A glimpse of Galápagos life before man intervened

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 4/28/16

 The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

The author next to a Galapagos giant tortoise in the wild on Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands

In month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world, I flew from Quito, Ecuador, 600 miles west to the tiny Pacific island of Baltra in the Galápagos Islands. From Baltra, I took a spectacular cruise on a 75-foot catamaran, exploring six of the islands.

On this eight-day voyage, I was thrilled by the unique natural beauty of this volcanic archipelago. I also learned about some egregious human impacts that have taken a big toll here and the extraordinary efforts underway to reverse them.

The Galápagos, of course, are famed as the site of Charles Darwin’s epic 1835 journey on Captain Robert Fitzroy’s HMS Beagle. The strange wildlife endemic to this place — most notably Galapágos finches and giant tortoises — started Darwin’s wheels turning about natural selection and led to his eventual publication of “The Origin of Species.”

My longtime fascination with the Galápagos is shared with some 150,000 tourists who visit each year. Since 1959, most of the entire land mass of the Galápagos Islands was designated as a national park and as a World Heritage Site protected area. So, tourism is regulated, especially extended cruises, where trips to each island are professionally guided and well-coordinated.

Most of the islands still seem pristine and are incredibly beautiful. We hiked across huge spreads of black Pahoe-Hoe lava dotted with cacti. We got up close to some of the rarest birds in the world, including red-footed boobies, Galápagos finches and flightless cormorants. We plodded alongside huge Galápagos giant tortoises and land iguanas in the wild.

 A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

A marine iguana on Isla Santiago, Galapagos Islands.

We snorkeled with sea lions, penguins, and Pacific green turtles and walked among hundreds of marine iguanas piled up on the beach like stacks of pancakes.

But, as our guide carefully explained, the monumental efforts now in place to conserve biodiversity on the Galápagos got a late start.

When the first Europeans landed in the Galápagos in 1535, there were no humans living there. The islands’ remoteness, inhospitable terrain and scarcity of water would have made permanent settlement very difficult indeed.

In the 1700s, the Galápagos became a frequent port for whalers, because of the islands’ proximity to prime sperm whale habitat.

In the 1800s, whalers aggressively sought out the slow-moving Galápagos giant tortoise as a food source. Because these reptiles can survive for months without food or water, they could be easily be kept alive on board ship before ending up in the stew pot.

Whalers took more than 100,000 giant tortoises from the islands. As tortoise populations plummeted, whalers looked for a new food source. They released a few goats to one of the islands, intending to return periodically to hunt them.

But the goats, without any natural predators, quickly reached a population of 100,000 that devastated the island’s native flora needed by the tortoises — another step down the path to extinction.

Similar stories have played out throughout the Galápagos with goats, dogs, pigs — and lately, a fly maggot — all continuously being imported by people and wreaking havoc on native ecosystems.

In 1959, when the Galápagos Islands was declared a World Heritage site, UNESCO partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to fund research, conservation, and education strategies to protect endemic species of the islands.

Since then, the Galápagos Islands have attracted top conservation scientists and witnessed some of the most extraordinary invasive species eradication projects anywhere. For example, Project Isabela, overseen by Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation, has eradicated feral goats and pigs from Santiago and Isabela islands.

While tourist dollars help fund conservation efforts, tourists also unwittingly import new invasive species every year. If you go, be prepared to have your baggage inspected!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is taking a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier puts on a show

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

posted in the Santa Cruz Sentinel March 17, 2016

The face of Argentina’s Perito Moreno Glacier is as tall as a 20-story building. In the background are the Andes and in the foreground is Lake Argentina.

It was Feb. 13 — month 10 of my yearlong trip around the world — and I stood bedazzled in front of the spectacular Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia, Argentina. It’s hard to comprehend the size of this aquamarine-tinted mass of ice. It’s 19 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 200 feet tall where its front edge meets Lake Argentina.

Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park, is one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions, and with good reason. Chances are, if you wait for five or 10 minutes on the park’s viewing deck, you’ll witness the glacier as it drops or calves huge chunks of ice into the lake. This is part of a natural process that occurs as the glacier slowly expands and moves forward down the valley toward the lake.

 Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park, is one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions.

Perito Moreno Glacier, part of Los Glaciares National Park, is one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions.

Perito Moreno is one of 48 glaciers within the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water. A few thousand years ago, glaciers here in the southern Andes covered much larger areas than they do today. They advanced like gargantuan caterpillars, fed by voluminous year-round snowfall characteristic of this part of the world. As they grew and moved slowly downhill, the glaciers eroded the rocky landscape, carving out expansive valleys edged by steep cliffs.

Our group took a small cruise boat onto Lake Argentina — getting as close as we dared — to watch Perito Moreno Glacier as it was calving. Park guides explained that this was a critical time; every three or four years, as the glacier expands forward, it connects to a point of land that juts out from the shore of Lake Argentina.

When the glacier meets this point of land, it forms an ice dam dividing the lake in half. The level of the top half of the lake begins to rise as water collects behind the dam. Eventually, the ice dam gives way, and an enormous surge of water smashes through, roaring down to the bottom half of the lake and thrilling expectant spectators.

Park guides told us that they have a 24-hour web-camera aimed at Perito Moreno’s ice dam and they expected it to break at any time. That day, we were lucky to see the glacier calving chunks as big as houses. Like most of the other observers with their cameras ready, we were hoping to actually witness the collapse of the ice dam ... but it wasn’t to be that day.

