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The captain of a U.S. Forest Service fire crew talks about long days, big choices, and the cities that spring up around fires.
By Jenni Gritters
Jon Freeman is the
captain of a U.S. Forest Service fire crew in Durango, Colorado.
What does a wildland firefighter do? We fight any fire started by humans — and some fires started by natural causes, like lightning.
Typically, we drive as close to a fire as we can get, then we hike in. We use hand tools and chainsaws to make a line around the fire. Then we starve it of its fuel until it eventually burns out. We also sometimes set planned fires during the off-season, because every acre we burn in a controlled way is one less acre that could burn in a wildfire.
What is the scene like around a huge wildfire? There’s usually a big command center at a county fairground-like place. It’s a full-on city with yurts, generators, and semi-trucks. There are hoses, tools, and food being delivered. A cell tower will pop up in the middle of camp. You usually have up to 5,000 firefighters on the ground and another 1,000 working behind the scenes.
I’ve never had a close call or had to jump into a fire shelter. That said, there’s no stopping wildfires, so sometimes we just have to step back and let the fire do its thing.
What’s the workday like when a fire is burning? We usually work 14 days in a row and then have two days off. Our days can be up to 16 hours long. We make a lot of money because of the overtime and hazardous duty pay; even the most entry-level wildland firefighters can make up to $50,000 in six months.
How did you get into this line of work? I joined a fire crew during the summer of my sophomore year of college and I was immediately hooked. After college, I moved to Colorado and fought wildfires for three seasons. Then I got my Masters in Fire Sciences at Colorado State University.
Have you ever been afraid for your safety? In all of my years fighting fires, I’ve never had a close call or had to jump into a fire shelter. That said, there’s no stopping wildfires, so sometimes we just have to step back and let the fire do its thing. As a captain, every decision weighs heavily on me during big fires, so I do a lot more thinking and a lot less talking. I rely on my experience and on my gut.
Are forest fires getting worse? Yes. Every year, fires seem to get bigger and badder. In the past few years, we’ve even had to extend our working seasons because fires are starting earlier and lasting longer. Climate change has created new weather, and that weather means more days when wildfires are possible.
What’s the hardest part of the job? Hands down, managing real life. It’s almost impossible to have a normal relationship or family situation. We miss birthdays, anniversaries, concerts, everything. It’s like being from another planet.
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What’s great about the job? I get paid more money than I know what to do with to be outdoors in America’s most beautiful places. I get to hike amazing trails, stay fit, and do something challenging. I also love that I can work a year’s-worth of hours in six months and then take the other six months off to relax.
One anthropologist’s research in Puerto Rico is needed more than ever — and threatened like never before
By Eric Niiler
decades, anthropologist Isabel Rivera-Collazo has been telling a narrative
about climate change through her research, showing how ancient populations
adapted to environmental pressures.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Rivera-Collazo suddenly found herself a
character in that story.
The night the hurricane hit in
September 2017, Rivera-Collazo, a professor at the University of California
San Diego and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was at home in
California, talking to her Puerto Rican family by phone. Her relatives were
hunkered down in their house, high in the mountain village of Aibonito in
central Puerto Rico. At some point, nearby cell towers went down and she lost
contact with her mother-in-law.
Her relatives all survived. But the hurricane eventually claimed nearly 3,000 lives — including many people Rivera-Collazo knows through family and friends. It wiped out thousands of the island’s homes, schools, and hospitals. And it began a speedy process of wiping away the core of her scientific work: a string of archaeological sites along the Puerto Rican coast.
Now, Rivera-Collazo, 43, has been immersed,
not only in reclaiming those sites, but in applying her academic research to
questions that are critical today. From communities that lived millennia ago,
she says, we can draw lessons not only about where to rebuild present-day
communities, but also how to protect them.
“Because we have at least 5,000
years of the decision-making on this landscape,” she says, “we can use that
locally relevant knowledge to inform the present.”
Rivera-Collazo grew up in Puerto Rico. After studying anthropology and archaeology at the
University of Puerto Rico, she worked on archaeological sites in Israel and the
Middle East, then completed a PhD in environmental archaeology at University
She returned to Puerto Rico to do much
of her field work, tracing
settlements from 5,000 years ago to the arrival of Spanish explorer Ponce de
Leon and colonial rule.
The indigenous people who lived on the
coastal plains of Puerto Rico, she says, knew not to build their villages
beyond the protective sand dunes and swampy wetlands that act as a buffer
against storms. (It’s a lesson that resort developers along the coastline have
mostly forgotten.) These former inhabitants of the island, known as the
Boricua, also brought with them sustainable crops from other Caribbean islands that
could withstand long droughts or periods of intense rainfall and flooding such
as the “Medieval
that lasted from 900 AD to 1300 AD.
“I am acknowledging that we
are facing a dire scenario. I want to see what works instead of what fails.”
Modern Puerto Rico, by contrast, relies heavily on imported food — 85 percent of the island’s diet comes from elsewhere. While tending a backyard farm might not work for San Juan’s urban residents, Rivera-Collazo says, it could have made a huge difference for the vast rural areas that suffered for months after Maria knocked out electricity, roads, and water supplies. Rivera-Collazo has found evidence of this ancient food resiliency in some of her study sites in south central Puerto Rico.
Though previous cultures grappled with temporary changes in the climate, Rivera-Collazo says Maria is a sign of something more dire: global temperature changes that are driven by human activity, and affecting the island at a rapid pace. In the past year, many of the archaeological sites that Rivera-Collazo has been studying have been wiped away by flooding and sea level rise. In early 2018, unusual tidal floods ate away 6 feet of dunes where she and her students have been digging for clues to past villages. Some of these artifacts and stone homes now lie underwater, like Atlantean villages just off the Puerto Rican coast.
