This is the third in a series featuring those featured in The Octopus in the Parking Garage, a new book about climate resilience by Center for Progressive Reform President Rob Verchick. Read the first and second parts of the series.
Last summer, standing outside the Paradise Inn in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, I still needed a fleece to keep warm. In the shadow of the park’s snow-covered volcano, the meadows sparkled with wildflowers.
I remembered a news article from a few years back about how Mount Rainier’s iconic flora were slowly retreating to higher elevations away from the inn. Park scientists attributed this to higher temperatures caused by climate change. There was some debate at the time about whether park staff should manually seed the meadows where lodge visitors gather or to let the buttercups and salmonberries crawl naturally uphill. I don’t know where they ended up on that.
That day, I had come to hike the “Skyline Trail,” a course that snakes upward through Hobbit forests to a snowy patch offering a clear sighting, though at some distance, of the mighty Nisqually Glacier. Mount Rainier, whose summit rises to 14,411 feet above sea level, is home to 27 major glaciers. Together, they amount to about 1 cubic mile of ice and snow.
For many years, I’ve taken an interest in these glacier systems. Back in 1998, my wife, Heidi, and I climbed Mount Rainier to mark our 10th wedding anniversary. Since then, I’ve visited Mount Rainier nearly every year, usually with my sons, hiking the Skyline Trail. We’d marvel at the subalpine firs, straight as bottlebrushes, and I’d offer a quarter to anyone who could more specifically name a tree.
We’d imitate the ravens croaking overhead and giggle at the hamster-like pikas playing hide-and-seek in the rocks. Then we would arrive at the lookout point for Nisqually Glacier. No more croaking. No more giggling. All we could do was gape and grin.
Each time I pay a visit to the Nisqually, it seems to have lost a little more weight. It’s still a colossus — don’t get me wrong — and a thing of beauty. But, like all glaciers on the mountain, the Nisqually is melting and draining away.
I pull out my binoculars and focus on the bottom part of the glacier, called the terminus. I can just make out a sliver-moon opening and a cataract of milky water tumbling down. On a human scale, I know the opening is ridiculously large, the size of a concert hall or an airplane hangar. That water racing out is filled with tons of sediment, rock, and boulders.
There’s nothing unusual in itself about a glacier spitting out ice water. That’s what they do. As glacial ice accumulates, its immense weight puts pressure on the bottom layers, creating heat and causing them to melt. Eventually, the water escapes, feeding downstream rivers and lakes. In a sustainable glacial system, the ice growth outpaces the water loss. But now the situation is reversed: Less ice is piling up and more water is flowing out.
Soldiers for Climate Resilience
That excess flow contributes in various ways to downstream flood problems in communities within the park that are located along the rivers that the glacier feeds. Every year or so, it seems, I run into a scouting troop or volunteer service organization of some kind in this park helping to shore up washed-out trails or rehabilitate flooded campgrounds at the lower elevations. They might not see themselves this way, but to me they are soldiers for climate resilience, helping communities recover from and prepare for the many climate disruptions to come.
In those ranks, I would include A.R. Siders and Cinthia Moore, whose posts appeared in the first and second parts of this series. I learned about their inspiring work while researching my newly released book, The Octopus in the Parking Garage: A Call for Climate Resilience.
A lawyer just out of law school, Siders helped communities in New York persuade their state’s public service commission to require a “climate-ready” power grid after Hurricane Sandy. (She is now a professor at the University of Delaware).
Moore is an experienced environmental advocate in Las Vegas. When we first met, her most urgent concern was the migrating smoke from a California wildfire, which was aggravating her young son’s allergies and endangering the health of her neighbors, many of whom are Latino immigrants.
Along the way, I met others: Sharon Lavigne, an environmental organizer from Louisiana who calls out factories for venting poisonous gas during hurricanes; Jane Rodgers, an ecologist for the National Park Service who began her career tending wetlands on Africa’s Niger Delta and is now trying to save Joshua trees in the Mojave Desert; and Kara Norman, a high school student and scuba diver in southern Florida who off-plants healthy coral onto her state’s dying reefs.
As a university professor and a former government official, I’m often asked how one gets started in this business of recovering from and preparing for the climate impacts we can no longer avoid. You start by asking what you care about, and then ask how climate breakdown will challenge that thing.
Addressing that challenge becomes your work. Some of that work will be top-down, broad-scaled, and policy-driven. Still, much of resilience work is local and concrete. This is where you can make a difference every day. It’s just a matter of assessing your interests and deciding what matters most to you.
Maybe, like Jane Rodgers, you like plants and dirt. Maybe, like Kara Norman, you wish you were part fish. Maybe, like Cinthia Moore, you want to be the best parent you can be.
While cutting carbon is necessary to avoid the impacts we can’t manage, we must also work to manage the impacts we can no longer avoid. The journey toward climate resilience will not be easy and certainly not without pain. But with clear eyes and open hearts, we can persist and, just maybe, prevail.
Learn more about The Octopus in the Parking Garage: A Call for Climate Resilience.