Park guides explained that Perito Moreno Glacier is exceptional in yet another way; it is still expanding, despite global warming. Most other glaciers in the world, as well as in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, are shrinking in response to increasing average global temperatures.

Why Perito Moreno Glacier is still expanding while most others are shrinking is still somewhat of a mystery. Every glacier has its own unique line of equilibrium. Above that line, the glacier takes on ice; below the line, it loses ice. Our parks guides explained that, to date, the enormous snow accumulation in the Andes has been enough to keep Perito Moreno growing, even as it loses a tremendous amount of ice at its front.

On March 10, just three weeks after my visit to Perito Moreno Glacier, I was watching the news in Quito, Ecuador, when I learned that the glacier’s great ice dam had just burst, creating an awe-inspiring show of collapsing ice and surging water. You can view the collapse of Perito Moreno’s ice dam on YouTube: https://youtu.be/JBpZvkNuUwU

Cutting-edge research in a tropical paradise

by Betsy Herbert

"Earth Matters," published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 02/18/16

  Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed   In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!  I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.  My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.  In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.  Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.  Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.  The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.  These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.  “This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.  Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.  I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.  “We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”  That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”   Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.    

Undergraduate researchers from California work at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea, French Polynesia. Betsy Herbert — Contributed

In month nine of my yearlong trip around the world, I decided to hang out on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia during the offseason. What a great way to experience this tropical paradise and to appreciate the scientific research underway here!

I began my stay by going for a group swim in a crystalline turquoise lagoon alongside 4-foot sting rays and black-tipped reef sharks. While the sharks were not at all aggressive, the rays seemed downright affectionate, sliding against our bodies and peering at us from strangely human-looking eyes.

My beach bungalow at the laid-back Kaveka Hotel was an idyllic retreat with “Bali Hai” views of Cooks Bay and the coral reef that separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Directly across the bay, I could see UC Berkeley’s Gump Research Station, the hub of scientific inquiry that has helped to make Moorea the most studied island in the world.

In 1975, Richard B. Gump, the original owner of San Francisco’s premier gift store, donated the land on Moorea to UC Berkeley to establish the research center, with the goal of analyzing the island as a model ecosystem to understand how global changes are affecting it over time.

Frank Murphy, associate director of Gump Research Station, said Moorea makes an exceptional natural laboratory. The island is small enough (about twice the size of Manhattan) to enable scientists to construct an inventory of all of the non-microbial species known to be living there. The Moorea Biocode project was designed to accomplish this feat and is the first of its kind.

Envisioned by the center’s director, Neil Davies, Moorea Biocode enlisted researchers from 2008-2010 to ascend jagged peaks, slog through tropical forests and dive among coral reefs to sample the entire spectrum of Moorea’s animal and plant life. The end result will be a library of genetic markers and physical identifiers for every species of plant, animal and fungi on the island — and this library will be available to the public.

The coral reefs and lagoons that surround the island of Moorea have been of particular interest to “swarms of scientists who come here every year,” says Murphy, as part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research project. Though coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, worldwide almost 20 percent have been lost and another 35 percent could be lost by 2050.

These scientists have been monitoring and recording data about Moorea’s coral reefs for more than 15 years.

“This approach has considerable potential in better understanding how global climate change will affect reef corals, and we are working toward developing modeling approaches to achieve this outcome,” according to Peter Edmunds, a researcher from Cal State Hayward.

Another exciting project envisioned by Davies is the making of a digital model of the entire Moorea ecosystem, including its biological, physical and human cultural aspects. Named “Moorea IDEA,” for Island Digital Ecosystem Avatar, the end product would be an online 3-D model. Scientists and others could pose questions online, and the model would simulate how different impacts might affect the entire ecosystem.

I asked Murphy if people on Moorea were worried about sea-level rise, as a result of global warming.

“We’re in better shape than lots of places,” he said. “If worse came to worse and everything crashed, we could almost be self-sufficient.”

That’s because Moorea has tall mountains and considerable arable land. Other places, such as in the Motu archipelago, Murphy posits, “will be underwater in 60 years, because the atolls don’t have any high ground. A whole history of culture will be going underwater.”

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

 

Flying like a bird to support forest restoration

by Betsy Herbert

Earth Matters column, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 01/22/16

 Contributed This zip-wire tour aims to educate visitors on the disappearing birds of New Zealand.

Contributed This zip-wire tour aims to educate visitors on the disappearing birds of New Zealand.

Up 120 feet in the forest canopy last week, I launched off a platform surrounding a towering 1,000-year-old kauri tree in Dansey Forest, Roturua, New Zealand. Holding onto my harness straps, I pushed off with my feet, surrendered my weight to the zipline, and went flying 720 feet through the treetops. About halfway through the flight, I let go of the harness, leaned back and spread out my arms. Exhilarating!

I had a little help of course. I was part of a group of 10 zipliners led by guides Scott and Kathy, locals employed by nonprofit Rotorua Canopy Tours.

During our three-hour adventure, we whizzed over .75 miles of ziplines, traversed three swinging bridges, and hung out on five tree platforms, all the while learning about the plight of New Zealand’s native birds and the group’s ongoing efforts to help them survive. By the time the tour ended, I was glad to know that a portion of my ticket price would be invested in supporting these efforts.

