Even most scientists don’t know that this famous climate theory is flawed, researchers say

Even most scientists don’t know that this famous climate theory is flawed, researchers say

By Caroline Catherman, Dec. 30, 2020 –
New research has found a big flaw in one of the most widely accepted theories about earth’s climate, Milutin Milankovitch’s century-old theory of ice ages. This evidence, which echoes past findings, means that some long-term climate predictions could be more inaccurate than scientists realize, the researchers said. But they worry that this vital information won’t become general knowledge for years.

“It takes about a generation of new scientists to remove older ideas and bring newer ideas in,” said Thomas Lowell, professor of geology at the University of Cincinnati, during the recent Comer Climate Conference, an annual national conference held over Zoom this year.

Milankovitch proposed that cyclical changes in earth’s wobble, orbit shape and tilt relative to the sun cause ice ages. Figures are not to scale. (Animations and facts from nasa.climate.gov.)


The theory in question proposes that gradual changes in our planet’s movements and position add up over time to vary how much solar radiation reaches Earth. This variation in solar radiation affects whether each hemisphere experiences periods of cooler or warmer summers. Milankovitch predicted that thousands of years of colder summers cause ice ages.

“If you surveyed 100,000 geologists, 99,099 would say that’s correct, in terms of causing ice ages. But it has one big problem,” said Brenda Hall, a professor of glacial & quaternary studies at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute. 

The theory’s hidden undoing

Milankovitch predicts that ice ages would occur at opposite times in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. When one hemisphere was having cold summers, and heading towards an ice age, the other would be having warm summers, heading away from an ice age.

But Hall and Lowell’s new research from the Falkland Islands corroborates recent research in New Zealand by suggesting that the two hemispheres experienced the last major ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago, at nearly the same time. 

These findings, currently undergoing peer review for publication, mean that scientists may not fully understand why the planet goes in and out of ice ages, said Hall.

This, Hall said, is crucial to understanding climate change.

“If we want to have any hope of making climate predictions, we need to know how the different pieces of the system work,” she said.

Hall added that researchers should begin considering other theories. One older theory is the idea that, rather than gradually shifting in and out of ice ages, earth’s climate rapidly changes due to sudden triggers. If true, this would have troubling implications for Earth’s future climate.

“If we can have ice age cycles, these massive changes in climate, because of very small changes … that tells us that a very small change could produce a big reaction. And we’re in the process of initiating one of those changes,” Hall said, referring to human-caused increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

But before many climate researchers will reconsider whether this theory is accurate, they must be convinced that the issue is up for debate.

Scientists are battling to replace a broken theory

Convincing scientists to consider alternative theories is a long process that some people have been attempting since as far back as 1984, when John Mercer published a paper with evidence of simultaneous ice ages.

“I feel like there have been some proposals as to, ‘what else could it be?’” said Meredith Kelly, associate professor of earth science at Dartmouth College. “Until we figure that out, and it’s really well tested, and well-explained, it’s not going to show up in textbooks.” 

Lowell said that scientists in older generations are the biggest defenders of Milankovitch because they were taught to regard his theory as fact.

“If you look at the world, and everybody tells you it’s flat for 40 years … and you walk around and you discover that it’s not flat … you’re gonna have problems convincing people who haven’t traveled out of their flat sphere that the earth is round,” Lowell said. 

Why Milankovitch’s theory gained acceptance

Several prominent studies have appeared to support Milankovitch’s theory. A 1976 study, for example, found evidence of a correlation between earth’s cycle in and out of ice ages and the so-called Milankovitch cycles. Lowell said these findings were strong enough that many people thought the issue was resolved, even though there was no evidence that this was a cause and effect relationship. 

southern hemisphere research
Hall and Lowell’s research in the Falkland Islands took them to the top of Mount Osborne, where they used surface exposure dating to track ice ages by mapping the advance and retreat of glaciers over thousands of years. (Brenda Hall)


It also took a long time to build evidence against Milankovitch because the Southern Hemisphere wasn’t as well studied as the Northern Hemisphere. When scientists found evidence that the Southern Hemisphere came out of the ice age at the same time as the north, the evidence was initially dismissed as a fluke, said Lowell. 

The new generation of scientists is key

“[The Milankovitch Theory] made sense. It wasn’t until you get into the details that you start pulling a thread, and it starts unraveling,” Lowell said. “It’s taken a long time… to get to where we are today.” 

Lowell hopes that scientists in the next generation will weave up a new idea with the unraveled Milankovitch thread. For her part, Meredith Kelly has done her best to correct the canonical theory during her 12 years of teaching an intro to geology class, even as she gives her students a textbook that reveres Milankovitch.

“One of the students on the first day asked me if I was going to teach about Milankovitch, and I told her, ‘Yes, but I’m going to tell you that he’s wrong,’” Kelly said with a laugh. 

Professors such as Kelly give Lowell hope. 

“Science will march on,” he concluded.

Caroline Catherman covers health, environment, and science news at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @CECatherman.

A new glacial chronology lays the groundwork for understanding how modern ice sheets respond to climate change

A new glacial chronology lays the groundwork for understanding how modern ice sheets respond to climate change

By Grace Rodgers, Dec. 18, 2020 –

Researchers have long tracked the timing and retreat patterns of the North American Laurentide ice sheet, the greatest ice sheet to exist in the Ice Age. During that time, nearly two-thirds of the rise in the global sea level was caused by the melting of the Laurentide — the majority of which occurred over 10,000 years.

“That’s an interesting, dynamic problem. In many senses, they’re very few other elements that size on the planet that change that rapidly,” said Thomas Lowell, a geology professor at the University of Cincinnati.

For over 40 years, Lowell has studied the Laurentide and tracked two key behaviors the ice sheet exhibited during climate changes: the amount of meltwater and ice margin retreat. Lowell presented his most recent research on these two behaviors at the annual Comer Climate Conference, an annual summit where climate scientists from around the world gather to present emerging research.

Over a five-year research process, Lowell and a team of scientists assembled the first-ever annual chronology tracking the amount of meltwater released and the rate at which the Laurentide retreated. The chronology begins nearly 12,700 years ago and spans a 1,500-year transition between the late Younger Dryas, a geologic interval of colder temperatures, and the Holocene boundary, a geologic interval of warmer temperatures.

Lowell predicted the measurements would show a slower retreat rate and less meltwater during the cold interval, and a faster retreat rate and more meltwater during the warm interval. However, the chronology revealed the meltwater doubled at the transition between the cold and warm interval, while the ice sheet retreated at a constant rate.

“If you melt a glacier more, you expect it to shrink faster. But the interval that we recorded, [the retreat rate] didn’t seem to be paying attention [to the temperature],” said Lowell. “Even though it was melting faster, it was still backing up and retreating at the same rate.”

While melting in warmer temperatures was expected, Lowell was surprised the glacier retreated at the same rate despite the higher meltwater.

“There’s nothing super exciting about the [meltwater] findings, but coupled with the [retreat rate] findings, they seemingly conflict with each other,” said Lowell.

The team of scientists working on the frozen ice using measuring equipment.
The team of scientists spent roughly four weeks researching and plotting core sites for the varve chronology. Afterward, the team spent roughly six weeks collecting the sediment cores across frozen lakes in Central North America. (Dr. Andy Breckenridge//University of Wisconsin)

To quantify the amount of glacial meltwater, Lowell and the team of scientists recovered roughly 1,000 meters total of sediment cores, one meter at a time across lakes in Central North America. Back in the lab, scientists measure the core’s “varves”, the thickness of sediment layers deposited in one year. Each varve indicates the amount of melting that occurred in one year: the thicker the layer, the more meltwater.

Altogether, the sediment cores serve as a chronology of meltwater. Measuring varve units can be critical for assessing the response of both past and present ice sheets to climate change.

“[Varves] were an archive that we really needed to understand the ice,” said Dr. Andy Breckenridge, lead author and a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin. “We knew the record was there and we designed a strategy where we were going after modern lakes to reconstruct it.”

The Geographic Information System equipment taking a photo of a sediment core.
Using a Geographic Information System at the University of Minnesota, Breckenridge captures a high-resolution image of the sediment cores to measure each varve. (Dr. Andy Breckenridge//University of Wisconsin)

Breckenridge measured each sediment core, beginning by taking high-resolution scans to survey the varve thickness and color. Lighter layers indicate summer seasons, meaning the sediment is coarser due to warmer temperatures. Darker layers indicate winter seasons, meaning the sediment finer grain due to colder temperatures. Once tallied on a spreadsheet, Breckenridge identifies thickness patterns to organize the varve chronology.

While one half of the cores are used for data collection, the other half is stored in a refrigerated warehouse allowing researchers from around the world to come and study the chronological cores.

“[Other researchers] are going to be able to request samples from our cores,” Breckenridge said. “And that’s already happened at some of our sites. I know some of our cores have been used for a carbon storage question”

Now that these findings are published, Lowell’s current research question asks: are these melting patterns a behavior of the whole ice sheet or just a small part of it, and if so, is that small part important. Further research into past and present glacial melting is critical to help us understand sea level change that threatens the livelihood of millions around the world.

“The ice sheets have the potential to change sea level, enough to really matter to society,” said Lowell.

Grace Rodgers is health, environment and science reporters at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @gracelizrodgers.

Trump warns the Green New Deal will ‘take out the cows.’ Here’s the science showing why that’s a myth.

Trump warns the Green New Deal will ‘take out the cows.’ Here’s the science showing why that’s a myth.

By Carlyn Kranking and Grace Rodgers, Nov. 19, 2020 –

At the first 2020 Presidential debate, President Donald Trump said that Green New Deal supporters “want to take out the cows” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only is this claim untrue, but eliminating cows, which notoriously produce the greenhouse gas methane, isn’t necessary to address climate change, according to University of Oxford researchers.

“It would be good if you maybe ate less beef, had less milk — but we don’t need to completely get rid of all the cows,” said John Lynch, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford.

Lynch studies ways to anticipate the impacts of greenhouse gases and suggests that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is more important to address than methane. It takes much less time to reverse the impact of methane emissions than it does to undo the effects of carbon dioxide, so it’s possible to delay addressing methane, he said. His suggestion has huge implications, because the way greenhouse gases are reported and compared in policies today doesn’t make it clear how differently these gases behave.

