. But how old could this glacier be? A remnant of the Little Ice Age ice build up 250 years ago? Or a relict of the last true ice age 16,000-20,000 years ago?

https://timbillo.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/353d6-ice2bworm2bgray2bwolf2bcrevasse.jpg?w=385&h=542

Looking into the crevasse I was astonished to see a little wriggling thread, a little less than an inch long. An ice worm, (Mesenchytraeus solifugus)! I was blown away! I have explored many small snow fields and small glaciers, and it is highly unusual to find ice worms, unless the glacier is (or was recently) connected to a larger glacial system. Ice worms are a species that are unique to the Pacific northwest and Alaska. They live in glacial ice and are only associated with glacial ice. That is, they are not known to migrate away from glacial ice and across temporary snowfields. Finding ice worms here implies that this piece of glacial ice is a remnant not just of the Little Ice Age, but of the last true ice age some 20,000 years ago. Peter Wimberger at the University of Puget Sound has found that ice worms in some of the larger glaciers of the eastern Olympics are identical genetically to Alaskan ice worms, implying that the glaciers of the eastern Olympics were connected to the continental ice sheet that flowed down the Puget Sound from the north 17,000 years ago. Thus, this tiny patch of ice must at one time have been contiguous with the continental ice sheet 17,000 years ago (or at least contiguous with glaciers that had been themselves contiguous with the continental ice sheet). Far across the valley, there is a glacier high on Mount Deception in the Graywolf watershed, that is known to have ice worms–so this tiny fragment of ice must have at one time been contiguous with Deception’s glaciers, which themselves were in contact with the continental ice sheet flowing down the Puget Trough. I don’t see evidence that the Upper Graywolf Glaciers were in contact with Deception’s glaciers in the Little Ice Age, so my guess is that this patch of ice (2112:9) was last connected to Deception’s glaciers thousands of years ago. Simply amazing to think about. And make no mistake about it, ice worms are one of the more endangered organisms in the context of predicted changes in climate for this region. This small population of ice worms we discovered will disappear (if it hasn’t already) if we get another summer or 2 like the summer of 2015.

A close-up view of the worm, alive in a piece of snow, held by a student.

Student Shane Kelly holds an ice worm, a direct descendant of the last ice age, in a small melting snowball.

Life size image of the same ice worm depicted above. With more searching, we found hundreds of ice worms in this mini-glacier. They are known to feed on algae in the snow, and can burrow through ice with an anti-freeze like substance in their body. They burrow their way to the surface at night to feed on algae, thereby avoiding the harmful (to them) warmth of the sunshine, as well as predators (like Rosy Finches–which will also be harmed by loss of glaciers) who eat them. This population of worms, as far as I can see it, is essentially doomed here. If this ice patch didn’t melt out completely this summer, it will be gone within a few more similar summers, and gone with it will be this population of ice worms. A similar fate awaits any small populations of worms left in any of the other small ice patches around the Olympics.

The Importance of Natural History Education

My former natural history student, Rachel Roberts, wrote this excellent blog post for an internship with the Sustainable World Coalition about the importance of natural history education.  It’s worth a read!

The Importance of Natural History Education

By Rachel Roberts 

imageAt the college level, natural history education has experienced significant declines within the last couple of decades. During the 1950s, the average number of natural history courses required to obtain an undergraduate biology degree was around three; today, the average number of natural history courses required for that same degree is zero. As defined in the Oxford Journal, Bioscience, natural history is the “fundamental properties of organisms—what they are, how and where they live, and the biotic and abiotic interactions that link them to communities and ecosystems.”

Natural history is important in the sense that it is the foundation for essential knowledge regarding human health, food security, conservation, land management, and recreation. While the natural history discipline has been on the decline, other scientific fields such as molecular biology, genetics, experimental modeling, and ecological modeling have become increasingly popular.

The problem is however, that many of these fields rely on data and specimens from natural history. The direct knowledge of organisms, including what they are, where they live, what they eat, how they behave and die is vital to society and understanding the world we live in. We 254891_5051have a surprisingly limited knowledge regarding our non-human neighbors, and it is almost impossible to understand larger scientific puzzles without all the smaller pieces.