Kathy explained that 51 bird species endemic to New Zealand including the moa and other flightless birds are now extinct, while many other species are in decline. Because New Zealand birds evolved in isolation when there were no existing land mammals to prey on them, they never developed natural defenses needed to fend off introduced mammals.

While humans hunted the moa and other large birds, the nail in the coffin for many extinct bird species was the introduction of exotic mammals such as the possum, rat and stoat (a type of weasel). Fur traders introduced the possum because of its value in pelts, the rat came into New Zealand as a stowaway on ships, and the stoat was introduced in hopes that it would prey on rabbits, which were themselves introduced earlier with prolifically tragic results.

Some of the favorite foods of the possum are the new growth on New Zealand’s native trees and the eggs of its native birds. There are now some 30 million possums in New Zealand, so their impact is astounding.

The rat also likes to eat native birds, as well as the seeds and fruits of the native trees, inhibiting their ability to propagate. Perhaps worst of all is the stoat; once introduced to New Zealand, the stoat lost its taste for rabbits and instead took to preying on native birds, especially the kiwi, New Zealand’s national icon.

As all of these exotic mammals were being introduced, New Zealand’s native forests were being decimated by logging and slowly replaced with introduced tree species like Monterey pine, which is now the country’s leading commercial timber tree. As native forests were replaced with exotic tree plantations or converted to farmland, the habitat of New Zealand’s native birds took a huge hit.

What could be done to turn this around? The founders of Rotorua Canopy Tours, James Fitzgerald and Andrew Blackford, decided to create a successful eco-tourism business to support the active trapping and killing of possums, rats and stoats on this 1,235 acre Dansey Forest to bring back native bird populations. The group joined into a partnership with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, which owns the land.

Their efforts have paid off. After testing different kinds of traps, the company now has installed more than 1,000 instant kill and humane traps in the forest. To date, 10 percent of the Dansey Forest is free from these exotic predators. Zipliners can now hear the birdsongs of the native North Island robin, the tomtit, tui, and the kaka, which are returning to the forest.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Western Australia: Dolphins, dead ‘roos, and dazzling coastline

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 12/17/2015

 Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Limestone columns rise from the yellow dunes of Pinnacles in Nambung National Park (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Just 10 days ago I was lazing on the beach in Phuket, Thailand, reflecting on my travels over the past three months in Africa and Asia. The next day I boarded a plane in Bangkok, headed for Perth, Australia.

Ah, Australia! I’d be able to drink tap water without worrying about getting sick. I was also looking forward to renting a car. In Africa and Asia, driving a rental car would have been suicidal for a Westerner.

Decades ago, I’d lived in Australia for about seven months, so I’d visited Sydney, the Great Barrier Reef, Alice Springs, Uluru and Darwin.

This time I wanted to see parts of Australia I’d missed before, so I started in Perth and drove up Indian Ocean Road and Route 60, along the sparsely populated Turquoise and Batavia coasts. The roads in this part of Western Australia are well maintained and there is little traffic other than huge “road trains” of triple-trailer trucks.

Countless turnouts allowed me to observe the astounding desert and coastal landscapes here. The Pinnacles rock formations in Nambung National Park rise out of bright yellow sand dunes. Further north, the natural bridges of Kilbarri National Park rival those of Utah. But in this part of Australia, the red rocks contrast spectacularly with blinding-white sandy beaches and the crystal clear blue-green Indian Ocean. To add to the eye-candy, many of the shrubs of the coastal heath, including hakea and banksia were still blooming, thanks to some late spring rains.

 Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

Natural bridge at Kilbarri National Park, Western Australia (photo by Betsy Herbert)

I was saddened that the only kangaroos I saw on this trip were dead ones; the roadkill was shockingly plentiful. On one 50-kilometer stretch I saw at least 10 dead ‘roos on the side of the road. Almost every car in these parts has a hefty grill protector mounted across its front.

After another 400 kilometers, I crossed the 26th Parallel, which officially marks the boundary of Australia’s Northern Territory. Soon after, I reached Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area, where the world’s largest spread of sea grass provides wonderful habitat for dolphins, dugongs, loggerhead turtles, green sea turtles, tiger sharks, and manta rays, to mention a few well-known megafauna.

Monkey Mia, a beach at Sharks Bay, is renowned for its daily visits from wild bottlenose dolphins. The park rangers there can identify each individual dolphin by the scars and outline of its dorsal fin.

I took a half-day cruise on Shotover, a 60-foot racing catamaran, which is now used for sea life spotting expeditions in Shark Bay. Our boat was accompanied at times by pods of dolphins, most of whom first mate Kate knew by name. We also caught glimpses of dugongs and green sea turtles.

Shark Bay is like a living laboratory where you can view the Earth’s oldest surviving organisms, the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool. Stromatolites are limestone structures resembling meter-wide cow pies. Each is formed over thousands of years by single-celled blue-green algae, which thrive in extremely salty water.

Though they’ve been around for some 3,500 million years, stromatolites still survive at Hamelin Pool only because of the high salinity of the bay here. These conditions are created by Shark Bay’s huge seagrass meadows, which form sand bars and shallow bays where water evaporates quickly in the hot dry climate allowing salt to build up.

No wonder Shark Bay is a World Heritage Area!