In a research study published in 2018, Rivera-Collazo and her colleagues found 27 archaeological sites in Puerto Rico that flood at high tide, another 56 that will flood by 2050, and 140 sites that will flood by 2100 — all the result of sea level rise that could reach nearly 6 feet by the end of the century.
I’ve seen in the last two years, I’ve never seen before,” said Rivera-Collazo.
“Sites are literally disappearing one day after the next.”
Puerto Rico continues to rebuild, she says, the work of restoring those sites feels
even more pressing. “Some archaeologists want to
look for collapse, but I want to look for continuation and what elements of a
society made them resilient to changes,” she says. “I am acknowledging that we
are facing a dire scenario. I want to see what works instead of what fails.”
Even before Maria struck, Rivera-Collazo’s scientific drive had merged with her personal connection to the island. In 2013, she received a National Science Foundation grant to set up an outdoor museum called Hacienda La Esperanza in the town of Manatí. The project pairs archaeology and environmental studies students from the University of Puerto Rico with citizen-scientists from the local community to teach visitors about the region’s history, archaeology, and ecology, says Carlos Torres, an agronomer and ecologist for Puerto Rico’s largest conservation group, Para La Naturaleza.
Torrez, who also worked on the Hacienda
project, says Rivera-Collazo has made a huge difference in protecting the
island’s cultural heritage by getting local residents to care about it.
“She’s one of the few people in Puerto
Rico that are protecting this information and archaeological sites…for younger
generations,” Torres says. “She was one of the scientists that really liked to work
with people that didn’t have a scientific background. She takes time to explain
science to people.”
In the months after Maria, Rivera-Collazo grew even
more involved; she put down her
laptop and picked up a clipboard, organizing relief shipments of solar panels
and water filtration from systems from the San Diego area to help families
without power or water.
“When I was responding to Hurricane Maria, people said I was
taking it too personally,” says Rivera-Collazo. “Many scientists do not work at
their own sites, so when disasters occur, they stay back and they are safe. But
when you are embedded into your own community, for me it is more important to do
science for my island than for other people.”
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Now, Rivera-Collazo is a member of the Puerto Rico Climate
Change Council, a group of scientists and academic experts that is advising the
government on future scenarios. Emergency officials want to relocate residents
away from the coastline because of risks of flooding and future storms, she
says — something that, historically, has been easier said than done.
“The one thing I have learned, based on research of thousands of years, is that people do not move easily, even if they know there is a threat,” Rivera-Collazo says. She hopes her data might convince the public that relocation is the best solution, and that relying on technological fixes, such building concrete sea walls or putting houses on stilts, probably won’t work in the long term.
This summer, Rivera-Collazo will return to Puerto Rico with
her students to help rebuild a dune ecosystem that was washed away earlier this
year, along with evidence of past cultures and how they handled changes in
She’ll also urge policymakers to remember the lessons that she has uncovered — the biggest one being that we shouldn’t rely on modern technology to save us from climate change.
“People have trusted technology because we thought that we
could predict, respond to, and stop these changes. But the reliance on
technology was so large with Maria that it caused a catastrophe,” she says. “We need to understand how
people recovered from these [environmental] changes in the past. We do not have
the luxury of trial and error.”
How a 1990s trip to Sweden inspired a living laboratory
By Eric Niiler
The idea first came to Jerry Melillo nearly 30 years ago, as he drove down a highway in Sweden, where he was attending a scientific conference. He noticed that, even though a blanket of snow covered the surrounding fields, the roads appeared ice-free.
Melillo asked around and discovered that in the winter, the underside of the roads were electrified by thick underground cables.
“They made a really robust resistance cable that could take a real beating,” recalls Melillo, an ecosystem scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “I realized it might be a technology we could use” — to help scientists understand the long-term effects of climate change.
Decades before the dire scientific reports and the climate-driven increase in natural disasters, Melillo and a colleague, inspired by those cables, hatched a plan for a kind of ecological time machine. They would create a patch of land, deep inside a Massachusetts forest, where the predicted warming of the Earth could be measured, controlled, and examined before it actually occurs.
Specifically, Melillo wanted to know whether warmed soils would release more carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases that could speed up the process of global climate change. The world’s soils — which are made up of decomposing grass, leaves, and trees — contain two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere. Scientists worry that if this big carbon sink starts leaking, it could create an earth-to-atmosphere feedback loop that will warm the planet even faster.
So in 1991, Melillo ordered cables from Sweden and brought them to the Harvard Forest, a 3,700-acre research facility in Western Massachusetts that has been hosting scientists since 1907. He and a postdoctoral fellow buried them in the ground, hooked them up to an electrical outlet, and began monitoring the soil, launching a unique experiment that is still underway — and hailed as a training ground for the scientists who will address global warming in the future.
It was quiet and peaceful under the forest canopy, but there were tons of mosquitoes, attracted by invisible waves of carbon dioxide.
Some climate change science takes place in controlled laboratory experiments, or over decades of painstaking work out in the field tracking the tiniest temperature shifts in the oceans, air, and soil. Melillo’s 900-square-meter plot — one of many ecological research projects underway in the Harvard Forest — offers the best of both worlds: the efficiency of an experimental laboratory in the outdoors.
Dozens of graduate students, postdocs, fellows, and occasional journalists have cycled through the site over the years, each taking away a keener understanding of how science works and what the Earth’s future might look like. One of them was me, visiting in 2012 as a fellow with the Marine Biological Laboratory’s Logan Science Journalism Program.
To get to the tiny plot, we hiked about a half hour from an old farmhouse that serves as the Harvard Forest offices through a rolling forest. The living laboratory sat on a sloping grove of red maple, red oak, and paper birch. Half-buried stone walls were a reminder that this area was cleared farmland until the soil gave out and farmers pushed west for greener pastures sometime in the 1850s.
