Saturday, October 27, 2012

Its Never Just One Thing

"To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness.... to resort whenever expedient to systematic reasoning"   Aldous Huxley

I recently heard of an incredible resource called EOPS, the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. While perusing this webpage I came upon Environmental Protection Agency report discussing the lack of evidence for anthropogenic causes of low oxygen in Hood Canal (Draft-EPA-and-Ecology-Report-on-Dissolved-Oxygen-Impacts-in-Hood-Canal-09-14-12). Hood Canal is a long fjord framing the Western extent of Puget Sound. Being familiar with the region and the issues of water quality in Hood Canal I was skeptical of the reports findings. See, its never just one thing. Because of its geomorphology Hood Canal is a very fragile ecosystem.
The waterway of Hood Canal is particularly susceptible to physical and chemical changes in its environment. The bathymetry and shape of the waterway makes the exchange of water from in and outgoing tides reduced. Hood Canal has a shallow lip of 160 feet near the mouth creating a long, deep and narrow bowl resulting in the slowest water circulation of all the Puget Sound sub-basins. This slow rate of incoming and outgoing tidal exchange causes the southern end of the canal to become especially susceptible to low dissolved oxygen (DO) As a result DO in the waters of Hood Canal have become a problem. It has been assumed that increased nutrient loads to the waterway from the population growth in the region was the cause of recent problematic low DO levels that have lead to fish kills in Hood Canal. However the EPA report suggests that evidence pointing at nutrient loading from population pressures is inconclusive and may have little to do with the low DO events. However, by focusing on a single source as the cause the EPA appears to be missing a fundamental aspect of all environmental science investigations. In my research lately I  have been steadfast in my attempts to incorporate a holistic approach to deciphering the question at hand. See its never just one thing. Because of the fragility of Hood Canal as a result of its slow tidal exchange rate, any additional inputs that change the water chemistry is going to have an amplified impact. That impact alone may not be enough to tip the table, but when combined with additional low DO sources the system can quickly become overwhelmed by the cumulative impact.

Hood Canal

In this case one likely source of additional low DO is the hypoxic waters off the Washington State coast. Lower levels of oxygen in the waters off the Pacific Northwest coast are becoming problematic and could be another sign of fundamental changes linked to global climate change. In some spots off Washington state and Oregon, the almost complete absence of oxygen has caused mortality of bottom dwelling species where low oxygen levels are most extreme. In addition large blooms of noxious bacteria which are resistant to hypoxic environments are taking their place. Areas of hypoxia, or low oxygen, exist naturally in the deep ocean. These areas however appear to be spreading, becoming more surface oriented. Such is the case in the Pacific Northwest, where low oxygen levels are encroaching on the continental shelf right off the coastline.   The Pacific waters off Washington and Oregon are particularly susceptible to low oxygen events as a result of ocean circulation patterns. Natural low oxygen zones perched in the deeper waters off the Northwest's continental shelf are created during the summer, as northerly winds move surface water away from the shore. As a result oxygen-poor water migrates to the surface in a process called upwelling. These nutrient rich waters bring nutrients to phytoplankton forming one of the greatest ocean food chains in the world. The phytoplankton production is further enhanced by the warmer ocean temperatures. When the plankton sink and start to decay  the decaying mechanism uses oxygen, which depletes the oxygen levels further. Southerly winds reverse the process in what's known as down-welling. Changes in the wind and ocean circulation since 2002 have disrupted the delicate balance between upwelling and down-welling on the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Because these coastal waters have been near the surface and closer to shore greater amounts of this oxygen poor water is making its way into Puget Sound and Hood Canal. Warmer water temperatures in Hood Canal are also producing more phytoplankton which undergo the same oxygen depleting life cycle that occurs in the ocean. See its never just one thing. Anthropogenic nutrient loading from increased population growth which the EPA suggests may not be a player plus the influx of oxygen poor ocean water from the Washington coast combined with the increase of phytoplankton production from warmer water temperatures have a cummulative impact that tips the scale in Hood Canals already delicately balanced water chemistry. So, can we say there is no evidence linking human activity to hypoxic water and fish kills in Hood Canal?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pay Attention

"My sense of immortality is when the people I teach the various things begin to teach it themselves. Then I am assured I won't become an empty memory. My breath will continue to breathe into the future generations."
-Bruce (subiyay) Miller-

Traditional Twana Story

There was one little girl who never paid attention to anything that was being said by the elders. She was always talking when she was supposed to be listening. When the other children tried to be attentive to the teachings she would poke them or cause disruptions in some other way. She did this so much that everyone called her “assH3‘qap” (as sha kop); which means stupid or foolish. They called her by this name so much that everyone began to accept it as her real name. 