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Thailand’s efforts to help endangered Asian elephant

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel November 19, 2015

 Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

Elephants are bathed at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, outside the city of Chang Mai in Thailand. Photo by Betsy Herbert, 2015

After camping among wild African elephants in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, last September, I greatly anticipated visiting wild Asian elephants in Thailand this month. But when I arrived, I found that finding wild elephants in this country is a little tricky.

Like their larger African cousins, Asian elephants are a highly endangered species. According to the the American Museum of Natural History, hundreds of thousands of elephants roamed Asia until only about 100 years ago. Today, they have been wiped out from large areas of India, Southeast Asia and China, leaving fewer than 50,000.

I found three great places to visit Asian elephants in northern Thailand, all about an hour’s drive from the city of Chang Mai. Trouble is, the elephants in these places are not exactly wild. That’s because 95 percent of Thailand’s elephants are living in captivity, and nobody really knows how many wild elephants are left.

A friend and I drove to the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in the densely forested hills near Lampang. The TECC is a government-sponsored elephant camp that houses more than 50 Asian elephants (including six of the Thai Royal family’s white elephants). TECC seeks to educate tourists about the plight of elephants and to raise money for their conservation.

We watched the elephants bathe and frolic with their trainers in the creek flowing through the TECC grounds — truly a highlight of this trip!

After bathing, about a dozen elephants were led to a ring where they performed before an audience of some 200 tourists. They bowed as they were introduced one by one and did some cute tricks like removing the hats of their trainers. Later on, the elephants demonstrated how in the past, they were used to drag enormous logs out of the forest and stack them with their trunks. Elephants are no longer used by the timber industry because the Thai government banned logging in natural forests throughout the country in 1989.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the timber industry greatly increased logging of native teak and other tropical hardwoods in Thailand for export. Loggers began capturing and training large numbers of wild elephants to haul and stack logs. At the same time, this extensive logging destroyed much of the elephants’ natural forest habitat.

In 1988, Thailand experienced its worst flooding in 300 years, due to unsustainable logging and extensive forest clearing to create more agricultural land. So, in 1989 the Thai government banned logging in all natural forests in the country.

This ban put loggers as well as elephants out of work. Maybe not such a bad thing if the elephants could return to their natural habitats, but there was no place left for them to go.

In 1997, the Thai government founded the Thailand Elephant Conservation Center to help care for these “unemployed” elephants. The center advocates using elephants in tourism to provide income to care for them. Tourists can pay to ride the elephants after they pay to watch them perform.

Another organization, the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) is operated as a nonprofit to provide a natural sanctuary to treat and protect elephants from the sometimes harsh treatment in tourism as well as logging. They seek to re-introduce rescued elephants into the wild.

 Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Yes, elephant prosthetics are important as many Asian elephants have been injured by landminds.

Finally, the Thai Elephant Hospital, sponsored by Friends of the Asian Elephant, rescues and treats injured elephants. When we visited, we were introduced to Motala, a 50-year-old female elephant who was badly injured, like many others, by a land mine as she was working in the forest. The hospital manufactures prosthetic devices to fit these elephants like Motala to enable them to walk.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. Read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website (www.betsyherbert.com).

 

Bhutan: Where environment is key to ‘Gross National Happiness’

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters column

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 10/22/15

 Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still requires every tourist to be part of a certified tour group. The government of Bhutan wants to avoid the environmental degradation that Nepal has suffered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

Bhutan opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still requires every tourist to be part of a certified tour group. The government of Bhutan wants to avoid the environmental degradation that Nepal has suffered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

As our flight ascended above the thick blanket of smog over Kolkata on the east coast of India, I was excited to be heading north to the remote country of Bhutan, known for its ancient monasteries, multi-colored prayer flags and spectacular scenery.

In just 45 minutes, we would be making one of the world’s most thrilling descents into Bhutan’s international airport, nestled in the Paro Valley between soaring Himalayan peaks.

For years I had wanted to visit Bhutan because its government officially measures national progress by the “Gross National Happiness” of its people. This term was coined in 1971 by the king of Bhutan, but the concept has increasingly drawn global attention.

Unlike other indicators of national progress, Gross National Happiness is a scientifically constructed index that ascribes equal importance to noneconomic aspects of people’s well-being, such as education, health, environmental protection and cultural preservation. The concept is rooted in Bhutan’s history. According to the legal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, “If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a primarily Buddhist country whose population is around 770,000 (about 1/18th the size of the city of Kolkata). Tiny Bhutan is surrounded on three sides by India (population approaching 1.3 billion), while China (population 1.4 billion) borders it to the north.

After we made a flawless landing at the Paro airport we approached the main terminal, which at first it looked like a temple with its curved tiled roof, colorful hand-painted timber-framed windows and whitewashed walls.

As our small tour group made its way through immigration, we met our Bhutanese tour guide named Chen, who would — with grace and humor — treat us to some unforgettable experiences in Bhutan for the next week.

Bhutan, now a constitutional monarchy, opened its doors to tourism only 40 years ago, and it still requires every tourist to be part of a certified tour group. Chen said the government of Bhutan wants to avoid the environmental degradation that Nepal has suffered over the past 50 years due to tourism.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index gives the natural world a central place in the making of public policy, and environmental protection is a core guiding principle in Bhutan’s constitution. As a result, Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral. In 2015, Bhutan is a carbon sink, meaning it stores more carbon than it emits. This is partly because the country has pledged to keep at least 60 percent of its land forested. Currently, more than 70 percent is forested. Bhutan has banned export logging, so that most of its big trees remain standing in the forests, where they sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

 Bhutan’s happiness index is rooted in the country’s history. According to the legal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, ‘If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.’

