Monday, February 11, 2008

Geology Class at Joshua Tree National Park

Beginning on February 23, I'll teach a class at Coconino Community College called "Geology of the San Andreas Fault". We plan on visiting Anza-Borrego State Park and Joshua Tree National Park. Look here soon for the pictures!!

In the meantime, I received the following message from a friend, Robb Hannawacker, who is a ranger at Joshua Tree:

"I'm getting used to Joshua Tree National Park since I've been a ranger here for about 10 months. But it was hard to adjust since it is a park with some issues. These issues are largely associated with living near major urban areas, with their crime, air pollution, and light pollution. But the world-wide event of climate change puts a new spin on things.

As a National Park, it is our responsibility to preserve and protect these places of national heritage for perpetuity. Unfortunately, the Mission statement from the 1916 Organic Act does not include... "In the event of human caused climate change..."

However, as an interpreter (guide or educator), I'm duty bound to send a message of concern, but also one of hope. If humans and our air pollution are responsible for changing Earth's climate, then we must do are part to prevent it from getting worse!

The following url is a "Climate Connections" feature from National Public Radio and National Geographic.

I would love to hear from you. Let me know what you think or if you have questions, since I've been making efforts to know as much as possible about Climate and Global Warming."

I did respond to Robb and this is how I see it:

Regarding the fate of the Joshua Trees, that would certainly be a shame. It's almost as if the location of the Park is at the end of a shotgun with the LA Basin pointing downwind right at its heart. Thank goodness it is preserved as open space - think of all the trailers that would "grace" that landscape were it not for its earlier protection. We are so fortunate that those folks during the depression decided to preserve this as an NPS area!!

As a geologist, I tend to have a longer term view of these things, which often provides me with an unparalleled opportunity to educate the public in how natural systems operate. I agree that human activities are most likely driving this current warming period and that this warming is what's affecting the plants reduction in distribution. However, humans did not drive the warming period that occurred 10,000 years ago when range of the Joshua Trees was also severely reduced. I'm just wondering, in a philosophical sense, how should we speak about that severe reduction of the plant's range? Is that OK because it occurred "naturally"??? Or was that a tragedy too??? Most everyone might agree that the causes for these two warming periods were different, but the results are exactly the same, stressed Joshua Trees.

What I might suggest to you is that the current situation is a perfect opportunity to teach the general public about the value of knowing natures rhythms and the value of science. As an interpreter myself, I do not only speak of the tragedy of the moment (human induced global warming) - I also talk about those "natural" events that happened in the past that also restricted the plants distribution ("naturally" induced global warming). Looked at in this way, the long term observations from geology can inform everyone on what the possibilities are for the future. The public can become informed by studies like those of Ken Cole. Instead of an emotional plea for people to become concerned, there is a scientific plea to become informed, which presumably makes for informed decisions.

So much of the current debate pits "one side against the other". I feel we should stop this "us vs. them" mentality and let science be the arbiter of what path to take. I give climate change lectures in the course of my work and my goal is not so much to enlist believers in one particular point of view, but to inform everyone on what has happened in the past, what the consequences were, and why we should be involved.

In a way, I feel that the NPS is trying to put nature in a box labeled "1492", this being the year Christopher Columbus came to North America. In 1916, there wasn't the awareness yet that things change naturally. I'm just curious, if the present warming were to be found to be occurring from totally natural causes, what would the response of the Park Service be?? I'll bet it would also try to stop the change, even though this is the path nature wants to take.

I offer these comments only as a way to enliven and better approach the topic. I remain a strong supporter of the NPS and its mission. We should be discussing the very real impact we are having as a species on our planet, including the death of the Joshua Trees. However, I find that many of the original assumptions included in the 1916 Organic Act, are increasingly "dated" or even untenable as we learn more about the ebb and flow of nature on this marvelous planet. Perhaps the NPS interpretive staff would better serve the debate by letting go of its paternalistic tone of "the sky is falling" and adopt a more scientific tone that informs and teaches the public about what has happened in the past, what the consequences to life were, and how our Earth behaves through time. Believe me, informed people are more than capable of making the right decisions about these things.

Wayne, February 11, 2008


  1. We all need to be skeptics. The media distorts and makes the masses paranoid about SARS, terrorism, killer bees, global warming and such.

    Paranoia isn't helpful, but we need concern, since modern society has never experienced the type of climate disturbance that has been exhibited within the last 15 years. It's having massive social political consequences along with other anthropogenic causes altering the biosphere.

    Air pollution is really bad! Besides probable human caused climate change, it's changing our atmospheric, soil and water chemistry worldwide. The list of known consequences is long. Knowing how complex the ecological checks and balances are, much of the effects of global pollution are unknown.

    NPS, and all of world needs to be ready for projected changes. In spite of our mission statements, land agencies are talking about "adaptive management". Understandably agencies are confused, and would rather run the status quot...

    The current evidence and climate models are compelling enough to concern all about sustainability. It's time for regulation. Moreover, it's time for the citizens of the world to support technologies that reduce our impacts!

  2. Hi. Interesting blog you have here. I found you doing a google search about Joshua Trees, hoping to learn a bit about their distribution as far as geology and geography goes, only to find your discussion about them dying back... do you have some articles on this phenomena, or links I can read? You have my interest piqued.

    I too have a nature blog, and once worked for the NPS. Nowadays I try to share my love of nature through my own blog


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