Knowing about the natural history of a place requires a certain degree of time, knowledge, respect, and understanding. What most people lack is the ability to be in a natural place without worrying about something besides what is in front of them in the moment. This is where natural history education is important, as it can help to foster and build connections that allow a person to know the natural history of a place in ways that they didn’t previously think possible.

Natural history, however, doesn’t only need to be conducted in a college classroom. Citizen scientists are society’s “canaries in the coal mine.” Not only does spending time outdoors in nature improve one’s physical and psychological health, citizen scientists provide critical data in the realm of natural history. For example, every year, Audubon hosts a Christmas bird count with thousands of citizen scientists participating, where significant amounts of data regarding bird populations is collected.

There is a role for everyone including research, teaching, policy- making, financial support, and conservation. Naturalists and citizen scientists of all ages are needed, so reach out, recruit, and educate your fellow citizens!

Sources:

“Christmas Bird Count.” Audubon. Audubon. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count&gt;.

Frazer, Jennifer. “Natural History Is Dying, and We Are All the Losers | The Artful Amoeba, Scientific American Blog Network.”Scientific American Global RSS. Scientific American, 20 June 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/2014/06/20/the-slow-painful-decline-of-natural-history-and-its-unintended-consequences/&gt;.

“Natural Decline.” Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 4 Apr. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://www.nature.com/news/natural-decline-1.14966&gt;.

Tewksbury, Joshua, John Anderson, Jonathan Bakker, Timothy Billo, and Peter Dunwiddie. “BioScience.” Natural History’s Place in Science and Society. Bioscience, 26 Mar. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/03/23/biosci.biu032.full&gt;.

Viscardi, Paolo. “Natural History Collections –- Why Are They Relevant?” The Guardian. The Guardian, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 17 Dec. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2011/apr/12/2&gt;.

ENVIR 495C in the news!

The University of Washington College of the Environment recently published a nice piece on my summer course in the Olympic Mountains of Washington. Read about it here, or pasted in below.
Also see my previous post about this summer’s course, where you can also link to a course blog developed by students.

What is wilderness?

DSC_0448 As we sit at our computers or scroll through on tablets or smart phones, perhaps we picture the opposite of our current locales—mountainous terrain, soaring evergreens, and a variety of critters that depend on each other to maintain balanced ecosystems. Maybe thoughts of flora and fauna, untamed and unexposed to an otherwise modern, industrialized, human-centric world swirl around.

DSC_0228Tim Billo wants to expand your ideas about wilderness. Every summer, he leads a class with the College’s Environmental Studies program that encourages a multidisciplinary group of students to explore their own perceptions of wild places—literally and figuratively. Billo and his students leave the city behind, both its comforts and distractions, to traverse 50 miles and gain 19,000 feet of vertical distance over nine days in Washington’s rugged Olympic National Park.

“Experiential learning, when you directly experience the places and concepts you are studying, is such a powerful tool,” Billo said. “Barriers to learning that might exist in the classroom are quickly broken down.”

The course uses our local wilderness as a lens to see the changes that have occurred since the last ice age and over the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization. This year’s group saw evidence that cold weather plants are inching up mountainsides in search of cooler climes and compared historical photos of glaciers in the Olympics to what they were seeing in present day (in 1980, there were 262 glaciers in the Olympic Mountains; now there are 184), among other things.

Beyond observing the physical and biological changes to the landscape, the course creates an environment ripe for dialogue about where we’re headed during this critical time in the anthropocene—a geologic timeframe when human activity, for the first time, is impacting all aspects of the natural world and its processes.

DSC_0720Students discuss questions like, what is the value of wild places and does human recreation have a place there? Are we responsible for preserving remaining wilderness areas? If human activities impact wild landscapes, should we take steps to mitigate? And if mitigation requires, for example, helicopter overflights, widespread culling of non-native species, or other impactful management techniques, is it possible to do so without denigrating what wilderness stands for?

Having spent little time in the wilderness, Shane Kelly, an Environmental Studies major from a small Illinois town on the Mississippi River, always thought wilderness was important for wildlife—not people. His thoughts on that have changed since taking the course.

“There are huge benefits for people when they interact with wilderness,” Kelly said. “It gives you an appreciation for everyday luxuries, like how much distance can be covered in a car with no physical exertion. I learned a lot about myself, too. I’m capable of more than I thought.”

