For the National Parks, a Reckoning

Over the course of a full year, I talked with scientists in national parks about what it means to steward nature as climate change exerts more and more influence. 

Undark

… After all, even as tens of millions of tourists throng through their gates every year to get a glimpse of the “wild,” official policy has, for decades, directed scientists and managers to keep the parks they oversee as untainted as possible, looking as nature would if humans had never intervened. But how do you preserve the wilderness when nature itself is no longer behaving like it’s supposed to? How do you erase human influence when that influence is now everywhere, driving up temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and rapidly remaking the landscapes we’ve come to know as our national parks? [Read more.]

This story is also a Longreads pick and has been republished by Smithsonian.

Quiet: A Soldier’s Fight for the Most Silent Place in America

mossandforestthumbSeattle Met

A story about a fight over the value of quiet on the Olympic Peninsula:

… To find quiet means more than merely to escape noise. There is external stillness, when the din subsides and you can hear the gentler world beneath it—the stirring of wind, the susurration of water, the rush of your own inhalation. Then there is inner calm, when all of the jangling thoughts in your mind dissipate, and you can unclench your muscles and open to your senses. The latter kind of silence tends to require at least some of the former. Both are hard to find in a society whose increasing mobility is powered by the drone of internal combustion engines and the clamor of technology. [Read more.]

Evicted by Climate Change

johnfamthumbnl2Another installment in a series about climate change in Alaska: While reporting this story, I spent two and a half days stranded in a tiny airport in Bethel, Alaska, before finally arriving in the remote village of Newtok.

Hakai Magazine

… Even in the early days at Newtok, its residents could see that the tundra was warming and thawing, and that the river was eating the land around them. In the past few years, they have become famous, heralded by the international press as “America’s first climate refugees”(along with residents of two other Alaskan villages and a tiny Louisianan island community). Newtok is one of the first places in the United States that could be erased by the impacts of climate change. The US Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that erosion will ravage much of the village within the next decade. [Read more.]

How One Alaskan Community Is Attempting to Adapt to Climate Change

sfw_mo_2015-09-19-19.21.48-2One of a series of stories I pursued on a visit to rural Alaska a few months ago, some of the most challenging reporting I’ve ever done. This story appears in Audubon‘s January-February special issue on the Arctic.

Audubon Magazine

… The Bodfishes are Iñupiat hunters, a native subsistence culture that has dominated Alaska’s North Slope for more than 10,000 years. When I arrived at their home at dusk one evening in September, the yard was strewn with hunting equipment—outboard motorboats, a snowmobile, an ATV—and a partially carved-up caribou lay on top of a wooden table. [Read more.]

How Preschool Can Make You Smarter and Healthier

brainI’ve recently been reporting on a bustling area of research in neuroscience about how life experience can change the biology of the brain, especially in childhood. Here’s a story I wrote for PBS.

PBS NOVA

There was a sense of idealism in the air in 1971 when Craig Ramey, a psychologist in his late 20s with a newly minted Ph.D., took a job in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to launch what would become one of the longest-running educational experiments in history. … Conventional wisdom said you were either born smart or you weren’t (a misconception that lingers in the public’s imagination even today). But in the 1960s, evidence mounted from a few small parenting and education projects for young children—combined with laboratory tests on rats, cats and monkeys—that the first years of life could shape your intelligence. …

It was a seminal moment—the first chapter in whole line of research that is still changing how we think about intelligence, poverty, and the child brain.

[Read more.]

Loving the Puget Sound to Death

Screen_Shot_Ostrander_NHJF_thumbI reported the following story as a National Health Journalism Fellow with the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The Nation

Ringed by the white-capped Cascade and Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound looks pristine. But four decades after the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, regulators haven’t kept up with the pressures of growing populations near America’s shorelines, here or elsewhere in the country. [Read more.]

Riley Morton and John de Graaf also produced this stunning companion video, in collaboration with me and Frank Reynolds at The Nation.

Can GMOs Help Feed a Hot and Hungry World?

rsz_plantsThe Nation

Eduardo Blumwald’s genetically modified plants don’t look much like “Frankenfood.” Filling four modest greenhouses in a concrete lot behind Blumwald’s laboratory at the University of California, Davis, the tiny seedlings, spiky grasses, alfalfa, and peanut and rice plants in plastic terracotta-colored pots look exactly like the ordinary varieties from which he and his fellow researchers created them. Blumwald’s lab lies just ten miles from Monsanto’s 90,000-square-foot vegetable seed building, a glassy edifice larger than the hangar for a 747. The Monsanto facility is one of the largest centers in the world for plant breeding and genetic engineering. But in the fourteen years that Blumwald, a professor of cell biology, has worked here studying the DNA of crop plants, he has hardly ever spoken to anyone from Monsanto.

Blue-eyed and round-faced, with a lilting Argentinian accent, Blumwald grows exasperated when he talks about the so-called “Big Ag” companies, which he says have been arrogant in dealing with the public, contributing to a distrust of biotech research. But he also doesn’t appreciate the activists who’ve been challenging not only the Monsantos of the world but the entire field of genetic engineering.

“You want to penalize the multinationals; I have no problem with that,” he tells me in his office at the university’s plant biology building. “But because of your political stance against multinationals, you are going to condemn maybe the only viable solution we have for our future? It’s wrong—absolutely wrong.” [Read more.]

Will global warming leave L.A.’s poor under water?

2014-01-21 12.49Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — A contractor laughed when Robin Rudisill asked, more than five years ago, if she should consider the impact of rising sea levels in her plans for remodeling her taupe-colored three-story house here on the oceanfront walk of Venice Beach. “I was serious,” she said.

Rudisill had moved into the house with her mother, grandmother and daughter a few years after leaving her job as a top financial executive at Bank of America. “I have a lot of people to take care of. I’ve got to figure out how long this place will last,” she said. “He thought that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard.”

The science has since proved her point. [Read more.]

Bluegrass Uprising

spring_houseThe Nation

Lorrie Reed lives alone in a trailer on a rural road outside Frankfort, Kentucky, on two acres of land that her late husband bought more than twenty years ago. He left the property to her and their daughters when he died in a motorcycle accident. “He told me before he passed that the place was going to be mine, and the only way I’d lose it was if I let somebody mess me out of it,” Reed says.

Ever since this past summer, when land agents approached her—twice—to ask permission to survey a proposed pipeline route across her property, Reed repeats these words to herself. She walks with a limp, an injury from a collision with a dump truck during the years that she worked on road maintenance crews. She owns a pistol because she is afraid of the feral dogs that she says are common in the area. She held the gun in her palm when the pipeline consultants pulled into her gravel driveway. “You’re trespassing,” she told them. [Read more.]

Will California’s Cap and Trade Be Fair?

capandtradenation-tiffThe Nation

Supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Even when she was a kid, Melissa Cervantes knew something was wrong with the air in Wilmington, a neighborhood next to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach where she has lived most of her life. The streets here are verdant with mango, guava and avocado trees. But a brownish haze hangs above the houses. “I kind of figured the refinery was making people sick,” she says. “But when you’re just a little kid, you don’t put it together as a puzzle.” …

It’s no secret that the refineries often break the laws that limit pollution. The Tesoro refinery in Wilmington, for instance, violated air regulations twenty-eight times from 2008 to 2009. Melissa sometimes calls the companies’ public hotlines when she notices a bad smell or a plume of smoke, but they “give you the runaround,” she says. In the fall of 2010, her boyfriend’s mother, Maria Ramos, told her that Tesoro and Valero were backing a ballot measure that would suspend Assembly Bill 32, the state’s groundbreaking attempt to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. [Read more.]