The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a metric used to compare how much different greenhouse gases will warm the atmosphere across a given period into the future. Organizations including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publish the GWP in their reports.

However, Lynch’s research shows that, for some purposes, the GWP metric may be misleading. Reporting all gases as though they were on the same playing field, experts say, does not account for key differences between them, especially between methane and carbon dioxide.

“Metrics that try and treat the gases in the same way are always going to have limitations,” Lynch said.

A figure from Lynch’s report demonstrates the differing effects of carbon dioxide and methane on warming over time.

In the first few decades after it’s emitted, methane causes more warming per kilogram than carbon dioxide does. Methane, however, breaks down after about 12 years, while carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, warming the planet for millennia.

Calculating warming potential over 100 years, for instance, does not account for how strongly methane warms the planet initially, nor does it account for the full effects that CO2 emissions will have.

So, if the GWP measurement is misleading, what does this mean for potential policies based on that statistic?

It would be best to cut both carbon dioxide and methane emissions, Lynch said. But because governments have limited will and resources to address the problem, he said it is more important to achieve net zero carbon emissions before cutting methane.

“If we prioritize the methane, first we will have a large quick benefit” as methane levels in the atmosphere rapidly fall, Lynch said. “But in the meantime, we will have carried on emitting all the CO2 that we decided not to bother with because methane looks easy. And then, in a couple of decades, we’ll be stuck with that CO2 warming, whereas if we just delayed our action on methane, we’d still be able to reverse that.”

Still, governments should not ignore methane emissions in climate policy, as all greenhouse gases warm the planet, Lynch said. But ultimately, the most important thing to do is to get to net zero carbon dioxide, because that’s the gas with the longest-lasting and biggest impact on global warming.

“There’s a lot of harm in delaying things that address carbon emissions,” said physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert, a professor and statutory chair in the physics department at the University of Oxford.

These long-lasting emissions will warm the planet, causing more extreme weather conditions, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. The longer it takes to reach net-zero CO2 emissions, the more severe these effects will be.

That’s why Lynch feels we “don’t really have a choice” on whether or not to decrease carbon emissions.

“All of your energy needs to be decarbonized,” Lynch said. “If we don’t, we’ll never stop the temperature going up.”

Carlyn Kranking and Grace Rodgers are Health, Environment and Science reporters at Medill. You can follow them on Twitter at @carlyn_kranking and @gracelizrodgers. 

Tropical glaciers are melting fast: Looking for clues to climate change

Tropical glaciers are melting fast: Looking for clues to climate change

Madhurita Goswami, Dec. 18, 2019

Most of us associate glaciers with Antarctica or the northern ice-sheets of the Arctic and Greenland. It may come as a surprise that scientists Alice M. Doughty and Meredith Kelly are studying tropical glaciers at the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda to improve our understanding of climate change.

The Rwenzori lies only 23 minutes north of the Equator and almost 30 degrees east of the Prime Meridian. There are glaciers here because the life cycle of tropical glaciers isn’t about location but height. Reaching Rwenzori’s glaciers means climbing at least 4,000 meters (more than 13,000 feet) above sea level just to get to the foot of them. Still, in a warming world, height can’t protect these once mammoth ice formations as they rapidly retreat.

Even for Kelly, the term glacier raises images of classic ice masses in the Swiss Alps, which partially melt during the summer and then grow again in the winter due to snowfall.

Meredith Kelly leads expeditions to sample moraines at the Rwenzori glaciers. (Abigail Foerstner)

“Tropical glaciers are really different because summer and winter temperatures are almost the same,” said Kelly, an associate professor of Earth Science at Dartmouth College.

Studies on tropical glaciers have confirmed that they reached their maximum extent around the same time that high-latitude glaciers were at their maximum during the last great ice age some 18,000 years ago. This tells scientists that there was a synchronized warming at the end of the last ice age.

“Tropics are located far from mechanisms of climate change such as summer insolation [exposure to the sun] in northern high latitudes or direct effect of ice-sheets. So, they might be responding to CO2 (carbon dioxide) or other mechanisms we haven’t defined yet,” Kelly said at the 2019 Comer Climate Conference held in southwestern Wisconsin in early October.

CO2 is a greenhouse gas is warming the Earth as it collects in the atmosphere at ever higher levels due to emissions from human use of fossil fuels that include coal, gasoline and natural gas.

Alice Doughty works on glacial models based on data obtained from the Rwenzori glaciers. (Abigail Foerstner)

Kelly proposed that the temperature gradient between the poles and the tropics might have played a role. When the gradient is smaller, there is less outflow of heat from the tropics.

For a long time, scientists puzzled over factors driving changes in tropical glaciers. Initially, they attributed the main cause to precipitation as seasons in the tropics can be divided into wet and dry.

However, “tropical glaciers couldn’t have advanced (during the last glacial maximum) due to precipitation alone. There had to have been substantial cooling at high altitudes,” said Doughty, a visiting assistant professor of geology at Bates College. “We don’t have strong thermal seasons in the tropics. So, these glaciers were/are responding to what’s happening in the tropical atmosphere.”

A vast number of tropical glaciers are in the Andes in South America. Others are on Mt. Kenya in Kenya, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some are located in Papua, New Guinea.

“It takes a village” – How locals are helping researchers in Uganda

Researchers studying tropical glaciers, which are relatively small, face some unique challenges. Not the least of them is having to hike up mountains with their equipment for days on end. They can’t reach the sites by helicopters or cars. Local guides, who know the mountain trails, become essential to their success.

Moraines (ridges of boulders) left behind by retreating glaciers are used to determine their past extents. However, looking for boulders in the Rwenzori Mountains is like playing a game of hide and seek, said Doughty, who works on glacial modeling. As many as 58 people have to work on finding these boulders in the woods. “It takes a village,” said Doughty.

“It is difficult to find these boulders as they are covered with vegetation, which can be up to a meter thick,” said Kelly, who samples the moraine boulders. In this case, too, locals help to cut down the overgrowth with their machetes.

The mat of vegetation conceals massive gaps between boulders, Doughty said and hinted at the risk of accidents. But walking is the only way to find boulders, which can’t be spotted from space or with drones.

Tropical glaciers on the peaks of the Rwenzori Mountians in Uganda are small and rapidly receding (Meredith Kelly/Alice Doughty)

Doughty, at first, was uncomfortable with the idea of guides and porters, and the dynamics of teaming everyone together. “So, we talked about jobs in the area. In mountain communities, being a porter is a huge part of that and some were raising money to go to college. I realized we were supporting the economy,” she said.

Rwenzori is also the name of a national park managed by a government agency, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and it also runs the porter service. “We have really benefited from its system, which allows us to find collaborators in Uganda,” Kelly said.

Photo at top: Local guides play an important role in finding boulders left behind by retreating glaciers. (Meredith Kelly)

Khumbu Glacier in Nepal offers clues to rapid retreat of ice

Khumbu Glacier in Nepal offers clues to rapid retreat of ice

By Anne Snabes, Dec. 19, 2019 –

The Khumbu Glacier in the Himalayas retreated rapidly in the past, offering clues to how the glacier will behave in the future, University of Maine research suggests.

Laura Mattas, a master’s student at the university, conducted field research this summer on the Khumbu Glacier in Nepal. She presented her research this fall at the Comer Climate Conference, an annual meeting in Wisconsin of climate scientists from across the country.

According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, glaciers globally are retreating at “unprecedented rates.” A glacier can retreat by shortening in length or by thinning. In the Khumbu Valley, Mattas and her colleagues found moraines, which are rock and other sediment that were inside, on top of or below a glacier and that were altered by the glacier. The location of the moraines indicated that the glacier retreated quickly at some point since the last ice age. Mattas said that the glacier is able to undergo a “large and rapid change,” which means that it may also change rapidly in the future.

“If that’s the case, that’s a lot of meltwater that’s flowing down valley,,” she said. “Who knows if there’s the infrastructure to deal with” the surge.

Laura Mattas, a master’s student at the University of Maine, is following the retreat of the Khumbu Glacier. (Anne Snabes/MEDILL)

Mattas and other researchers collected 77 samples of rock from the valley, which can demonstrate how the glacier has behaved from the last ice age to today.

“That could predict what the future warming of this area looks like,” she said, “because if it’s known to go fast and just give all that meltwater, then it could be predicting that this glacier is … going through an irreversible retreat.”

Mattas said she and the research group found moraines at a village called Dingboche and at a nearby settlement called Lobuche. A scientist previously found that the moraines in Dingboche were formed during the last ice age. The moraines at Lobuche, on the other hand, are more modern, but Mattas still has to determine their exact date.

The scientists did not see any moraines between Dingboche and Lobuche.

“As we walked from Dingboche to Lobuche, there was absolutely nothing,” Mattas said.

The lack of moraines between the two locations suggests that the glacier melted quickly. If the glacier had retreated more gradually, it would have formed moraines about every few thousand years, so the terrain would show several lines of moraines in the space between Dingboche and Lobuche.

Mattas said a glacier has to sit in one place long enough to form moraines. But in this case, the glacier moved too quickly.

Mattas’ conclusion that the Khumbu Glacier retreated quickly is a preliminary field observation, but it still needs to be supported by data. The samples of rock that Mattas and her colleagues collected may provide the evidence needed to back her claim. They retrieved the rock by drilling holes in boulders. The scientists will employ a technique called Beryllium-10 dating, which can tell them the age of the moraines. This age gives researchers an approximation of when the glacier retreated, according to Mattas.

The research team sits by moraines that were formed by the Khumbu Glacier. The research trip was part of National Geographic and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Extreme Exhibition: Everest. Photo courtesy of Laura Mattas.

Sidney Hemming, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, said she agrees that in order to accommodate the researchers’ observations, there had to be a “really quick retreat.” Hemming said that it does not really matter what the ages of the two moraine belts are.

“The fact that there’s this big space in between them with no moraines in there means that there had to be a rapid retreat, right?” she explained.

Mattas said she and other researchers are currently studying the past so they can learn what the Khumbu Glacier is capable of doing in the future.

“We’re trying to see how it reacted in the past,” she said, “and from that data, we hope to then use a predictive model to see if that is possible in what we’re seeing today.”

