The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
When COVID-19 hit, I too found myself spending much more time in my apartment. Living in New York City during a pandemic presented fewer opportunities to safely get out into nature – an unfortunate struggle for myself and many other outdoorsy urbanites.
Yet, when I began birding, I found myself paying more attention to the nature that was, in fact, all around me. I noticed the European starlings perching in the holes of London planetrees, red-tailed hawks circling above the park, and a persistent red-bellied woodpecker with a penchant for the wooden post in my backyard. Looking for birds was a way to appreciate and acknowledge nature wherever I was; I could be excited about spotting birds anywhere – even outside my Brooklyn apartment, when I was forced to slow down and look around.
Spring is an excellent time to begin bird watching in earnest. While many common birds we come to recognize are "permanent residents" – such as starlings, mockingbirds, juncos, house sparrows, and black-capped chickadees – springtime might bring some new feathered friends into view as populations travel back north for the season. There are different types of migration, but birds generally travel north-south in North America (northbound in the spring, southbound in the fall), primarily in search of nesting locations or food.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
About 40% of birds are migratory, so whatever flyway you live within, there will be plenty of new species to look out for. The Atlantic Flyway alone (covering much of the east coast) sees 500 migratory species every year. Unless you live very far North, from February through mid-April, you should see migrating birds passing through as they head for their breeding areas.
Birding is unique in its accessibility and universality; no matter where you live – whether a bustling city, a rural town, or the South Pole – there will always be birds to learn about and look for. If you've never birded before, here are some things to keep in mind as you get started.
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars
Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have binocular loaning programs for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.
When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some major considerations might include size, ease of use, magnification, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.
For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area
When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to recognize common birds in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will vary by region, as will those migrating through it.
3. Get Out and Explore
Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).
If you are able to travel a bit further from home, national wildlife refuges and state/national parks are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists birding trails by state, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify Important Bird Areas (IBAs) across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat
The National Audubon Society recommends the "stop, look, listen, repeat" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.
First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.
When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.
While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their Birding by Ear series.
Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you.
When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. Major considerations when identifying birds are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.
The Sibley Guide to Birds and the Peterson Field Guide are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many specialized guides focus on specific species or regions as well.
Plenty of bird identification apps have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a field guide in your pocket. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.
6. Recording Your Sightings
As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their life list.
While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more structured birder's journal with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.
Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the eBird app.
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard
Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.
Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with seeds that will appeal to them.
Beyond filling a birdfeeder, transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.
While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often foster unlikely interactions between different species, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be cleaned to prevent the spread of infection.
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community
Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the Black & Latinx Birders Fund, Birdability, and Feminist Bird Club highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like Corina Newsome and Tykee James. The work of Christian Cooper, Camille Dungy (read her poem Frequently Asked Questions: 10), and J. Drew Lanham – including his essay "Birding While Black" – are a great place to start.
Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of Christian Cooper and J. Drew Lanham – including his essay "Birding While Black" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.
9. Get Involved
To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a directory of birding festivals across the country.
Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.
Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A 2019 report released by the National Audubon Society found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent Migratory Bird Protection Act – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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Americans take great pride in their lawns. A centuries-old practice adopted from Great Britain and Northern France, lawns have become a status symbol; a standard fixture of American communities.
In the United States, more than 40 million acres of land are covered in grass, making it the single largest irrigated crop in the country, requiring more labor, fuel, toxins, and equipment than industrial farming. These vast areas of monoculture (the practice of planting only a single crop) do ultimately have devastating consequences for ecosystem health.
Constituting 2% of the continental US, turf grass has a substantial environmental impact, especially in regards to lawn care: 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas (for mowing), and 70 million pounds of pesticides are used for lawn maintenance every year; fertilizer – containing large concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous – runs off of lawns, into storm drains, and eventually flows to waterways, causing algal blooms and contaminating drinking water; herbicides and pesticides kill unwanted – yet necessary – plants and insects, causing harm to humans and wildlife alike.
Moreover, the turf grass used for most lawns in the United States isn't native to North America and doesn't support the rich, diverse life needed for a healthy ecosystem. Blanketing an area with exclusively non-native grass eliminates the habitats of native plants and insects, decimating the biodiversity of the area and creating far-reaching consequences for food chains.
While boasting a bright green, perfectly mowed, immaculate lawn has become the norm, turning your yard into a native ecological refuge – sometimes called "naturescaping" – with these eco-friendly alternatives can do wonders for the biodiversity and overall health of your backyard ecosystem.
1. Native Plants and Flowers
Lake Lou / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
The ryegrass and Kentucky Bluegrass that make up most American lawns aren't native to the US; between 5,000 and 385,000 acres of native ecosystems are displaced by lawns every day, crowding out regional flowers, plants, and grasses across the country. Without these native plants, monoculture lawns are essentially wastelands for birds and pollinators – like bees, whose populations have been declining rapidly around the world – eliminating the flowers they feed on and locations for nesting.
Choosing to instead foster a yard of native flowers and plants creates a ripple affect in regional food chains: plants provide food for the bugs and bees that depend on it, which in turn provide food for mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, restoring the biodiversity that has been lost. Creating a deliberate landscaping plan to replace grass with low-maintenance plants will attract wildlife and bring some beauty to your backyard.
In urban areas, clover, dandelion, and other lawn "weeds" have been identified as some of the most important food sources for bees, and flowers like columbine, monarda, asters, and holly provide a friendly habitat for birds. Of course, native plants vary by region, so be sure to check with your state's Native Plant Society to find the right species for your eco-haven.
2. Grass Alternatives
If you love to look out the window at your luscious patch of green, you don't have to give it up entirely.
Groundcover plants provide an alternative to turf, but eliminate the need for mowing and still deliver that traditional verdant green. Clover, creeping jenny, barberry cotoneaster, Corsican mint, and creeping herbs like thyme and oregano require very little maintenance; clover especially needs little attention once it's established, suppresses weeds, and has a deep root system that aerates the soil.
Flowering perennial groundcover species – like sweet woodruff, liriope, and horned violets – bring a dash of color to your yard and often do well in shaded areas, as do many kinds of moss. Species of native ornamental grass thrive in different ranges of light, moisture, and soil, giving you plenty of options for your space.
Growing a natural lawn also eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, improves soil quality, and prevents erosion – all while creating a native habitat for the birds and the bees.
3. Befriend the Bugs
The prevailing rhetoric of traditional yard maintenance is to eliminate as many humming, buzzing, and crawling things as possible, which drives away the beneficial bugs that foster healthy, thriving ecosystems such as ladybugs, spiders, and ground beetles. While caterpillars and Japanese beetles might not be a welcome sight, not all bugs are a bad sign!
During their lifetime, ladybugs may eat as many as 5,000 aphids – a common backyard enemy. Ground beetles too feed on less-desirable bugs like caterpillars, slugs, weevils, and nematodes. To encourage such insects to make a home in your yard, you can purchase many of them online or at garden stores to jumpstart the process. But, once you begin to populate your yard with native plants and bid the turf adieu, the insects should start crawling, flying, and buzzing back.
Learn what beneficial bugs live in your area so you can identify the signs of a healthy, bio-diverse lawn.
4. Ditch the Fertilizer …
While typical fertilizers ramp up the productivity of farms and might keep our backyards emerald green, they also emit harmful greenhouse gases – accounting for 1.5% of global emissions – and fertilized lawns are no exception.