Time passed all too suddenly for assH3’qap, for she knew it…it was time for her to go into the wilderness on her spirit quest. Early one morning her grandmother woke her up and told her, “It is time for you to go into the wilderness and find sk3’lalitut, your spirit power. Do not come home until you find it…and bring a gift to benefit those who are yet to come. With that, assH3’qap was hastily escorted to the foot of the mountain. She was quickly left alone by her grandmother. 

Now, for the first time in her life she was truly alone, no one to pester, no instructions to ignore, no one to call her “assH3’qap”. Still at first she did not worry, it was early in the day, she was warm and nothing looked scary. Not yet that is…assH3’qap began to wander about, here and there. Night was fast approaching. The temperature fell. In the increasing darkness of nightfall she could hear sounds, strange sounds. There was no one to huddle up to for warmth. There was nothing to eat. There was no one to talk to. She was all alone in the wilderness. Alone…and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do. She had never listened…she knew it all already or there were other things to do or she didn’t have the time. Now the time of endless excuses was finished. Indeed she was assH3’qap. If only she had listened, she would know what to do. 

It was dark. It was cold. assH3’qap was lonely. There were scary unseen things making noises in the darkness. Finally, exhausted from fear of the unknown terrors that lurked in the darkness, she fell into a cold restless sleep. Morning came. It was much better now. It wasn’t scary anymore. But she was hungry, thirsty and scratched up from wandering naked through the dense brush in the dark. For three more nights she went through the same ordeal. Each day she was more hungry, more exhausted and more lonely. On the fourth night she found a hollow in the ground at the base of a huge cedar tree. It offered some degree of protection from the night wind. She wept through the night…pausing now and then to say, “Why was I so assH3’qap?” “Why didn’t I pay attention?” 

Very early, on the morning of the fifth day, just before dawn, she heard a tiny voice asking, “Why are you crying little girl?” She stopped her sobbing and looked around. She could see no one. Then she heard it again. “Why are you crying little girl?” It was coming from above her. She strained to see up in the limbs of the big cedar tree and saw a little bird. It was the one who was talking to her. She replied, “I’m crying because I’m so “assH3’qap”. I knew that I would be sent out here to find “something” but I never listened. Now, I don’t know what I’m supposed to look for. The little girl admonished assH3’qap, “Pay attention! Pay attention!” The little girl watched as the little bird made a nest. She watched what it was using and how it was putting it together. She took some flexible grasses and after a number of attempts she had made a crude little container somewhat like the little birds nest. She realized that she could put things in this crude little container and carry them in it. “I’ll call it a basket”, she exclaimed joyfully. People will be able to carry more things than with just their hands. It will be my gift for the people of the future. 

assH3’qap wandered around the mountain side, putting berries, and other items in her new basket. Night fell. She tried to sleep but she was cold and she ached where she was scratched up. She cried through the night. In the early morning, just before dawn, she heard a voice asking,”Why are you crying little girl?” She told her story, and how she was gifted with the skill of basket making. And said, “I know that I should be thankful for what I have received, but my skin is sore from being scratched. I’m assH3’qap and don’t know how to protect it.” The voice said, “Pay attention!” The little girl looked up, and it was the cedar tree talking to her. She could see where some bark had come loose. The wind had worked it back and forth until it was flexible. “Use my skin”, said the great cedar as the bark dropped down to the little girl. She took the softened bark and with plant fibers she wove it into a dress. The dress protected her bare skin from the harshness of the environment. The girl was happy now because she had two gifts, a basket and a garment. She continued her journey around the mountain. 