Photo at top: The Khumbu Glacier retreated rapidly at some point between the last ice age and today, and Laura Mattas is trying to determine the exact date of the retreat. She and her colleagues conducted research in the Khumbu Valley as a part of National Geographic and Rolex’s Perpetual Planet Extreme Exhibition: Everest. Photo courtesy of Laura Mattas.

Tiny shells reveal clues to ocean health in North Pacific

Tiny shells reveal clues to ocean health in North Pacific

By Anne Snabes, Dec. 19, 2019 –

Calcium carbonate, a primary ingredient in the shells of tiny marine organisms, reduces the acidification of our world’s oceans.

The ocean is approximately 30% more acidic than when the Industrial Revolution began, and carbon dioxide emissions from human use of fossil fuels have greatly contributed to this increase.

When microscopic organisms called zooplankton and phytoplankton die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, and their calcium carbonate shells dissolve. This process makes the ocean less acidic. But new research suggests that scientists don’t fully understand how calcium carbonate dissolves in the ocean.

This ostracod, which is a kind of zooplankton, has a calcium carbonate shell. (Wikimedia Commons/ Anna Syme)

Kassandra Costa, a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts  found that calcium carbonate dissolves at a shallower sea floor depth in the North Pacific Ocean than scientists predicted. She presented her research this October at the Comer Climate Conference, an annual meeting of climate scientists in Southwest Wisconsin. Costa told the Medill News Service that there could be a problem with how scientists predict the depth at which calcium carbonate dissolves.

Kassandra Costa talks about clues to climate change revealed in tiny shells at the Comer Climate Conference in October. (Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)

Costa said that when carbon dioxide enters the ocean, it reacts with water and carbonate ions to produce bicarbonate. When calcium carbonate dissolves in water, carbonate ions are produced. This process replenishes the carbonate ions that were used up by carbon dioxide when it entered the ocean.

Costa said carbonate ions pick up some of the protons (positive particles in atoms) in the water, which makes the water less acidic. Because calcium carbonate is a source of the carbonate ion, it reduces ocean acidification.

Calcium carbonate dissolution makes the ocean less acidic. (Photo: Flickr/Joe Lin. Text in graphic/Anne Snabes)

“When calcium carbonate dissolves in the ocean, as she mentioned, that essentially buffers the acidity that is added by CO2,” said Jerry McManus, a geochemistry professor at Columbia University.

Costa said scientists predicted that calcium carbonate can be found at the bottom of the North Pacific up to depths of 4,400 meters (14,432 feet). This prediction was made using chemistry measurements and theory. Through research, Costa and her colleagues discovered that calcium carbonate can in fact only be found up to depths of about 3,000 meters (9,840 feet) some two-thirds of the predicted value.

Costa sailed in 2014 with other researchers 500 km ( about 311 miles) off the coast of Oregon to the Juan de Fuca Ridge, where she collected sediment from the ocean floor by using a device called a multi-core. She said the researchers gently lower the device to the bottom of the ocean. It punches a hole in the sediment to extract a core of it. Then the researchers bring the instrument and the core back to the boat. The sediment in the multi-core contains clay as well as calcium carbonate from dead zooplankton and phytoplankton.

These tiny organisms are at the bottom of the ocean food chain, feeding other marine species.

Calcium carbonate dissolves in a gradient in the North Pacific. At a depth of 2,300 m (7,544 feet) the sediment at the ocean floor is 60% calcium carbonate and 40% clays. At a 3,000 m sea floor depth, the sediment is only 10% calcium carbonate, as most of the material has dissolved. This means that there is little calcium carbonate in the North Pacific at depths below 3,000 m.

McManus, who also went on the research trip, said Costa’s observation points to the limitation of “broad-brush theoretical constructions.” Costa made actual measurements, instead of solely relying on theory.

Costa said the mismatch between the expected and observed depths suggests that something is missing in our understanding of calcium carbonate dissolution in the sea.

“There’s something extra about the calcium carbonate in the North Pacific that makes it, in actuality, dissolve at much shallower depths than we expected,” she said.

Costa told her audience at the Comer Conference that scientists have already observed calcium carbonate dissolving on the sea floor due to human activity that produces CO2.

Because calcium carbonate is dissolving at shallower depths than predicted, there may be a slightly lower amount of calcium carbonate in the North Pacific than expected. This would mean that calcium carbonate could not compensate for as much carbon dioxide as scientists expected, but more research needs to be done.

Costa said it will take thousands of years for calcium carbonate in the ocean to run out.

“Once that buffer does run out, the acidification of the ocean will proceed much more rapidly,” she explained.

Photo at top: Dan Armhein, Costa and Deborah Leopo work with a sediment core that was collected during a 2017 trip to the North Atlantic. (Courtesy of Kassandra Costa)

Fox in the field: Following the tracks of climate triggers in Mongolia

Fox in the field: Following the tracks of climate triggers in Mongolia

By Stephanie Fox, August 20, 2019 –

I should probably explain that headline.

In mid-July, I left my Illinois home and headed to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. That’s where I met up with two scientists, a high school teacher and a rising university freshman. Together we boarded a plane to Beijing, China, then Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, situated between China and Russia.

The team of scientists, headed by climatologist Aaron Putnam, are tracking the retreat of glaciers from the past ice age for clues to reveal climate triggers that human-forced climate change may be pushing much harder now.

Mongolia is where our crew of travelers conducted this incredible climate research, and I’ll be reporting on the work from the field: Fox in the Field.


So, let me introduce everyone because, let’s be honest, they’re the reason I’m here.

This whole expedition started with Aaron Putnam, assistant professor with the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences. A few years back, Aaron drafted a National Science Foundation grant proposal. It explained the research he and the team I’m with will be doing on this trip. NSF gave the proposal good reviews but didn’t fund it on that first round.

That didn’t stop Aaron. Instead, he wrote a proposal to the Comer Family Foundation who gave him enough funding to cover his first Mongolian trip in 2014 with Ph.D. candidate Peter Strand. They helped perfect a time machine for clocking elements in rock that could tell them when the rocks became ice-free. Then Aaron wrote a second proposal to the NSF. Again, it was rejected, not an unusual pattern for NSF funding. The Comer Family Foundation agreed to support another year of research,  giving Aaron more data, and then NSF funding for a multi-year research program came through.

Speaking of the Comer Family Foundation, I want to mention an exceptionally important individual – Stephanie Comer. She is a member of the Comer family, carrying on the legacy of her father Gary Comer who started the foundation.  Not only does the Comer Family Foundation grant young scientists across the country seed money to launch their research, but it is also responsible for creating the Comer Education Campus on Chicago’s South Side. The campus includes the Gary Comer Youth Center, Gary Comer College Prep, Gary Comer Middle and UTMOSTU. The foundation also has a hand in health care by supporting harm reduction-centered syringe access programs. Stephanie Comer, her son and his friend joined us in Mongolia.

Aaron’s NSF funding covers a high school teacher and a recent high school graduate. I mentioned that the Comer Family Foundation is responsible for Gary Comer College Prep, a Noble Network charter high school located in Chicago’s Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Jess Stevens (an environmental science teacher at the high school) has gone on all of these trips with Aaron and Peter since 2016. Each time she brings along one of her students. This year that student is Patricia Joyner. She just graduated from Gary Comer College Prep, she will be studying with Aaron and Peter at the University of Maine starting this fall as a science major and as Aaron’s undergraduate researcher.

When we got to Ulaanbaatar we met the other half of our team. Boldoo Baatar, Baysaa Todmandakh and Bagi Gurkhlaajar are our drivers and guides. Bagi’s long-time friendship with the man who runs the Altai National Parks is actually the reason Aaron and Peter gained permits to collect glacial samples. Baldoo’s wife Otgoo Nyamdaa and Baysaa are our cooks. Tumur Batbold – Boldoo and Otgoo’s son and a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology along with his classmate Oraza Seribol – are the Mongolian student participants, counterparts of Patricia.

Everyone except for Oraza gathered in Ulaanbaatar for two days where we picked up supplies from a grocery store whose wide range of items reminded us of a Mongolian version of Costco and a generator. We got the generator from an outdoor market where items are sold cheaper than in stores.

From there, we piled into three cars and made the three-day journey to Ulgii, a smaller city in Western Mongolia. That’s where we picked up Oroza.

Next stop: the Altai Mountains to set up camp and start collecting samples.

Now for the science!

So, here’s where things get interesting. In broad terms, Peter’s Ph.D. research involves constructing past glacial chronologies and climate variability using beryllium-10 surface-exposure dating techniques.

What does that mean?

The supernovas in our galaxy are stars dying in an explosion of light and energy. This explosion breaks apart the highly energetic atomic nucleus (the small dense, region at the center of an atom containing positively charged protons and neutrons that have no charge) and hurls these particles through space at near light speed. They’re called cosmogenic rays or, more commonly, cosmic rays.

Due to an interaction with our sun’s magnetic pull, the cosmic rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere in a shower of mostly protons.

These protons, colliding with the atmosphere, rain down streams of secondary particles that interact with the quartz mineral found in rocks, a recipe of one-part silicon and two-parts oxygen. As the particles interact with the quartz, they break apart the silicon and oxygen and leave behind beryllium-10.

And that’s the only way beryllium-10 can be formed – the time machine in the rock. The longer the rock has been exposed to the atmosphere – free of glacial ice – the higher the concentration of beryllium-10, a way to clock the time since the glaciers moved on. That’s what makes what Aaron and Peter are working on so precise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite glaciers appearing to be a solid chunk of ice and snow, they are constantly flowing downward as they grow during ice ages. This means that anything that gets caught in a glacier, gets churned in this conveyor belt until the glaciers begins to recede and tosses aside its debris. And this can happen to rocks, tossed from the glaciers like so many pebbles. While trapped, the glacier not only smooths the rock, but also resets it, decaying all the beryllium-10 back into silicon and oxygen.

Now there are these rocks piling up at the edge of the glacier, with these very distinct characteristics. We call that a moraine. And they once again have access to the secondary particles streaming down from the interaction between cosmic rays and Earth’s atmosphere.

So, beryllium-10 starts forming.

In other words, if a sample is taken that reveals the rock’s quartz to contain 7.6 beryllium-10 atoms, we know that the rock has been exposed to protons for 2 years. The glacier likely receded from the rock only two years before.