Since then, the eastern forest has taken over. It was quiet and peaceful under the forest canopy, but there were tons of mosquitoes, attracted by invisible waves of carbon dioxide spewing from the heated soil — as well as from humans like my lab partner and myself.
That day, we took soil gas measurements from the heated plot and compared them to the unheated control plot. For a non-scientist, it was an illuminating example of the kinds of detailed measurements that scientists around the world have to take every day, every season — for years on end — to get a handle on how the planet is changing.
Grace Pold, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a more seasoned researcher. The unique features of the site, along with advances in DNA sequencing, allow her to carefully sort out the various species of bacteria that decompose organic matter, and then trace the evolution of those bacteria in her laboratory.
“By matching their behavior and certain genes,” she says, “I can then make predictions about what microbes are going to respond to increased warming.”
Pold has collected soil samples through rain, snow, humidity, and attacks of gross-looking gypsy moths descending from the tree canopy above — all while marveling at the mix of wilderness and control.
“It’s lovely to go out there; you get to escape and go to the forest,” Pold says. “It’s also nice to have bathrooms at your field site, and somewhere to have lunch.”
The singular research opportunities at the field site have led to the publication of dozens of scientific papers in high-impact journals, — including a major paper in the journal Science last fall, which issued a dire warning about the carbon released from the soil.
And the site has helped launch successful scientific careers, such as that of William Peterjohn, the postdoc who helped Melillo bury a mile and a half of electrical cables in 1991. His first six months at the Harvard Forest led to the publication of his first scientific paper, which helped him land a job. He is now a professor of biology at West Virginia University, and an expert in how greenhouse gases and acid rain affect the forest and its inhabitants.
Despite its importance to the scientific community, the field site’s continued existence hasn’t always been a sure thing. “The first and most obvious challenge was finding enough resources year after year to keep the experiment going,” Melillo says.
First backed by the EPA, the project is currently funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. Melillo has to make the case to renew the funds every six years, and he’s managed to keep the project afloat through administration changes in Washington, economic downturns, and uncertain times for climate change research.
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Nature brings its own challenges. Several random lightning strikes have hit trees in the small plot, including one that knocked out a nearby control shed in 2005 that temporarily halted the project.
Through it all, researchers have continued to trek from the summer-camp-like field house, through the groves of leafy red oak and hemlock to this small, remote spot, where technology from three decades ago still gives them a glimpse of the future.
“What I like about the long-term warming experiment is that it has a life of its own,” Pold says. “Just as you think you are starting to understand, it changes again.”
How a 24-hour arts event helped bring New Orleans back
By Natalie Pompilio
Around 6 a.m. on a late November Saturday in 2006, a sand-colored Humvee carrying two uniformed men pulled up to Susan Gisleson. She was collecting sticks and stones along the railroad tracks in an empty part of New Orleans.
The city was still dark and damaged more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. The soldiers, Gisleson remembers, were “sitting in their wrap-around shades with assault rifles on their laps. You can’t read their faces because their eyes are covered. And one says, ‘Hey. What are you doing?’”
Nothing nefarious, she assured them. Later that morning, Press Street, the arts non-profit she’d co-founded, was hosting an around-the-clock Draw-a-Thon. The free event encouraged residents to take a break from the frustrations of rebuilding — and make a different kind of mark on the city. While most people would simply draw, Gisleson was also facilitating a workshop involving natural materials.
The men exchanged a glance.
“One said to the other, ‘I like to draw.’ And then the other said, ‘Yeah? I used to draw in high school,’” she recalls.
Soon, both camo-clad men had markers in hand and were drawing on sheets of paper affixed to the walls of the nearby Green Project, an environmental non-profit that had offered the space for the event. One drew an eye. The other sketched a hand holding a flower. After so much chaos and devastation, that tiny, peaceful moment was “pure magic,” Gisleson says.
It was among the first inklings Gisleson had that New Orleans would fully recover from Katrina. And it was proof of something she’d suspected in those days after the flood waters receded: that art can mobilize a disaster-struck community, long after the FEMA trucks and celebrity charities have left town.
Everyone saw what Katrina did to New Orleans. About 80 percent of the city underwater; people dying in the streets; property and infrastructure damage so extensive that some politicians declared the city a cesspool beyond repair — or at least not deserving of it. A city of bright colors felt dulled, dressed in shades of brown and grey.
In those early days after the storm and evacuation, returning to the city was hard, even impossible for some. Homes were still submerged. There were no grocery stores, no postal services, no familiar rattles of the streetcar. Still, Gisleson and her family, New Orleans natives, felt the city’s pull and came back quickly.
They thought others would soon follow suit, but they were wrong. New Orleans and the surrounding areas reopened zip code by zip code. Gisleson remembers the day residents from a particularly populous section were allowed to return. She told friends, “Don’t go out and drive on the streets today because people are coming back.”
“And nobody came back,” she recalls. “Nobody.”
In November, less than three months after the storm, Gisleson and a few friends and relatives — her sister Anne; Anne’s husband, artist Brad Benischeck; and two local writers, Case Miller and Ken Foster — sat around Anne’s kitchen table and devised a plan to jump-start New Orleans’ cultural life.
The Gisleson sisters understood the power of the arts. Susan is a visual artist whose larger-than-life creations adorn floats that roll down the streets during Carnival season. Anne is a writer whose book, “The Futilitarians: One Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving and Reading,” documents how she dealt with several family deaths and the fallout from the storm. Their late father, Keith “Big Daddy” Gisleson, was a well-known city lawyer and a gifted storyteller.
They wanted to offer arts events for those surviving in the largely-empty city. They called their organization Press Street, after the avenue that divides the Bywater neighborhood, near the breached Industrial Canal, from the next neighborhood to the north, Faubourg Marigny.