It was colder now than before. Night fell again. This time it was very cold. There was no one to huddle next to for warmth. Aching with cold she once again wept through the night. Just before dawn she heard a voice asking, “Why are you crying little girl?” She said, “I know I should be thankful because I have received two gifts already, but I’m so cold I ache.” “Pay attention!” the voice said. “Take this mountain goat wool that has tangled in my branches,” said the bush. The little girl took it. She held it against herself and felt how warm it became where it covered her. She put the wool in her basket and walked on. She came to a stream and sat down to rest. 

The girl took the warm goat from her basket and wondered aloud to herself, “I wish I knew how to fix wool so that it would stay together and I could make it into a garment without it falling apart, but I’m so assH3’qap.” A voice said, “Pay attention!” It was the flowing stream that was speaking to her. She looked into the stream and saw how the flowing stream had twisted some fibers into string. She did this with the wool and it stayed together; she wove it into a blanket. She wrapped it around herself, it was warm and she felt good. Now I have three gifts she exclaimed to herself. She took some cedar bark and twisted it too; with this she made a trump-line to secure her basket to her so that she didn’t have to carry it with her hands. Now I have four gifts she sighed to herself. 

The girl looked at the stream again. There were fish in the stream. She realized how hungry her people were at times. She exclaimed to herself, “If I wasn’t so assH3’qap, I could find a way for my people to catch those fish”. A tiny voice said, “Pay attention!” It was a spider who was talking. The little girl watched as it wove a web in the crotch of a branch. She took a limb and bent it in a circle. Then she twisted more fiber into string and constructed a web on this hoop. “My people will use this to dip fish out of the water”, she said. assH3’qap decided that it was time to return back to her people now. Wearing her new cedar dress, wrapped in her warm wool blanket, basket strapped to her for head and carrying a dip net, she made her way down the mountain towards the home of her people. 

It was the beginning of a new day. The children were playing at that place where the people lived. They saw a strange thing approaching the place where they stayed. They ran to where the adult people were gathered. “There is something very strange approaching us” they exclaimed breathlessly. The people went to see. And true enough a strange thing was approaching. It wasn’t naked like they were. It was covered with wondrous things. As it got closer they saw that it was the girl “assH3’qap”. They all rushed to see her. As they reached out to feel and touch the wonderful mysterious things that assH3’qap was wearing and carrying, they asked, “What is the most important gift that you have brought for the people?” 

assH3’qap replied: 

“It is the basket that will allow us to carry many things”. Then she said, “No…it is the strap that the basket hangs from. It frees our hands for other purposes”. Then she said, “No…it is the clothing that the cedar tree gave me. It will protect our skin from the elements”. Then she said, “No…it is the goat wool that the bush gave me to make a blanket. A blanket will protect the people from the cold”. Then she said, “No…it is the net that the spider showed me how to make, so the people can catch fish”. 

The people looked at the wonderful new gifts that the stupid little girl had brought for the people of the future. After a while assH3’qap said, “No…No…the most important gift that I brought for the people is to “Pay attention!”. Yes the gift of paying attention. You see…from the beginning of time all these things were here. The birds were making their basket nests. The cedar tree was offering its bark for clothing when it fell from the tree in soft shredded pieces. The mountain goats have always brushed off their shedding wool onto the bushes, where the birds gathered it to put a warm lining in their nest. The stream had always twisted fibers with its current. The spider has always wove its web right were we all could see. All these gifts have always been here, only no one paid attention. They have been overlooked since the beginning of time, until “I paid attention”. 

The people gave assH3’qap a new name. They called her sQulalchi (She who is a skilled weaver). Since that time her gift has remained the most important one to mankind, “Pay attention!” 

