I’m sure climate change began affecting all of our lives in subtle ways before any of us knew it. The gradual increase in heat wave days. In Wisconsin, my dad remarked that the outdoor ice rinks used to stay frozen solid through the winter, instead of defrosting and refreezing throughout the season. But as wildfires that seem clearly linked to climate change destroy and threaten places that are sacred to our family, I’ve been asking myself, when did we get to the place where climate change is affecting my real life in concrete ways?
For me, it’s mostly been through travel. I know that considering how climate change has affected my travels is an immense privilege in a world where 119,000 of my neighbors just fled their homes with flames at their backs, and where villages have been swallowed by the sea. Where 150,000 people lose their lives every year due to the warming planet.
All the same, it also hurts to watch the places we have loved suffer destruction, and see places we had hoped to yet experience get erased before we ever got there.
For me, the effects of climate change really became personal in 2018, a year when I had the good fortune to travel a lot. First on the agenda was a leisurely Australia trip with my mom, a trip centered around a cousin’s wedding but also including a bucket list item: snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef.
We enjoyed visiting the Reef, but it also made us sad. Major bleaching events had killed as much as half the reef’s coral in the previous two years. Guides on our boat helpfully explained why coral expells the algae that gives it its color, but no one answered when we asked how different the reef we were seeing today was compared to how it used to look. Answering that question would probably be bad for business.
So as we slowly kicked our flippers, we admired giant clams and colorful fish, but we also saw a lot of white coral reaching toward the surface like the bleached bones of shipwrecked sailors. We weren’t exactly sure how much wonder climate change had leached from the experience, but we got the impression that what we were seeing was a severely diminished version of what it once was.
The on-board buffet was pretty good, though.
A few months later our family met with dear old friends for a vacation on Florida’s Sanibel Island. We’d heard tell of azure waters, shells for miles, and abundant sealife.
Well, the shells were there.
In the week before we arrived, we heard more and more ominous warnings of a Red Tide. Unfamiliar with the term, we figured that as long as we didn’t eat the seafood we’d be fine. Maybe the water wouldn’t be as clear as usual, but hey — we’re not fussy.
The reality was a little harder to deal with.
Yes, the water was murky, but the shell beaches were strewn with corpses. Hundreds of dead fish, horseshoe crabs and other creatures lay decomposing in the muggy heat, flies swarming. There was a sick fasination in examining the strange-looking fish that had washed up, but it wasn’t a happy feeling. We were grateful we didn’t see one of the dolphins or manatee or turtles that had died in the disaster.
Worse than the smell of rotting seaflesh was the irritation the air caused to our noses, throats and eyes. We learned that this was the bacteria that caused the Red Tide, invading our lungs and sending us inside the cottage we’d rented, where we could sit and watch the waves from the couch, with the windows closed and the AC on.
Climate change is not the only culprit blamed for the algae bloom known as Red Tide. Locals blamed fertilizer runoff from sugarcane fields. Some scientists believe Red Tide, however tragic, is an entirely natural phenemon. But plenty of scientists posit that the combination of warming waters and more frequent storm events are causing the increase in algae blooms all over the world.
We flew home — yes, on a jet that spewed carbon emmission right into the atmosphere where they hurt the most — and my oldest daughter and I almost immediately headed out for another trip. This time, I was chaperoning her Girl Scout troop on a road trip to Oregon, where my daughter couldn’t wait to show the other girls the scintillating waters of Crater Lake.
The day we arrived at Crater Lake, the air was thick with smoke from wildfires in the area. We were safe, but as we stood at the lake’s rim, the photo we took was a letdown: Girl Scouts standing before a gray backdrop. The deep, cold lake was behind them, but the camera’s eye couldn’t see it, and neither could ours.
Like Red Tide, wildfires have probably always been with us. Just not every year, in nearly every part of the West, destroying more and more peoples’ homes and putting a smoky cloud over our travels.