Their first projects were small: A book reading at historic music venue Preservation Hall; a passing of the hat for the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. They held an art exhibition in a gallery that had been heavily damaged in the storm — it had no intact walls, so organizers hung the works on brown contractor paper affixed to support structures.
Though the work of rebuilding was all-consuming for those left in New Orleans, people came out.
“Everybody was starved for some kind of interaction,” Gisleson says.
And the very act of creating art, however simple, was a respite. As Gisleson would later write in a book celebrating the Draw-a-Thon, “It was also a way of giving participants absolute control over something, a pencil and paper, during a time when absolutely everything seemed out of control.”
It was Benischeck’s idea to host a Draw-a-Thon event, inspired by similar programs housed in places like New York’s Pratt Institute, Arizona’s Tempe Center for the Art, and North Carolina’s Guilford College. Some of these marathon art events are fundraisers; others aim to introduce strangers or tighten community bonds.
The New Orleans Draw-a-Thon was intended solely as a therapeutic enterprise. “It was grueling being here, but also exciting,” Gisleson says. “Folks used the word ‘surreal’ multiple times a day. There was lots of drinking going on — much more than usual — and lots of folks were on anti-depressants…We did it because it was important.”
“It was grueling being here, but also exciting. Folks used the word ‘surreal’ multiple times a day.”
As planning for that first Draw-a-Thon moved forward, more people volunteered to help. The owner of a popular chain of local coffee shops found the event space — and kept everyone caffeinated. Local artists donated supplies. Kristin Gisleson Palmer, another sister and a current New Orleans City Councilmember, made a big pot of gumbo for participants. Another group made fresh fried catfish. Hubig’s Pies, a local favorite, donated prepackaged individual pies.
To give the day some structure, organizers divided it into 12 two-hour chunks. Each would feature artists, arts educators, and on-going workshops — such as one that helped participants turned empty cereal boxes inside out to create instant 3D drawing surfaces.
Still, there was no guarantee the first Draw-a-Thon would succeed. Social media sites like Facebook weren’t ubiquitous then, so organizers had no idea how many people to expect. They advertised the event with silk-screened posters stapled to telephone poles.
“We didn’t know if anyone would show up,” Gisleson says.
Doors officially opened on Nov. 25 at 6:30 a.m. The first person to arrive was a woman named Rose, who lay on the cardboard-covered floor in a patch of sunlight and began to sketch human figures. Before the 24-hour period ended, hundreds of people from all different ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic groups, aged from infant to octogenarian, had come together to create art.
Press Street, since renamed Antenna, was one of a handful of new and pre-existing local arts groups that worked to brighten the New Orleans landscape after Katrina. As the non-profit’s profile grew, so too did its funding, largely in the form of grants from organizations that support the arts. Antenna has steadily added programs in the last 12 years, creating an art gallery, a book printing press, and collaborative work spaces. The group organizes readings and salons and sponsors large-scale community art projects that address the city’s current challenges, such as gentrification.
And every year, it has continued to put on the Draw-a-Thon, which bounced around to various venues before returning to the Green Project last year. Each year, it attracts a larger audience.
The neighborhoods where the event has taken place have changed dramatically in those intervening years. New businesses — an upscale food hall, tchotchke boutiques — appeal to a ritzier crowd. The historic rows of shotgun houses and Creole cottages are interrupted by new, larger buildings, many of them filled with pricey condominiums. Undeveloped land near the Mississippi River has been transformed into Crescent Park, which has bike paths, a dog run, and free fitness classes.
Celebrities have moved in, meaning home prices have gone up and older residents have been forced to move. In 2014, Solange Knowles held her wedding at the neighborhood-church-turned-arts-venue where the Draw-a-Thon had been booked, igniting a permitting controversy that left organizers scrambling for a new venue.
“It was difficult, but we got a ton of publicity because of it,” Gisleson says.
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Parts of New Orleans might be unrecognizable, but the Draw-a-Thon itself is largely unchanged. About 1,500 people are expected to attend this year’s installment on Nov. 17. They’ll be able to try screen printing, draw in blacklight, take a figure drawing boot camp overseen by a U.S. Marine, and take part in a program in which artists will transform a school cafeteria or gym into an “arts funhouse” with workshops for students.
Gisleson, who has since left Antenna and moved on to other projects, still considers her role in creating the Draw-a-Thon one of her greatest points of pride. The event, she says, is a throwback to the best part of some difficult days: “It still has that feeling like after Katrina, when everybody was helping everybody out.”
And she’s not the only one who credits art with helping the city rebound. In 2016, then-New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu told attendees of the Lincoln Center Global Exchange in New York how the arts had helped rebuild his hometown. While politicians struggled to find common ground, he said, dancing, singing, and drawing brought strangers together.
“Arts are essential,” Landrieu said. “It’s not the cherry on top of the banana split. It’s actually the banana.”
Natalie Pompilio is a writer based in Philadelphia.
Forrest McCarthy built a career supporting scientists on the ice. Then he decided to be a scientist himself.
By Eric Niiler
In a landscape as tough as Antarctica’s, every scientist needs a roadie.
Someone has to make the mission happen and keep the scientists safe. To scout the best route for the paleontologist to reach a choice fossil bed, make sure the pudgy grad student doesn’t fall down a life-ending crevasse, and double-check that the diesel generators that warm the tents stay running when it’s 50 degrees below zero.
For nearly three decades, Forrest McCarthy has been that guy — visiting the continent 18 times, documenting dangers and changes, both subtle and extreme.
And as the landscape has changed, so has the adventurer.
McCarthy was six years old when he asked his mother if all deserts were hot. She answered “no” and showed him a National Geographic article about the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
They are the largest swath of Antarctica that isn’t covered by ice, with soils devoid of plant or animal life — except for strange bacteria that biologists say resemble what might be found on another planet.
