The Times They Are A-Changin’

Storms on the Horizon

“Come gather ’round people                                                                                                                                                                   Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan from his song The Times They Are A-Changin’

Time knows no bounds and is not harnessed by human interference or impact.

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

The modern version of Homo sapiens has been on this planet, lush with water, green plants, and rich warm earth, for only about 200,000 years. Considering the earth is about 4.5 billion yeas old we have inhabited this planet for a time period equal to 4/10,000ths of one percent; not long in terms of the grand scheme of our planet but a very long time in terms of one human life time.

About 70,000 years ago man began to migrate out of Africa. This migration took place at a snail’s pace for thousands of years. But as humans grew more adaptive and creative they developed new modes of mobility and the migration jumped into full gear by leaps and bounds. Today we inhabit every corner of the Earth, although some would dispute anyone claiming Antarctica as home given it mostly used for research and habitation by individuals are temporary.

As we have made nearly every place on Earth our home we have changed what was there before we arrived. We have cleared land to grow food and make homes. We have dammed up rivers to run machinery, make electric power, and increase our useable water supply. We have mined our planets resources by tearing off the tops of mountains, boring holes deep into the Earth’s womb, and grading off the useable soil on the surface so that we can sort through the rubble to find useful minerals. Our aim here has been to find valuable ore weather it be for riches or for making tools, wire, electronics, and more. We have fished the oceans, our largest and most stable resource, until the resource has nearly dried up. And during this fish harvesting process we have impacted many species that simply got in the way. It is beyond sad that our focus was so narrow that we felt comfortable in simply wasting the lives and existence of some species so we could have access to another species for table fare.

Humans have had countless wars. Our aim was to kill each other but there can be no discounting the vast areas that were burned, bombed, and decimated as a simple side effect to our nasty nature. Millions of plants both large and small, and animals all kinds have been killed as the result of our own lack of self control. Beyond the pain of bearing witness to that we now have to live a world depleted by our own ignorance.

But the worse offense, the worse action that we have ever created on this planet is one that is going on right now. You’ve heard about. You’ve likely ignored it. Some have not paid attention because it is too painful. Others don’t believe the 99% of the scientists that tell us its real. Still, more simply chose to not even give it a moment of thought because it was inconvenient.

This greatest offense, one that could rival past disasters such as cataclysmic collisions with asteroids, or the rototilling of entire continents by glaciers that stood miles high and thousands of miles long and wide, or even super volcanoes that spewed ash into the sky in such great amounts that nearly our entire planet stood in near dark for years and years is primarily the unintentional side effect of human behavior.. This offense is, of course, climate change. The idea of changing our planet’s climate because we can’t seem to control the amount of carbon and other heavy gases that we spew into our own air is difficult to comprehend. We should have the moral fortitude to accept responsibility for our actions and recognize our errors. And worse, now that we do know about it, we have spent decades debating as to how what and much we should do to arrest its forward progress. A march that could change this planet forever.

Purple stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum purpureus)

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Giaco and I are navigating a 150 mile narrow path of tarmac via a carbon spewing automobile on our way to a three day training in Wells Maine on Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. I was up at 3:15 AM in order to meet Giaco at his house at 4:45 so we could arrive in Maine for the 8 AM start up time. Rural western Massachusetts stays behind in our rear view mirror while we trudge into the urban coastal plain that busy holds the roads that lead to Wells, Maine. Long before we get to the coastal plain we are in bumper to bumper traffic; thousands of commuters, mostly one person per car, on their way to making a buck; a large portion of which will go right back into the gas tank that fuels their mode of transportation. Even with our early start we are in a cluster of cars that holds together like water molecules in a stream. One continuous and fluid motion that leads to, well, nowhere in particular. Our early start lessens our potential frustrations. Our trek avoids the stop and go traffic that inhabits this part of the world every day. Between 7 and 8 AM there will be more stopping and starting than going.

Less than three hours later we arrive at the Federal Wells Reserve in Wells, Maine. This large holding, once the farm of a gentleman farmer, runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, although only a small area is directly connected to a beach the seems to stretch out forever. The Reserve holds more than farmland, it holds large areas of salt mash, wetlands, thick coastal shrub habitat thick with multiflora rose and buckthorn. It holds side open space; a feature that has become increasingly rare along the Atlantic seaboard.

The next three days of learning we will be in a renovated barn, perhaps the nicest barn I’ve ever seen in my life; thousands and thousands of square feet-much of it still preserved as it was originally intended; exposed beams, heirloom equipment suspended from the beams, and real wooden boards that is so often not present in modern construction. We are in a classroom of sorts. A room with high ceilings and remnants of the old barn; a flavor that would enhance any learning experience. Giaco and I sign in. People are milling about. There will be more than 30 participants at this high end training. Most of those present are federal employees. These feds, the individuals who have left their important duties to attend this training, are ordinary people just like Giaco and me. The group is about equally divided between men and women. All are interested in learning how to assess the potential damage that climate change could inflict upon our environment. And although this training is being run in several different places throughout the country there is a good spattering of people from different regions, some from as far away as Wyoming.