Bhutan’s happiness index is rooted in the country’s history. According to the legal code of Bhutan, dated 1729, ‘If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.’

Still, Bhutan faces environmental challenges. Hydropower and tourism are Bhutan’s largest industries. The abundant water supply from glacial fed rivers from the steep slopes of the Himalayas create huge hydropower potential.

According to one source, (www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/328-5) some 24,000 megawatts of hydropower could be feasibly realized in Bhutan, though only about 1,360 MW have been developed to date. Most of these hydropower projects have been financed by India, which takes delivery of most of the electricity produced.

It's unclear how much Bhutan can develop its hydropower potential without causing significant harm to its river ecosystems. No doubt this issue could present a serious challenge to Bhutan’s commitment to environmental protection. During my visit, I photographed one large sign in a local village that expressed concern about the demise of the rare white-bellied heron as a result of hydropower development.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a yearlong journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

 

 

Earth Matters: Tanzania welcomes tourists to help combat big-game poaching

by Betsy Herbert

Published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 9/25/2015

 Boniface Faustine, now leading tours in Tanzania for Overseas Adventure Travel, previously worked as a park ranger in the Serengeti National Park.

Boniface Faustine, now leading tours in Tanzania for Overseas Adventure Travel, previously worked as a park ranger in the Serengeti National Park.

I’m sitting on my mosquito-netted bed in a thatch-roofed hut at the Moivaro Lodge on the outskirts of Arusha, Tanzania, typing on my laptop. In a few hours, our tour guides will take 13 of us to the Kilimanjaro airport. We’ve just spent the last two weeks on a thrilling photo safari in the Serengeti and Tarangire national parks and the Ngorongoro National Conservation Area in this east African country where big game poaching, especially of elephants and black rhinos, is part of a regional environmental crisis.

Boniface Faustine was the lead guide for our tour, which was organized by the American company, Overseas Adventure Travel (www.oattravel.com). Faustine worked as a ranger in Serengeti National Park for three years before deciding to make a career change. He says that long periods away from his family and very real threats to the lives of park rangers drove his decision.

A bronze plaque at the rim of Ngorongoro Conservation Area serves as a memorial to six park rangers killed by poachers and bandits.

Faustine’s passion for protecting Tanzania’s wildlife commands attention to his well-prepared lectures about local species including the “The Big Five” — elephants, lions, rhinos, cape buffalo and leopards — some of the most sought after subjects for photographers.

Faustine emphasizes that revenue from tourism and photo safaris in the parks contributes significantly to government projects that stem poaching by catching and prosecuting the offenders.

Poachers, who are funded by international buyers of ivory and rhino horns, are heavily armed, technologically savvy, and may use helicopters to search out and kill their endangered prey. Their modus operandi is to cut out the tusks and horns, leaving the carcasses.

Poachers also attempt to eavesdrop on park ranger communications to locate targets.

To learn about efforts to conserve and protect the black rhino, we visited the Michael Grzimek Memorial Rhino Post in Serengeti National Park. In 1997, after poachers had killed all black rhinos in the park, the Rhino Post — with government authorization — captured two black rhinos in South Africa and airlifted them in crates to the Serengeti and Ngorogorango parks in Tanzania. The crate used to transport the rhinos is on display at the post.

As a result of this and other conservation projects, the black rhino is again breeding naturally in these parks, though rangers will not release actual population numbers or locations, so that poachers can’t retrieve that information.

While dismayed by the continuing problem of big game poaching, our group was somewhat relieved to know that photo safaris such as ours help to combat the problem.

No doubt, some impacts to wildlife are inherent in such tourism. From what I saw, though, these magnificent animals, especially the big cats, seemed to ignore us and our safari vehicles, which are strictly confined to park roads. They continued to hunt and be hunted, graze, bathe, nuzzle each other and loll about.

 Elephants cross the roads in Serengeti National Park whenever they please, ignoring or at times insisting that photo safari vehicles get out of the way. They never get an argument!

Elephants cross the roads in Serengeti National Park whenever they please, ignoring or at times insisting that photo safari vehicles get out of the way. They never get an argument!

The tour was a photographer’s dream. We observed all of the Big Five in their native habitats, including three rhinos, hundreds of elephants and cape buffalo and entire prides of lions. Giraffes, gazelles, zebras, hippos and wildebeests were too numerous to count. One of my favorite snaps was of a hyena pup, just a few weeks old, who curiously came right up to our open-topped vehicle to sniff us out.

We also filmed two lionesses as they began to devour their fresh zebra kill. As vultures descended, the lionesses dragged the carcass across the road to the shade of an acacia tree.

I came away from this tour with an enhanced appreciation of all wildlife in this region, as well as a great respect for the rangers and conservationists who put their lives at risk to protect them.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who is on a year-long journey around the world. You can read her travel blog and environmental articles on her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Earth Matters: Exploring the lakes and trees of Scotland

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 08/21/2015

 The Hermitage Pathway was been walked by the likes of Wordsworth, Queen Victoria and Mendelssohn. (Contributed photo)

The Hermitage Pathway was been walked by the likes of Wordsworth, Queen Victoria and Mendelssohn. (Contributed photo)

After a few days of fun and frolic at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland last week, I rented a car and set out on an eight-day foray through the Scottish Highlands. As an American, I did not take driving in Scotland lightly. It’s scary driving on the other side of the road and you have to muddle through “rotaries” to find your exit while remembering to yield to cars coming from the right. Scotland’s roads are narrow and often edged with high and unforgiving curbs. Stressful!