According to Dr. Chuanhui Gu of Appalachian State University, a standard lawn emits up to 6 times more CO2 than what can be absorbed during photosynthesis through mowing, irrigating, and fertilizing, including the production and transportation of the fertilizer.
Instead of synthetic fertilizers, try adding organic nutrients to your eco-friendly lawn by spreading compost. "Topdressing" your yard with compost supplies nutrients and keeps the soil healthy without depleting it, allowing you to maintain a healthy ecosystem for the diverse plant and animal life thriving in your eco-oasis.
5. … and the Pesticides
Henner Zeller / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Scientists have directly linked pesticides to the demise of frog, bat, and bee populations, throwing delicately balanced ecosystems and food chains into disorder. Ninety percent of flowering plants depend on bees and other pollinators to survive – species that have seen alarming decreases in population across the globe (also referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder).
Luckily, saving the bees can start in your own backyard: lawn-owners can make a tangible difference by cutting pesticides from their lawn-care regimen. Allowing native plants and weeds to grow freely and bugs to crawl amongst them will save the lives of your local bees, providing them a sanctuary to live, eat, and thrive in.
6. No-Mow Zones
Mile-for-mile, gas-powered lawn mowers produce about 11 times more pollution than a new car, estimates the EPA – so, running a single gas-powered mower for an hour is nearly equivalent in emissions to a 100-mile car trip.
Mowing lawns is also extremely time-consuming, accounting for more than three million collective hours each year for Americans, who, on average, mow their lawns 22 times per year. Think of the time saved by going no-mow!
The No-Mow Movement encourages lawn-owners to leave native grasses to their own devices, growing tall and wild to eliminate the environmental cost of watering and mowing, and allowing a more natural landscape to take over unimpeded. If you've decided on an alternative to grass that requires no mowing – like clover or moss – you're already there.
Do keep an eye out for invasive weeds in your no-mow lawn that might crowd out native plants and grasses.
Before embarking on your eco-oasis adventure, you'll need to set about "killing" your lawn – that is, doing away with existing turf grass to make way for your native plants and no-mow zones.
Covering the lawn with a sheet of black plastic will trap heat and kill the turf underneath; or, adopt the no-till method of layering newspaper over a section of grass and covering it with a few inches of soil. The newspaper will decay over time and provide a fresh start for your new lawn.
While recovering global biodiversity may seem like a daunting goal, cutting down your environmental impact and saving native ecosystems can all begin in your own yard!
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Along with her most recent position at Hunger Free America, she has interned with the Sierra Club in Washington, DC., Saratoga Living Magazine, and Philadelphia's NPR Member Station, WHYY.
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Mary Caperton Morton
The only thing "new" about West Virginia's New River Gorge is its national park status: In 2021, the New River Gorge became our latest national park, but in geologic terms, the New River is anything but new. Dating back to the days of the supercontinent Pangaea, it is one of the oldest rivers in the world and one of the few waterways in North America that runs north.
A lot can happen when a river keeps its course for over 300 million years. The New River's unusual north–south orientation serves as a corridor for animal migration, fueling a biodiversity hot spot that is home to an impressive array of endemic species, many of them endangered.
Millions of years of fluvial erosion have also carved a deep gorge lined by long tracts of bituminous coal and steep cliffs of quartzite sandstone. In the late 1800s, dozens of coal mines and company towns were built along the New's raging river canyon, accessible only by railroad. Today their vine-covered ruins are being reclaimed by the regenerating forest, and the ecological impacts of mining and deforestation on the New River's watershed are slowly healing.
A mere 30 kilometers from the New, however, deep scars blasted into the landscape by modern mountaintop removal mining operations may prove more or less permanent, even on geologic timescales.
New River, Old Course
"The New River might be the most inappropriately named river on Earth," said Nathaniel Hitt, a fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Kearneysville, W.Va.
The New was born when the North American and African plates collided to form the supercontinent Pangaea. The impact uplifted the Appalachian Mountains to Himalayan heights, and a mighty river named the Teays formed to drain the western slopes of the range. From its headwaters in what is now western North Carolina, the Teays flowed north through the Virginias before turning west into the Ohio River Basin, eventually draining into a vast inland sea.
Today the New River begins in the same headwaters carved by the Teays and follows roughly the same northward path. "These headwaters and this basin have remained in their current configurations for over 300 million years of evolutionary time," Hitt said.
Around 60 million years ago, the diagonally trending ridges of the Appalachians went through a period of uplift, but the highly erosive Teays kept cutting into the mountains faster than the uplift rate. Thus, the river's south-to-north course runs counter to the west-to-east flow of most Appalachian waterways, carving a formidable 400-meter-deep river canyon directly through the Appalachian Plateau.
The 580-kilometer-long New River carves the longest and deepest canyon in the Appalachian Mountains; the new 295-square-kilometer national park and preserve is headquartered along an 85-kilometer stretch of the river near Fayetteville, W.Va.
A Speciation Superhighway
Downstream—to the north—the New joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha River. Just downstream from this confluence, the wide and turbulent Kanawha Falls present a natural barrier to migration, leading to many aquatic species above and below the falls being genetically distinct from one another.
For instance, "when you look at the fish of the New River, you're seeing how evolution plays out over long geologic timescales," Hitt said. "The New River highlights the potential of deep evolutionary time to produce uniquely adapted species." The New River Basin is home to seven endemic species of fish—fish that are found nowhere else on Earth. These fish are uniquely adapted to thrive in turbulent white water and have lived through several major extinction events and an ice age that froze the northern reaches of their habitat.
The New's deep canyons also function as a biogeographical corridor for terrestrial animals, facilitating north–south movement in a landscape where most valleys run east–west. The New River Gorge's unusual orientation "lies at the core of one of the largest intact temperate forests in the world," said Douglas Manning, a terrestrial ecologist at the national park. "The gorge has a lot of niche habitats for different organisms to occupy," supporting a diverse assemblage of plants, mammals, birds, and aquatic species.
Whereas the New River allows for north–south migration, its steep and rugged topography presents a significant barrier to east–west movement. Historically, even humans have found the New a formidable obstacle. The turbulent waters are not safe for most river-based transportation, and steep cliffs can impede navigation on foot or horseback.
Although people have been living in southern West Virginia for at least 11,000 years, the main travel routes of early Indigenous communities "were not through the gorge, because it's so circuitous and dangerous to travel along the river," said Dave Fuerst, cultural resource program manager for the park. "They were using routes that went around the gorge, following ridges and stream drainages." Communities thrived in the ecologically rich area, however, and today more than 400 archaeological sites are documented along the New, Gauley, and Bluestone Rivers, connected by an elaborate network of footpaths.
It wasn't until the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway in 1873 that people were able to travel the length of the gorge efficiently. Even then, east–west travel across the gorge remained harrowing until 1977, when the New River Gorge Bridge was completed just east of Fayetteville, shortening the cross-gorge travel time from over an hour to less than a minute. This impressive 923-meter-long steel arched span soars 267 meters above the New, making it one of the highest vehicular bridges in the world.
Coal Mining in My Mitochondria
The rock layers exposed by the New River span over 350 million years. Historically, the most sought-after layers in the gorge were bituminous coal, a relatively soft black coal that burns readily, producing little smoke. These layers date to the Pennsylvanian subperiod of the Carboniferous, when vast swamps covered large regions of the globe, producing thick layers of peat that eventually formed coal.