The four instructors are all leaders in Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment. Individuals who were studying this science before most people ever considered the possibility of the impacts and the winners and losers that will occur from a changing climate. One is a climate change systems analysis, another a professor who has studied vulnerable species in several areas of the country, the third is a Army Corps of Engineers expert who can give us both a scientific and regulatory perspective, the fourth an eminent ecologist who has actually developed some of the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (CCVA) models will be learning and understanding.

The first day is dedicated to understanding the fundamentals of Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments. We learn about identifying targets for assessment, assessing vulnerability by examining sensitivity, exposure, and adaptive capacity. We discuss the the primers of identifying management options through reducing sensitivity, reducing exposure, and increasing adaptive capacity. And we learn about the potential to implement a management strategy through changes in practice, changes in policy, and institutional changes. We also divide into four groups on the first day. Each group works on a capstone project that was selected from different projects that were proposed by the attendees of the training.

At the end of a long day, a day of mind wrenching thought the likes of which I haven’t seen since graduate school, we break for the day. Two of the attendees, a husband and wife, have generously invited everyone to a BYOL dinner. In Maine that means Bring Your Own Lobster. Giaco and I were planning on eating lobster that night so this works just fine and gives us a chance to meet some of the other trainees in an informal setting. After picking out our lobsters at a local fresh fish market we wander over to the BYOL event along with another trainee, Ruth, who is our capstone project. Ruth is one of the few non-governmental employees attending this conference. She is about the same age as my children, both adults, and Giaco and I enjoy her company as she explains the inner workings of Maine Land Trusts on the way to the dinner.

There are about a 12-15 people at the dinner. All of the instructors and a small group of us attending the three day training. The mood is festive. Everyone is relaxed. As we suspected, despite their credentials, the trainers are regular people. Regular people who happen to be very smart and after a couple of glasses of wine, very down to earth, and, at times, very funny.

The lobster is delicious, the corn on the cob succulent, the pies for dessert out of this world, the company simply marvelous.

End of Day

Tick, tick, tick, tick

Though it is early September this day has been sultry and hot. Thunder storms have punctuated both the day and this evening. Shots of lightening, booming thunder, are abundant. Yet the humid, hot weather does not subside. The storms simply retreat and the weather stew returns. There may be relief in sight within two days.

This late in the season boiling weather reminds me of why we are at the Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment training. Our climate is changing. The evidence is mounting and irrefutable. Carbon Dioxide levels have reached 400 parts per million. Prior to 1950 they hadn’t been above 300 parts per million in hundreds of thousands of years. Sea levels have risen by over 6 inches during the last 100 years. Many of the human population centers are located along coastal regions. The oceans have been warming up, about .3 degrees worldwide, and while this does seem like much it is a dramatic change where each tenth of a degree can alter countless marine ecosystems. The polar ice sheets, responsible for reflecting much of the radiant temperatures away from the plant, are lessening each year. The north pole has been the most impacted losing much of its total area in the last decade alone. There has been a major increase in violent storms world wide. From tropical storms, to tornadoes, to droughts and dust storms, to wild fires that destroy millions of acres of habitat, weather and climate patterns are changing drastically. And the statistic that scares me the most; the oceans are quickly becoming acidified. There resistance to acidification has been reduced by 30% since 1969.

On the drive back from the BYOL dinner there is huge thunderstorm off the coast over the Atlantic. The lightening brightens and otherwise inky sky. Given the topics of the day that rattle about my brain on this day I can’t help but wonder.

Tick, tick, tick, tick

The next morning Giaco and I are up at 5:30. We take a walk knowing we’ll be sitting most of the day exercising our brains but not our bodies. We eat at the Wells Maine Diner a 7 AM. Giaco has a breakfast the could feed a platoon of Marines.

The training reconvenes at 8 AM sharp. We learn more about adaptive capacity. We discuss the uncertainty of the science and how to adjust to unknowns by widening our parameters. We get into politics by learning about engaging stakeholders; an uncomfortable topic for those of us who are of scientific discipline. And we study about 5 or 6 different assessment models, four of which we focus on intensely. These are the tools that will help us with the information phase gathering of future projects. Most are predictive models; heady information tools that are based on reasonable assumptions. The term assumption always makes me squirm. But assumptions will always be a part of a good hypothesis, that is why we use the scientific method in or efforts to flesh out the truth. And we break into our capstone project groups. Learning about how to implement everything we have learned today and open the book on what we will learn tomorrow.

The intensity of the day was not overwhelming but it still brought many to the edge as to how much could be absorbed. Personally, I learn better during these intense, fast paced, learning sessions. Others, it is clear, would do better if this amount of information were stretched out over another couple of days. The training leaves no room for chit chat. It is nose to the grindstone for each day’s eight full hours of learning.

A New Day.