For me, hiking has always been a great way to relieve stress, so I decided to visit plenty of forests, rivers, and trees in Scotland. What a joy it was to see so much water! I started with a visit to a Scottish fish ladder at the dam in the town of Pitlochry. The ladder is designed to help salmon returning from the sea bypass the dam on their way back to their ancestral headwaters to spawn. Engineers have installed an electronic counter that keeps track of the fish that use the ladder each season. When I looked, the count was 3,760, but the season isn’t over yet.

No visit to Scotland would be complete without a visit to Loch Ness. My favorite view was from the ruins of Urquhart Castle, near Inverness.

 The original Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond. (Contributed photo)

The original Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond. (Contributed photo)

I next set out to view some of Scotland’s oldest and biggest trees. First on the list was the Fortingall Yew, an ancient European yew (Taxus baccata) in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire. The yew is estimated to be anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 years, so it may be the oldest tree in Britain. It’s difficult to ascertain its age because the tree has been cut back and burned repeatedly over the ages

On my way to the village, I stopped to visit Castle Menzies, a 16th century stone relic that has been thoughtfully restored. I learned from the exhibits inside that one of the Menzies clan who inhabited.the castle was the famous Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, who traveled the world in the 1700s collecting plants. Menzies’ name is commemorated in the scientific names of several plants he discovered, including the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and the Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), trees which are very familiar to Californians. (David Douglas introduced the Douglas fir to Scotland from the Pacific Northwest in 1837).

The next ancient tree I visited was the legendary Birnam Oak, thought to be the last surviving tree of Birnam Wood, featured in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The Birnam Oak grows, along with other very old giant trees, along the River Tay near the town of Dunkeld.

Though most of the forest land that I saw from the road was intensively managed timberland, there are also some beautiful protected areas that are part of the National Trust for Scotland.

One of them is the Hermitage, a woodland surrounding the river Braan and its spectacular Black Linn Waterfall. I took great pleasure in knowing that the path that I followed had been walked by Wordsworth, Queen Victoria, Mendelssohn and Turner. The path, which feels like the backdrop to a fairy tale, takes you into iconic stands of enormous Douglas firs, planted in the 1800s and 190

I ended my Scottish Highlands tour with a visit to Loch Lomond, the largest freshwater lake in Britain, and Ben Lomond, the peak that towers above it. In Santa Cruz County, our own Loch Lomond and Ben Lomond are named after these places, so this was indeed a meaningful way to end my tour.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer. She can be contacted through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

 

 

 

 

Earth Matters: Sustainability truly a global effort

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 07/17/2015

 Vassili Gialamarakis gives a food demonstration in the Mistral Hotel kitchen. (Betsy Herbert)

Vassili Gialamarakis gives a food demonstration in the Mistral Hotel kitchen. (Betsy Herbert)

I’m not a foodie, but I enjoy good food and care about nutrition and environmental sustainability of food production. At home I eat plant-based, organic, and locally grown food as much as I can.

When I started my trip around the world, I expected that sticking to such a diet would be challenging. But the nonprofit Slow Food International makes it clear that eating healthy food is an international movement, ongoing in 160 countries. Slow Food International “envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet” (www.slowfood.com/international/9/what-we-do).

I decided early on to make healthy food choices part of my travel agenda. Crete, Greece’s largest island, has been on my bucket list ever since my first art history class introduced me to ancient Minoan art and architecture at the famous site of Knossos.

But where to stay in Crete? The website for the Greek-owned Mistral Hotel near Chania, Crete captured my attention: “Our traditional organic food is simply unbeatable and if you have any doubts, we invite you to visit our vegetable garden. ... We stick to traditional dishes as much as possible and use as many fresh vegetables and raw foods as we can.” (www.singlesincrete.com)

I booked a two-week stay at the Mistral Hotel in June. During my stay I enjoyed traditional Cretan meals almost every night at the hotel, including tzatziki, mousaka (they made me a vegetarian version), and a local specialty called boureki. They use eggs, tomatoes, eggplant, greens, dill, mint and lettuce from their hotel garden. Anything else on the menu, such as goat cheese, lamb, thyme honey and bread is sourced from local farmers, and they use only fresh local seafood.

The Mistral Hotel is owned by the Gialamarakis family and run by brothers Adonis and Vassili. The family also owns and operates an olive orchard, which produces extra virgin olive oil for the hotel and for market.

Vassili, who has an M.S. in horticulture, points out that olive oil is a traditionally important in the Cretan diet, which has been shown to be particularly heart-healthy (http://sevencountriesstudy.com/mediterranean-dietary-patterns).

Crete alone has some 48 million olive trees. Greece is the world’s third largest olive producer. Approximately 82 percent of the 350,000 tons of olive oil produced in Greece annually is “extra-virgin” olive oil, meaning that it is produced by traditional stone milling of organic olives.

Vassili explains, “Choosing an olive oil is like choosing a wine. You need to know where it comes from, something about the microclimate, the rain, and soil. Crete has all the right conditions.”

