Other 2013 Fave Articles

Last week, I wrote a post about my five favorite popular press articles from the past year.  I felt the following were noteworthy as well and are great resources.

Organized by topic, in no particular order:


How Chris McCandless Died” by Jon Krakauer, The New Yorker, 9/12/13
Absolutely riveting story of Krakauer teasing out the health effects of McCandless’s meager diet. It’s also a reminder of how mysterious the field of botany remains, at times. We can describe all the plants, but how much do we really know about all of their effects on and interactions with the human body?

Climate Change:

Climate change our most serious security threat” by Michael Breen, SF Gate, 08/23/13
Here, the author recalls his own deployment to Iraq, where our over-dependence on fossil fuels and the weather extremes of climate change, were especially amplified.

How Much Will Tar Sands Add to Global Warming?” by David Biello, Scientific American, 01/23/13
Straightforward breakdown on the potential impact of burning this inefficient fuel source, if total extraction and production were to proceed.

Hydraulic Fracturing / Fracking – Dakotas:

A Mysterious Patch of Light Shows up in the North Dakota Dark” by Robert Krulwich, NPR News, 01/16/13
Using a series of NASA satellite images, this article illustrates the light pollution of ND oil fields that is now visible from space.

North Dakota Went Boom” by Chip Brown, New York Times, 01/31/13
Great piece describing the extent of landscape, economic and social transformation currently occurring in North Dakota.

Hydraulic Fracturing / Fracking – California:

Vast Oil Reserve May Now Be Within Reach and Battle Heats Up” by Norimtsu Onishi, New York Times, 02/03/13
Published right on the heel of “North Dakota Went Boom,” this was the first I’d heard about the true extent of the Monterey Shale. I was gobsmacked by the possibility that reserves may be “four times…the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.”

California Legislature passes fracking regulation bill” by Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times, 09/11/13
Despite some environmental groups withdrawing support after this bill passed, this is a start towards (previously nonexistent) regulation.

‘Fracking’ the Monterey Shale – Boon or Boondoggle?” by Alex Prud’homme, Los Angeles Times, 12/29/13
Great Op-Ed on the possible over-estimation of oil reserves, current state of regulations stand, and complexity of issues and stakeholders involved.

Land Use:

Land transformation by humans: A review” by Roger LeB. Hooke, José F. Martín-Duque, and Javier Pedraza, GSA Today, December 2012
One of the best, most concise summaries of land degradation I’ve read, with a great collection of references to important works and scholars.


Our Overcrowded Planet: A Failure of Family Planning” by Robert Engelman, Yale Environment 360, 06/24/13
Female empowerment and education is a running theme of Engelman’s articles on population control. I recommended this to my “Global Environment” students this year as a complement (and, update) to Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats,” photos by Peter Menzel, Time, 09/20/13
Amazing photo essay of families around the world, with a week’s worth of food and drink spread out, with cost listed in dollars. This was started a few years ago, but had an update in September.


“The Lost World,” [2 parts], by Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, 12/16/13 and 12/23/13.
Fantastic story of old-school paleontology and the how the idea of extinction evolved [Part 1], and discussion of whether or not we’re witnessing – and causing – the next large extinction event [Part 2]. Unfortunately these are behind a paywall.

What Killed off the Woolly Mammoths?” by Jennifer Abbasi, Discover Magazine, 09/09/2013
A summary of the complex suite of climate (and possibly anthropogenic) factors that led to the demise of the mammoth, based on work my advisor (Glen MacDonald) recently conducted.


Who Will Speak for the Bees?” by Katie O’Connor, Conservation Biology Institute Blog, 09/16/13
This post is about an unfortunate, and unintended loss of a bee population in Oregon. It reminds me of Muir’s quote on ecosystems: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Megadrought in U.S. Southwest: A Bad Omen for Forests Globally” by Caroline Fraser, Yale Environment 360, 06/20/13
Discussion of fire ecology, and inevitable extreme wildfires that are predicted to occur with widespread warming and drying in the Southwest.

Yosemite Fire Puts San Francisco on the Front Lines” by Glen M. MacDonald, SF Chronicle, 08/29/13
Written by my advisor, this article mentions how the Rim Fire threatened Hetch Hetchy water supply. A good reminder of just how dependent our urban centers are on seemingly-distant wilderness areas, and the ecosystem services they provide.