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Giaco and I take respite from the day by going our for a dinner of steamed Maine clams, salad, and beer. We’re both pumped up from the training. We both feel the need to carry our learning into the future. We begin discussing some projects where we might apply this new knowledge.

After I had a couple of more beers, Giaco refrained as he was driving, it was nearly dark. We decided to take a walk across Wells Reserve, south on the beach, and return along the same route. It was a distance of about 4 miles. We walked fast, partially to wear off dinner and partially to settle our over worked minds. By now it was night. The stars were brilliant. Lightening could be seen in the distance to the west. Rumbles of thunder could also be heard. Our travels across the Reserve were punctuated with thoughts. Many of these came from our day of intellectual gymnastics. But when we reached the shore, the waves gently lapping onto the sand, star light reflecting in a charcoal colored sea, the mood changed. Our walking pace remained brisk but the sheer beauty of the sea calmed out senses. There is something about walking on an empty beach at night. It is so primordial. It is easy to see where we have come from. It is easy to imagine our journey from bipedal wanderers to modern sedentary humans. It seems essential to grasp and acknowledge what we have lost not equally balanced by what this planet has lost. This is made easier by the backdrop of million dollar second homes beach houses queued up along the sandy shore, almost all sitting empty and uninhabited, just waiting to be carried out to sea by the next serious tropical storm.

"Red skies in morning, sailors take warning."

Tick, tick, tick, tick

Our last day begins with a review of the first two days. We re-examine the tools and approaches we’ve learned about. We review the information and resource tools that will help us with our Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments. And we learn about synthesis of materials, dissemination of information, and discuss measuring success.

We return to our capstone projects and develop a poster board that displays the issue, the approach, the stakeholders, and the potential implementation. These are reviewed by the rest of the trainees. By now we know each other well enough so we can better enjoy and learn from each others work. There is a real team spirit to be found in this learning experience. And I think about the majority, these federal employees. All men and women who are serious about OUR environment. All people who are in positions to make a difference. All unsung heroes in this battle with a changing climate. They are the people that will help to shape our policy and our actions with regards to this serious situation. They are all important cogs in a vast wheel of problem solving.

Out last section of learning is on interpreting and apply vulnerability assessment results. We discuss the real applications of a Vulnerability Assessment. We study an example introduced by one of the instructors where it was proposed to convert coastal cranberry bog to a natural Atlantic White Cedar wetland system.

The final day was nearly the perfect culmination. It was relaxing. We were able to fit the different pieces of our learning into real applications and put them together like a puzzle. I must admit I was sad to see it come to an end.

I am full of anticipation. I am ready to move forward. I am a better informed citizen and scientist.

Tick, tick, tick, tick

Giaco and I are driving home. There are miles and miles of pavement in front of us. Tens of thousands of automobiles populate the long impervious surface in our future. The traffic is heavy, thick and moves slowly. There are crowds of cars as we near the Greater Boston area, most of them with only one person per vehicle.

We see a yellow ominous haze hanging over the horizon.

It is not fog.

Time knows no boundaries. It will move on. The question is will we be present in the long term to witness its journey?

The line it is drawn

The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan, last stanza to “The Times They are A-Changin’.”

And who will survive?

Written for in September of 2013.

  • Emily Brisse

    Fascinating post, Bill. Sounds like an inspiring few days. Thank you for sharing here… and excited to hear more about these potential new projects!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emily. More than inspirational, I would describe it as critical. Every ounce of information that we can develop to understand this climate warming process and the implications is important. I’m but a very small cog in the wheel. But a willing cog I am.

  • Montucky

    Quite frankly, I suspect that our species will become extinct long before climate change causes it. We’re in a hurry!

  • Wild_Bill

    Could be Montucky and our demise could, in fact, shorten the severity of climate change. Unless, of course, we see the light and reverse course. That is what I’m both hoping for and working for.

  • Ratty

    I sometimes wonder if humans could have done some of the harmful things differently, or if it’s just in our nature to have done the things we’ve done.

  • Wild_Bill

    In my opinion we are capable of making good decisions but we seem to have major genetic flaws, greed being just one. Our behavior is primarily governed by law. So it makes sense to have laws that discourage greed, or at least monitor it when it seems apparent it is doing harm. Very complicated, isn’t it?

  • Teresa Evangeline

    HI Bill, I’m still having trouble getting a head’s up about new posts from you. I will resubscribe and see if it takes … your weekend sounds intriguing, to be around people who can make a difference … if allowed to do so. I can see why you would go away from it recharged for what lies ahead.
    I miss the Atlantic. I may even be a wee bit jealous … :) Beautiful images of a world that appears to be in peril.

  • Wild_Bill

    The three day training was intense and fulfilling. I’m working with another fellow in using one of the predictive habitat models that we learned about on an area in the Connecticut River Valley. This will get a chance to evaluate what works and what does not. We then intend on doing a much larger project in the Green Mountains. An interesting and useful intellectual exercise that we may be able to get published. The entire scenario is really a chance to get people more informed of what we expect to happen to our environment as the climate changes. All part of being prepared based on our current understanding.

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