After that, McCarthy read and watched everything he could about the distant continent. Growing up in suburban Massachusetts and New Jersey, he dreamed of extreme landscapes, and, as soon as he could, signed up for outdoor adventures: a Boy Scout camping trip to the Rockies at 14; Outward Bound; treks to Alaska and Nepal. He finished college in Arizona and, in 1995 — by then a lank, tall man with piercing blue eyes — he moved to Jackson, Wyoming, to pursue an outdoorsman’s life.
He met his wife Amy on a wilderness EMT course that summer. Their first date was an ascent of the South Ridge of Nez Perce in Grand Teton National Park.
He also met a man named Buck Tilly, who told him that he spent the past wintertime — the Antarctic summer — working as a “sea ice safety instructor.”
Antarctica. It clicked.
With Tilly’s help, McCarthy applied to the U.S. Antarctic Program, run under the auspices of the National Science Foundation. The program supports the scientists who work at three permanent bases and more than a dozen temporary field camps, studying everything from neutrinos at the South Pole to penguins on the Ross Sea ice shelf.
For his first assignment, in 1995, he taught visiting scientists how to survive outdoors. Everyone who visits McMurdo takes a cold weather survival course. And any scientist who goes beyond the base must learn how to build a fortified snow shelter in case something goes wrong, such as a fire or communications failure. McCarthy showed the scientists how to use climbing harnesses and ropes, essential gear for traveling across the ice cap where crevasses can swallow a person without warning.
The job lasts five months, but he was hooked.
“You can melt snow and ice to drink. There’s no crime and nothing that will eat you. In the field, life is simple and the landscape sublime.”
His second visit to Antarctica was a treasure hunt, recovering a battery — powered by a radioactive isotope — that was buried near a French Research station called Dome C, a remote camp at 12,000 feet elevation. Most pilots don’t want to fly into Dome C; thin air caused several planes to crash there in the ’70s. McCarthy and his colleagues got flown in by a Twin Otter aircraft and pulled the battery to the surface.
In later trips, McCarthy helped glaciologists set up GPS stations on the world’s largest iceberg, a 30-mile long, 150-foot tall behemoth that blocked penguins from migrating and caused trouble with the human inhabitants at McMurdo Station. He led geologists through lava tubes on the active Mt. Erebus volcano, trying to predict its next eruption. He accompanied a geology expedition to discover new fossil beds.
In 2015, he lived in the Dry Valleys he had read about as a child, guiding visitors to Blood Falls, an outcropping at the edge of a glacier where microorganisms and minerals form an eerie reddish waterfall.
In 2017, he shepherded a team from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center across the ice sheet, negotiating waves of ice — known as “sastrugi” — that were formed by the region’s constant winds.
He got a reputation as a calming influence, constantly thinking of what can go wrong, how to stay safe, and how to dig out of a jam.
“The middle of the ice sheet is a flat, boring place,” says Tom Neumann, a climate scientist who shared driving duties with McCarthy on the trip. “But things can go sideways pretty quickly.”
The key to navigating risk is knowing your surroundings. And over the years, McCarthy came to understand this continent, its dangers and its quirks, and its otherworldly beauty.
“I feel at home in Antarctica,” he says. “Many people compare Antarctic exploration to space travel. I don’t. I’m an Earthling and Antarctica is part of Earth. There’s gravity and fresh, healthy air to breathe. You can melt snow and ice to drink. There’s no crime and nothing that will eat you. In the field, life is simple and the landscape sublime.”
That landscape, however, is changing. Glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are melting faster than anywhere on Earth, and McCarthy saw for himself how human activity is altering the frozen continent. Algae now blooms in meltwater pools on glaciers that should be frozen solid. Cracks calve the world’s biggest icebergs.
On expeditions to other parts of the planet — where he works as a guide for scientists and vacationers — McCarthy began to record the shift. In 2008, he got his masters in geology from the University of Wyoming. For his thesis, he re-created 32 historical photographs of Arctic Alaska, documenting tiny changes that suggest greater forces at work.
In 2011, he testified before Congress about the role of federal lands in combating climate change. In 2017, after an expedition to Greenland, a Dartmouth scientist listed him as a co-author on a scientific paper.
“I was considered one of the fellow scientists,” McCarthy says, “not just a hired ice axe.”
Now, at age 50, McCarthy is going back to school to get a PhD in glaciology and oceanography. For the next four years, through a program at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, he is studying marine life underneath the melting glaciers that extend from the edge of the Antarctic coastline to the ocean.
“I was considered one of the fellow scientists — not just a hired ice axe.”
In practice, that means moving a big portion of his work indoors: using thousands of bits of information from satellites, ships, and ground stations, and assembling them into graphs, charts, and computer models.
“He’ll have to learn some math and physics, oceanography, and how to dig into data,” says Peter Winsor, McCarthy’s graduate advisor. But he’ll have an advantage over other students, too: “He has an enormous bank of knowledge from being out there and seeing things. That’s something you can’t teach students early on,” Winsor says. “It builds up some sort of intuition in your spine that you can use for science.”
McCarthy is ready to take the leap.
“I’m at a point in my life that I have this outdoor skill set, and I find the most rewarding thing to do is research — to better understand our planet and what our future might look like,” he says. “And it would be neat to come back and be in charge myself.”
How do you recover from a hurricane? Ask survivors of Katrina.
By Stephanie Grace
Photos by Susan Poag
In an industrial park outside New Orleans one day in September, a tantalizing feast for about 20,000 was quickly coming together. Chefs from some of the city’s famed restaurants, assembled at a community kitchen, deconstructed hams and loosely followed recipes for gumbo and white beans with shrimp. Volunteers spooned rice and grits into large plastic bags to be sealed and flash frozen.
