Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Restoration

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

If you're like me, you probably spent a lot of time in the past several weeks surfing the internet for news of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. I have friends and relatives in Houston (all were flooded out with varying severity, but all are okay) and friends in the Leeward Islands, Virgin Islands, and in Florida (all okay so far).  

Part of my obsession with the news is concern about those in harm's way, and part is the kind of horrified fascination we humans are subject to when seeing a catastrophe unfold as we watch. I grieve for the people killed and injured, and for those whose homes and lives have been devastated.

I grieve equally for the longer-term catastrophe of global climate change. For those millions of species and uncountable individuals with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for so much, from the oxygen we breathe to the beauty that succors our souls. These lives have also taken a huge hit from the two hurricanes: the trees in the forests on St. Barts stripped bare; the bats and lizards that once sheltered in those trees, the birds and butterflies. The fish and rays in the shallows as whole bays are sucked dry, then catastrophically flooded by passing storms. The corals, the sharks, the alligators and manatees, the mangroves whose roots buffer storm surges and shelter so many other lives... 

We can't know if global climate change is specifically responsible for this first-ever incident of two Category 4 hurricanes hitting the US mainland within a short time. (Irma was a Cat 5 when it hit the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but had lessened to a Cat 4 when it hit Key West.) As this article in the LA Times explains, we can say that warming air temperatures and the resultant warming of oceans caused by global climate change makes stronger hurricanes more likely.

So whether or not each storm was a direct result of global climate change, two catastrophic storms coming so close together are a picture of what the future looks like: more extreme weather events, and fewer "normal" periods of stable weather. More intense rainfall and flooding in some places and longer droughts in others; more catastrophic tornadoes, winds, cyclones; more severe winter storms where I live, and warmer and drier winters elsewhere.  

And of course, more wildfires like the ones burning across the West and coloring my dawn runs (top photo) and sunsets. Whole landscapes will change as species move or die out in response to global climate change. That alone feels unbearably sad.

Forest-fire-smoke tinted sunset over Cody

Grief is paralyzing, something I know well after losing Richard to brain cancer nearly six years ago (glioblastoma, the same kind that Senator McCain is dealing with). Sometimes you just have to go with it and let the waves wash over you. But if you stay down too long, you may never surface again.

My remedy for long-term grief of that sort that could very well drown a person is to do something. Not just anything at random, something that is a direct counter to the cause of the grief. 

Writing is one of my grief therapies. Habitat restoration is the other, specifically returning healthy communities of native species to degraded land. I've restored songbird and butterfly habitat to the grounds of a coal-fired power plant, restored healthy mountain prairie on a blighted former industrial parcel, nursed a thread of urban creek that had become a waste-dump ditch back to life as a cleanser of urban runoff and feeder trout stream. 

That creek before restoration...

And after.

In the face of global climate change, restoration offers hope. It feels like something tangible I can do to heal at least my small corner of the earth. 

So I am grateful that I have this house to bring back to life, its formerly sterile lawn-and-shade-tree yard to re-wild, and that I have the opportunity to work in Yellowstone National Park as a radical weeder, helping to restore the ecosystems of the place often called America's Serengheti for its awe-inspiring wildlife, large and small. 

I'm headed back to Yellowstone later this week for one last weeding stint, and to celebrate my 61st birthday in a landscape that holds my heart. When I get home, the last set of replacement windows will be in the garage waiting their turn to make my house more energy-efficient and sustainable. (Retrofitting my house to use less energy is part of my restoration effort to combat global climate change.) A new shipment of native and heritage plants will be awaiting planting as I continue to transform lawn into habitat that welcomes songbirds and pollinators. 

Purple sage (Salvia pachyphilla), beloved of butterflies, thriving in the rock garden that replaces part of my front lawn.

And I will return to work writing the new version of Bless the Birds, my memoir celebrating love and life. 

Yesterday I took a break from writing and obsessing over hurricane news, and began laying out the borders for a sitting patio and paths in the part of my back yard that won't be disturbed by the giant forklift when the largest window unit is installed later this month.

(The bricks are a gift of my neighbor, who has a spare stack of about 200. He saw me lining paths in my front yard with bricks and offered his to me. His yard is a tidy lawn and shade trees, his politics are the opposite of mine; no matter, we trade building materials, cookies, and snow shoveling in winter.)

Next summer, I'll sit on that patio in the shade of the big spruce tree, and watch butterflies and native bees visit the wildflowers in the native meadow I'll plant when window-replacement is finished. 

Restoration heals. Lives, buildings, whole landscapes. Our bodies, spirits, our communities, our wildlands. Our planet. 

We can all find ways to help restore what is broken, to bridge divides, to heal the losses. We must. Working together, we can accomplish miracles.