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Aug

19

The Ice Gives Up Its Secrets

Climate change is revealing new insights into how ancient humans lived. Now if we can only learn from them.

Photo courtesy of INSTAAR/Matt Stirn Photography.

by Cassidy Randall

On the border of Montana and Wyoming, in a mountain range that can only be accessed once the far-flung highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City opens in midsummer, the Beartooth Plateau rises more than 10,000 feet above sea level. As part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it’s a place with the power to capture imaginations. It’s also rife with beautiful adventures, like hiking the Beaten Path through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, fishing the East Rosebud, Montana’s newest Wild & Scenic River, or shredding corn snow at the country’s lone summer-only ski resort.

It’s here too that, off the trails, a team of scientists are uncovering some of the greatest archeological finds of our time. The high reaches of this plateau are home to ice patches, some up to 10,000 years old. As climate change causes these ancient features to melt, the ice is releasing stunningly well-preserved artifacts. As it does so, it reveals that what is now a little-known and unpeopled wilderness, was a rich landscape of human culture throughout the last ten millennia.

“The fact that this all occurred in places that we tend to characterize with well-meaning Wilderness Act concepts like ‘remote’ and ‘untrammeled by man,’ actually perpetuates a falsehood regarding how such ecosystems evolved,” says Craig Lee, lead archeologist on the Beartooth ice patch project. “It was all shaped in a system that people were part of.” Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe with a Master’s in Native American studies and the liaison between scientists and Montana tribes on the ice patch project is even more direct: “All this research indicates that the people who made these artifacts never left.” 

Ice patch archeology, which pairs the climate and ecological record from ice with the archaeological history, is a relatively new science—the patches weren’t melting much a few decades ago, but today, that ice is melting so fast it’s become a race to recover the pieces. While many existing archeological artifacts are comprised of inorganic material like chipstone arrowheads, ancient ice preserves organic materials that degrade within a few weeks of exposure to the elements—like the wooden atlatl dart that the team dated back 10,300 years, making it the oldest known artifact from an ice patch in the world. The short window for retrieval is further truncated by the volatile weather of the Beartooth alpine, which is only accessible once the snow fully melts around August, and often sees late summer storms. 

As this period of warming causes glaciers around the world to recede, they’re revealing such archeological phenomena as the mummified “ice men” like Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi in the Yukon and Otzi in the Alps, or Juanita, the Ice Maiden, in the Peruvian Andes. Another plus to ice patch archaeology is that organic material is datable through radiocarbon techniques, allowing scientists to narrow down temporal use of artifacts to a quarter century, and, in turn, deduce how human behavior changed with a changing climate.

The ice patch research is more than a window into the ancient past, it also brings hope for the future. Doyle is designing public school curriculum around it and plans to bring native youth to the sites. “We want them to be the future researchers,” says Doyle. “It hasn’t been that way for native kids.”

There are also universal lessons: “We can heal some of the wounds that we’ve caused through our misunderstanding of how we impact the earth and the climate,” says Doyle. “Ultimately this will lead us to a greater understanding of how we fit into the greater scheme of things.”

 

Deep Snow and Fire

The West revelled in record snowpack this year, but what does that mean for summer fires?

by Matt McDonald

The 416 Fire courtesy of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

The Hermosa Creek Trail got scorched in June of 2018. Known as one of Colorado’s bucket-list mountain bike rides, the singletrack descends through old-growth ponderosas and lupine from Purgatory Resort to the village of Hermosa, 10 miles north of Durango. A lousy snow year had morphed into a crackling dry May, and the ensuing 416 fire lit up more than 50,000 acres, earning its ranking as the sixth-largest wildfire in Colorado history. 

Wildfires are a natural part of western ecosystems. It’s only recently though that the predictions have been borne out and—after a century of fire suppression and the ensuing decades of climate change—we’re witnessing fires growing in intensity and duration in real time. Colorado’s fire window is 78 days longer than it was 40 years ago. 

Numbers throughout the west are similar. Coming as they do with evacuation notices, trail closures, dangerous smoke, and loss of life, our new extended fire seasons are something for mountain folk and visitors to commiserate over. But, especially when they follow a lame ski season like they did in 2018 in Colorado, fires can crush the psyches of those that live, play, and work in the mountains. It also makes you wonder: Do banger winters mean we’re in for shorter fire seasons? Is a monster snowpack the gift that keeps on giving? 

The short answer is yes and no. Here’s the obvious part: Weak snowpacks melt faster, giving the forest more time to dry out and burn. Deep snowpacks keep things wet longer, shortening the window for potential fires. Like a reservoir, snowmelt is supposed to provide water for the whole ecosystem as summer heat hits. When it doesn’t, streamflow and soil moisture drop, vegetation turns to kindling, blazes burn hotter, and in a vicious cycle, weakened by drought, some usually fire-resistant trees, like ponderosa pines, can’t protect themselves against more intense fires. Snowpack, says Colorado Climate Center Assistant State Climatologist Becky Bolinger, “is one of the best long-term indicators for fire. In the mountains, snowpack and drought go hand-in-hand.”

Let’s take Colorado as an example, but the dynamics are true for much of the West. When the 416 fire sparked in early June of 2016, statewide snowpacks averaged just a quarter of normal, and of Colorado’s 64 counties, 53 were already experiencing drought, with the most severe drying occurring in the San Juans by Hermosa Creek. 

This year, the snow gods compensated—and then some. As of mid-June, the snowpack in Colorado was beating its average by more than 700 percent—upwards of 20 times the norm in the San Juans. The state was drought free, as was much of the West where decent snow had fallen from New Mexico to Montana, and west to the coastal ranges. Out of 413 counties in the 11 western states, only 86 (21 percent) were drier than average as spring ended. A year ago, that number was 65 percent. 