Of course, this is just an example, and testing for beryllium-10 is no trivial task, but that gives you an idea of how this all works. The moraine rocks Peter and Aaron are clocking started collecting beryllium-10 when the ice receded thousands of years ago.

So, the next couple of weeks we will be hiking into the Altai Mountain, taking moraine samples and returning them to the United States, where Aaron and Peter will use the information gathered to determine the retreat of glaciers.

Peter will use the data collected in Mongolia, as well as at his other field site in Eastern Tibet to compare the retreat of the glaciers around the world. This will not only reveal how far the glaciers have receded, but also give us an idea of how quickly.

And that’s important. The speed of receding glaciers in the past compared to the present gives us clues about how hard we are pushing climate change with human fossil fuel emissions.

A Journal of Our Research Trip


I met Aaron, Peter, Jess and Patricia at O’Hare International Airport, where we made the 24-hour journey from Chicago to Beijing, China, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Preparation for the trip came in the form of a laundry list of items to acquire (such as a headlamp, sleeping mat, nail clippers and more), a practice hike at Swallow Cliff Woods near North Palos Township, and about a dozen vaccines (Bubonic Plague and rabies are both highly prevalent in Mongolia).

Because of the time change we arrive in Mongolia two days later.


Our Mongolian guides greeted us at Ulaanbaatar Airport. Aaron, Peter and Jess walked into the open arms of Boldoo Baatar, Bagi Gurkhlaajar and Tumur Batold. When Aaron met the Mongols on his first trip to Mongolia in 2014, they were hired helpto drive his crew to their field site, prepare food and keep them safe. Three trips and 5 years later, they’ve become family.

Once picked up, we made the 45-minute drive to our hotel. When we got there, I was handed what looked to be a military dog tag. Confused, I asked Boldoo what to do with it, to which he responded with a single word: “Key.”

When I got to my room, I passed out immediately. After traveling for so many hours—always in sunlight—I was ready to crash.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:00 a.m. and I was up again around 7 a.m. Before our scheduled 9 a.m. breakfast I showered and organized my things.

Breakfast was served in a small coffee shop attached to our hotel. A waiter brought everyone the same thing: toast, sliced tomatoes, eggs, ham and a generous squirt of mustard. I looked down at my plate and quietly pulled out one of my MREs – Meals Ready to Eat to maintain my vegan diet.

When I discovered I would be traveling to Mongolia a few months prior to my departure I had images in my head of vegetable bao and fried tofu—Asian cuisine I’d grown used to feasting on in the States. I imagined eating like a vegetable queen.

But Mongolia is one of the most meat-heavy places on earth. Due to the nomadic history of the country and the firm ground that prevents gardening, meat and milk are the two most common foods. It’s worked for the Mongols for centuries but wasn’t going to work for someone like me—a vegan for 4 years.

That’s why I packed myself two months’ worth of military-style food. Though I was only in Mongolia for one month, Aaron and I were concerned about me either not having enough to eat and getting sick, or my bag getting lost in transit and me being foodless. Because of that, I divided my hiking gear and food into two different bags. Luckily, all of my bags made it, giving me a surplus of food.

After breakfast, Boldoo and Tumur picked up Aaron, Peter and me. We headed to immigration where Peter and I waited to receive visas to stay in the country for more than 30 days. Tumur snagged a number from a machine, like a grocery store deli, and we waited to be called.

When we returned to the hotel, everyone was ready for lunch.

We walked back to the hotel after lunch and split apart again, each heading to our rooms. Desperate to beat my jetlag by not sleeping during the day, I read Ghenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Only, reading brought me to the brink of sleep, so I decided to walk up and down the hotel stairs, getting my blood pumping, and hoping that the activity would keep me awake until dinner.

Our next meal turned out to be well worth the wait. Our guides picked us up and drove us to an Afghan restaurant called Hazara where our table was piled high with naan, samosa, butter chicken and more. I filled my plate high with rice, dal and naan, eating heartily and thinking about how any spoonful could be my last filled with something other than an MRE for weeks.


Jet lag.

I wake up at 1:00 a.m., 3:00 a.m., and 4:00 a.m.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I read through groggy eyes.

Breakfast was set for 8:00 a.m. – back downstairs to the little coffee shop with my MRE oatmeal in hand.

On the menu I saw vegetable juice and excitedly made the order, only to be handed a tomato milkshake. I smiled at my server then pushed the dairy-made beverage to the other side of the table, offering it to Aaron when he entered.

While I spooned up oatmeal, the rest of the crew ate salad covered in orange marmalade and chicken sandwiches.

After breakfast, Boldoo picked up Aaron, Peter and me to grab some miscellaneous items from the Ulaanbaatar black market. Jess and Patricia went with Tumur and his mother Otgoo Nyamdaa. She became  the assistant chef on our trip.

We arrived in a massive lot that looked almost like a flea market except that all of the “shops” were built out of storage units stacked on top of each other. We followed Boldoo as he navigated the winding path, leading us to a storage unit piled high with generators. We buy the generator from
Boldooa man wearing a shirt decorated with marijuana leaves, and sunglasses despite the cloudy sky overhead and head off to buying other supplies.

After purchasing a food tent and 12 chairs, we returned to pick up the generator and watched  same man who had helped us before snip off the plug  and start gnawing on the protective covering to reveal the wire inside. He then fed the wires through a new plug, allowing the generator to be plugged into American outlets.

As the men who’d sold us our goods helped load Boldoo’s pickup truck, we received a call from Jess asking how she should pay for groceries. That’s when Aaron and Peter realized neither of them had given her money. So, we piled into the truck and headed to the grocery store. There, we picked up pickles, meat, ramen and a lot of Snickers bars. These bars  functioned as snacks on the go, second breakfasts and desserts.

Once everything was sorted out, we headed to a Chinese restaurant where we met Baysaa, our primary chef on the trip. Everyone ate rice and lamb ribs and Jasmin tea (only rice and tea for me!). While I nibbled on bread, Tumur attempted to teach Patricia Mongolian words, while Patricia taught Tumur Spanish.


On a gray and stormy morning, we piled into three off-road vehicles and headed to Ulgii, a city in western Mongolia that would end up being our final stop in civilization before heading into the Altais.
The drive covered three nauseating days of car sickness as we navigated sharply winding roads and steep dips. Between breaks at gers for lunch where bone stew and milk tea were served and an impromptu stop to watch about 100 children under the age of 7 race horses, we sped across the rugged terrain. The feeling of the drive oscillated between Disney World’s Raging Mountain and the swinging Viking ships found at every amusement park under the sun. There were times

Multiple stops to deal with one of the car’s faulty fuel pumps made the stomach-churning drive even worse. Each time this happened, we squeezed four people into the back seat of a pickup truck and left the broken car behind to be “fixed”—or at least functional enough to carry on. In order to fit, we threw caution to the wind, and with it, our use of seat belts. Needless to say, whenever we hit a bump our heads collided with the ceiling.

Toilet facilities meant stopping for a squat behind boulders or tall tufts of grass.

On the second evening of our drive we slept under a starlit sky in our four-season tents on a night with weather so perfect it wrapped us in a blanket of warmth and lulled us to sleep.

Our sleeping bags felt like home compared to the middle school dorms our Mongolian guides had found for us to stay in the night before. The school where we had been invited to spend the night had suspicious holes in the walls of unknown origins, wallpaper on the floors and bedframes piled with uneven cardboard under the 2-inch-thick mattresses.

As we walked down the creaking, uneven hall to our rooms, Jess said she was getting “serious Resident Evil vibes.”

All of that melted into a dream as we got back on the road and I watched the landscape shift from city, to desert, to valley, to mountain.

We spent two days in Ulgii, meeting the last official member of the team, Oraza Serikbol. Like Tumur, he is a student at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology (MUST). By inviting MUST students to join the expedition, Aaron has not only found advocated to help obtain permission to sample boulder’s in Mongolia, but he has also provided an incredible opportunity for young Mongolians to see a part of their country they otherwise may never have ventured to.


We left Ulgii and made our way to the first campsite.

After a long day’s drive and setting up camp, we ate dinner—curtesy of Baysaa and Otgoo—and went to sleep.

In the morning the group ate a savory breakfast  of sausages, pickled vegetables and bread with a cheese so glossy everyone double checked to ensure that the plastic covering had been removed, then left behind our guides and approached the base of the mountain. Dark clouds overhead combined with the brisk morning air had convinced me to put on my base layer, sweater, winter coat and raincoat, which made mobility awkward. Our packs were weighed down with water bottles, rain clothes, notebooks and about a pound per person of rice for lunch.

The tools meant for sample collection were divided up among the group. We learned quickly that the power drill, with its weight, hindered a balanced climb and, with its odd shape, made for an impossible  fit inside a hiking pack.

What looked to be a short climb from the bottom of the mountain turned into an hour of heaving loudly and heavy steps. Often, I pushed ahead of the group to snap pictures of their climb only to bend over and grab my cramping side before having time to get out my camera.

Between a gasping breath, I turned to Tumur and joked, “So, you do this all the time, right? Just your morning workout?”

“Yep,” he said, before raising his eyebrows and pushing his lips together to make a straight line. The line shifted into a smile as he let out his own heavy breath. “This is hard.”

Boldoo likes to call Tumur “city boy” because he was raised in Ulaanbaatar. While the city’s diameter is made up of sky-scraping mountains, climbing them for fun isn’t a typical pastime. Tumur only gets this kind of exercise when Aaron and Peter travel to Mongolia.

When we finally made it to a good moraine for sample collections, the clouds had split, and the sun glistened off the tips of the green and yellow grass. We unhooked our packs and let them crash to the ground. Mine made a satisfying clunk as a water bottle carabined to the side made contact with bedrock, sending the water sloshing back and forth.

Tumur and Oraza hopped from rock to rock, bending down to pick up pebbles or to get a better look at scratches made in large pieces of stone. Jess and Patricia—the last two to make it up the mountain—sat down to catch their breath. Aaron and Peter walked through the low grass, setting their hands on boulders and letting their palms run across the tops.

They were feeling for the smooth polish that identifies boulders as having lived inside a now-receded glacier.

Eventually, Peter found one that seemed sufficient and called the student scientists over to feel the boulder’s surface for themselves.