Along with the menu, the topic on everyone’s mind that day was the weather — not the typically suffocating Louisiana heat outside, but the catastrophic conditions nearly 1,000 miles away in the Carolinas, where Hurricane Florence was dumping rain, raising rivers, and imperiling communities.
The tropical season had been thankfully quiet around storm-prone and perennially anxious Louisiana, but the locals know how quickly these things can change, and how one brush with Mother Nature can change everything. That’s why Amy Cyrex Sins, the chipper blonde at the center of the frenetic action, had summoned these amateur and professional cooks for what one of them called a culinary flash mob.
It was a show of solidarity, yes — “pay it forward,” “strength in numbers,” choose your feel-good platitude. But another cliché that works is “why re-invent the wheel?” Muscle memory, earned in the crucible of Hurricane Katrina, kicked in all over the region as Florence churned across the Atlantic, as it has many times since people here survived, recovered, and rebuilt from the New Orleans area’s near-death experience in 2005. Disaster relief has become a Louisiana export, from groups of volunteers who share not just their empathy, but their understanding of what actually works.
Indeed, as Hurricane Florence bore down in September — and then Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle in October — helpful tips from Louisiana started popping up on social media. A news reporter who’d covered Katrina cautioned anyone in the zone to put ice cream in zipped bags, to avert a mess in the event of a long power outage (or just eat it, more than one commenter suggested). A law professor with a social justice bent posted advice for survivors: Housing is scarce and rents skyrocket after major disasters, so lobby for freezes on rent and a moratorium on evictions; because contractor fraud is rampant, don’t pay anyone in advance; amplify the voices of those who are often unheard, including nursing home residents, the disabled, immigrants, and prisoners.
Lobby for freezes on rent and a moratorium on evictions. Don’t pay contractors in advance. And put ice cream in zipped bags, in case of a power outage.
Just about everyone around is an expert to some extent, and some organizations have developed real, exportable expertise. A group that started its life as the hyper-local St. Bernard Project, a volunteer effort to get people from a badly damaged community outside New Orleans back into their homes, has now morphed into SBP, a non-profit that works around the country to shrink the time between disaster and recovery. SBP has assembled detailed guides on navigating the FEMA, SBA, and insurance bureaucracies, remediating mold, and avoiding contractor fraud. When Florence approached, it quickly deployed several teams to the area.
GNO, Inc., a non-profit economic development alliance, has its own detailed “disaster recovery tool kit,” which covers how to activate a confusing web of government aid programs and create a narrative that doesn’t diminish the need for help, but also stresses that the affected area is open for business. The organization’s executive vice president, Robin Barnes, is a veteran of recovery efforts from 9/11, Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy. After Maria, she traveled to Puerto Rico, which has some particular similarities with New Orleans.
“We have so many things we share,” Barnes says, including high levels of poverty and infrastructure that was already crumbling before the storm. One message she brought was that there can be opportunity in tragedy, that a recovery can create jobs and attract back badly needed tourists. “The thing that people don’t get is how to plan for the future in the midst of a crisis,” she says.
Joining Barnes on the trip was Andy Kopplin, who headed the state-level Louisiana Recovery Authority and now leads the non-profit Greater New Orleans Foundation. In Puerto Rico, he told fellow philanthropy leaders that they can shake loose government money by setting up pilot programs and policy initiatives, having well-designed redevelopment plans, and convincing decision-makers in Washington — Congress, primarily — that they’ll help local leaders spend the money wisely.
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That was an issue after Katrina, when Louisiana’s power in Congress was at a low point and tensions rans high between the Democratic governor and Republican White House and Congress. The state eventually won billions in aid, but Kopplin said that only happened after the politicians put aside their rivalries and presented a united front.
For Louisianans, presenting a united front in these situations has become second nature when a storm hits, both at the official level and in impromptu, grassroots groups. Before Hurricane Katrina struck 13 years ago, Sins was working in sales and living in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood, not far from one of the drainage canals that had been built to funnel water out of the low-lying city. After a shoddily-constructed flood wall disintegrated during the storm, the water poured instead into the low-lying city and filled Sins’ home. The 18-month-displacement that followed was a life-altering, soul-searching event, one that eventually led Sins to a new path running a cooking school and creating connections with dozens of area chefs.
When floodwaters struck in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008, Sins traveled north to cook. By the time huge swaths of Baton Rouge and vicinity went under during a torrential 2016 rainstorm, she was seasoned enough to organize thousands of meals at a shelter. In 2017, when Hurricane Harvey parked itself over Houston, Sins coordinated food delivery through the Cajun Navy, a loose group of boaters who headed west to help in the rescue.
And when word came that Florence was on the move and mass flooding was likely, she sprang into action, booked the kitchen at the Second Harvest Food Bank, found an anonymous donor with a private plane to transport the sealed, frozen food to its eventual destination of New Bern, North Carolina. (She’s planning a similar operation for Hurricane Michael next week.)
Natalie Jayroe, president of Second Harvest, stopped in to watch the Hurricane Florence food prep as she was preparing to fly out to Raleigh a few days later. She too is a a pro at this by now, and she brings an on-the-ground understanding of specific situational needs (think bottled water, non-perishable food, buckets, bleach and diapers). Her assignment for the trip was to lead an assessment of the local groups’ demands and resources, but as a veteran of the chaotic aftermath of a storm, she was ready for anything.
“If they need me to load and drive a truck, I’ll do it,” she said.
Darren Goldin is co-founder and head of farming operations for Entomo Farms, which raises crickets for human consumption. The crickets are ground into powder, then sold in products including protein bars and baked goods.
What was your career before you started farming bugs? My younger brother and I started a business that manufactured percussion instruments. That closed down when the economy crashed after 9/11. Then we started Reptile Feeders, which produces insects for pets and zoos and rescue centers. We had been doing that for about eight years when we started Entomo Farms.