Los Angeles, CA

Heart Lake Backpacking

John and I went to Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and visited many of the popular sites: Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and Jenny Lake. But the most memorable thing we did was an overnight backpacking trip in the Heart Lake Geyser Basin.

The first 4-5 miles was through a rather open forest, with lots of old, burned logs and short pine trees. Interpretive signs described this area as ravaged by the 1988 Yellowstone fire. I like mysterious old-growth pine forests, so while it was cool to see the forest regrowth, it still struck me as a little strange and sad. Sad, that the old forest was gone and would not regenerate in my lifetime, and strange that it was such an open, sunny landscape, often with grasses and wildflowers, and stunted-looking trees dispersed throughout. Groundcover included snarls of old, burned logs and other debris.

I later learned that the forest is dominated by Pinus contorta (lodgepole pine). The bedrock is rhyolite, one of the most quartz-rich and explosive of volcanic rocks. Rhyolite’s mineralogy is rather depleted and cannot support most arboreal species, but lodgepoles are drought-adapted, with shallow roots, and thus create large swaths of monotypic forest in parts of Yellowstone. Lodgepoles are also wildfire-dependent for their reproduction and for stand-thinning. This makes for large tracts of homogeneous forest that are comprised of a flammable tree species and accumulating ladder fuels. Wildfire, then, isn’t a matter of “if,” but “when.”

The 1988 Yellowstone Fire was significant, burning over 1.5 million acres, 800,000 of which were within Park bounds. During its early stages, modelers predicted what its extent would be in two weeks; the fire overtook that predicted area in just one day. At the time, it was believed that the soil and ground had been absolutely sterilized by this high-intensity burn. Seeing new sprouts and recruits the following spring was a surprise to Park staff and ecologists alike. The area has now been well-studied, and we understand much more about wildfire ecology in the West.

All this made for one of the strangest landscapes I have ever passed through, especially after a small pass about 4-5 mi into the hike. We had seen no geothermal activity until this point, and suddenly had an expansive view of several burbling, steaming geysers, and Heart Lake — our destination — in the distance. We descended from the pass:


We finally saw a small, quiet ranger’s cabin at the shore of Heart Lake. Something about walking on the gray beach of this lake gave me an intense feeling of remoteness. I felt like we had just landed on the surface of the moon, or washed ashore onto a deserted island.


I misread our campsite number on the permit, and so we continued to hike farther and farther along Heart Lake’s perimeter. Eventually we left the shoreline, and ascended slightly about 100-200 feet above the lake’s edge. The terrain was irregular and undulating, with a steep descent to the water. Once-glaciated mountains were to the west, including Mount Sheridan. The steep drop and the hummocky surface signaled to me that we were crossing a series of old moraines. The glaciers are long since gone, and the surface of these features have stabilized (somewhat) and now host vegetation. It was some rather exciting geomorphology to me, even if it meant we were off-course and overshooting our eventual campsite.


Ultimately, we backtracked to our rightful campsite, which was a good thing, because the backcountry rangers diligently come ‘round every evening and ask for permits. We were about 20 yards from the shore of Heart Lake. While wading in the lake and cleaning up from the day, I heard a splash and saw 5 small heads start moving in the water. They were river otters! They noticed and swam towards us, bobbing in the water and making (threatening?) calls at us, before they swam off. It was such a cool wildlife encounter as evening settled over the lake.

We awoke to fog the next day, and waited for the sun to emerge and dry our gear. We spoke to the ranger on our way out about where in the geothermal area we could swim, and he directed us to Witch Creek, about 2 miles back toward the pass. Park rules state you can only soak in water bodies that have a current. So we did this, and it was amazing to take off a heavy pack, and relax in a natural, flowing “spa.” Every backcountry trip should come equipped with a natural “spa,” to help work out all the tension in the back and neck!

One of the allures of backpacking for me is the experience of traversing a landscape, with time to observe the changes in vegetation, terrain, and geology. This was one of the most unique backpacking trips I’ve done. I enjoyed the shared experience with John, and had never seen so many earth processes at close range that all interplayed to create this landscape of geyser activity, wildfire scars, and glaciation.

Want to make this trip? See my next post on guides, maps, backcountry permits, and other resources.

Los Angeles, CA