Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Snow Stories

When a friend recently moved to Caldwell, west of Boise, his friendly new neighbors told him how they used to cross-country ski from their neighborhood to the downtown. Apparently, skiing downtown used to be something that Caldwell residents could count on in the winter.

Upon hearing this, did my friend run out and buy cross-country skis in anticipation? Is the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce promoting an annual ski derby through the downtown?

No. Of course not.

If you know Caldwell, you know significant snowfall isn’t likely anytime soon. Intuitively, you know things have changed.

Through history, stories have been humanity’s way of mapping the world. Our stories are already reflecting our earth’s changing climate—even if we don’t realize it yet.

It’s true that urbanization—as has happened to Caldwell—warms the area and influences snowfall. It’s also true that anecdotal evidence—a cold snap here, a sweltering summer there—is notoriously inaccurate, particularly when dealing with a large-scale phenomenon like the changing climate.

That’s why climate science and research remains so critical in determining what is actually happening—and what individuals and governments can change to protect our quality of life.

But decades and generations from now, it will be the stories that stick in memories. “I remember when snow used to fall here every winter” is not just nostalgia, it’s our way of mapping the way the world was.

With the changing climate, some of the stories will be of southern animals and plants moving north. What new species will future generations take for granted as Idaho residents that today are absent?

Others will be of animals disappearing. If you have read about climate change, you know that polar bears aren’t faring well, and could disappear within decades. But it’s not only Arctic wildlife. Around the West, the pika—a cute little alpine mammal that lives on mountain peaks—is in serious decline. Research suggests that as the climate warms, the pikas are forced higher up peaks—and away from other pikas. On these high mountain “islands” pikas are vulnerable and isolated, and thus their population is plummeting.

What other stories will we tell about the climate? Will Boise residents someday recall the time when you could ski on Bogus Basin? Will Baltimore orioles be absent from Baltimore? Will future generations speak of polar bears as we speak of mammoths—a fanciful creature gone from the landscape? Will our iconic cities be the stuff of legend--because they are all underwater?

These stories are yet to be told. In our actions, in our choices, we can help shape the answers. Hopefully, the stories already being told about the changing climate can influence new people to act on behalf of the economy, wildlife, our quality of life--and the world we leave to future generations. – Matt Miller

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