What was the inspiration for farming crickets as a human food source? The biggest impetus was a U.N. report in 2013 on global food security. Insects have an incredible potential to sustainably feed 2 billion more people expected [on the planet] by 2050.
In response to someone saying, “That is gross,” I will remind them where steak and hamburger come from.
What’s your most persuasive line to get someone to taste a cricket? If someone’s not interested, I don’t try too hard to convince them. But in response to someone saying, “That is gross,” I will remind them where steak and hamburger come from.
What’s the most interesting insect you’ve eaten? A sakundry. It’s a very fatty, delicious insect. It tasted like bacon. It’s native to Madagascar but probably no one else outside the country has tasted it.
How much has the edible insect market grown since you got involved? We launched in 2014, and at that point there wasn’t much of an industry. It was a handful of startups. But the growth has been tremendous. Here in Canada, Loblaws has a store brand called President’s Choice, and this spring they launched a pure cricket powder. That really legitimized the industry and created access to the product in a way that has never existed, certainly not in North America.
How is your farm set up? We have three barns of about 20,000 square feet. Each houses 40 to 50 million crickets. It’s similar in setup to a chicken farm. Like chickens, our crickets take six weeks to harvest. One of the cool things about insect farming is we harvest them at the end of their natural life. Compare that to chickens, cows, and pigs — all those animals we eat as infants.
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Describe a typical workday. In the morning I meet with my manager, and we do a full walkthrough of the farming operation. Crickets are finicky, so we have to change things pretty frequently. Our goal always is to increase the density to drive down the cost. I spend a fair amount of time researching other types of farming and how they’ve mechanized and scaled.
What’s a weird tool you use for work? The egg flats made for [industrial] chicken farmers and the partitions used in the wine industry. We use them both for growing the crickets on.
What’s for lunch? I’m eating one of our partner’s cricket protein bars, CrickStart. It has 12 grams of protein.
In a weather disaster, the worst day of someone's life can be a reporter's big break
By Jessica Palombo Gustafson
“Bring rain boots today. You’re going to get wet.”
That’s the email I just got from my new boss. It’s June 26, 2012, my third week of my first real job as a public radio reporter for WFSU, the NPR affiliate for Tallahassee and much of the Florida Panhandle. Tropical Storm Debby is on track to arrive after spawning deadly tornadoes to our south, and a relentless rain has already been inundating the roads and seeping inside homes in our lowest-lying areas.
In the sleepier parts of Florida, catastrophic weather is one of the surest bets for a local public radio reporter to get national pickup. The worst day of someone’s life can also mean a reporter’s big break. And so — despite the fact that it’s my birthday and I have plans — I look out at our sodden parking lot teeming with frogs and brownish-pink worms and agree to do the story. I try to avoid squishing any wriggling fauna with my polka-dotted rain boots as I trudge toward my little red Toyota Yaris.
Storm reporting is basically a rite of passage for journalists in the South. It involves driving into the bad weather, rather than away from it like most sane evacuees. It requires scoping out shelters to interview those evacuees, though it doesn’t hurt to know where they are in case things get hairy. And it requires a bit of editorial gymnastics. Editors, especially on a national level, want a hurricane story to be as harrowing as possible — not to mention infused with authentic “local color” — despite the fact that reporting, even in a catastrophe, can sometimes be ridiculously mundane. It’s a lot of driving, a lot of waiting, and a lot of hours in less-than-exciting locales.
As children scream in the background, the call ends with his parting command: “I need to hear a thick Southern accent in this story.”
Take the place I find myself mid-morning: a squat, cinder block emergency operations center of a neighboring rural county. Florida Governor Rick Scott has stopped in to talk to local emergency managers about preparedness, and to make sure the news cameras get clear shots of him looking prepared. As I walk out of the building, I end up face to face with the governor for the first time ever. I shake his hand, wondering if I register as a reporter in his eyes.
He’s on his way to the Sopchoppy River in coastal Wakulla County. This part of the Panhandle is getting the brunt of Debby’s rain, and might be my opportunity: a governor’s surveying the scary rising water is exactly the kind of “scene” NPR will want to bring this story to life.
But following a governor in a tropical storm isn’t so easy. Windshield wipers on full blast, I squint through the gray sheet of rain as I begin following Scott’s caravan of black SUVs down a two-lane back road. Judging by his speed, the governor’s chauffeur hasn’t noticed the copious standing water that covers the roadway. I’m struggling to keep up as we zoom mile after waterlogged mile toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Eventually, I realize that if I go any farther, there’s no way I will be able to get back and put a short local version of the story together before the afternoon show starts airing at 4 p.m. But that means I won’t be getting that “rushing river” sound that I know the editors are looking for. I watch the governor disappear around a curve, and dread starts rising from my stomach as I pull into a Family Dollar parking lot. I’m still in the probationary period of my hiring and it feels like I’m failing my first big test.
I dial my national editor in Washington, D.C. “He’s the fastest governor alive. It’s still raining. I have nothing,” I say. The editor is taking his kids to a swim lesson and doesn’t mind letting me know he’s in a hurry to get off the phone.
As children scream in the background, the call ends with his parting command: “I need to hear a thick Southern accent in this story.”
Now, I’m legitimately worried. This region is sprawling and rural; I can’t just go into a dense downtown area bustling with dozens of potential interview subjects. And we’re in the middle of a storm. Driving in any direction and finding anyone, let alone someone who can tell a harrowing, radio-ready tale and sound like Blanche Devereaux while doing it, is a crapshoot, and I’m running out of time. Still squinting through the rain, I pass through a tiny town called Panacea on my way back to the station. I stop at a roadside diner called Coastal Restaurant. It’s the first place I’ve seen in several miles that isn’t a house.
Inside, the waitress tells me that the night before, when she tried to drive home after her shift, a fast-moving current of water had suddenly swirled over the street in front of her, basically turning it into a river, but she kept going thanks to her heavy-duty ride.