Each day’s hike culminates with a student-led discussion on a topic related to landscape change under either a natural sciences or philosophy filter. Topics explored this year included the development of place attachment and land ethic through readings of classic literature, as well as Americans’ evolving relationship with nature—from loathing to romancing and boy scouts to “leave no trace.”

“The physicality of the hike and the sights, sounds, and lessons learned along the way bring the group together and are a great primer for a deep, but respectful conversation about building a more sustainable society,” Billo said.

DSC_0277For Billo and his students, the Olympic National Park is an ideal place to think about what it means that only about five percent of the entire United States—an area slightly larger than the state of California—is protected wilderness (and more than half of that is in Alaska). Wild landscapes, Billo says, are the last place modern humans can experience what life might have been like prior to the anthropocene.

“When we started, I didn’t know my cardinal directions. By the end of the trip, I could always tell which way I was headed. Being able to climb a peak and look back on the mountains, ridges, and valleys we had covered is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Kelly said.

For more details about the course and a day-by-day account from the students themselves, visit the class blog. To check out more photos from the 2015 class, check out this Facebook photo album from the College of the Environment.

Written by: Kelly Knickerbocker, kknick@uw.edu

ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest; Year 3!

DSC_0838

The group poses on Sentinel Peak, >20 trail miles from any road, with Mount Anderson and the Eel Glacier in the background. From this vantage point, we looked down on a soaring Golden Eagle, saw swifts rising and swooping along the adjacent cliff face, found an alpine flower species endemic to the Olympic Mountains (isolated by past climate changes), looked across the now free-flowing Elwha River and the valley’s wide unbroken lowland forests, and compared the current coverage of Eel Glacier to historic photos taken from a nearby vantage point. We would also take time here to individually ponder the value of large ecosystem preserves (such as Olympic National Park), and the kind of remote wilderness recreation experience they provide as humanity enters the Anthropocene, and as nearby Seattle prepares to take on another 1.5 million people over the next 25 years. Photo Credit: Tim Billo

This post introduces our course blog (http://envir495onp2015.blogspot.com/) documenting the third annual offering (click here for last year’s blog) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day wilderness backpacking trip (July 11-19, 2015) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses today’s wilderness landscape as a “baseline” for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed at this critical juncture in Earth’s history.

Each student on the course led an evening discussion around a topic he or she was interested in, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) Native American relationships to nature and wilderness, 2) the literature of the sublime and development of sense of place, 3) ecology of invasive species in the national park and philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”, 4) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative separation of man from nature, 5) the importance of formal integration of nature (and possibly wilderness) experience into  curricula at all educational levels from pre-K to college, 6) wilderness and landscape management issues around water (and fire) in a changing climate, 7) the process and importance of developing a land ethic (inspired by quotes from Aldo Leopold), 8) a history and evaluation of wilderness recreation styles and management philosophies around recreation in wilderness, and 9) envisioning a wilderness definition that is more inclusive of permanent human settlement—or vice versa, a human settlement pattern that is more in harmony with elements of a wilderness landscape.

While in previous years, our discussions have often taken place around campfires, this year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics, not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain. Snowpack at high elevation measuring stations this winter was less than 14% of average, and basically 0% of average at lower elevations, leading to extremely dry conditions on the ground throughout the region. Hence, we adhered to the strict park-wide ban on open fires. One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and this year offered a particularly unique insight into what the average summer 50 years from now is projected to look like. August flowers were already blooming (or finished blooming) in July, and many alpine blueberry leaves were already taking on their fall colors, as well as being flush with ripe berries, typical of late August or September. Areas that would normally be covered with many feet of last winter’s snow in July, were completely dry, with much vegetation dry and crispy. Grasshoppers, typical of late August and September, abounded in the meadows, and caterpillar outbreaks were extensive, with obvious extensive defoliation of some species–particularly willows. Correspondingly, butterfly and moth populations were thriving. Stream and alpine lake temperatures were far warmer than normal this year, and swimming was downright comfortable. While our trip ironically began with 3 days of much-needed rain, it was not enough to extinguish the large forest fire burning in a remote area of the southwest part of the park. We grappled with the policy of the Park Service to control this lightning caused fire in a “wilderness” ecosystem that according to the 1964 Wilderness Act, should be left to its own “natural” devices.