Coal miners pose on an electric-powered mine locomotive at Kaymoor, W.Va., in 1914. National Park Service
The downward cutting of the New River did a lot of the work to expose bituminous coal seams along the gorge. After the C&O railroad was finished, dozens of coal mines sprang up along the New. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, miners hacked millions of tons of coal from the walls of the gorge. The work was brutal, and the pay was around 45 cents a ton. Strong miners could earn $2.00 a day.
For a time, New River coal was one of the most abundant on the market, fueling everything from steel mills to power plants. More than 60 coal towns were built along the New River to support the mines. Some of these towns boasted hundreds of buildings and were home to thousands of people.
The downward cutting of the New River did a lot of the work to expose bituminous coal seams along the gorge. After the C&O railroad was finished, dozens of coal mines sprang up along the New. From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, miners hacked millions of tons of coal from the walls of the gorge. The work was brutal, and the pay was around 45 cents a ton. Strong miners could earn $2.00 a day.
For a time, New River coal was one of the most abundant on the market, fueling everything from steel mills to power plants. More than 60 coal towns were built along the New River to support the mines. Some of these towns boasted hundreds of buildings and were home to thousands of people.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, dozens of coal company mining towns were built along the New River. All of the railroad-accessed towns were abandoned by the 1960s. Coalcampusa.com.
My family history runs deep in these New River mining towns: The town of Caperton was named for one of my relatives, my maternal great-grandmother was born in Fire Creek, and my paternal grandparents lived and worked in Ames, where New River Gorge Bridge pylons now stand on the east side of the gorge. When my dad was 2 years old, the family moved to Fayetteville, on the west side of the gorge, where my uncle still lives in the family home.
I spent the summers of my childhood exploring the woods and creeks around the gorge, hunting for salamanders and seashell fossils from a long-gone ocean that predates the Appalachians. Every time I visit the New, I feel like a salmon returning to its home stream; I imagine my great-grandmother's mitochondria in my cells vibrating in tune with one of the world's oldest rivers. I've hiked all over the New River Gorge, visiting the overgrown sites and ruins of Ames, Kaymoor, and Nuttallburg, but I have not yet made it farther upriver to Caperton or Fire Creek. Someday an anadromous upriver backpacking trip awaits (although I have no plans to spawn).
Making the Leap from Coal Mining to BASE Jumping
All of the mines and coal towns in the New River Gorge were abandoned by the 1960s, and today the still-inaccessible ghost towns are fading into the rapidly regenerating forest.
"The New River Gorge faces a lot of legacy impacts from all sorts of land use history in the gorge," Manning said. Vast areas of forest were stripped of trees to fuel the coal towns' woodstoves and coke ovens, and timber operations in the gorge continued for decades after mining operations ceased.
"If you look at photos from around the turn of the century and the Great Depression, [you will see that] the forest here was stripped bare," said Eve West, chief of interpretation at the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. And now, "this is considered to be the most botanically diverse river system in the central and southern Appalachians. There's not a lot of virgin forest here, so that's all come from regrowth in the past 50 years. This place bounces back fast."
Regrowth and resiliency are proving to be a hallmark of this landscape and for its people. Two generations removed from the dark and dangerous coal mines, I find myself drawn upward, to the New River's second most famous rock: Nuttall sandstone, a hard, quartz-rich variety that erodes into vertical cliffs with thin cracks perfect for rock climbing.
More than 1,400 traditional and sport climbing routes snake up the walls of the gorge, making it one of the premiere climbing localities in the eastern United States. I cut my teeth on these rocks in more ways than one; in 2008, fresh out of graduate school with a newly minted master's degree in science journalism, one of my very first assignments was to cover the New River Rendezvous, an annual 3-day rock climbing festival in the gorge, for Climbing magazine.
I have not yet rafted the raging rapids of the highly technical New River. Even after braving 22 glorious days rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, I am still intimidated by the New's legendary hydraulics.
I have even less desire to try the gorge's other adrenaline-fueled sport: BASE (buildings, antennas, spans, and Earth) jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge into the river, 267 meters below. Watching dozens of people eagerly leap from the dizzying span on Bridge Day is enough of a rush for me.
The New River's potential as an adventurer's paradise is still expanding, with new mountain biking and hiking trails added every year. In 2019, around 1.3 million people recreated at the New, and tourism now drives Fayetteville's once-faltering economy. "The New River Gorge is a fascinating place—geologically, ecologically, and historically—in a majestic setting," Hitt said. "I hope people will be inspired by this elevated [national park] designation to come visit."
We All Live Downstream
The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve encompasses almost 295 square kilometers of land around the river corridor, but the New River's entire watershed is more than 18,000 square kilometers. "One of the ongoing challenges is that we can protect and manage the gorge itself, but we don't own the headwaters upstream," where the river is "undoubtedly" still affected by ongoing mining, Manning said.
The New River's upstream watershed includes mountaintop removal mining, in which the tops of entire mountains are removed to access buried coal seams, and the overburden is pushed into a neighboring valley, destroying thousands of kilometers of mountain streams. Across southern West Virginia, 1.5 million acres of land have been affected by mountaintop removal mining operations, which have buried more than 3,200 kilometers of streams in rubble, a tactic called valley fill.
As groundwater trickles through the jumbled subsurface of a valley fill, it picks up minerals, metals, and salts from the debris, increasing the salt and mineral content of the water downstream. A 2014 study by Hitt and colleagues in Freshwater Science found "fewer species, lower abundances, and less biomass" downstream from mining operations.
Trees seem to be the key in kick-starting the healing process. "We've found that restoring trees to the postmining landscape helps restore the hydrologic function" within a matter of years to decades, said Chris Barton, a forest hydrologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Trees pull a lot of water out of the groundwater system, keeping it from mobilizing minerals, salts, and pollutants.
"As the forest regrows, we're seeing a return to the natural hydrology of these sites, along with improvements in the water quality that [are] needed to support aquatic life," Barton said.
One reforestation project, at a former mountaintop removal mine that was replanted in 2009, went from looking like "the surface of the Moon" to a lush green forest in less than a decade, Barton said. Last year, Barton observed minnows in the stream he and his team created out of the moonscape of rubble.
Even with restoration and reforestation, the scars left on the landscape by mountaintop removal mining are permanent, Barton said. "Reforesting helps hide the scars, but they're still there. I do wonder about how erosion over geologic timescales will work on those valleys filled with loose, unconsolidated rock," he said. "It seems likely they will erode much faster than the mountains themselves" and may result in deep gorges and holes in the landscape.
In terms of pollution, the legacy of mining in Appalachia will linger essentially forever, said Margaret Palmer, a restoration ecologist at the University of Maryland. "Replanting offers the best hope for restoring stream biodiversity, but no matter what you do, it's crystal clear that mining poisons streams and that mined land will continue to release toxins into the ecosystem in perpetuity."
With a 300-million-year history, the New is no stranger to perpetuity. The river's deeply entrenched course is likely to stay that way for eons longer, perhaps until the North American continent is reconfigured into a new landmass in a few hundred million years. The New's steady presence may prove crucial to plant and animal species as climate change progresses, Manning said, because species are projected to migrate north in response to warming temperatures.
"The New represents one of the most direct avenues for species migration in the Appalachian Mountains," he said. "In the future, I can see the New River Gorge harboring species on their northward migration. I think we'll see how important and resilient the forests of the Appalachians really are, as landscapes and climate continue to change."