“I drive a Ford F-150 pickup truck, thank goodness!” she drawls into my microphone. Got my soundbite. I glance down and mentally note the time code on my digital recorder.
Back at the radio station, the evening wears on, and I play phone tag with the editor, shaping the story as he feeds his kids dinner. As he times me, I read him my script and play the day’s “tape,” including a clip from a state meteorologist warning people not to drive through flooded streets.
“Turn around, don’t drown,” she says.
“Oh, that’s so weird and morbid,” he says without a laugh. “Keep it in.”
Despite the governor’s driver’s best efforts, I hadn’t come close to drowning that day. I traded a mostly tedious, occasionally frustrating 12-hour workday for the crowning achievement of my short career: hearing my voice on the national airwaves.
The next morning, I awake before 7 to catch the story live along with millions of strangers. Still in bed, I grin as I hear “For NPR News, I’m Jessica Palombo in Tallahassee.”
It’s one of the best days of my life. But the conundrum of disaster reporting is that for many others, the storm has been devastating. Miles down the road, some of my neighbors are returning home to find water covering their floors. They won’t ever be able to move back in because of the mold that will fester in their walls and carpet. Tropical Storm Debby will be blamed for at least seven deaths by the time it moves across Florida and out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Meanwhile, my phone lights up as friends and family text to congratulate me.
In a town surrounded by water, we faced down a water shortage
By Neo Maditla
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — At first, the idea that Cape Town would soon run out of water felt like a big joke. The ocean was right there; I could smell it from my house. How could we be out of water?
We were. Following a years-long stretch of severe drought, the South African seaside city was fast approaching what government officials were calling “Day Zero,” when municipal taps would run dry. Around June last year, signs cropped up in restaurants, hotels, and offices pleading with us not to flush toilets unless it was completely necessary, and to opt for waterless hand sanitizers instead of washing our hands.
If the water did run out — which looked all but certain — residents would have to queue up at one of 200 water collection points to get our rations.
The irony was that water was a big reason I’d returned to Cape Town, after two years away in bustling Johannesburg. I looked forward to the city’s unique pleasures: the slower pace, the time around September when a drive along the coast meant the possibility of spotting a few whales, the ability to hop on a taxi and go read a book at the beach.
But when I moved back in May last year, water, which was integral to Cape Town’s beachy, relaxed feel, was making things tense. There were near fights in restaurant bathrooms over whether to flush. It was commonplace to walk into a bathroom stall and find the toilet yellowed and flushed with unstuffed toilet paper. Even in comfortable, leafy Cape Town suburbs, residents lined up daily at natural springs to collect water.
As an environmental journalist, I’d heard this could happen. For years, conservation activists, scientists, and NGOs had been warning about the precariousness of the region’s water situation. We had arrived here, on the brink of Day Zero, due to a combination of factors. Cape Town’s population has exploded over the past two decades — from 2.4 million people in 1995 to 4.3 million in 2018, a 79 percent increase. Over the same period, dam storage for the city had only increased by 15 percent, so water reserves were falling behind.
Then for three straight winters, the “wet season” in this part of the world, the rains didn’t come. By December last year, the biggest dam supplying water to Cape Town, the Theewaterskloof Dam, was filled with nothing but sand; a few years ago it was overflowing. And Cape Town is not the only South African city at risk of severe drought. Last year, Johannesburg also came under water restrictions when water levels for the Vaal Dam, its main water reserve, reached below 25 percent.
The uncertainty of basic necessities like water had long been a concern of Cape Town’s poor. The Day Zero crisis was a rare equalizer.
I had lived with water restrictions before. I grew up in a township in landlocked Pretoria toward the end of Apartheid. For me and other mostly black, low-income South Africans, it was not unusual to wake up to dry taps or no electricity without warning. We got used to it; that was how things worked. When my family and I noticed a drop in the water pressure, we filled a few buckets with enough water to ensure that we could bathe and cook the next day.
In Cape Town, too, we made adjustments that quickly became habit. I took short showers, collected the water in a bucket and used it to flush the toilet when needed. Since the tap water was unsafe to drink, I started stocking up on bottled (it takes 3 litres of fresh water to produce 1 litre of bottled water; this irony wasn’t lost on me.).
The water shortage changed the way I related to other people. Scorn was reserved for those who dared to fill their swimming pools or bathtubs. My heart filled with dread when I had friends over who flushed with every trip to the bathroom. I stopped hosting too many people at my home in fear of using more water than necessary.
Cape Town’s unmatched natural beauty, its white sandy beaches, mountains, and vineyards, is offset by deep, ugly inequality. The uncertainty of basic necessities like water had long been a concern of the city’s poor, who are often ignored unless they take to the streets in protest.
The Day Zero crisis was a rare, if unwelcome, equalizer. It forced city leaders and politicians to reckon with a plan for running a city without a water supply. And they weren’t ready. No one could explain the details: What would happen to citizens who couldn’t make the trip to the water collection points? How would officials keep track of how much water people were collecting? How would the collection rules apply to people who were renting their homes or living in big apartment complexes? A Cape Town after Day Zero looked like absolute chaos.
Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that. Not yet. The predicted Day Zero date kept being pushed back, and thanks to a combination of conservation efforts from fellow residents and long overdue rain, it will not happen in 2018.
It’s now winter, the wet season. It’s raining as I type this. The water collection buckets, however, remain in place. People are encouraged to keep heeding the restrictions, and the city’s desalination plants have kicked into gear to add to water reserves.
The short-term crisis has passed, but this is our new reality. I used to dread the coming of the winter rains each year; now I embrace them fully. I smile at the thought of a friend’s Cape Town vacation threatened by rain. And the sound of the buckets filling up outside brings me as much joy as a trip to the beach once did.
Neo Maditla is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.