The lack of snow made it an excellent year to assess the retreat of prominent alpine glaciers, such as the Eel Glacier on Mt. Anderson and the Lillian Glacier on Mt. McCartney. We were able to re-create historical photos of both of these glaciers, demonstrating massive retreat in the case of the Lillian Glacier, and possibly the last view ever of this glacier if this summer continues to break record high temperatures. Much to our surprise, the low snowpack also allowed us to “discover” an unnamed glacier near Graywolf Pass. The lack of snow had exposed the glacier ice and crevasses (a sign of downhill movement of the ice), as well as ice worms living in the glacier. Ice worms are a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest.

As in previous years, we were also able to study the effects of previous climate change events on range shifts of forest species up and down mountain sides. Large Douglas firs at high elevations are the remnants of a warm dry period 700 years ago, and silver firs at lower elevations seeded in during the Little Ice Age which ended only 200 years ago. Many alpine glaciers that expanded during the Little Ice Age have now massively contracted, leaving in their wake characteristic glacial deposits and a unique succession of species colonizing the bare soil. Along with the loss of ice and snow also comes a decline in a unique suite of species (in addition to ice worms) tied to this ecosystem. This was the first year in a long time that I have observed no Rosy Finches, a species that breeds on cliffs and forages best on the plethora of invertebrates that live (and die) on the surface of snow.

The Olympic Mountains and its many historical alpine glaciers were connected to the continental ice sheets that flowed through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!). Despite the intrusion of ice from the north, as well as the growth of alpine glaciers down valleys in the Olympics, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free during the last ice age, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations (we discovered rare populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper and Engelmann Spruce this year), and some of them have evolved into forms unique to the Olympic Mountains (including alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower and Olympic Mountain Groundsel, which we discovered in several ridgetop locations). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and it will be up to humans to decide whether to help these species out by moving them to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves), or to let them go extinct one by one. Certainly the ecosystem will not unravel at their loss, but whether we have a moral imperative to save them is a bigger question, which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which we have traditionally thought of as areas where nature should be left to take care of itself.

Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, in some cases irrevocably. It was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century, that Olympic National Park and other areas like it were saved from the ax and/or development. In only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a roadless area of over 1 million acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), not to mention similar areas in the Cascade Range. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that also makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene.

 

It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 9 inspirational students, from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical and mental challenges of the course. Miranda Knight-Miles, a student on last year’s course, and recent Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on the importance of wilderness, a commodity whose value has recently been questioned in some conservation circles, as we enter the Anthropocene. For my part, I have spent close to 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many values our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world)  to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.

Some stats from our trip:

Mileage Covered: 55 miles

Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (11 people x 8 nights) = 88 (for reference, 88 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park’s backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail before the last day of the trip: 4 (Despite ONP’s high visitation rates, the backcountry did not feel crowded!)

Cumulative Altitude gained: ~19,000 feet (about 18000 feet were lost)

Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet

Number of bird species observed: 49

Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.

Number of mountain goats observed this year: 1

Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: at least 4 (a record high for this course)

ENVIR 280, Natural History of the Puget Sound Region, Spring 2015

It was another incredible season of natural history exploration in the Puget Sound Region, with many personal highlights including an octopus and a tailed frog.

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Visiting the same places year after year allows us to document important environmental change. Here is a view to the Elwha River in Spring 2014 which we will compare to spring 2015 below. Both pictures were taken in the 3rd week of April.

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Elwha River Spring 2015. Note that the river channel has moved from last year to this year. Also note the gradual process of vegetative succession on the flood plain.

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Some of our group posing in front of Marymere Falls. We searched for and found the elusive tailed frog just downstream of the falls. (photo by Jorge Tomasevic).

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I finally found the tailed frog, an endemic species to the Pacific northwest–its cousin in the Blue Mountains was recently split into another species. This primitive frog only lives in fast flowing side-branch streams in the mountains. It is not found in the larger valley bottom Barnes Creek (as far as I know). Here I am with the tadpole I just found clinging to a rock in a rapid. This was cold, wet work, but with some perseverance I finally found one.

