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).



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?


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!


“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!


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.


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.


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.

280 waterfall

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).


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.


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.


Tailed frog tadpole.


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.

280 octopus

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)


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.

280hurricane group

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.


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


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.


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


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


Common Camas in full bloom at Glacial Heritage Preserve.


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


Douglas fir ever invading the prairies.

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A miniature Douglas fir further out in the prairie.

280glacial snake

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


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


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


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.


The Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting did not disappoint.


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


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.


Yun Peng displays a horned lizard after hunting intensely.


Thompson’s Paintbrush, parasitic on stiff sagebrush.


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


Studying biodiversity and adaptation in the lithosol community.


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


Working on flower ID on Umtanum Ridge.

280lizard2 280lizard3

ENVIR 280, Natural History of the Puget Sound Region, Autumn 2014, Highlights

Fall in the northwest! This was the first offering of ENVIR 280 in the fall (as opposed to spring), and we weren’t sure how it would work out. But it worked out splendidly, with awesome opportunities to explore the alpine and glaciers, chances to witness migration in full swing, plenty of life in the lowlands as the summer wound down, and an opportunity to see the fall colors come out as the landscape readied itself for winter. Thanks everyone for a great quarter! And a special thank you to the freshman FIG cohort who took a chance and made this one of their first classes of their college career. Hope to see you all again soon.


Early in the quarter, first stop: Nisqually Delta. Canada geese gathering for migration.


Nisqually Delta, looking out to the Puget Sound. Tornado approaching. Not what you want to see when you are leading a course. Luckily it veered away from us, and then the weather improved.


Tree Frogs abound at Nisqually Delta!


Such a variety of color forms.


More colors!


Garter snakes coiled in the trees, perhaps waiting for tree frogs.


Next stop, Mima Mounds. In the absence of fire, Douglas firs invade the prairie.


Journaling on the Mima Mounds.


Getting excited about a non-native Praying Mantis.


Allie drawing the mantid.


Macro mantid! It turns out this species is probably non-native.


Jorge discussing birds on the prairie.

DSC_0330 (Medium)

Sunday: Mount Rainier, emerging from the orographic clouds!


A cloud layer descends over the lower Nisqually Glacier. The group studies the ice from the lateral moraine.


Sketching glacial formations on the Nisqually Glacier.


Sketching on the moraine, and studying the movement and deposits of glaciers.


The toe of the rapidly retreating Nisqually Glacier.


In the Puget Sound region, you don’t have to travel back to the ice age to understand what glaciers are and how glaciers work. Here is the outwash stream of the Nisqually Glacier from the moraine.


Clouds trying to lift.


Intrepid students of natural history braving the cool weather of our approaching winter on the mountain.


Examining a Ruffed Grouse.


Learning to “read” the forest at Kautz Creek.


Teaching in the grove of trees that hooked me on the natural history of the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to my mentor, Val Campbell for introducing me to this grove in 1997.

The remarkable Douglas fir cone mushroom, specific to, you guessed it, Douglas fir cones. We found this one beneath an old growth Douglas fir canopy in Mt. Rainier National Park.

The remarkable Douglas fir cone mushroom, specific to, you guessed it, Douglas fir cones. We found this one beneath an old growth Douglas fir canopy in Mt. Rainier National Park.


The group poses in the old grove low on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Thanks to Jorge Tomasevic for the photo.


Jorge Tomasevic, photo.


Field Sketching workshop, with Maria Coryell-Martin, at UBNA on UW campus.


Halloween! The Natural History costume challenge.


To the east side to escape the rain. Examining the fangs and pits on this recently deceased rattle snake, now a specimen at the Burke Museum.


Mima Mound-like formations on Umtanum Ridge. The lithosol community is going dormant this time of year, and the cold winds of winter are returning. A far cry from the colorful palette of the spring landscape on Umtanum Ridge.


Naturalist at work.

280au14 sage

The fine hairs covering the leaves of Tall Sagebrush help it resist moisture loss in this windy, dry environment.


An aspen grove turns yellow, trees are probably all clones of each other. On the east side, Douglas fir is shade tolerant (relative to Ponderosa Pine), in the background.


Anthocyanins show through as chlorophyll is lost.


Peer TAs taking their job seriously, as usual! ;)


Wolf lichen! A yellowish natural dye can be made from this lichen.


Black Hawthorne in fall splendor, by Umtanum Creek.


Final trip of the fall, and perfect weather: Ebey’s Landing and Skagit flats. Jorge scanning the lagoon for waterfowl.


Golden-crowned sparrows are in abundance as winter comes on.


Releasing the sparrow.


Ebey’s Landing trail along Strait of Juan de Fuca. Photo by Kathleen Ervin (student).


TA, Jorge Tomasevic talks about gulls.


Journaling in the prairie strip along the bluffs.


Journaling and lunch above the Strait.


Mount Rainier from Skagit Flats, in the setting sun. A flock of snow geese had just flown over. In the distance in this photo, you can see a flock of shorebirds, appearing as a dark smudgy line on the left flank of Rainier, just above the shoreline hill.

ENVIR 495C, Summer 2014: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest

This post introduces and recounts the second annual offering of my unique interdisciplinary course called “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”, offered through UW’s Program on the Environment, and taught entirely in the wilderness of Olympic National Park. This summer’s students have put together a beautiful blog about their experiences (including photos and personal stories), which you can access with the following link.


If you are interested, here is a brief explanation of the course:

From July 12th to July 20th 2014, this year being the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the 105th anniversary of Mount Olympus National Monument, our course headed deep into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. At over one million contiguous acres of wilderness, Olympic National Park and its surrounding USFS wilderness areas, are arguably the largest tract of contiguous, roadless wilderness area in the lower 48. Shockingly, this wilderness is only 20 miles from the rapidly growing Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area, home to over 4.2 million people, and hotbed of ultra-modern digital technology companies. During our trip, we used the wilderness landscapes of Olympic National Park as a model to understand the ways in which the landscape of the Puget Sound region has changed in the distant (1000s of years) and recent (last 100 years) past, and what human-imposed changes to the landscape mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. Direct observation of the effects of climate change and fragmentation on species and ecosystems, was coupled with student-led evening discussions on a variety of student-chosen topics related to “wilderness” including:

  • native American perspectives and relationships of local tribes to the land through story telling
  • perspectives on resource use in and around the national park, largely as debated by timber-based communities
  • appropriate lifestyle, development, and settlement patterns for a rapidly growing Puget Sound region
  • wilderness management concerns for endemic species threatened by changing climate, invasive species, and historical over-harvest
  • when and whether active species management is appropriate or antithetical to the concept of “wilderness”
  • Eco-feminism and other “unheard” voices offering alternative perspectives on land conservation

Readings included classical wilderness philosophy, as well as the philosophy of modern day writers and conservationists from this region, with much of our discussion beginning in an online format prior to the start of our wilderness trip. The course was taught by Dr. Tim Billo (faculty in UW Program on the Environment) and Carter Case (recent graduate of the UW Program on the Environment).

The purpose of this blog is to share the story of our daily adventures in Olympic National Park’s wilderness, and to invite you to join in discussion of the ideas we wrestled with often deep into the night during our trip. Each of us have written about a separate day of the trip, and added our personal impressions on the value of wilderness in today’s world. To give you a general sense of the location of the terrain we are talking about, a map of our hiking route can be viewed here. Enjoy!