The Mistral Hotel is one of a growing list of Cretan restaurants that has earned the “Quality Label of Cretan Cuisine,” awarded by the non-profit named Cretan Quality Agreement, which works in tandem with the regional government of Crete to promote the Cretan diet. (Find the complete list at http://www.cretan-nutrition.gr/wp/?page_id=195&lang=en).

Vasilli took a group of Mistral guests to Dounia, a rustic restaurant in the mountain village of Drakona. The owners, the Trilyraki family, produce all the vegetables in their own garden. Before eating, we visited the kitchen and watched food being prepared on a large outdoor wood stove.

 All of the vegetables at the Dounia restaurant are grown in their garden. (Betsy Herbert)

All of the vegetables at the Dounia restaurant are grown in their garden. (Betsy Herbert)

We also enjoyed another charming exquisite plant-based meal at a restaurant named Sto Skolio in a small village above the town of Paleochora.

Making sustainable food choices a primary part of my travel agenda for Crete unquestionably enhanced my entire travel experience.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She can be contacted through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Enjoying and protecting wild Croatia

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 06/20/2015

Last week I left the beautiful old city of Dubrovnik, saying goodbye to Croatia and to the 17 other hikers, bikers and kayakers I met during our two-week Sierra Club International outing, “Jewels of Croatia: Forests, Rivers and Islands.”

 The famous Plitvice National Park draws more than a million visitors a year.

The famous Plitvice National Park draws more than a million visitors a year.

Starting in the capital city of Zagreb, our group, led by two Croatian guides, would travel by van roughly north to south, stopping to experience the country’s vastly different landscapes. We would hike through alpine meadows of the Velebit Mountains, cycle through valleys graced with small towns and vineyards, kayak on crystalline rivers, and sail to some of the 1,200 islands along the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

Before we left Zagreb, a scientist named Mate Zec briefed us about the natural areas we were about to see. Zec is employed by Association Biom, a nonprofit based in Zagreb and affiliated with Birdlife International, a nonprofit that manages 6,000 natural areas in 47 countries.

Croatia is about the size of West Virginia. Some 25 percent of its land is arable farmland and about 40 percent is forested. Fifty percent of Croatia’s landmass is limestone karst. Riddled with caves and underground cavities, limestone karst stores and exudes enormous amounts of water in the form of abundant rivers and waterfalls. Croatia’s coastal areas have a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot and dry summers, while its mountains, the Dinaric Alps, have cold winters and hot summers.

 Karstic limestone in the Velebit Mountains show signs of long-ago erosion.

Karstic limestone in the Velebit Mountains show signs of long-ago erosion.

These different climates and landscapes have produced remarkable biodiversity in Croatia. The network of subterranean limestone caves host species of plants and animals that are found nowhere else in the world. Croatia’s forests and grasslands are home to many different species including brown bears, wolves and lynxes. But many of these species, especially the native lynx, are threatened.

According to Association Biom, 8.5 percent of Croatia’s land is designated as some type of protected area. There are both national parks and regional “nature parks,” which are managed differently. Admission tickets to the more popular parks provide an important source of income for park management. The famous Plitvice National Park, for example, draws more than a million visitors a year.

Tourism accounts for about 15 percent of Croatia’s GDP. Croatia’s population of 4.5 million has an average per capita income of $17,800. So, income from tourism is especially important.

But tourism can also create problems for natural areas. For example, Zec explains that a few “rich parks” with high numbers of tourists have no daily limits to the number of visitors. Later, when our group visited Plitvice National Park, we found that even prior to peak season, we had to move single-file along the trails, reminiscent of U.S. national parks like Yosemite at peak season.

Zec said that park management varies greatly throughout Croatia due to political influence. The result is that parks throughout the country have different levels of habitat protection, policies and investments in research.

Land-protection policies may be changing in Croatia, though, since Croatia joined the European Union (EU) in 2013. That’s because the EU has relatively high standards for protection of natural areas and endangered species that member countries must address.

Zec identified some threats to Croatia’s biodiversity on land outside of protected areas. These include increased development along the coast for tourism and increased construction of wind and hydro-power plants. While alternative energy projects help combat climate change, wind farms can spell death for migratory birds and dams can impact freshwater ecosystems.

Learning about Croatia’s natural areas enhanced our ensuing adventure. As we kayaked the wild rivers of Croatia and sailed the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we were newly inspired to help protect these natural gifts.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She is on an around-the-world adventure, during which she will be filing monthly reports on environmental and sustainability issues she encounters. Contact her through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.




Learning about Croatia’s natural areas enhanced our ensuing adventure. As we kayaked the wild rivers of Croatia and sailed the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we were newly inspired to help protect these natural gifts.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She is on an around-the-world adventure, during which she will be filing monthly reports on environmental and sustainability issues she encounters. Contact her through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

Looking back, aboard the Queen Mary 2

by Betsy Herbert

Posted: 05/14/15 Santa Cruz Sentinel

by Betsy Herbert

As the Queen Mary 2 left the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal earlier this week, it was 82 degrees and sunny. I was one of 2,429 passengers onboard, sipping champagne and enjoying this iconic departure from New York City. We cruised past the Statue of Liberty and out to sea, bound for Southampton, England, due to arrive May 17.

The QM2 is a huge vessel, designed and built specifically for trans-Atlantic crossings. She is equipped with the world’s first four-pod ship propulsion system, as well as a power plant capable of producing enough electricity to serve a city of 250,000 people.