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
The Great Trail in Canada is recognized as the world's longest recreational trail for hiking, biking, and cross-country skiing. Created by the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) and various partners, The Great Trail consists of a series of smaller, interconnected routes that stretch from St. John's to Vancouver and even into the Yukon and Northwest Territories. It took nearly 25 years to connect the 27,000 kilometers of greenway in ways that were safe and accessible to hikers. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Canadian Paralympic Committee and AccessNow, the TCT is increasing accessibility throughout The Great Trail for people with disabilities.
Since The Great Trail opened in 2017, the TCT has worked hard to provide as much information about the greenway to Canadians across the country. By working with the individual parks and trail groups that make up The Great Trail, they have created an experience that outdoorsmen from all over Canada can enjoy. However, until recently, little information was given for accessibility to the individual trails. This is why the partnership with AccessNow is crucial.
AccessNow is a Canadian social enterprise that allows individuals to pin areas on a worldwide map that are accessible or that need accessibility improvements. By using the AccessNow map on The Great Trail, the TCT hopes to help Canadians can find barrier-free segments of the trail as well as alert the organization to areas that still have barriers. This measure aims to provide a better overall experience for hikers, bikers, and skiers visiting the Great Trail.
The AccessNow mapping initiative began with para-athlete volunteers from the Canadian Paralympic Committee. After the announcement that the 2020 Paralympics would be postponed to August of 2021, many para-athletes were eager to help in the project. The TCT's president and CEO Eleanor McMahon said, "With the Games postponed, (the athletes) had some time in their schedule — we were fortunate enough that they chose to spend some of their time helping us."
To McMahon and other leaders of the project, the partnership is about more than tracking access on the trail. It's about making as many voices heard, and ensuring that everyone can receive the physical and mental benefits of outdoor recreation. Maayan Ziv, founder & CEO of AccessNow said, "It is an honor to work closely with the athletes involved in this project, their voices and perspectives contribute to the 'nothing about us without us' mandate that we pride ourselves on celebrating across Canada."
Trans Canada Trail and AccessNow partnership for AccessOutdoors / Trails for All project. Mapping day at Stanley Park Seawall in Vancouver, British Columbia with Richard Peter. Alexa Fernando
This partnership also comes at a time when access to outdoor recreation is more important to Canadian citizens than ever. Studies from the spring of 2020 indicate that Canadian's mental health has worsened since the onset of social distancing protocols due to COVID-19.
The Mayo Clinic lists hiking, biking, and skiing as safe activities during COVID-19. Their website explains, "When you're outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets. So you're less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected."
TCT leadership took this into consideration when embarking on the accessibility project. McMahon explains that there has never been a more important time to bring accessibility to the great outdoors: "Canadians have told us that during these difficult times, they value access to natural spaces to stay active, take care of their mental health, and socially connect with others while respecting physical distancing and public health directives. This partnership is incredibly important especially now as trails have become a lifeline for Canadians."
Together, these organizations are paving the way for better physical and mental health among all Canadians. To learn more about the TCT's mission and initiatives, check out their trail stories and 2020 Impact Report.
There are very few places that capture the essence of American beauty better than Yosemite National Park. Millions of people visit each year to explore its mountainous terrain, or to experience Yosemite's unique natural wonders such as the giant sequoia groves or the hundreds of waterfalls that nourish the protected landscape.
One such waterfall takes the mainstage in mid-February as the park's most popular winter attraction. Known as the "Firefall," or Horsetail Falls during the spring and summer months, this waterfall glows fiery red in the wintertime as the sunset reflects off its waters. However, to see it in 2021 you'll have to make reservations soon.
Starting February 8, Yosemite will put a reservation system in place for day use of the park. The park is taking extra steps to ensure social distancing protocols are followed and risks are minimized during COVID-19, and encourage visitors who want to see Firefall to book soon.
heyengel / iStock / Getty Images Plus
The expected viewing dates begin February 13th and end February 25th. Due to the short timeframe that the Firefall is visible, reservations are expected to book quickly.
For those unfamiliar with the Firefall, it is a bizarre and beautiful natural phenomenon that can only occur for two weeks out of the year. At sunset, the waterfall transforms from an icy shower to a glowing flame that appears to flow like lava from the heights of El Capitan. This occurs due to the unique angle of the waterfall against the sunset during mid-February.
Despite its massive appeal, the Firefall is actually quite elusive. In order for the illusion to occur, Horsetail Falls must be experiencing a clear Western sky, have enough snowfall the night before, and experience warm temperatures to melt the snow and sustain the waterfall. Due to the angle of the sunset against the waterfall, it can only occur for approximately two weeks in February, but a cloudy day or freezing temperatures can get in the way of the incredible display.
Not only are the Firefalls rare, but they're also short-lived. The sunset will only be at the right angle for five to ten minutes, giving visitors a very short window to observe. However, those who have witnessed the Firefall believe it is always worth the effort.
Yosemite's Firefall was first discovered in 1978 by photographer Galen Rowell. He was driving past Horsetail Falls at sunset, and witnessed the anomaly long enough to capture the first photos. After sharing them with a soon-to-be worldwide audience, Firefall became the #1 attraction at Yosemite during the month of February.
Since then, the natural wonder that occurs on Horsetail falls has become a global spectacle, coveted by photographers, artists, and nature enthusiasts alike. Thousands of people visit the park during mid-February each year solely to chase the elusive majesty of this waterfall at sunset.
Horsetail Fall is located over the eastern edge of El Capitan, which is not possible to reach by car. The closest parking is one and a half miles from the actual viewing site, so it is important to book your reservation and arrive early if you want to catch a glimpse of it at sunset.
Savannah Hasty is an environmental writer with more than six years of experience and has written thousands of articles for clients around the world. Her work focuses on environmental news, lifestyle content, and copywriting for sustainable brands. Savannah lives on the sunny coast of Florida and is inspired by this to play an active role in the preservation of the state's marine life and natural ecosystems.
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The storm that struck Yosemite also battered most of California beginning Monday, Jan. 18, The Associated Press reported. It toppled trees and power lines. Around 300,000 homes and businesses lost power from the storm directly, while tens of thousands of people had their power shut off by utilities to prevent wildfires.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman told The Sacramento Bee that the storm was the biggest he had observed in his 25 years of working for the park, in terms of both wind speed and damage caused.
Yosemite originally said it would reopen Tuesday, Jan. 26, but announced Monday it would delay its reopening until at least Saturday.
"Park staff continue to work toward restoring safe conditions after last week's Mono wind event," the park tweeted.
Yosemite will remain closed at least until Saturday, January 30. Park staff continue to work toward restoring safe… https://t.co/1dAPmCwaL9— Yosemite National Park (@Yosemite National Park)1611626554.0
The storm hit Yosemite the night of Jan. 18, The Associated Press reported. The winds knocked over hundreds of trees in the park, according to The Sacramento Bee. The fallen trees included two giant sequoias from the lower grove of Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, Gediman said.
Fallen trees in the lower grove also crushed a boardwalk and bathroom that had been added during a $40 million restoration completed in 2018. All told, Gediman estimated that damage to vehicles, employee homes and facilities was in the millions of dollars.
Gediman said the hardest hit area was the Wawona community, which saw wind speeds of up to around 80 miles per hour. It was still without power three days after the storm.
Yosemite National Park will remain closed at least until Tuesday, January 26, as a result of damage to park facilit… https://t.co/AOIwF5HIIv— Yosemite National Park (@Yosemite National Park)1611272721.0
Fortunately, no one was injured in the area, and the closure comes during a slow time for Yosemite. The park usually sees fewer visitors in the winter, and this year numbers are even lower because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before the storm, the park was only open for day visitors, and lodges and campgrounds were closed.