Then, Aaron instructed everyone to get out their field books and start taking notes.

Before any samples could be collected, the crew drew the boulder and wrote out a list of characteristics, such as its size and shape.

An ideal sample fits several criteria:

  1. It has a smooth polish that characterizes it as having been processed within a glacier
  2. It’s rounded, demonstrating that significant pieces haven’t been chipped off
  3. The top surface has not been eroded by outside forces, such as bird excrement
  4. It sits at the top of a hill and its bottom is fully or mostly visible, showing that it had to have been set into place by the force of a glacier
  5. It’s large, so it could not have been rolled over easily, changing the placement of where secondary particles from streams of cosmic rays strike the surface and generate beryllium-10.

Not every boulder meets all these standards, but those are the general tells as to whether a boulder would make a good sample or not.

While jotting down the boulder’s description, Patricia asked questions: “Would you consider this a large- or medium-sized boulder?” and “What’s the scientific name for its shape?”

Her questions are welcome and encouraged.

A week earlier, as we sat in an Ulaanbaatar Korean-inspired restaurant, Aaron had passed on some advice to Patricia and Tumur given to him by glaciologist George Denton, his Ph.D. advisor and Peter’s master’s advisor at the University of Maine.

“Science is the asking of good questions,” Aaron relayed. “So, ask lots of questions.”

During the first field day, that mostly meant asking, “Am I doing this right?” and “Can you help me?”

That was particularly true when it came to Tumur, Patricia and Oraza learning how to take samples.

Tumur picked up the drill and began making small dents in the boulder. Aaron instructed him to make the dents in a straight line to prevent the risk of getting equipment stuck. With four or five dents formed, Tumur placed the drill back into each hole and pushed firmly against it to deepen the dents into finger-length tunnels.

Then, Peter showed Oraza how to insert shims and wedges into the holes. By placing wedges between two shims and hitting them with a hammer, the rock is forced to split, releasing the desired sample. But there’s a trick to getting out the perfect sample. Once the shims and wedges were in place, Oraza was instructed to start at one end and hit the wedge until the sound echoing off the hammer grew to a high-pitched ding. Then he moved to the next wedge and did the same, constantly moving down the line until reaching the last wedge, then starting over.

Ultimately, we heard a crack.

“Yes! Beautiful,” Aaron said.

The sample was exactly what Aaron and Peter were hoping for. It was long and thin, and full of quartz, the mineral needed to time the retreat of the last glaciers as the boulders broke free of the ice.

Before packaging up the sample, Peter called Patricia over to the boulder and handed her a brick-sized GPS, which is used to identify the exact coordinates of the sample. Gathering that information takes about 5 minutes as the GPS beeps to assure us it is doing its job.

Peter then took out his iPad and opened an application that maps the skyline. This is important because when the information is entered in an algorithm it can tell Aaron and Peter how the secondary cosmic rays hit the surface of the boulder.

Finally, photographs were taken of the boulder, the samples were placed into a canvas bag, and the crew was ready to move onto the next boulder.

We had to walk for quite some time before coming across a boulder that met enough of the correct criteria to make a good sample.

At dinner the night before, Aaron and Peter had said they weren’t sure how many samples they’d get the next day.

“We just don’t know how many boulders we’ll be able to sample from until we’re there,” Peter had said.

As I sipped sugarless black tea and stared up at the mountain we were scheduled to climb the following day, I’d thought, “How can that be? There are so many rocks up there.”

Trudging through wildflowers and stepping over jagged rocks, I watched the team run their hands over car-sized boulders and realized what it takes to find a good sample.

As we moved from one rock to the next, Aaron and Peter sat back while the student scientists taught each other the skills they’d learned. Acting as middle-man Tumur translated between Patricia who only speaks English and Oraza who only speaks Mongolian and Kazakh.

After a quick lunch and an excursion over a waterfall, the weather shifted, and we got caught in a rain shower. We rushed to slip into rain pants and cover our packs just as the storm picked up and the water turned cold.

But even the rain couldn’t stop the team. As our fingers numbed and our bodies shivered, we hit a stroke of good luck in the form of three boulders side-by-side, perfectly situated for sample gathering.

In a silent agreement, Tumur, Patricia and Oraza picked up equipment and began to divide and conquer. Tumur drilled, Oraza hammered, Patricia obtained the locations using a GPS. They moved like a well-oiled machine.

“We have enough for the trip,” said Aaron. “But I hate leaving any trace behind.”

The team moved on to their final boulder of the day.

This boulder was huge, round and smooth.

As we approached it, Peter said, “Tumur, what do you think?”

Tumur set his hand on the rock and shrugged.

“Seems okay,” he said.

“And Patricia, how does this compare to some of the other rocks we’ve been using?” Peter asked causing Patricia to set her pencil down and look hard at the boulder.

“It’s buried in the ground,” she answered with a high-pitched tilt to the end of the statement making it almost sound like a question.

Peter agreed and explained that though the boulder was buried, it met other criteria that made it a good boulder to take samples from.

So, as the rain poured and the wind pressed our clothes hard against our bodies, Tumur, Patricia and Oraza collected the last sample on the first day of the field season.

Just as the boulder began to split, the weather cleared.

The collected samples sat at the bottom of our packs, along with the extraction equipment making our already-heavy packs even heavier, but none of us minded because for the first time since morning the sun was shining into the valley.

The next few days carried on in a similar fashion, except for one major difference. Patricia had begun to develop stomach pains. At first, it didn’t seem like something to worry about. But as the days went on, her pain increased.


We had a plan. It was a good plan. It was a well thought through plan.

But the day had something else in mind.

We woke up and began packing up the camp to move to the next site. Once on the road, the journey should have taken no more than five hours.

Ideally, we would head to our new spot and the next day Aaron and Boldoo would head back to Ulgii to pick up Stephanie Comer, her son Luca Craigie, 16, and his friend Enzo Filippetto, 16. If Patricia was still in pain then, she could join Aaron and Boldoo and visit an Ulgii doctor.

But as we drove along and Patricia’s cries of pain grew, we hit a checkpoint that changed our plans completely.

Our three cars came to a river that should have been low enough to cross—but it wasn’t. It sped past in a wave of bubbles and kicked up stones. Clearly, the rain we had been having up in the mountains had caused the river to flood, making it appear impossible to cross.

But “impossible” isn’t in the Mongols’ vocabulary.

Boldoo, Baysaa and Bagi lined their cars up, preparing to tie them together, front to back. Boldoo’s truck being the biggest was set to role into the river first, followed by the other cars tethered using orange and purple towing rope.

But in the distance, Aaron—who had been pacing uneasily for some time—noticed Patricia hunched in a ball due to stomach cramps. Jess stood over her with concern.

I watched as Aaron walked over to them, helped Patricia up and moved them closer to the larger group.

After a hushed conversation between Aaron and Boldoo, it was decided that instead of crossing the river we would all return to Ulgii to get Patricia to a hospital. So, we piled back into the cars and our guides entered “Ulgii” into their GPS’.

Again–we had a plan.  It was a well thought through plan.

But the day had something else in mind.

Once back on the road, the drive should have taken no more than six hours.

Our coordinates were set, and the Mongols were doing what they do best—pretending to be race car drivers, flying up hills and splashing through streams.

But as we approached a spot where there should have been a bridge, a Kazakh man appeared almost out of thin air on his motorcycle. We never caught his name, so he will forever go down in history as “Motorcycle Man.”

Motorcycle Man informed our drivers that the road the GPS was leading us toward was only available in the wintertime when everything was frozen. But he assured us there was another way to get to Ulgii; he offered to show us.

This led to our back tracking, then taking a turn into a large grassy landscape that quickly revealed itself to be boggy due to the recent influx of rain in the area. Almost instantly, Bagi’s car got stuck in the mud. Boldoo attached the same rope he had originally planned to use to cross the river onto the back of his truck and the front of Bagi’s car. The car was freed instantly.

But almost as quickly, Boldoo’s truck got stuck. The tires were completely buried all the way up to the underside. I  learned the term for this is misshap –  “beached it.”

Everyone hopped out of the cars they were in to help out. Immediately, we were hit with the heat of the sun and thousands of swarming mosquitos. Because we had all assumed the trip would be a simple one that morning, our sunscreen and bug spray was buried and initially unreachable.

As we unloaded everything from the back of Boldoo’s truck into a pile, in the hope of making it lighter and therefore easier to move, we found the bug spray and lathered ourselves in it.

Then we got to work.

Tumur and Oraza took shovels and began digging out the tires while the rest of us collected rocks to slide under the tires as a sort of make-shift road.

While this was happening, Motorcycle Man lounged against his bike watching us. Eventually he turned and left. We assumed that would be the last of him, but he ended up returning with two other Kazakhs who jumped in to help us without skipping a beat.

With everyone working together, we were finally able to free the truck after three hours and get it out of the bog.

“What else could possibly go wrong?” I’d asked myself.

That was right around the time we received 4G again and the Mongols’ phones started going into action.. As we made a stop in a small village, so Boldoo could check something on his truck, Otgoo informed me with tears in her eyes that her best friend had passed away that day.

I bounced out of the car and raced to her side to squeeze her in a hug as she sobbed. That was the hardest moment of the day. The truck could be dug out with a bit of elbow grease. But Otgoo’s pain couldn’t be MacGyvered away. And Patricia needed a hospital.

We drove the rest of the way in silence. We arrived in Ulgii around 8:30 p.m. and drove directly to the hospital, an old and somewhat shattered building.

After a prescription was written for Patricia, Jess got her out of there, despite the protest of the hospital workers. The two were overwhelmed and upset. Yet, the trip was technically a success. Within hours of Patricia taking the medicine, she started to feel much better and we knew she would be safe to return to the field in a couple days.


We spent the day in Ulgii eating hotpot and grocery shopping.

Around dinnertime, Stephanie, her son and his friend arrived, and we went out to eat together.

We discussed the disastrous day we’d had before and collectively held our breath hoping we wouldn’t run into anything that unfortunate again.

The next day was spent bumping along back roads to get to the campground we were supposed to already have been set up at 2 days prior.

As we entered the national park we discovered the mud to be wet and soft, which was stressful because of the loud revving sound the engines made as the cars pushed up hill, and because the memory of digging the truck out of the mu for three hours played on repeat in all of our minds.

