We were only a few steps out of the parking lot and up the trail when I realized I was looking at pine beetle victims. The trees were brown and gray, rusted out remains outnumbering green survivors by a substantial margin in some spots. At times, we were walking through almost completely dead forest.
I'm not sure why this shocked me so much; I've read all about the pine beetle outbreak and its devastation across vast areas of the West. But I'd never seen it up close. And I hadn't come out here for work. In fact, I hadn't thought about pine beetles or climate change or anything at all, really. This was supposed to be a vacation.
My friends and I were in the High Uinta Wilderness to climb King's Peak, the highest mountain in Utah. Day 1 was a hike up through the forest during which we got pounded by thunderstorms and driving rain, but through the downpour, I couldn't stop staring at the trees. We tried to guess why five trees in a row would be dead while the sixth stood strong in the middle or why one stand fell to pieces while another thrived. I wondered how easily this forest would burn with the veins of dead wood running through it (not an idle concern this summer, either across the West or in Utah's forests in particular, where more than 400,000 acres have burned so far this year).
I spend a lot of my time trying to convince people that climate change is not a thing that will someday show up and force us to deal with it, but a thing that is happening now. The pine bark beetles are among the starkest examples of this. Here's what the U.S. Forest Service says about these insect infestations:
"Elevated temperatures associated with climate change, particularly when there are consecutive warm years, can speed up reproductive cycles and reduce cold-induced mortality. Shifts in precipitation patterns and associated drought can also influence bark beetle outbreak dynamics by weakening trees and making them more susceptible to bark beetle attacks."
Consecutive warm years and drought? Funny. I think I recall a few news stories about such things floating around recently.
After climbing through the dried, dying forest, we eventually emerged into a vast and beautiful valley, Henry's Fork Basin, and I let the beetles crawl out of my mind. Thunderstorms broke, and we set up camp near the serene Dollar Lake, with no climate change reminders in sight. At 11,000 feet, in fact, we were downright cold.
The next day, though, another poster child for climate change in the West poked out its unconscionably cute head and woke me from my vacation stupor once more. The first stop on our way up to King's Peak's 13,528-foot summit was Gunsight Pass. Here numerous hikers have collectively built up a huge rock cairn, and with trees of any sort now a thousand feet below us, we sat and rested in the sun. Suddenly, a sharp, squeaky cry emanated from the cairn. I turned to see a pika darting in and out of the rocks, occasionally stopping to emit its strange call. It disappeared, but then another of these rabbit relatives jumped out a few feet away.
I looked up the slope toward our rocky destination and wondered how long it would be before these little guys ran out of mountain. Pikas are notoriously picky about temperatures, and thus, have been forced to climb up and up and up as the climate has warmed their habitat. Many populations of these rabbit relatives have already disappeared, while others have been forced to migrate thousands of feet higher than their preferred elevations. At some point, there will be nowhere left to go.
As I watched the pikas running around the cairn, walking tragedies wrapped in cartoonishly adorable packages, my mind drifted again to the dead trees on the mountain's lower stretches. Then I looked up at the tiny pockets of snow and ice on a few north-facing slopes. It wasn't just that climate change could be seen if one looked for it; it was literally everywhere, surrounding us, even when the view stretched for miles.
Bill McKibben and others increasingly talk about connecting the dots, between climate and extreme weather, or climate and tar sands and the Keystone pipeline, or climate and the drought that is rendering much of this year's corn crop useless. Often, our specialized places in this world offer restricted views of those connections, which is part of the reason it's been so hard to mobilize meaningful action to address the issue. If you're a Midwestern farmer experiencing the drought, you might never encounter the pine beetle; if you live in the path of the beetle's destruction, hurricanes probably aren't on your radar; if the seas are lapping at your doorstep, then wildfire worries most likely don't keep you awake at night. It is when these data points come together -- in this particular case on a mountain, with pine beetle devastation below, pikas and their diminishing habitat above, and peaks barren of snow above -- that climate change becomes real and things get scary.
The next day, the harrowing but triumphant climb to the summit behind us, we drove back out through the National Forest and across the high, flat plains of southern Wyoming. I can't think of that state without remembering the mind-numbingly enormous piles of coal that lie underneath it (Wyoming accounts for 40 percent of U.S. coal production, yielding 108 million more tons in 2010 than all of Appalachia). Once again, climate change was photo-bombing my trip. But this time, we were also just a few feet away from a solution. After a weekend filled with nothing but climate problems, we came upon wind turbines, big ones, dozens of them spinning along a ridge next to I-80. It was the Wyoming Wind Energy Center, offering 144 megawatts of not-coal power.
When I got back to the East Coast, I confirmed the beetle outbreaks in the Uintas, the dearth of snow compared to similar times in earlier years (see comparison images below), and the wind power potential of the coal capital of the world. So this is obvious, a cliché, and yet terrifically understated: There are no vacations from the endless heat wave we've created. In the middle-of-nowhere Utah, those dead trees could claw further up the mountain, nipping at the heels of pikas already pushed to the brink by warming temperatures, but unfortunately, few will witness it. I found myself bizarrely hoping for some sort of similar confluence of events in other parts of the country. If climate disasters must happen, can't they occur in a way that makes people see them as they truly are, inextricably linked? I feel this summer as if people might be starting to listen and realize the consequences of climate change as the West burns and the Plains crack and crumble. Yet after decades of inaction, I admit to not having much faith that these connections will stick. But perhaps a cascade of catastrophes, a mix of the seemingly disparate effects of climate change, could force those in charge to take action and prevent future tragedy. I just wish it wouldn't have to come to that.
Images: Pika via Chris Peterson; Snowy King's Peak in 2004 via Hyrum K. Wright; others by the author.