© Bruce subiyay Miller  
Bruce (subiyay) Miller was an artist, teacher, historian, storyteller and spiritual leader from the Skokomish Indian Reservation, near Shelton, Washington. He played a key role in conserving and sustaining the Twana language and culture of the Skokomish people. Growing up he absorbed language and culture from family members, and he dedicated his life to the preservation and teaching of Twana stories, ceremonies, healing practices, dance, and arts.  He  also revived and maintained the knowledge of traditional uses of plants for healing, ceremony, and food. Bruce was a skilled basket weaver and carver, speaks and teacher of  the Twana language, and he led the revival of a number of traditional Twana spiritual and ceremonial practices including the winter longhouse ceremonies and the first elk ceremony. Often described as the Skokomish Tribe's Renaissance man, Bruce worked as a playwright, actor, teacher and counselor around the world, but his most important role was  that of a teacher of the Twana tradition and culture. The National Endowment for the Arts honored his life’s work in 2004 with a National Heritage Fellowship and the First People’s Fund awarded him the 2005 Community Spirit Awar

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Planting Complacency

Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so
Only what what nobody denies is so
-Walt Whitman-

Today is different, instead of flowing south in the car river that is I-5 I flow north where I am attending a conference called Envisioning a Healthy Puget Sound. As I make my way North I am struck by how much the trees have grown. These big towering conifers swallow up houses and businesses along the freeway margins. I don’t make the trip North that often so my senses are not numbed by the everyday observance of gradual change. I have watched these trees get substantially larger, as I have lived in the region for almost 27 years. A couple things come to mind as I marvel at the growth, first that the trees are still here at all. Development has run rampant throughout the lower Puget Sound region. Since 1980 2.6 million people have been added to the states population, sixty percent of which reside in a three county area that includes Seattle and the counties immediately to the North and South. Clearly zoning laws are protecting some trees. I also consider the ecosystem benefit of that tree growth, decreasing particulate pollutants, noise absorption, cooling effects and of course I ponder the role of trees as greenhouse gas sinks. As I am flowing with the school of cars I hear an add on the radio by Subaru describing how they will plant a tree for every car they sell. Planting trees is a good thing right? Of course, but like many actions that are considered to play a significant role in helping slow down climate change, I wonder if planting trees will result in an overall net decrease in greenhouse gases. I endeavor to find out what the increase in the CO² consumption ability of these larger trees I observe is in relation to my CO² contribution. I calculated that my carbon contribution was about 11 tons of CO² a year. A mature conifer sequesters about 50 pounds of CO² per year. Therefore to offset my annual contribution it would take nearly 500 mature conifers. Thank you Subaru for your Johnny Appleseed efforts, we will take the trees, but please don't pretend its making up for the greenhouse gas contribution of your product. Indeed, lining the freeways with conifer forests won’t offset the contribution of atmospheric CO² from driving. Ultimately the irony of using trees as a carbon storage mechanism is that in the end its only temporary because when the trees die the CO² is returned to the atmosphere. So, unless there is no net tree biomass lost, meaning an equal sized tree instantly replaces the one that dies, eventually most of the CO² stored by the tree is returned to the atmosphere. In the Pacific Northwest and across the globe we are losing more mature trees than we are gaining.

The ultimate CO² storage mechanism is the ocean, and Puget Sound in simple terms is ocean water that flows in and out of a big deep ditch left behind by the receding glaciers of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. The ocean has been a resilient CO² storage mechanism over the years and many wondered if its carbon storage capacity would ever be exceeded. However, the ocean has begun to acidify as the pH has been rising from the ever increasing amounts of CO² it is absorbing. As a result the waters in Puget Sound are acidifying as fast as those along the Washington state coast, were oysters have not successfully reproduced since 2005. The acidity is destroying the fragile calcium shells of newly born oysters. It is impacting phytoplankton biomass as well. Phytoplankton, not trees supply the majority of oxygen on the planet. The loss of phytoplankton in acidic ocean waters has to be the most serious impact we are facing from climate change. Planting trees, riding bikes, composting food scraps, buying locally grown food ect..... all important measures to be taken that improve the quality of our anthropocentric surroundings. None of these actions are going to keep the plankton from dying in the ocean. It is almost as though we want to be distracted. Complacently encouraged by our small actions that ultimately are impeding the sounding of the alarm, the protest, the up-welling of popular consensus that needs to be broadcast throughout all the media around the world; that some day we will be short of breath!