Eventually we made it to the peak of a large hill, right above where our camp would end up being. There, we discovered a beautiful monument made up of multicolored fabric and piled rocks. Monuments like this are all over Mongolia, often alongside roads for travelers to pass. When approaching a monument, one is supposed to circle it three times clockwise, tossing small pebbles onto its flat surface, or leaving offerings for the spirits such as animal fat or alcohol.

The peak also had something else: a man with a horse and an eagle. He would forever be referred to as “Eagle guy.” For a small fee visitors of the park could take pictures holding the humongous bird. Tumur saw me staring fondly at the majestic creature and asked if I’d like a picture. Of course, I said yes. Then, one by one everyone filed in to get their picture taken with the eagle.

While I admit I was the first in line, as each member of the group walked up to take their picture, a knot started forming in my stomach. I’ve heard the horrors of wildlife tourism and worried I was contributing to the poor treatment of animals. I asked Otgoo as Eagle Man how he handles owning such a large creature. He said he takes the bird out hunting regularly, only bringing the bird out for pictures on warmer days. In a year or so, he will release the eagle to the wild, rather than have it spend its entire life as his pet. This made me feel less guilty. And either way, the bird was so heavy. Clearly it was eating well. I’d like to imagine some of the money we used to get our pictures taken goes toward the care of the eagle—though I’ll never be able to confirm that.

We got back in our cars and drove down the other side of the hill. When the land flattened out a bit, we set up camp and ate bread and coffee, waiting for a delicious dinner prepared by Baysaa and Otgoo.

After dinner, we pulled our chairs out of the dinning tent we’d set up and sat in the open air, watching the birds fly overhead and the mountains glisten as the sun set.


Outside the rain beat down on our tents like little beads bouncing off the tightly held fabric. Despite everything inside of me begging me to stay tucked in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I knew our only having two sampling days in the park meant everyone needed to be awake and alert on time. But as I got dressed and crawled out of my tent, I discovered Jess was the only other person awake. I checked my watch—7 a.m. Had plans been changed in during the guitar playing the night before?

We’d learn later that  the Mongols refuse to come out of their tents in a heavy rain.  Because Baysaa (our chef) also follows this unspoken rule, and because we needed breakfast in order to head out for the day, it didn’t make sense for anyone to come out into wet weather  until the Mongols emerged first.

After about another hour, everyone was awake and eating. Some ate toast; others ate eggs and sausage.

We headed out in small groups. The first to leave were Peter, Oraza, Tumur and I. Next were Aaron and the Comer crew, followed by Jess and Patricia. Our camp sat on the edge of a massive lateral moraine. In order to collect the desired samples we had to climb down the edge through spongy, wet grass and steep rocky hills.

Peter wanted to collect samples from the flat ground where a glacier likely sat thousands of years ago, but as we made it down to flat land he quickly realized there weren’t as many boulders to sample as he and Aaron had hoped. Still, he found some; it simply meant longer walks between samples.

We’d experienced rain on and off throughout the day. The cold seeped through our jackets making us shiver. I walked in circles or huddled in a ball to stay warm as I watched Oraza, Tumur and Patricia chip away at boulders and stick samples in canvas bags.

The rain finally cleared when we decided to head back. At some point earlier on, Luca and Enzo decided to leave the group and attempt to climb a mountain. Stephanie and I split off to find them only to discover they had climbed a third of the way up. We called to them and watched as they slid their way down to lower ground where we met them on our way back.

The science team hung back to take drone images while we walked back to camp. Between the four of us, we were sure we would be able to find our way. But after about two hours of walking up hill and slipping into knee-high wetlands we started to question if we were lost. The walk down hadn’t seemed so long, and all of the moraines started looking the same. With so many hills blocking our view from above and below we had no idea whether we’d passed our camp or if we had more to walk.

We calmed ourselves only to come over a hill and see nothing but an endless sprawl of moraines.

We did miraculously eventually find our camp, exhausted and relieved.

An hour later the rest of the team strolled in—and just in time. Almost as soon as they appeared a film of fog crept over the moraines and into the valley creating an impossible wall of white. Finding camp with clear air had been difficult enough. I can’t imagine what we’d have done had the fog hit a couple hours earlier.


Despite the unfortunate weather of the day before, we woke to a perfectly clear sky. The sun shone down and gleamed off the tips of the glaciers across from our camp.

Aaron and Peter had prepared for us to hike down into the valley over very young moraines (maybe even less than 100 years old) and walk onto an actively melting glacier.

Walking down the moraine was a challenge for everyone. While older moraines are covered in foliage and firmly set in place, these young moraines were more like a sand dune covered in boulders. There was a constant fear of falling or the rocks rolling out from under our feet. On the way down I stepped down and the ground crumbled away from me, causing me to slide a few feet before stopping as my shin slammed into a sturdy boulder. I gritted my teeth and ignored the swollen throbbing, determined to finish my descent quickly.

As usual, Peter and Oraza touched down first, followed by me and the Comer crew. Aaron had originally been keeping stride with Peter until he realized Patricia struggling at the top of a hill and hiked back up to help Tumur and Jess show her the way down.

Once we all got on the ground, Peter led us to the glacier’s edge, and we stepped on. The ground was lumpy and slightly slippery, with rocks and animal bones melting their way through to the surface, We hopped over the most beautifully clear water, admiring the way it snaked it’s way left and right, waterfalling into deep caverns too dark for us to spot the bottom only to reemerge elsewhere down the glacier.

Aaron and Peter wanted to collect samples from rocks as they poked through the glacier ice or sat atop it on puckered ledges that made the glacier look like it was putting the rocks on display to see if any beryllium-10 would be present. Their assumption is that there won’t be, but there’s no way to be certain until they process the samples back home.

The field day was cut short due to our long hike we’d had the day before, so after lunch we packed up our backs and headed back up the moraine. We took a different path up than we did to come down, which initially appeared more stable until I stepped into sand-covered sludge that came up to my calves and caked my feet.

Hiking up a moraine is hard. Hiking up a moraine while carrying a 70-liter hiking pack is harder yet. Hiking up a moraine while carrying a 70-liter hiking pack and having your feet caked in heavy, wet sand is even harder. Still, I knew stopping for breaks would only make the already seemingly endless walk even longer, so I kept moving until my back ached and my feet cramped.

This time, we stayed together on our walk back to camp, arriving just as a light shower moved in. But the rain couldn’t change the fact that we’d had an incredible day, which is wonderful because it was the last field day for the Comer crew, Patricia and Jess. The next day they’d head home.


We hugged a lot as our groups prepared to separate. Packing up camp, we helped each other take down tents and wrap up boxes of food. Patricia, Jess and I discussed our favorite parts of being together on this incredible journey, collectively wishing they could stay until the end. But we knew that wasn’t possible. The day I return to Chicago will find Jess back in the classroom, with only a week before Patricia heads to college.

When everything was packed, we climbed into different cars and made our way back up the mountain to where we’d seen the shrine a few days prior. While some of the group walked around the ribbon laden monument, the man hired to drive the crew going home ran into Eagle Guy and offered him a seat in his car. To all our surprise and delight, Eagle Guy invited us to his family ger, which is where we found ourselves as we exited the border of the national park.

There, we were offered airag, a traditional Mongolian beverage made from fermented horse milk. Our Mongolian guides slurped up bowls of the white-colored wine, while the Westerners smiled and held their bowls in their laps, only bringing them to their lips when Eagle Guy’s family gestured for everyone to take a sip.

Peter and I snuck ours to Bagi who accepted them with a nod and a “thank you.”

We split up shortly after visiting Eagle Guy’s home – half heading in the direction of Ulgii and the rest heading to Khovd Gol (river) where we would set up our next camp.

Some members of the team of 15 had left and we’d  dwindled down to only 10. It felt odd not being able to point out beautiful landscapes as we drove to Jess or setting up camp without watching Patricia determinately hammer in the stakes on her own. I hoped that their trip home would go smoothly and feel shorter than it was. But I also knew it would be a few weeks before I’d be able to hear any updates for myself.

Our new camp was isolated. Not only from 4G data, but from people. As we drove up alongside a breathtaking river, passing rock burials and distant trees, we noticed there were no other people in site This wasn’t necessarily unusual considering we’d rarely encountered people at the other field sites, but we did quickly learn there was a reason for this particular spots vacancy: mosquitos. They buzzed around our heads, bit our bottoms as we squatted to relieve ourselves, crawled on our food as we ate lunch and dinner. It was miserable. No amount of smoked yak feces or bug spray could stop them. Still, Aaron and Peter had chosen the spot for a reason and samples needed to be taken.


Our next camp was only about a 2-hour drive away at Khurgan Nuur (lake). Though Peter informed me we could have stayed at our previous camp much longer, the mosquitos had forced us to move on.

Thank goodness.

Our final campground was the most beautiful landscape I’ve ever seen. We staked our tents right next to the lake, whose cool breeze prevented bothersome mosquitos from making an appearance. On the other side of the lake the glaciers towered over, creating a wall of rock, snow and trees. Herders road their horses across the grassy hills, while their goats and sheep ate their way through the greenery. It was perfect.

The first day of sampling surprised us all. As we walked along the flat moraines we found a number of gigantic rocks, but years of harsh weather and rock-climbing goats had eroded the surfaces making them poor samples. Some were collected, of course, but not as many as I think anyone expected as we drove up to the camp.

The next day Bagi drove the science crew to a few hills that Aaron and Peter had sampled from in the past. We spent the day hiking to the top, taking drone images of the landscape and eating bread and canned cow meat (I of course refrained from the meat, though even if I were a carnivore I believe I’d have steered clear as it literally looked like cat food).

That night as we ate huushuur (an empanada-like dish made from folded and stuffed fried dough) and drank Russian beer and vodka, Peter made an enouncement. The next day would be a rest day. Everyone had worked so hard this season, he’d said, that we all deserved a break to enjoy the countryside.

But when we woke up the next morning the sky was too clear, the weather too perfectly calm for Peter to pass up the chance to take good drone images. So, he, Oraza and Tumur left to do work on our day off.

When they returned, they regretted their decision. As the drone returned from its fourth or fifth flight, an eagle attacked it, sending it spinning toward the ground. It’s a good thing the University of Maine has drone insurance, though Peter said he isn’t sure it covers eagle attacks. Time will tell.