When the park reopens, it will be open for 24 hours a day, the park said on Twitter. However, not every part of the park will open at once. The Yosemite Valley Lodge and the Ahwahnee will open Feb. 5, and the Upper Pines Campground will open on Feb. 8.
Areas south of Yosemite Valley, including Wawona and Mariposa Grove, will stay closed until further notice, the park said.
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By Dirk Lorenzen
2021 begins as a year of Mars. Although our red planetary neighbor isn't as prominent as it was last autumn, it is still noticeable with its characteristic reddish color in the evening sky until the end of April. In early March, Mars shines close to the star cluster Pleiades in the constellation Taurus.
But for space nerds, Mars is already the center of attention in February. Three space probes that were launched in the summer of 2020 will arrive on the red planet.
On February 9, "Hope," the first interplanetary mission of the United Arab Emirates, is set to enter orbit around Mars. Only one day later, the Chinese probe Tianwen-1 will join it. The name means "heavenly questions," referring to a famous piece of ancient poetry.
Both missions will take surface and atmospheric measurements of Mars. Probably in May, a small rover will detach from the Chinese spacecraft and make its way down to the surface to explore the surroundings of the landing site.
A Landing Like a James Bond Movie
NASA's Mars 2020 Perseverance rover (shown in artist's illustration) is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to Mars. Ingenuity, a technology experiment, will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. Perseverance will arrive at Mars' Jezero Crater with Ingenuity attached to its belly. NASA
The highlight of this year's Mars exploration is the landing of the NASA rover "Perseverance" on February 18. Once the spacecraft enters the atmosphere it will be slowed down by friction. The heat shield will surpass 1,000 degrees Celsius. Later, parachutes will deploy to slow it down even more. Roughly two kilometers above the planet's surface, a sky crane comes into play. Four thrusters keep the crane properly oriented.
The rover is connected to the crane by nylon tethers. Upon approach of Mars' surface, the sky crane will lower Perseverance down about 7 meters. Once the rover has touched down, the tethers are cut and the sky crane flies off to land somewhere else on the surface.
Entry, descent and landing takes just seven minutes – the so-called seven minutes of terror. The flight team can't interact with the spacecraft on Mars. Experts have to sit and watch what's happening more than 200 million kilometers away. Radio signals from the spacecraft need about 11 minutes to travel in one direction. When the control center in Pasadena, California receives the message that entry has begun, Perseverance will already be on the ground. There is only one chance for a smooth landing. Any error could mean the mission is lost. The audacious sky crane maneuver would be a great feat in any action movie. But NASA knows how to do it – the Curiosity rover landed with a sky crane in 2012.
Life on Mars?
Scientists want to use Perseverance to explore whether there is or ever has been life on Mars. Today the planet is a hostile environment – dry and cold with no magnetic field shielding the harsh radiation from space. Life as we know it can't survive on the Martian surface right now. But billions of years ago, Mars was hotter and wetter and had a shield against radiation. So it is at least plausible that simple microbes developed there. Maybe they live in the soil now, one or two meters below the surface. Perseverance will collect samples to find out. A future mission by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will pick up the samples and return them to Earth. But this won't happen before 2030.
The Long Wait for James Webb
The Hubble Space Telescope has been orbiting the Earth for more than 30 years. NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope's images of planets, nebulae, star clusters and galaxies are legendary. The cosmic eye, launched in 1990, is likely to fail towards the end of this decade. The James Webb Space Telescope will be its successor. It is scheduled to launch on October 31 with a European Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.
The launch date is about 14 years later than planned when the project began in 1997. At almost $10 billion (€8.2 billion), the telescope is more than ten times as expensive as originally conceived. Its namesake James Webb was the NASA administrator during the height of the Apollo project in the 1960s.
Astronomers expect completely new insights from James Webb Telescope images, such as how the universe came into being, how it developed and how galaxies, stars and planets are formed. The instrument will observe the earliest childhood of the cosmos and photograph objects that already existed in the universe 200 to 300 million years after the Big Bang. James Webb, as the experts call the telescope for short, may even provide information about possibly inhabited exoplanets – planets like ours orbiting stars other than the Sun.
A Sensitive German Camera
The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and unitized pallet structures that will fold up around the telescope for launch. NASA
The mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope is 6.5 meters in diameter and consists of 18 hexagonal segments. The entire instrument unfolds in 178 steps over a period of several months. Only then – probably in the spring of 2022 – will we see its first images.
Many communication or reconnaissance satellites only unfold in space. However, not every micrometer is as important as with this telescope.
NIRSpec, one of the four cameras on board, was built at Airbus in Ottobrunn near Munich. It is made of an unusual material: ceramic. Both the basic structure and the mirrors are made of this very light, hard and extremely temperature-insensitive material. With good reason – the large camera has to withstand a lot in space. It is cooled to around -250 degrees Celsius in order to register the weak infrared or thermal radiation from the depths of space. Plastic or metal bend and lead to blurred images. Ceramic, on the other hand, remains in perfect shape.
The NIRSpec instrument will examine, among other things, emerging stars and distant galaxies. The ceramic camera is incredibly sensitive – it could register the heat radiation from a burning cigarette on the Moon. Thanks to this precision, astronomers will get completely new insights into the cosmos with the James Webb Telescope and NIRSpec.
No Flight to the Moon but to the ISS
It's not very likely that the Orion spacecraft from NASA and ESA will start its maiden voyage to the Moon before the end of 2021. As part of the Artemis-1 mission, it will remain in space for four weeks and will orbit the Moon for a few days. There will be no crew on board for the first flight, but two dummies from the German Aerospace Center, which use thousands of sensors to measure the conditions that human beings would be exposed to. The Orion capsule comes from NASA, while the ESA supplies the service module. The service module, which is being built by Airbus in Bremen, provides propulsion, navigation, altitude control and the supply of air, water and fuel. After problems with an engine test in mid-January, the new NASA large rocket Space Launch System (SLS), with which Orion is supposed to be launched, is unlikely to be operational until early 2022.
Matthias Maurer from Saarland is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) in October. The flight will be in a Crew Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral. Maurer will live and work in the orbital outpost for six months. He is currently training to work on numerous scientific experiments. Maurer will be the twelfth German in space.
So far, Germany has only sent men into space. In mid-March, ESA will start the next application process for astronauts. A few years ago, the private initiative Die Astronautin ("She is an astronaut") showed that there are numerous excellent female applicants.
Two Lunar Eclipses
Even if there is no flight to the Moon, sky fans are looking forward to two eclipses this year. On May 26, there will be a lunar eclipse between 9:45 and 12:53 UTC. From 11:10 to 11:28 UTC, the Moon will be completely in the Earth's shadow. It can then only be seen in a copper-red light. This is sunlight that is directed into the Earth's shadow by the Earth's atmosphere – reddish, like the sky at sunset. This eclipse can be observed throughout the Pacific, and will be best viewed in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Antarctica. In Europe, the Moon will be below the horizon and therefore the eclipse will not be visible.
This also the case for the partial lunar eclipse on November 19. From 07:18 to 10:47 UTC, the Moon will be partly in the shadow of the Earth. In the middle of the eclipse (around 9:03 UTC) 98% of the Moon will be eclipsed. The spectacle will be best seen in North America, Greenland, East Asia and much of the Pacific, such as Hawaii and New Zealand.