This morning, as we cruised past Nantucket, a thick fog surrounded us and the ship decks were all sopping wet. What a perfect opportunity to stay inside my stateroom and write about my travel experiences of the last month.

Looking back on my trip so far, I left Santa Cruz on April 10 heading north to visit friends in Oregon. On April 25, I arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, intending to take the train across Canada to Toronto and onward to New York City, where I would board the QM2.

Vancouver is a glorious city, edged by mountains, blessed with a beautiful skyline and harbor, and numerous gardens and parks.

 Fireworks at dusk from my hotel window in Vancouver.

Fireworks at dusk from my hotel window in Vancouver.

 Above: A view of Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island

Above: A view of Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island

Like San Francisco, Vancouver is undergoing a massive development boom. Cranes loom across the city, and the torn-up streets make getting around a challenge. Also like San Francisco, real estate prices are sky-rocketing.

On April 28, I boarded VIA Canadian rail in Vancouver for an overnight trip to Jasper National Park, which lies in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, near the Continental Divide.

Above: Jasper, Alberta train station in the Canadian Rockies

I had booked a bed and breakfast in Jasper intending to stay for three days to explore the park. Late that night, though, I received the news that my younger brother had just passed away, losing his long and painful battle with lymphoma.

I immediately set about changing my travel plans. Instead of taking the train across Canada and to New York City, I would fly back to San Jose from Edmonton International Airport in Alberta to be with my family, then fly from San Francisco to New York City in time to board the QM2.

The five-hour shuttle bus ride from Jasper to Edmonton revealed pronounced changes in scenery from the wild and rugged Canadian Rockies to the flatlands of Edmonton. The forests along the highway had been reduced almost entirely to crowded plots of young spindly trees, which are routinely hacked down and ground up for paper pulp. These tree farms resembled lawns on steroids, rather than wild forest ecosystems.

Above: Spindly forests used to supply paper pulp, along highway to Edmonton

Edmonton is both the capital of Alberta and the staging area for large-scale oil sands projects in the region. Oil derricks and giant electricity transmission towers dominate the landscape around Edmonton, a major supplier of fossil fuel energy to the rest of Canada. A big red sign on the highway identifies it as a designated “Dangerous Goods Route.”

Above: Oil derricks dot the landscape all around Edmonton

I boarded my plane in Edmonton on the afternoon of May 1. After 14 hours in buses, planes and airports, I arrived in San Jose later that night. For the next week, family matters, including a celebration of my late brother’s life, pushed my travel plans and writing to the back burner.

I’m reminded that traveling is not so much a vacation as it is living on the road. You make your plans as best you can, but there’s no telling what will happen next. That’s why I bought travel insurance, and why I highly recommend it for anyone traveling.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She can be contacted through her website, www.betsyherbert.com.

 

 

 

Saying goodbye to the West

Saying goodbye to the West

Last week, after stacking my furniture into a 10-by-15-foot storage unit, leasing my house and selling my car, I felt foot-loose and finally ready for some serious travel. But before embarking on my year-long trip around the world, I wanted to pay goodbye visits to friends scattered throughout the West.

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Prepping for ‘Postcards’

By Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

Posted: 03/19/15, Santa Cruz Sentinel

On April 28, I board VIA Rail Canada to start a year-long trip around the world. During my travels, I’ll continue writing my monthly “Earth Matters” column, but with a broader perspective. I’ll focus on stories that highlight positive changes that people are making around the globe to help the environment. The aim is to make these stories interesting and relevant to readers back in Santa Cruz.

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Process underway to transform Davenport cement plant

Process underway to transform Davenport cement plant

From the seventh floor of the Davenport cement plant cooling tower on a sunny morning last week, I was wowed by a panoramic view of the Santa Cruz County coastline and surrounding Coast Dairies property, now proposed as a national monument.

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Going solar: One family's story

Going solar: One family's story

Like many households in Santa Cruz County, Kevin Flynn and Emmanuelle Pancaldi-Flynn recently took the big step to go solar. The Flynn’s house in the mountains above Scotts Valley has good sun access in the middle of the day, which is the primary requirement for an efficient solar system. 

The next step was a financial analysis to see if going solar would make economic sense.

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Lawn-less: A new era for a drought-stricken state?

Lawn-less: A new era for a drought-stricken state?

Have you noticed that, at least in some Santa Cruz neighborhoods, green lawns no longer rule? I’ve observed on my morning walks over the past few months that brown lawns outnumber green ones by about 10 to 1.

Given that we’re in the midst of California’s worst drought on record and that lawns require more water than any other landscape plant, this is a welcome trend.

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Redwood Champions Amid Drought and Climate Change

Redwood Champions Amid  Drought and Climate Change

by Betsy Herbert, Ph.D.

published in the Mountain Echo, newsletter of the Sempervirens Fund, Fall 2014

Redwoods are extraordinary. The more we learn about them, the more extraordinary they prove to be. We’ve known for a long time that California’s coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the world’s tallest trees and among the longest-living. Scientists are now confirming that redwoods play an important role in the local water cycle and in achieving a healthy, stable climate.

By meticulously measuring redwoods, scientists are determining how fast they’re growing, storing carbon and capturing fog, and how they are responding to climate change. For example, a team of scientists is working on the “Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative” (RCCI), with support from Sempervirens Fund, to quantify how accelerating climate change is affecting California’s redwoods.

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