I awoke to a rainstorm. Groggily, I forced myself out of my sleeping bag and began packing up my belongings.

The field season was over, and it was time to head back to civilization.

The rain persisted as we took down our tents and loaded up the cars for the last time. After a breakfast of oatmeal, bread and eggs we left behind our stunning campsite.

We drove through storming rivers and across poorly built bridges. At one point we stopped and Oraza an Tumur collected a sample as the rain raged on.

Our first stop was Oraza’s summer ger. After about a four-hour drive we encountered his father herding his animals up a hill on horseback. We followed him to the ger where Oraza’s mother, two sisters, a younger brother and  dog greeted us. The dog,  a friendly jumper,  loved to pounce onto me as I passed, resting his front paws on my arms while maintaining eye contact as if begging me to give him attention.

While I ate way too much bread, everyone else devoured steaming milk tea, chocolate cakes and a traditional Kazakh meal comprised of a lamb head placed atop a pile of flat noodles. I sipped my tea, made from grass, while the rest of the group took out Swiss army knives and tore cooked meat fromf a lamb’s head and shared food from the platter at the center of the table.

We returned to our cars and drove the five hours back to Ulgii where we stayed the night in a hotel with each of our rooms missing at least one essential thing (e.g. toilet paper, soap, working faucets).

Peter and I hoped we to camp in Ulaanbaatar for the next few nights. He and Aaron had previously shared horror stories about some of the hotels the Mongols had found for them on other trips.

But the Mongols are the drivers and in the end they decide where we stay while on the road. Their desire: no more camping. So, we ended up staying in hotels, though to my surprise each one we slept in was cleaner and nicer than the one proceeding it.

Our drive went smoothly, allowing us to arrive in Ulaanbaatar 3 days later in the middle of the afternoon. We were dropped off at one of the city’s best hotels, the Chinggis Khaan Hotel which was by far the nicest place we’d stayed since arriving in Mongolia.


Peter and I met with the Mongols for lunch. We went to a mall where everyone ordered hotpot, while I ate food from a vegan restaurant a short walk away. That’s where we met Uyunga Botbold (Boldoo and Otgoo’s daughter). She works in an office above the floor of the mall where we ate, and she decided to take her lunch break to sit with us and ask us about the field season.

After lunch Peter, Tumur, Oraza and I went to the National Museum of Mongolia where we walked the three floors and learned about the history of Mongolian wardrobes, gers, toys and more.

Later we met up with Boldoo and Otgoo for a mouth-wateringly good dinner at Hazara, the Afghani restaurant we’d eaten at on our first night in Mongolia.

Before arriving in Ulaanbaatar, Peter and I got made reservations at the Chinggis Khaan Hotel for six nights. But as we waited to get picked up the next morning, we received a message from Boldoo explaining that the hotel was kicking us out because they were overbooked.

Shocked, we gathered our belonging and waited for Bagi to pick us up. He drove us to the Batbold’s apartment where Peter, Tumur and Oraza sorted, weighed and packaged each sample. This was done in the apartment building’s parking garage because no other place was available.

When the samples were fully prepared for shipping, we went to an American-style restaurant called The California where we ordered salad, sushi, milk shakes and French fries.

After lunch, we were taken to the Blue Sky Hotel,h was exponentially nicer then than any place we’d stayed. The Blue Sky sits next to the Ulaanbaatar square, has a top floor lounge where cocktails and dinners are served, an all-you-can-eat buffet for breakfast and a gym. I would end up taking advantage of all of these facilities during my time at the hotel.

From there, Tumur escorted Peter, Oraza and me to a throat singing performance where we saw witnessed traditional Mongolian song and dance.


We spend the morning souvenir shopping before meeting up with Oraza and Tumur’s geology professor Uyanga Bold. Bold serves a fundamental role in assisting Aaron and Peter in getting all the paperwork needed to enter the country and ship back the samples. With her help, Peter was able to pass off his four boxes of samples to a man in charge of shipping, before we all went to eat Korean food for lunch.

On the 17th Bagi, Baysaa (plus his golden retriever named Suzie), Tumur and Oraza met us at our hotel to take Peter and me on an adventure. We drove about an hour out of the city on unpaved roads to the largest monument of Genghis Khan in the country. The metal man sits proudly atop a massive horse, dressed ready for battle.

After climbing a winding staircase with halls just big enough for a single-file line of people to move up or down we arrived at the horse’s head and looked out at the Mongolian backdrop. It was beautiful… but claustrophobic. I felt significantly more relaxed when we were on our way out than I did staring off into the distance of the serene landscape.

We’d later have dinner at the Batbold household, where we’d be served homemade buuz (Mongolian-style dumplings) and a generous amount of alcohol.

On our final day in Mongolia, I had asked Otgoo and Boldoo if they would take me to the monastery to interview a lama for a story I’m working on. The experience ended up being life changing.

Over a dozen brightly colored buildings sit within the walls of the monastery. As we walked down the road, we passed monks as young as 8 or 9 years old, and of course, some much older. We wove in and out of buildings decorated with colorful ribbons and golden statues of goddesses.

I’ve never felt so calm in my life.

After Otgoo translated my questions to the monk, he invited us to the second floor of one of the temples—a place only lamas are allowed. There, we could get better view of a golden goddess’ face.

The three of us left the monastery and headed for a late lunch at Luna Blanca (oddly, “white moon” in Spanish), a vegan restaurant I’d come across online.We ate soup, mashed potatoes, mock meat and milkshakes. After being deprived of soymilk (a staple of my diet) for nearly five weeks, discovering the restaurant had vegan hot chocolate was a wonderful surprise.

From there, I joined the two as the furniture shopped and browsed potential used cars to purchase before heading to Hazara for dinner. That’s where we met up with almost all of our guides as well as another group of Western student scientists who had been traveling with Aaron’s father for the past 5 weeks. We discussed the similarities and differences between our experiences in Mongolia as we piled our plates high with naan, dal and butter chicken.

Boldoo and Otgoo drove us to the hotel, informing us we’d be taken to the airport the next morning by Bagi. My eyes stung as we said our goodbyes, and I noticed Otgoo wipe tears from her eyes as we pulled out of a hug. At the monastery that day, she’d told the lama I was her daughter. She will always be my Mongolian mother.

I  miss everyone more than I could have ever imagined.

Photo at top: Stephanie Fox, ready to report, dressed for the field while still in the city of Ulgii. She stands in front of an “I love Ulgii” sign. (Jess Stevens, environmental science teacher at the Gary Comer College Prep High School in Chicago.)


Beaver are making an unlikely comeback in northern Nevada, where they're helping watersheds withstand the ongoing drought.
Beaver are making an unlikely comeback in northern Nevada, where they’re helping watersheds withstand the ongoing drought. (Photo credit: National Park Service)

By Bryce Gray


ELKO, NEVADA – Carol Evans parked the Bureau of Land Management pickup truck and stepped out onto dusty earth cracked with the scars of drought. Although it’s April – typically one of the wettest times of year, even in Nevada – a prolonged dry spell stretches into its fourth year, causing more trouble for the hardy people and wildlife that live in the nation’s most arid state.

“I’ve never seen anything this bad,” the BLM fisheries biologist and lifelong Nevada resident said, reflecting on the historic drought that has gripped much of the West.

Only yards from the truck however, the desert scene transforms into an unlikely oasis, where the bed of Susie Creek is filled by a sprawling pond, encircled by cattails and other vegetation.

Throughout the day, a muskrat and ducks, geese, egrets, mergansers, blackbirds and sandhill cranes patrol the creek bed.

Evans brought me to see the one keystone species making all of this possible – Castor canadensis, or the North American beaver. Sure enough, bisecting the creek bed in front of the pond, a distinctive dam of neatly piled sticks bottled up the once-feeble stream and collected the precious lifeblood of water for the surrounding desert community. Underground, the dammed-up pools are modestly replenishing the water table, even during drought years.

Though not yet verdant with spring and summer greenery, the beaver-made wetland stood in unbelievably stark contrast to the Great Basin backdrop that enveloped us, where little more than parched sagebrush and cattle dot the high desert.

The juxtaposition provided a glimpse of the beavers’ tremendous power as water managers. But Evans emphasized that beaver are only one dimension of Susie Creek’s comeback story, where their success relies on a delicately balanced relationship with neighboring cattle ranches.

“It’s a story about livestock grazing,” Evans said.

“If we hadn’t changed management, it would be degraded and just be dry by now.”


A beaver dam stretches across Susie Creek, creating an oasis of wetlands and open water among the Nevada desert.
A beaver dam stretches across Susie Creek, creating an oasis of wetlands and open water among the Nevada desert. (Photo by Bryce Gray)


The rebound of Susie Creek and Maggie Creek in the adjacent watershed began in the early 1990s, when Evans approached ranchers leasing BLM land along the waterways with a proposal to improve grazing practices and restore the riparian habitat, primarily for the health of local fisheries.

“A lot of it was done for the reintroduction of Lahontan cutthroat trout,” Evans said, referencing Nevada’s state fish, which faces an uphill battle to survive in the face of climate change. Evans said that the area is predicted be out of the species’ temperature range within the next couple decades.

Fences were put in to restrict cattle access to riparian corridors, enabling vegetation to reclaim the creek bed, trapping sediment and building a floodplain. By 1996, a number of willow saplings had taken root, and by 2003, beaver recolonized the creeks as an unintended consequence of the restoration effort.

“I didn’t know it would turn out the way it did,” said Evans, noting that throughout the BLM’s Elko District there has been a “build it and they will come” relationship between rehabilitated habitat and beaver. Although Evans does not know precise population data, beaver are now found in a number of regional streams, including an 11-mile stretch of Susie Creek and approximately 16 miles of the Maggie Creek basin.

This 1980 image shows the denuded conditions that existed along Maggie Creek before grazing agreements were in place to manage cattle and before beaver returned to the area. (Photo credit: BLM, Elko District)
This 1980 image shows the denuded conditions that existed along Maggie Creek before grazing agreements were in place to manage cattle and before beaver returned to the area. (Photo credit: BLM, Elko District)

Beaver are hardly newcomers to the area. In colonial times the species used to be nearly ubiquitous throughout North America before their pelts ignited a fashion craze that fueled exploration of the continent and eradicated them from much of their historic habitat range.