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We got some very nice photos of the tadpole and its amazing suction mouth, viewed clinging to the side of this water bottle. These tadpoles are famous for latching on to rocks in fast flowing streams, and the unusual suction mouth parts allow it to do so. They take 1-4 years to reach adulthood, and spend most of their time eating algae off of smooth stream rocks. Adults (with unusual tail which is a copulatory organ), practice internal fertilization (unlike most other frog species). Eggs and sperm would otherwise be washed away.

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Tailed frog tadpole.

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American Dipper in Barnes Creek (Photo by TA Jorge Tomasevic). The dipper was John Muir’s favorite bird, which he refers to as the “water-ouzel” in a book chapter by that name. John Muir was no stranger to the northwest, and he is known to have explored some of the Peninsula’s lowland forest several years before the famous “Press Expedition”, which was the first documented crossing of the mountain range by Europeans.

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The next day we headed to Salt Creek on the Strait of Juan de Fuca for tidepooling at Tongue Point. Again, we made some amazing and unusual finds, this time with the Pacific Giant Octopus. I noticed the tips of the tentacles of this animal moving beneath the kelp. Thinking it was a marine worm of some sort, I reached in (unsuccessfully) to pull it out and take a closer look. Minutes later this octopus appeared on the surface, and worked its way around the tidepool, looking at each one of us, and even crawling out of the water at one point for a better look, before heading back into deeper water. It seemed this highly intelligent being was as curious about us as we were about it. Although we share only a distant common ancestor, I have never felt so connected or close to a mollusk. What a treat to be briefly visited by this beautiful animal! (photo by Jorge Tomasevic)

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With the exception of the blood star pictured here, sea stars were notably absent this year. Normally Pisaster stars would be abundant. This year we saw only a handful. Undoubtedly the effects of this absence, probably due to wasting disease, will be felt through the food chain. We mistakenly thought the blotches on the blood stars were signs of wasting disease, but the folks at UC Santa Cruz, who are running an excellent citizen science project assessing the disease, assured us that white blotches on blood stars are normal.

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Later in the day, we headed to Hurricane Ridge in summer-like conditions. Snowpack was 0% of normal. That is, where one would normally expect to find 3-6 feet of snow this time of year, there was 0 snow. The winter was not particularly dry, but it was too warm for much snow. This will make for very dry conditions on the ground this summer, and may give us some insight into climatic conditions that will likely prevail here by the end of the century.

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Looking across the Puget Trough bioregion to the Cascade Range. No snow in the Olympics.

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The beautiful alpine flower, Douglasia, though typically early, was blooming exceedingly early this year. Note also the unidentified caterpillar–perhaps from one of the rare alpine butterflies of the Olympics.

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Riding the ferry home after a long weekend of natural history exploration. Exhausted, but in the words of David Douglas, “amply gratified.”

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Next field trip to Mima Mounds and other Puget prairies. Luke working on his botany skills.

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Common Camas in full bloom at Glacial Heritage Preserve.

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TA, Andrew Jauhola teaches about native plants at Glacial Heritage Preserve. Harsh paintbrush in bloom in the foreground.

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Douglas fir ever invading the prairies.

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A miniature Douglas fir further out in the prairie.

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TA Jorge teaching the correct way to hold a garter snake.

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6’2″ TA Sam Timpe posing for scale in front of a cutaway Mima Mound.

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Pondering the origin of Mima Mounds, the Puget Sound’s biggest natural history mystery.

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Later in the quarter we moved to Yakima Canyon and Umtanum Ridge. A multitude of species, plant and animal, were encountered in this diverse convergence of ecosystems.

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The Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting did not disappoint.

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A copper butterfly (Lycaena) on what is probably Crepis atribarba.

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Lewisia was in full bloom and very dense this year. For all the talk of drought, the area seemed quite moist and flowers were really the best we’ve seen them in the past 3 years.

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Yun Peng displays a horned lizard after hunting intensely.

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Thompson’s Paintbrush, parasitic on stiff sagebrush.

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Emily getting ready to prepare the roots of the bitterroot, a traditional native food that Lewis and Clark famously sampled.

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Studying biodiversity and adaptation in the lithosol community.

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The group finds a scorpion in the lithosol community, amidst a variety of Eriogonum flowers.

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Working on flower ID on Umtanum Ridge.

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