Two Solar Eclipses: One Annular, One Total
In 2021, the Moon will pass right in front of the sun, twice. On June 10, the moon will be nearly in the furthest point of its elliptical orbit around Earth. So it will be too small to cover the sun completely. In the middle of this eclipse, an annulus of the sun will remain visible. The sun's ring of fire appears between 9:55 and 11:28 UTC for a maximum of four minutes – but it will only be visible in the very sparsely populated areas of northeast Canada, northwestern Greenland, the North Pole and the far east of Siberia.
In the North Atlantic, Europe and large parts of Russia, an eclipse will be seen at least partially. Between 8:12 and 13:11 UTC, the Sun will appear like a cookie that has been bitten into as the Moon covers parts of the bright disk. In some places, the eclipse will last about two hours. In Central Europe, a maximum of one-fifth of the sun will be covered.
Dark Sun Over Antarctica
The celestial event of the year will be a total solar eclipse on December 4. In a 400-kilometer-wide strip, the New Moon will cover the sun completely. For a maximum of one minute and 54 seconds, day will turn to night. For that short time, the brightest stars can be seen in the sky and the flaming solar corona can be seen around the dark disc of the Moon.
Unfortunately, hardly anyone will get to see this cosmic spectacle because the strip of totality only runs through the Southern Ocean and the Antarctic. From 7:03 to 8:04 UTC the umbra of the Moon moves across the Earth's surface – and perhaps some ships' crews will enjoy the solar corona.
Only during the few minutes of totality is it possible to look safely at the Sun with the naked eye. During the partial phase or in the case of an annular eclipse, suitable protective goggles are necessary to watch the spectacle. Normal sunglasses are not safe. Looking unprotected into the sun can lead to severe eye damage or even blindness.
Two Giant Planets in Northern Summer and Southern Winter
Venus, our other neighboring planet, will be behind the sun on March 26. It is not visible for the first few months of the year. From the end of April through Christmas, it will be visible as an evening star in the sky after sunset. The planet, shrouded in dense clouds, is the brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. The best visibility will be from September to December.
The giant planet Jupiter is in its best position of the year on August 20. It then shines in the constellation Capricorn, only disappearing from the evening sky at the beginning of next year. The ringed planet Saturn is also in the constellation Capricorn and can be observed particularly well on August 2.
Jupiter and Saturn are the stars of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and those of the long winter nights in the Southern Hemisphere. They are in the same area of the sky, almost forming a double star with Jupiter being the brighter of the two.
Shooting Stars in August and December
There are certain periods when the Earth crosses the orbital path of a comet and shooting stars are much more likely than on other nights. Many small stones and dust particles are scattered on comet orbits, which light up the Earth's atmosphere for a moment when they enter.
The Perseids are particularly promising: August 9-13, a few dozen meteors (the technical term for shooting stars) will scurry across the sky per hour. The traces of light will seem to come from the constellation Perseus, near the striking celestial W of Cassiopeia. The Geminids – meteors coming from the constellation Gemini – will be similarly exciting with up to 100 shooting stars per hour, December 10-15.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Michael Svoboda, Ph.D.
Despite a journey to this moment even more treacherous than expected, Americans now have a fresh opportunity to act, decisively, on climate change.
The authors of the many new books released in just the past few months (or scheduled to be published soon) seem to have anticipated this pivotal moment.
Their number includes a scientist, an entrepreneur, and a journalist, each of whom has published among the first calls to action on climate change: Michael Mann, Bill Gates, and Elizabeth Kolbert.
But all the authors recognize that our repeated failures to seize previous opportunities says something about our market economy, our mindsets, and our political institutions. Thus the solutions offered in these new titles are as often political as they are scientific and technical, and psychological as often as they are environmental.
Americans succeeded in making a critical change: a climate denier no longer presides over the United States. With the 12 titles listed below, Americans can now consider new possibilities – at all levels – made possible by that first change.
As always, the descriptions of the 12 titles listed below are adapted from copy provided by the publishers.
1. The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet, by Michael E. Mann (Public Affairs 2021, 368 pages, $29.00) (Editor's note: A separate book review on this title will be posted soon at this site.)
In The New Climate War, renowned climate scientist Michael Mann shows how fossil fuel companies have waged a thirty-year campaign to deflect blame and responsibility and delay action on climate change. But all is not lost. In his new book, Mann outlines a plan for forcing our governments and corporations to wake up and make real change, by allowing renewable energy to compete fairly against fossil fuels, by debunking the false narratives and arguments that have worked their way into the climate debate, and by combatting climate doomism. The societal tipping point necessary to win the new climate war won't happen without the active participation of citizens everywhere aiding in the collective push forward.
2. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, by Bill Gates (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $26.95)
In this urgent, authoritative book, Bill Gates sets out a wide-ranging, practical – and accessible – plan for how the world can get to zero greenhouse gas emissions in time to avoid a climate catastrophe. Drawing on his understanding of innovation and what it takes to get new ideas into the market, he describes the areas in which technology is already helping to reduce emissions, where and how the current technology can be made to function more effectively, where breakthrough technologies are needed, and who is working on these essential innovations. As Bill Gates makes clear, achieving zero emissions will not be simple or easy to do, but if we follow the plan he sets out here, it is a goal firmly within our reach.
3. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, by Elizabeth Kolbert (Penguin Random House 2021, 256 pages, $28.00)
In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. Along the way, she meets biologists who are trying to preserve the world's rarest fish, which lives in a single tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave; engineers who are turning carbon emissions to stone in Iceland; Australian researchers who are trying to develop a "super coral" that can survive on a hotter globe; and physicists who are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere to cool the earth. One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face.
4. There Is No Planet B, Updated Edition, by Mike Berners-Lee (Cambridge University Press 2021, 321 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Hunger, climate change, biodiversity, antibiotics, plastics, pandemics – the list of concerns seems endless. But what is most pressing, and what should we do first? Do we all need to become vegetarian? How can we fly in a low-carbon world? How can we take control of technology? And, given the global nature of these challenges, what can any of us do as individuals? Mike Berners-Lee has crunched the numbers and plotted a course of action that is full of hope, practical, and enjoyable. He offers a big-picture perspective on the environmental and economic challenges of our day. This updated edition has new material on protests, pandemics, wildfires, investments, carbon targets and of course, on the key question: given all this, what can I do?
5. How to Prepare for Climate Change: A Practical Guide to Surviving the Chaos, by David Pogue (Simon & Schuster 2021, 624 pages, $24.00 paperback)
In How to Prepare for Climate Change, bestselling self-help author and beloved CBS Sunday Morning science and technology correspondent David Pogue offers sensible, deeply researched advice for how we should start to ready ourselves for the years ahead. Pogue walks readers through what to grow, what to eat, how to build, how to insure, where to invest, how to prepare your children and pets, and even where to consider relocating when the time comes. He also provides wise tips for managing your anxiety. Timely and enlightening, How to Prepare for Climate Change is an indispensable guide for anyone who read The Uninhabitable Earth or The Sixth Extinction and wants to know how to make smart choices for the upheaval ahead.
6. The Story of CO2: Big Ideas for a Small Molecule, by Geoffrey A. Ozin and Mireille F. Ghoussoub (University of Toronto Press 2020, 280 pages, $34.95)
The climate crisis requires that we drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions across all sectors of society. The Story of CO2 contributes to this challenge by highlighting the cutting-edge science and emerging technologies that can transform carbon dioxide into a myriad of products such as feedstock chemicals, polymers, pharmaceuticals, and fuels. This approach allows us to reconsider CO2 as a resource, and to add "carbon capture and use" to our other tools in the fight against catastrophic climate change. The Story of CO2 seeks to inspire readers with the latest carbon utilization technologies and explain how they fit within the broader context of carbon mitigation strategies in the shift towards a sustainable energy economy.