“Climate change causes forest fuels (the organic matter that burns and spreads wildfire) to be more dry, and has doubled the number of large fires between 1984 and 2015 in the western United States,” explains the web site of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Fast forward to 2020, past a number of fires that have kept my kids inside for school recess and even cancelled school. The worst thing that has happened in our lives arrives: coronavirus.
Was it caused by climate change? Not directly? But climate change set the stage, according to the smarties at Harvard. Climate change will lead to more cross-species diseases like the one we’re fighting now.
“As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t, and that creates an opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts,” explains Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
For the long months since March, when coronavirus shut down nearly everything, the outdoors has been our family’s refuge. Masked and trying to avoid crowds, we’ve hiked, taken our dogs to beaches, bicycled and basked in the sun.
In July, we took the leap and tried a camping trip. I felt confident I could protect us from close contact with other campers. What I didn’t predict is the close contact we’d end up having with a wildfire. I wrote about our adventures in fire avoidance in my last post. Suffice to say, the climate-driven increase in wildfire frequency sent us home early.
Last week, a long and intense — for the Bay Area — heat wave killed my composting worms. For the second year in a row, our Japanese maple tree became distressed and shed its leaves early as if stripping down to cool off. The heat wave was particularly irksome because we couldn’t escape our overheated house to the movie or to shopping malls like we might have in summers past — those things are still shut down here due to coronavirus.
Things got weird when a tropical storm, unheard of in these parts, rolled in and woke everyone with a thunder and lightning extravaganza. At first it was novelty, but when the weather oddity continued with electric bolts for days, we all knew this wasn’t going to end well.
It didn’t. It’s not.
As I type this, there are three different fire “complexes,” all kindled by lightning strikes, surrounding the island where we live to the North, East and South. A literal ring of fire. Five hundred and sixty active blazes, by last count.
How is this affecting us personally? We are beyond grateful for the safety we believe we are provided by the estuary lying between Alameda and Oakland. The air is a little smoky, which is irritating given that the temperature is still warm and we can’t safely open our windows.
But the real pain we are feeling right now is heartache. Yesterday, we learned that Big Basin, California’s first state park and the site of my 16-year-old daughter Nutmeg’s inspiring Girl Scout backpacking trip last summer, suffered a devastating blow, with the historic visitor center and all other buildings incinerated. Today I’m blinking back tears of relief as I learn that most of the venerated redwoods there, evolved to live with fire, have most likely survived.
Nutmeg had planned to repeat her backpacking trip this summer, but camp was cancelled due to COVID, so instead she has spent many hours planning a family trip tracing the hike through the park from Waddell Creek Beach up to the skyline. They were just waiting for backcountry campgrounds to reopen after COVID. Now she wonders if she’ll ever be able to make that trip again, and what she will see when she does.
Also today, I can barely work an hour without turning to the Internet searching for updates on our beloved Girl Sout camp properties, Skylark Ranch and Butano Creek, which last I heard were threatened by fire but not yet singed. The caretakers who live at the camps with their families have evacuated. We had talked with the caretakers of both these properties in the past month, since the camps, sitting empty and silent all summer, had finally opened up to family visits.
If these camps are destroyed, how much more poignant will it be that they spent their last summer quietly awaiting campers who never arrived? Who am I kidding, though? The forest lives for the forest, not for the campers. Maybe the woods deserved a brief retirement before the end.
And maybe the whole earth is trying to shake us off like a fever fights a bad flu. If that’s what we are, an infection on the earth, I have to say I’m surprised. I never imagined that the infection would love the victim this much, and would cry to see the damage it causes.
Wonders never cease. Except when they do.
I have no doubt that as the years go on, the personal ways that climate change bites us will go beyond our passion places. It will go on the “the might be related” cases like coronavirus and the smoke sneaking in through my window cracks. It will hit us all where we live, a little harder every year.
Maybe I’ll look back with nostaglia at the days when climate change only broke my heart instead of breaking my lungs and my home and my whole life. And maybe I should stop traveling now, in an effort to push that day as far into the future as I can, or maybe I should dash madly around the planet, soaking up impressions of the Special Places before they are all gone. I have no idea what to do, and neither do any of us, I’m afraid.
And also? I’m just afraid.