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Subhankar Banerjee, Fire at World's End

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Normally, Americans love breaking records. ("We're number one! We're number one!") But the latest records to come out of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should make anyone's heart sink. Here's how the World Meteorological Society put the news in a recent press release: "The globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for January to June 2015, as well as for the month of June, was the hottest such period on record." June itself was a global record-setter for warmth, as had been May and March in this thermometer-busting year, and February might also have squeaked into the number-one spot in recorded history. If so, four of the six months of this year were uniquely, grimly warm. And batten down the hatches since this is now officially an El NiƱo year in which surface water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean are heating up significantly, possibly to historic levels, and global weather and storm patterns could be affected in major ways.

Where's that (discredited) "pause" in global warming now that we need it? In the American West, still gripped by a devastating drought, wildfires are raging from California to Western Canada to Alaska. Hundreds of those Canadian wildfires have been burning away and, as desperate people leave the fire areas, a new phrase has entered our language: "wildfire refugees." Here are two more words that may become more commonplace in the future: "fleeing" (as in "from hotels and campgrounds") and -- in one of our great national parks, Glacier in Montana, part of which is now ablaze -- "evacuation."

TomDispatch regular and award-winning photographer Subhankar Banerjee lives on the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington and has recently found himself on the frontlines of the present wildfire season and of climate change. In his latest piece, he takes us into perhaps the single place least likely to be ablaze in America and oh yes, if you haven't already guessed, it's on fire. Welcome to -- if you'll excuse my appropriation of a classic phrase from our past -- the new world Tom

Paradise Burning
Why We All Need to Learn the Word "Anthropogenic"
By Subhankar Banerjee

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The wettest rainforest in the continental United States had gone up in flames and the smoke was so thick, so blanketing, that you could see it miles away. Deep in Washington's Olympic National Park, the aptly named Paradise Fire, undaunted by the dampness of it all, was eating the forest alive and destroying an ecological Eden. In this season of drought across the West, there have been far bigger blazes but none quite so symbolic or offering quite such grim news. It isn't the size of the fire (though it is the largest in the park's history), nor its intensity. It's something else entirely -- the fact that it shouldn't have been burning at all. When fire can eat a rainforest in a relatively cool climate, you know the Earth is beginning to burn.

And here's the thing: the Olympic Peninsula is my home. Its destruction is my personal nightmare and I couldn't stay away.

Smoke Gets in My Eyes

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"What a bummer! Can't even see Mount Olympus," a disappointed tourist exclaimed from the Hurricane Ridge visitor center. Still pointing his camera at the hazy mountain-scape, he added that "on a sunny day like this" he would ordinarily have gotten a "clear shot of the range." Indeed, on a good day, that vantage point guarantees you a postcard-perfect view of the Olympic Mountains and their glaciers, making Hurricane Ridge the most visited location in the park, with the Hoh rainforest coming in a close second. And a lot of people have taken photos there. With its more than three million annual visitors, the park barely trails its two more famous western cousins, Yosemite and Yellowstone, on the tourist circuit.

Days of rain had come the weekend before, soaking the rainforest without staunching the Paradise Fire. The wetness did, however, help create those massive clouds of smoke that wrecked the view miles away on that blazing hot Sunday, July 19th. Though no fire was visible from the visitor center -- it was the old-growth rainforest of the Queets River Valley on the other side of Mount Olympus that was burning -- massive plumes of smoke were rising from the Elwha River and Long Creek valleys.

By then, I felt as if smoke had become my companion. I had first encountered it on another hot, sunny Sunday two weeks earlier.

On July 5th, I had gone to Hurricane Ridge with Finis Dunaway, historian of environmental visual culture and author of Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. As this countryside is second nature to me, I felt the shock and sadness the moment we piled out of the car. In a season when the meadows and hills should have been lush green and carpeted by wildflowers, they were rusty brown and bone-dry.

Normally, even when such meadows are still covered in snow, glacier lilies still poke through. Avalanche lilies burst into riotous bloom as soon as the snow melts, followed by lupines, paintbrushes, tiger lilies, and the Sitka columbines, just to begin a list. Those meadows with their chorus of colors are a wonder to photograph, but the flowers also provide much needed nutrition to birds and animals, including the endemic Olympic marmots that prefer, as the National Park Service puts it, "fresh, tender, flowering plants such as lupine and glacier lilies."

Snow normally lingers on these subalpine meadows until the end of June or early July, but last winter and spring were "anything but typical," as the summer issue of the park's quarterly newspaper, the Bugler, pointed out. January and February temperatures at the Hurricane Ridge station were "over six degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average."

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By late February, "less than three percent of normal" snowpack remained on the Olympic Mountains and the meadows, normally still covered by more than six feet of snow, "were bare." As the Bugler also noted, recent data and scientific projections suggest that "this warming trend with less snowpack is something the Pacific Northwest should get used to... What does this mean for summer wildflowers, cold-water loving salmon, and myriad animals that depend on a flush of summer vegetation watered by melting snow?" The answer, unfortunately, isn't complicated: it spells disaster for the ecology of the park.

Move on to the rainforest and the news is no less grim. This January, it got 14.07 inches of precipitation, which is 26% less than normal; February was 17% less; March was almost normal; and April was off by 23%. Worse yet, what precipitation there was generally fell as rain, not snow, and the culprit was those way-higher-than-average winter temperatures. Then the drought that already had much of the West Coast in its grip arrived in the rainforest. In May, precipitation fell to 75% less than normal and in June it was a staggering 96% less than normal, historic lows for those months. The forest floor dried up, as did the moss and lichens that hang in profusion from the trees, creating kindling galore and priming the forest for potential ignition by lightning.

That day, I was intent on showing Finis the spot along the Hurricane Hill trail where, in 1997, I had taken a picture of a black-tailed deer. That photo proved a turning point in my life, winning the Slide of the Year award from the Boeing photography club and leading me eventually to give up the security of a corporate career and start a conservation project in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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