7. To Know the World: A New Vision for Environmental Learning, by Mitchel Thomashow (The MIT Press 2020, 288 pages, $30.00 paperback)
How can we respond to the current planetary ecological emergency? In To Know the World, Mitchell Thomashow proposes that we reinvigorate how we think about our residency on Earth. Mixing memoir, theory, mindfulness, pedagogy, and compelling storytelling, Thomashow discusses how to navigate the Anthropocene's rapid pace of change without further separating psyche from biosphere; how to achieve constructive connectivity in both social and ecological networks; and why we should take a cosmopolitan bioregionalism perspective that unites local and global. Throughout, Thomashow invites readers to participate as explorers, encouraging them to better understand how and why environmental learning is crucial to human flourishing.
8. Deep Time Reckoning: How Future Thinking Can Help Earth Now, by Vincent Ialenti (The MIT Press 2020, 208 pages, $25.00)
We live on a planet careening toward an environmental collapse that will be largely brought about by our own actions. And yet we struggle to grasp the scale of the crisis, barely able to imagine the effects of climate change just ten years from now, let alone the multi-millennial timescales of Earth's life span. In this book, political economist Vincent Ialenti takes on two overlapping crises: the Anthropocene, our current moment of human-caused environmental transformation, and the deflation of expertise – today's popular mockery and institutional erosion of expert authority. The second crisis, he argues, is worsening the effects of the first. Hearing out scientific experts who study a wider time span than a Facebook timeline is key to tackling our planet's emergency. This is the kind of time literacy we need if we are to survive the Anthropocene.
9. The Untold Story of the World's Leading Environmental Institution: UNEP at Fifty, by Maria Ivanova (The MIT Press 20201, 384 pages, $30.00 paperback)
The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) was founded in 1972 as a nimble, fast, and flexible entity at the core of the UN system – a subsidiary body rather than a specialized agency. In this book, Maria Ivanova offers a detailed account of UNEP's origin and history and a vision for its future. Ivanova counters the common criticism that UNEP was deficient by design, arguing that UNEP has in fact delivered on much (though not all) of its mandate. UNEP's fiftieth anniversary, Ivanova argues, presents an opportunity for reinvention. She envisions a future UNEP that is the go-to institution for information on the state of the planet, a normative vision of global environmental governance, and support for domestic environmental agendas.
10. How Are We Going to Explain This? Our Future on a Hot Earth, by Jelmer Mommers (Simon & Schuster 2020, 224 pages, $16.95 paperback)
If climate change is the biggest threat humanity has ever faced, then why are we doing so little about it? Journalist Jelmer Mommers knows most people prefer not to talk or even think about climate change, and that is exactly why he wrote this book. Denial and despair are not the only possible responses to the current crisis. Drawing on the latest science, Mommers describes how we got here, what possible future awaits us, and how you can help make a difference. Five years in the making, How Are We Going to Explain This was an instant bestseller in the Netherlands. This updated translation, which includes responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, brings Mommers' unique blend of realism and hope to the wider world.
11. The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking, by Roman Krznaric (The Experiment 2020, 288 pages, $25.95)
"Are we being good ancestors?" asked Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine in 1953 but refused to patent it – forgoing profit so that more lives could be saved. Salk's generosity to future generations should inspire us. But when philosopher Roman Krznaric examines society today, he sees just the opposite: Our short term mindsets have "colonized the future." In The Good Ancestor, Krznaric reveals six practical ways we can retrain our brains to think of the long view, including Deep-Time Humility (recognizing our lives as a cosmic eyeblink) and Cathedral Thinking (starting projects that will take more than one lifetime). He aims to inspire more "time rebels" like Greta Thunberg – to shift our allegiance from this generation to all humanity.
12. Hope Matters: Why Changing the Way We Think Is Critical to Solving the Environmental Crisis, by Elin Kelsey (Greystone Books 2020, 240 pages, $22.95 paperback)
We are at an inflection point: today, more people than ever before recognize that climate change and biodiversity loss are urgent and existential threats. Yet constant reports of climate doom are fueling an epidemic of eco-anxiety. Hope Matters boldly breaks through the narrative of doom and gloom that has overtaken conversations about our future to show why hope, not fear, is our most powerful tool for tackling the planetary crisis. Award-winning author, scholar, and educator Elin Kelsey describes effective campaigns to support ocean conservation and species resilience, and rewilding. And she shows how we can build on these positive trends and harness all our emotions about the changing environment into effective personal and political action.
We encourage readers to suggest titles for future bookshelves by contacting the bookshelf editor. We welcome review copies but suggest first contacting the editor prior to sending PDFs or print copies.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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A Yellowstone National Park trail camera received a surprising visitor last month.
An elusive wolverine triggered a camera near the Mammoth Hot Springs area, the park announced on Facebook Wednesday.
"This is the first video footage of a wolverine since remote cameras have been deployed in the park," the park wrote.
Yellowstone National Park first began installing cameras to track the movement of cougars in 2014. In the seven years since, the cameras have also proved useful for detecting and studying a variety of species. But never before have those species included wolverines.
Wolverines (Gulo gulo) are mid-sized carnivores in the weasel family who thrive in snowy environments. Worldwide, they are found in Scandinavia, Russia, China, Canada and the U.S., according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In the U.S., the southernmost part of their range extends into the lower 48 states, particularly the North Cascades in Washington and the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). This includes the greater Yellowstone area, where they prefer mountainous areas with forest or tundra habitats, the park explained. Between 2006 and 2009, seven wolverines (two females and five males) were documented in the eastern Yellowstone area and nearby national forests.
In the Facebook post, the park wrote that they lived in "low densities" in the park itself and were "rarely detected."
The elusive mammals are hard to document because they tend to live in remote areas and can move quickly over a short period, FWS explained.
"Wolverines are so rarely seen and inhabit such remote terrain at low densities that assessing population trends is difficult and sudden declines could go unnoticed for years," Yellowstone National Park warned.
And they may become even more elusive because of the climate crisis. By 2050, the only places in the lower 48 states that will have enough spring snow pack for the animals will be greater Yellowstone, the southern Rocky Mountains and California's Sierra Nevada, but there are no wolverine populations currently in the latter two locations.
Despite this, the FWS refused Endangered Species Act protections to wolverines in October of 2020, as High Country News reported. The department argued that enough snow would last in the lower 48 states to allow the animals to remain living there.
Conservationists disagreed, and sued the department to reverse the ruling in December of 2020.
"For years scientists have been sounding the alarm on how wolverines are severely affected by climate change," said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. "The future of the wolverine in the lower 48 now stands on a knife edge thanks to the Fish and Wildlife Service refusing to do its job. We hope this lawsuit finally puts the species on the road to recovery."
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The U.S. is beginning the new year with a new national park.
The nation's 63rd national park is also the first to be designated as such in the state of West Virginia, Veranda reported. New River Gorge, in Fayetteville, was officially changed from a national river to a national park as part of the COVID-19 relief bill that passed on Dec. 27, Condé Nast Traveler reported.
"Redesignation of the National River to a National Park and Preserve will shine a brighter light on West Virginia and all that it has to offer, and provide another catalyst for our tourism industry and local businesses," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said in a statement reported by 12 WBOY.
