Scientists Track the Tipping Points of Climate Change

Scientists Track the Tipping Points of Climate Change

By Chelsea Zhao

Crystal Rao, a geoscience graduate student at Princeton University, bases her research on the environmental changes and climate impacts on the species in clues from nitrogen isotopes in fossils.

Rao uses the ratio of two common forms of nitrogen as a standard, and compares it with the nitrogen inside the tooth of the megalodon shark. She has reconstructed a picture of when and where megalodon sharks topped the food chain in Arctic waters. Rao said this fierce predator could “basically eat anything in the ocean”.

Yet this 50-foot long shark, went extinct some 3.5 million years ago. Rao said the food source the sharks relied on to fuel their massive bodies caused their downfall.

“As climate shifts, maybe the production in the ocean could change,” Rao said. “And depending on what the ecosystem responded to, there could be less food availability” for marine life today just as those causing the demise of the megalodon sharks.

And that’s where the nitrogen fingerprint in the teeth comes in. The nitrogen isotope levels change in warm spells compared to ice ages so that Rao can track climate change in the distant past. Nitrogen isotopes from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans mix during warm spells but ice ages lower sea levels, cutting off Atlantic from Pacific waters and and leaving a distinct isotope in each ocean. ,

Rao shared her research at the Comer Climate Conference this fall, an annual gathering of global climate scientists held virtually for the third year due to COVID-19. Comer conference veteran climate scientists, graduate students and post-docs investigate the effect of climate change from ancient life forms to theoretical models.

While Rao’s work examines a species belonging to an ancient era, another Comer scientist’s work takes estimations of the possibilities for the future.

Edmund Derby, a climate science Ph.D. student at Oxford University, utilizes simple models of Arctic sea ice from his past research in 2009 to examine the bifurcation or tipping point accompanying ice cover changes throughout the season.

Derby’s research presents climate from basic principles to its core behavior. In the scientific model, when atmospheric carbon dioxide exceeds a certain point, after all the Arctic ice melts, it is no longer possible to gain back the ice. His research presented at the conference investigates this tipping point under a model when the Arctic is covered in ice all year round.

“When you’ve reached this tipping point, you don’t get a reversible change once you’ve lost your ice cover,” Derby said.

The temperature of the Arctic is intrinsically connected with global warming across the rest of the world. In a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification where the Arctic warms twice as fast as the rest of the world, which has warmed in excess of 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) with global warming due to emissions from human reliance on petroleum-based fuels.

The ice has the light reflective property that redirect the heat. But as it melts, the heat-absorbent ocean water takes its place, according to Derby.

With heat transport to lower latitudes, as the Arctic warms up, the transfer of heat to the Arctic would be expected to decrease.

However, in a changing climate, the transport of water vapor or clouds into the Arctic can counteract the cooling of the heat transport. The water vapor causes local temperature in the Arctic to rise.

In his research, Derby is adding more factors into the model to make it more realistic to the Arctic ice cover, and to investigate how the global rise of greenhouse gas will impact the ice melt at a local level.

Rao said, in her field of geoscience, the past informs the present and the future. Studying the ancient past of Earth’s environment builds a better understanding of the complex systems involved.

“Only when we can really understand or estimate the future better, then we can come up with better plans in terms of how we do climate adaptation and climate mitigation,” Rao said.

The numbers of climate change may seem small, but  a small change now may mean a colossal shift into the future. <The changes are occurring now – we don’t want to suggest this is a problem for the next millennium.

Through Rao and Derby’s research of both the past and the future, concerns of climate change continue to loom in both the vanishing fabric of the Arctic and the demise of a species.

Photo at top: Arctic water and the atmosphere help scientists reconstruct the past climate record and inform models for the future. (Photo by Kai Boggild, distributed via

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)


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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by Chris Kellyand Beth Ulion
Mar 18, 2009

Evanston could be looking at a future of clean, green power along with a different view fro

Nathan Kipnis Architects Inc.  Approximation of what the proposed wind farm would look like from Dawes Park.
Nathan Kipnis Architects Inc.
Approximation of what the proposed wind farm would look like from Dawes Park.

m the shoreline if a proposed offshore wind farm is approved. 

Citizens for a Greener Evanston, a non-profit formed by city employees and community members, wants to put the wind to work in order to shrink the city’s carbon footprint 13 percent by 2012. The city has approved a climate action plan that incorporates the proposal. 

A 10-turbine wind farm four miles off Evanston’s shoreline was proposed as part of the city’s climate action plan. This one strategy has the highest impact of any suggestion to lower greenhouse gas emissions, according to the non-profit. 