Besides humans, beaver are perhaps the animal that exerts the greatest influence on the natural environment, and the wide-scale elimination of the species had a profound impact on water resources.

From the early 19th century to the late 20th century, an estimated 48-64 million acres of American wetlands were converted to dry land, with much of that habitat loss linked to the simultaneous decline in the beaver population.

“Look at those numbers in terms of water that’s being held,” said Dr. Suzanne Fouty, an Oregon-based hydrologist who works with the U.S. Forest Service and has visited Susie and Maggie creeks.

Fouty likened that water storage system to savings accounts.

Taken from the same place as the 1980 photo of Maggie Creek, this 2011 image shows the stream's transformation. (Photo credit: BLM, Elko District)
Taken from the same place as the 1980 photo of Maggie Creek, this 2011 image shows the stream’s transformation. (Photo credit: BLM, Elko District)

“In the West, you want to make sure that when you get a windfall of water, your savings accounts are ready to take it in,” she said “Those savings accounts are essentially empty right now.”

But beaver habitat can change that, she said.

“Instead of (water) racing downstream and flooding, it’s slowed down and stored and you have all these areas of savings accounts being filled up.”

And those “savings” influence more than just surface water, as they can percolate through soil to become groundwater and recharge aquifers. At Maggie Creek, a one- to two-foot rise in the water table has been observed, even during drought years.

Evans said that beaver habitat has such tremendous water storage potential because the species essentially converts a watershed into “a slow-moving lake” progressing through a staircase of beaver ponds, instead of as a gushing torrent. She believes that’s how the area’s streams once flowed in their original state, since soil profiles still show the traces of long periods of standing water in the valley bottom.

“I’m sure the beaver were a large mechanism in that,” Evans said. “They were such an important part of the ecology of the system. You see how prevalent they can be.”

But grazing, too, can change the landscape.

Dan Gralian is the general manager of the 400,000-acre TS Ranch, bounded to the east by Maggie Creek. He acknowledged that generations of abusive ranching practices hurt the land where trappers left off.

“If you remove the stability of the land – the plants and the root structure – that’s what holds the land together,” said Gralian. “If you remove that, it becomes vulnerable to erosion. And that did occur over a large area of the West and this is one of those areas.”

That destructive legacy is still evident from the old, dry irrigation ditches sitting 10-15 feet above the present level of Susie Creek, where beaver and cattle are attempting to coexist as unlikely neighbors.

“This is the story of the West,” says Evans. “When you have poor grazing practices and beaver together, it’s totally not sustainable.”


Cattle occupy a water gap on BLM land near Susie Creek. Water gaps grant livestock restricted access to part of a creek bed while protecting riparian habitat elsewhere.
Cattle occupy a water gap on BLM land near Susie Creek. Water gaps grant livestock restricted access to part of a creek bed while protecting riparian habitat elsewhere. (Photo by Bryce Gray)


Approximately one-eighth of the country’s landmass – totaling nearly 250 million acres – is public land administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management, with Nevada containing the highest percentage of BLM land of any state.

Ranchers in the West commonly have leasing arrangements with the agency to graze a pre-determined number of cattle on thousands of acres of public land. When livestock wander unchecked, their grazing can be ecologically damaging, especially in sensitive riparian areas.

“It’s all about time and timing: When they’re there and how long they’re there,” said Evans, explaining that during hot summer months, unmanaged cattle prefer to loiter in creek beds, suppressing plant growth and contributing to erosion.

Though a fisheries biologist by title, Evans has made range management and riparian ecology a focal part of her work through grazing agreements on BLM land. Collaborative ranchers along Susie and Maggie creeks have seen the benefits.

“Probably the biggest thing is we’ve had stock water available for our calves,” said Jon Griggs, manager of Maggie Creek Ranch, which has partnered with Evans since the start of her restoration efforts. “We would’ve depopulated the herd more if we didn’t have that water.… It would’ve been a kick in the pants any way you slice it.”

Enhanced water availability was echoed as a key benefit by Mitch Heguy of nearby Heguy Ranch, who noted that some other ranchers need to bring in water by the truckload to get their cattle through the year.

A beaver tends to a dam in Susie Creek in July 2012. (Photo credit: BLM, Elko District)
A beaver tends to a dam in Susie Creek in July 2012. (Photo credit: BLM, Elko District)

With proper management, growth of forage is also aided along beaver-irrigated habitat.

“If you look at some of the old photographs and you look at the forage that is there, and then compare them today, it’s a no-brainer,” said Gralian. “Better feed makes for healthier livestock and bigger calves. The financial return on our commitment we’re now beginning to realize.”

That forage was also paying dividends for Heguy.

“It can save your bacon on dry years because you’ve got green grass,” he said.

The combination of food- and water-security has meant that Heguy has not had to make significant reductions to his herd – and, subsequently, his bottom line.

“All this stuff we’ve done up here, it wasn’t with reduced grazing,” said Heguy. “We were running full numbers up there, we just changed our grazing practices.”

“We recognize that healthy wildlife habitat is healthy cow habitat,” said Griggs, who believes most ranchers welcome the beaver.

But he adds that not all ranchers are receptive to the animals or willing to change their traditional practices to enter into a grazing agreement.

“Ranching is typically a family culture,” said Griggs. “You want to do it like dad did and like granddad did. Change can be hard.”

Although Griggs, Heguy and Gralian are enjoying successful partnerships with Evans and the BLM, factors such as mistrust of government, bureaucratic dysfunction and high agency turnover can further complicate grazing agreements on public land.

“When you do business with a government agency, it’s like going to the post office or DMV – it’s burdensome,” said Griggs.

Living with beaver can have a few minor drawbacks. The animals can sometimes dam irrigation ditches or road culverts and disrupt cattle drives.

“Driving calves through beaver ponds sucks. We used to cuss the beavers,” Heguy said with a laugh. Besides that occasional inconvenience, Heguy said he “can’t think of any negative impacts.”

But beaver are not impervious to drought, and even at Susie and Maggie creeks, the species faces an uncertain future.

“The drought is really testing the beaver population,” said Evans.


A freshly chewed sagebrush stump is a sure sign of beaver activity along Susie Creek. (Photo by Bryce Gray)
A freshly chewed sagebrush stump is a sure sign of beaver activity along Susie Creek. (Photo by Bryce Gray)

The beaver may also fall victim to their own success, reinforcing that they, too, can be a stressor, especially in early-recovery systems like Susie Creek. There, beaver are jeopardizing willows – their primary food and building material – through a combination of consumption and drowning them out.

“I think they’ve reached their capacity at this stage of vegetative recovery,” said Evans, noting that if another five to 10 years of regrowth had happened before beaver returned, the area would be better suited to support them long-term.

More than a century removed from their widespread extermination, beaver populations can still be sensitive to trapping. Legality varies by state and, although permitted in Nevada, Evans said trapping has not slowed their comeback near Elko, which she attributes to the current low value of pelts.


Carol Evans has made cooperative grazing agreements a focal part of her stream restoration work for the BLM in Nevada's Elko District.
Carol Evans has made cooperative grazing agreements a focal part of her stream restoration work for the BLM in Nevada’s Elko District. (Photo by Bryce Gray)


Whether beaver can be used on a broader scale to help the West conserve dwindling water resources remains to be seen, but the recolonization of streams in northern Nevada provides a hopeful snapshot of their climate change mitigation potential.

“Nevada is so water-limited, if beavers can transform this landscape, they can do it anywhere,” said Fouty.

Similar projects have taken root in other parts of the West. In Washington state, Forest Service officials are using reintroduced beaver to increase water resources for coho and Chinook salmon. In Colorado, “nuisance” beaver are being relocated from population centers to habitat where their ecological services will be less disruptive. And in Idaho in the 1940s, the state Department of Fish and Game launched a stranger-than-fiction campaign to parachute beavers in crates into the backcountry.

Whatever role beaver ultimately play in the future of the West, they will need their significant environmental footprint to find a balance with ranching and other land uses. But if the BLM’s Elko District is any indication, that’s certainly possible.

“We didn’t recognize that we have similar goals,” Griggs said, noting that ranchers like him have quite a bit in common with their aquatic neighbors. “I have a lot of respect for beaver. They’re probably the hardest-working things in the animal kingdom. We just needed to figure out a way to have them work for us.”



[jwplayer mediaid=”401″]

by Jennifer Draper
Nov 14, 2014IMG_0911

“Green” often means cold hard cash – or eco-friendly options. But climate scientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University says that dealing with climate change reaps green for both meanings of the word. 

This fall, Alley and other leading climate scientists met to build a clearer understanding of earth’s climate history at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference.

Their efforts to identify natural climate variations in the past are shedding clues on the current patterns of climate change. And that can point the way to solutions with both environmental and economic benefits, Alley says. 

From Jeff Severinghaus’ research about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide to Nicholas Young’s analysis of glaciation on Baffin Island, scientists at the conference span the world and eons of time for their research. By collecting the fingerprints of ancient air pockets or long lost glaciers and constructing models from their findings, they piece together the climate puzzle. At the conference, Comer scientists presented their latest work—on glaciers, oceans and dust—to show what we know, how much more there is to learn, and why we should cash in on the solutions now.


Video Credits: Produced by Jennifer Draper/MEDILL. Videography/MEDILL. Splash image/Courtesy of George Denton. Sunset photo/A. Foerstner. Global temperature map/NASA.

Photo at top: Sheep graze in front of the research camp site near the Lower Eg River in Mongolia where Comer climate scientist Aaron Putnam, a Columbia University geochemist, teamed up with biologist Olaf Jensen of Rutger’s University this summer to understand Mongolia’s past and current climate and clues they reveal for global climate models. (Jennifer Draper/Medill)

Photos at right: A rainbow appears above a ger at base camp in July near the Lower Eg River in Mongolia. This location was the first in several fieldwork sites. (Jennifer Draper/Medill)  Putnam points out a petroglyph in the rocks near the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. He and his research team collected samples of granite boulders to track the rise and retreat of ancient glaciers. That way, Putnam can pinpoint past climate changes to help predict what’s in store for us now. (Jennifer Draper/Medill)

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