The New River Gorge is already a beloved destination for outdoor enthusiasts. It sees almost one million visitors every year and boasts activities like hiking, fishing, rafting, rock climbing and camping, according to Veranda.
Despite its name, the river is actually believed to be one of the oldest in North America. It has been important for West Virginians throughout the state's history, serving both Indigenous Americans and railway and coal-mining communities.
It has been managed by the National Park Service as a national river since 1978, but West Virginia's Congressional delegation hopes its new status will attract more visitors.
Capito, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (R-WV) originally proposed the status upgrade in a 2019 bill, WV Public Broadcasting reported. Capito noted that outdoor recreation is a $9 billion industry for West Virginia, and making the gorge a national park could boost visits by 21 percent.
Condé Nast Traveler also noted that the efforts to redesignate the river represents a signal that West Virginia is shifting its economy from coal mining to conservation and recreation. The Congress people met with small business owners and outdoor enthusiasts in the state to build support for the new park, and emphasized its economic benefits.
Rafters enjoy a scenic stretch of the New River Gorge National River. National Park Service
"This designation will increase the international recognition by highlighting West Virginia's world-class beauty and resources. Over the last two years we have met with outdoorsmen, businesses and local leaders and other interested groups to ensure this designation will promote the beauty and rich history of the New River Gorge, while ensuring that the longstanding traditions of hunting and fishing are protected for generations to come," Manchin said in a statement reported by 12 WBOY.
To accommodate hunting and fishing, the new park will also double as a National Preserve, according to Condé Nast Traveler. It will feature 7,021 acres of protected riverfront and a 65,165 acre preserve where hunting and fishing can take place.
"The New River Gorge is home to all West Virginia has to offer – our beauty, small businesses, and adventurous tourism opportunities. This legislation will preserve and protect the New River Gorge for generations to come and make our state an even better place to live, work, and raise a family," Miller said in a statement reported by 12 WBOY.
An earlier version of this article said that New River Gorge was the first dual national park and preserve outside of Alaska. However, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado also has dual status.
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The news that a rare, bright bird had touched down in a Maryland park drew more than 1,000 visitors over the weekend, as birders flocked to catch a glimpse of the unusual event.
The bird in question was a male painted bunting, a bird usually spotted in Florida and other parts of the U.S. South, The Washington Post pointed out. It isn't known exactly why this one ventured so far north, but a National Audubon Society study found that the painted bunting is one of the birds whose habitat is shifting because of the climate crisis.
"While it's not a good sign for climate change, a painted bunting – one of my favorite birds – being in our nearby park brings me joy!" University of Baltimore School of Law professor Margaret E. Johnson tweeted Monday.
Adult male painted buntings have a bright blue head, red underpants and a green back, while females are green, according to eBird.
"They look like a splash of tempera paints splashed all over a canvas," Carla Morris of Potomac, Maryland told The Washington Post.
Morris was one of more than 1,100 people who visited Maryland's Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park Saturday after a sighting of the bird in that park was initially announced on eBird the week before. Saturday was sunny, and the park saw around double its number of visitors for a nice winter day. At 3 p.m., more than 80 cars were still waiting to enter the park. On Sunday, which brought rain and cold temperatures, more than 100 people still visited the park, mostly to see the bird.
Saw this handsome fellow at Great Falls NP today! Passerina ciris - Painted Bunting https://t.co/vfEMng7BbA— MuSuBi (@MuSuBi)1609635195.0
Morris, who saw her first painted bunting in Florida, said the surprise sighting was especially important to her after she lost her father to COVID-19 in 2020.
"It's just magical," she told The Washington Post. "It's a magical way to start the new year."
While painted bunting sightings are rare in Maryland, they are not unheard of, especially in winter. The Maryland Biodiversity Project reports 47 total sightings of the bird, mostly at feeders during the colder months.
The painted bunting's numbers have declined in recent decades, according to the National Audubon Society. Threats include cowbirds, who parasite their nests. They are also frequently captured in the tropics for use as pets.
Their range is projected to expand north due to the climate crisis, but should not extend as far north as Maryland with even more than three degrees Celsius of warming. The main climate related threats facing the bird are spring heat waves at more than 1.5 degrees of warming and urbanization at more than three degrees, since they will need now developed areas as part of their new range.
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By Natalie Marchant
- The Great American Rail-Trail will be almost 6,000km when complete, and will serve 50 million people within 80km of the route.
- Trails have proved invaluable for recreation and transport during lockdown.
- Cycling and safe routes are vital for cities planning their post-pandemic recovery.
Stretching almost 6,000km and crossing 12 states, the Great American Rail-Trail will enable cyclists, hikers and riders to traverse the entire US.
The multi-use trail will run from Washington DC in the east to Washington state on the Pacific coast. Launched in May 2019, the route will eventually connect more than 145 existing paths. So far more than 3,200km of it has been completed.
Decades in the making, the project is led by the Rail-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), which has raised more than $4 million in public and private funds. It will serve 50 million people within 80km of the trail once finished.
COVID-19 Lockdown Proves Rail Trails Invaluable
Rail trails – paths built on disused railway tracks – and other recreational routes have proved invaluable respites for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing alternative commuting routes and space for people to exercise, often near built-up urban areas.
"This year has proven how vital projects like the Great American Rail-Trail are to the country. Millions of people have found their way outside on trails as a way to cope with the pandemic," said Ryan Chao, president of RTC.
"As the Great American Rail-Trail connects more towns, cities, states and regions, this infrastructure serves as the backbone of resilient communities, while uniting us around a bold, ambitious and impactful vision."
Great American Rail-Trail. Rails-to-trails
Cycling Increasingly Popular During Pandemic
While multi-use trails can be used by anyone from joggers to horse riders, cycling has become particularly popular during lockdown both as a form of exercise and a method of transport. Bike sales soared across the world as people sought to avoid public transport.
There are the obvious health benefits of traveling by bike. Not only does it provide an aerobic workout and trigger the body's feel-good chemicals, endorphins, cycling is also easy on the joints, builds muscle, increases bone density and helps with everyday activities. Cycling is also seen as a way of handling post-pandemic pollution levels.
Paris is just one place planning to become a '15-minute city', where everything you need is within a 15-minute radius by foot or by bike.
Milan is implementing a similar program, while Buenos Aires has introduced free bike rental schemes. Europe has spent 1 billion euros on cycling infrastructure since the pandemic began, according to the European Cyclists' Federation.
Cycling Routes Across the World
At around 5,955km, the Great American Rail-Trail may be particularly ambitious in terms of scale, but it is one of many innovative cycling projects across the world. The 4,450km EuroVelo 6 route runs through 10 countries as it crosses Europe between the Atlantic and the Black Sea.
The 346km Transpennine Trail across the north of England, which opened in 2001, uses disused railway tracks left empty after the decline of the coal industry and passes through city centers, heritage sites and national parks on its way between coastlines.
Last year, the UK launched the 1,300km Great North Trail running from the Peak District in the north of England to John O'Groats at Scotland's north-eastern tip.
In the Belgian province of Limburg, the Cycling Through Water path enables cyclists to cut through the ponds of Bokrijk. The 200-meter path is at eye-level with the water, allowing riders to glide across the lake.
Meanwhile the 7.6km Xiamen bicycle skyway is the world's longest elevated cycle path and runs above the Chinese city's road network. It has capacity for about 2,000 cyclists during rush hour, with much of it suspended under an elevated bus lane, providing shelter from the weather.
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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