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Steve Perkins, a founder of the group. “When you look at a national map of wind potential, the Great Lakes are in red, they have the highest potential.”

Chris Kelly/MEDILL  Commericial electricity use accounts for the largest part of Evanston's carbon footprint measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Chris Kelly/MEDILL
Commericial electricity use accounts for the largest part of Evanston’s carbon footprint measured in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The sight of spinning propellers will evoke a sense of pride and make Evanston’s commitment to fighting climate change visible, Perkins said. 

While still in the early stages of planning, a wind farm of this size has the potential to meet the electricity demand of approximately 9,600 of the city’s homes, according to the group. 

“I really don’t see any negative anywhere along here,” said Nathan Kipnis, co-chair of the renewable energy task force behind the proposal. 

By replacing dirty energy sources, this one project could offset close to 60 percent of the city’s emission reduction goal, he said. 

For 10 turbines, the total cost could reach between $80 million to100 million, Kipnis said. Private firms, known as “wind developers,” would finance the project, arranging a twenty-year agreement with local institutions to purchase the power, according to the plan. 

Electricity may cost a few cents more initially but as power from fossil fuels becomes more expensive, it will eventually be a bargain, Kipnis said. 

Chris Kelly/MEDILL  Citizens for a Greener Evanston have proposed a 10-turbine wind farm off the Northwestern University as part of the city's climate action plan.
Chris Kelly/MEDILL
Citizens for a Greener Evanston have proposed a 10-turbine wind farm off the Northwestern University as part of the city’s climate action plan.

“There has been a lot of excitement about it and that’s great, but it’s just so new,” said Carolyn Collopy, Evanston’s sustainability program coordinator. 

“We are committed to finding ways to do things more environmentally sustainably,” she said. “We are committed to looking at all of our options.” 

The wind farm was included in the climate action plan as one of more than 200 possible solutions for reducing emissions, which was approved by the city council in September of last year. However, with city elections in the spring it’s not sure how receptive the new representatives will be, Collopy said. 

“Obviously [it’s] something that will require a lot of conversation and process,” Collopy said. 

Part of this process is working with state and federal agencies to acquire necessary permits and permissions to begin moving forward. Great Lakes resources are under state control, but construction projects of this magnitude need clearance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

When an application is submitted, the corps will look at various factors, all dependent on the details in the proposal, according to Leesa Beal, section chief for regulatory of the Army Corps Chicago district. 

Two of the main issues will be navigation and environmental impact, Beal said. 

“We don’t want to take a step backwards for Great Lakes protection while taking a step forward for renewable energy,” said Joel Brammeier, vice president for policy at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Any investment in wind needs to be paired with investment in stewardship.” 

Gaps in state policy on environmental issues and on compensation for using public property has been a barrier to wind development projects on the Great Lakes, he said. 

While it seems feasible for smaller wind farms to be developed over the next decade, it is difficult to picture wind competing with fossil fuels for electricity production until there is a serious constraint on carbon dioxide emissions, Brammeier said. 

Although the obstacles along the way are many, information gathered by Citizens for a Greener Evanston show that the project could be logistically feasible. 

The biggest piece of the puzzle is wind speed. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, data shows average wind speeds on the lake off of Evanston of 15 miles per hour. 

This measurement was taken at a height of 164 feet above the water and three miles from the shore. Where the turbines would be located, at 262 feet above the water and four miles out, it is expected that the wind speed will be higher, said the department. 

The wind farm would also be constructed in a shallow part of the lake at a depth of only only 40 feet to 50 feet, according to measurements by the Great Lakes Data Rescue Project. 

“If they can do it in Europe, in salt water, multiple hundreds of feet deep with these same units it can’t be harder, it has to be easier,” said Kipnis, a main contributor to research for the proposal.“If we started now it would take, probably, until 2016.”. 

The next step is to find funding for a wind study. The rest of the process will involve environmental impact studies, determining the power purchase agreement, governmental approvals and ultimately constructing the turbines, he said. 

With the proposed turbines directly off the coast of Northwestern University, group members have seen the project as an opportunity for partnerships between the university and city. 

Eugene Sunshine, senior vice president for business and finance at Northwestern, said the proposal was very thoughtful and contained interesting ideas. 

“The university has no opinion on it as this time though,” Sunshine said. “I am sure many faculty, staff and students will want to consider it and learn more about as the concepts are developed.” 

With details such as partnerships, investors and technology still undefined, it is clear that there is still much research to be done and discussions to be had before turbines can be seen from the shoreline of Dawes Park.

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