Lately, I've been struggling to stay positive about the climate. It's not easy. The 190 nations at the November summit in Copenhagen failed to reach agreement on greenhouse gases, and the U.S. Congress seems determined to avoid the issue. Worst of all, polls show cooling anxiety about climate change among Americans; these days, we are too consumed by economic woes.
And so, I've decided to create my own "bucket list" for the West. A bucket list usually tallies what a person would like to experience before kicking the bucket, as made famous in the eponymous 2007 movie. I can't put it off much longer: With climate change rapidly degrading our landscape, I'm afraid time is running out for some of my favorite natural wonders.
I'll start in northern Alaska, home to the polar bear. Ursus maritimus tops my list even though the U.S. Geological Survey says it might not become extinct in Alaska for a few more decades. But U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research reveals that disappearing sea ice is already causing nutritional stress, decreased weight and lower reproduction. In other words, the bears are getting smaller and fewer. The longer I wait, the less likely I am to see a big, healthy bear.
Alaska's walruses are also on my list. For ages, these giant marine mammals used floating ice to forage for shellfish. But nowadays, in a brand-new phenomenon, melting is forcing thousands of walruses ashore each autumn, like great mobs of refugees. Unfortunately, the animals lack legs and are not adapted to life on land, and stampedes leave hundreds dead, mostly youngsters. The gatherings also deplete nearby food. Federal biologists are considering protecting the walrus as an endangered species.
I could probably do a whole bucket list for Alaska alone, ground zero for climate change. Caribou are also declining, fires are ravaging the boreal forest and dissolving permafrost is causing spectacular erosion and releases of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
But there's much to see elsewhere, such as Montana's Glacier National Park, where some of our most iconic glaciers are rapidly melting. The National Park Service says they'll be gone in as little as 10 years. Seeing them is another top priority, as it's already becoming difficult to distinguish between the languishing glaciers and plain old snowfields.
Then there's Yellowstone, where two natural wonders are at risk. The first is the whitebark pine, an until-now hardy tree that survived the last 10 millennia in one of the world's harshest environments—the high-elevation Rockies. But warming winters have led to a mountain pine beetle epidemic. Whole mountain chains, where frigid winters once limited beetles, are now brown. And this is bad news for the next candidate on my list, Yellowstone's storied grizzly bears.
It turns out that grizzlies, especially pregnant females, rely on whitebark cones each autumn. They are the fattiest, highest-in-protein thing going that time of year. Research shows that a poor whitebark crop correlates to low birth rates for bears and high kill rates by humans. The concerns have put the already shaky population of Yellowstone grizzlies back on the endangered species list.
Next up are the Colorado Rockies, where millions of lodgepole pines have already kicked the bucket from the same climate-related beetle epidemic that's killing the whitebarks. Amazingly, the problem stretches hundreds of miles north through British Columbia. And it's getting worse. In my former home of Summit County on Colorado's Front Range, the forest has turned to matchsticks.
Utah's Lake Powell also made the list. In his recent book Dead Pool, James Lawrence Powell shows that by 2100, decreasing snow packs and heat-related evaporation may cause the level of the reservoir to drop below the dam's lowest outlet, ending hydropower production and water diversion. It's a poor harbinger for the Southwest, where climate change is predicted to make many areas unlivable, not just for golfers, but for saguaros, jaguars and black bears, too.
Climate change threatens other Western icons, like Puget Sound's orcas, most mid-elevation ski areas and the agricultural kingdom of California's Central Valley, which is already stressed by warming. But my bucket list is not confined to within our borders.
Burning fossil fuels is putting so much carbon dioxide into our oceans that they are acidifying. That's killing the coral reefs, home to 30 percent of the world's fish species, so snorkeling there is becoming a sooner-rather-than-later prospect. And with humans cutting down six Manhattans'-worth of tropical rain forest every day, according to Conservation International, experiencing wild Amazonia is also something to consider doing now. What a long and deeply troubling list. Buckets, anyone?
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Whitefish.