So book those August camping trips without fear of wildfires and smoke, right? Not so fast. While fat snowpacks can delay fire seasons, they aren’t a panacea. In fact, they can sometimes increase the likelihood of fire. Eventually snow melts. As it does it facilitates vegetation growth. Once that happens, other factors like the presence or absence of midsummer rain, wind, and temperatures matter more than last winter’s powder. Even great snow years have transitioned to nasty fire seasons when hot, dry Julys took over. “More moisture means more vegetation,” Bolinger says. “And that means more fuel for when things dry out.”

Still though, as summer 2019 dawned, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control forecast an average start to fire season at lower elevations and below average fire risk up high. Wildland Section Chief Vaughan Jones says in the short term, the good snow year makes him optimistic. “It’s green right now,” he says. “But going into August and September, you look at all the factors. We could have a fire in any month,” he says. “We’re starting to call it a fire year instead of a fire season.” 

Down at Hermosa Creek, lush greenery and wildflowers pop against blackened tree stands. Volunteer groups have cleared 50 downed trees and landslide debris from the trail, which the Forest Service reopened in May. As locals hop back on their bikes, the new landscape—and a couple burned bridges—show them the effects of the human screwups exacerbating fire. Like bad snow years, there will be more bad fire years. Luckily, both end. Hermosa Creek is still beautiful, says Mary Monroe Brown of the Durango-based trail management group Trails 2000. “It’s just a different kind of beauty.”

 

Ray Trejo is a third generation New Mexican, and the former assistant superintendent of the town of Deming’s public schools. In normal times, Trejo works as the Southern New Mexico Outreach Coordinator for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation—which involves getting kids into nature via horseback, hiking, fishing, and hunting. These, however, aren’t normal times on our southern border. Trejo is currently helping his community address the refugee crisis leaving towns like Deming overwhelmed by asylum seekers in need of help. But thanks to Trejo and his neighbors, Deming is not overwhelmed.

We had some intel that something like this could happen, so we were preparing a little bit. There was a church on standby. Next thing we knew, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) was dropping refugees in town at the local McDonalds—on Mother’s Day. You can imagine what happens when 70 refugees are dropped off in one spot in a small community. We’re 30 miles from the border. They just kept coming. It’s hard to have words for it. It was surreal. These masses of people.

Most of what we’re seeing today are refugees that are coming through a legal point of entry at Juarez. CBP doesn’t have the personnel to do all the processing there, so they’re bringing them to the Deming station and processing them. Apparently they were told by top officials that ‘once they’re released, they’re released,’ so they take them to town and release them. CBP took no authority to make sure that they have housing, food, or clothing. 

Once Border Patrol releases them the clock starts. They have 30 days to appear in court. The refugees that I’ve spoken with are very conscientious about that. They don’t want to miss that court date.

I would say we’ve had close to 8,000 people since Mother’s Day. I’m quickly learning that there’s a lot to caring for people when they’re displaced. Providing shelter, healthcare, food, clothing, and capturing data. On average, we were looking at 250 refugees a day that were coming in, and going out with 700 housed at a time. 

There are only 14,000 residents in Luna County. 

Churches, the city, and the county stepped up. We have an emergency management plan for the county. It’s meant for natural disasters. That’s what we used to prepare for this. We tapped into those shelters. 

The reports that these people are carrying diseases are untrue. A few had flu-like symptoms, but most of them were healthy. I saw more unhealthy people in our public schools than I saw in the shelters. They aren’t eating as much as they should, but in Deming they’ve been treated with respect and dignity like they’ve never experienced anywhere else. They tell us this.

We’re establishing a model shelter. That’s my goal. When I was a school principal I wanted a model school. It was a reflection of me and our community. It’s not a whole lot different. 

We have a data system in place now so we can process faster. It allows us to get refugees out to sponsors and family members more quickly. We’ve brought it down from five days to two days, or even sometimes one day.

Everyone we’ve seen has a sponsor. That whole notion that the cities are paying for their travel is nonsense. Their sponsors pay for their travel. We’re taking down their information. When we complete that, our system sends a text to their sponsor letting them know that they are safe in Deming. Sponsors are going through the airlines and buslines and buying the fares. We plug those confirmation numbers into our system to know where they’re going and who they’re meeting. 

How can anyone say that they’re illegal? They aren’t illegal unless they miss their court date. Federal agents gave them their papers. It takes two seconds to explain to a doubter that they’re legal asylum seekers in family units. 

The people that are open to their own learning listen to the explanation. The others, you could hit them with a hammer continuously and they still would not admit that. 

To be honest with you, I don’t keep up with what’s going on in Central America. All I know are the stories I hear here. There was one young man who was getting threatened every day by the cartel. Do what they tell him or else they’ll kill him. These are the stories I’m hearing every day. How does that not constitute an asylum claim?

What I have seen drives me to tears. A mother came to the El Paso border crossing with her 15 and 18 year old daughters, but because the 18 year old daughter is considered an adult she’s not seen as part of that family unit by the government. She was separated from the mother and her sister. Nobody knows where the hell she went.

The same thing happened with a grandmother with her six year old grandson. At the border they took the boy away from her. The families don’t know where they end up. Border Patrol doesn’t tell them. She doesn’t know where her grandson is. Nobody can help them. 

I grew up in Deming, raised a family here. My grandparents were from Mexico. They migrated north. Just working people; blue collar working people. I was the first in my family to go to university. That’s the story of our country right? Who are we to judge? These people are here to make a life for themselves and their families. What the hell is wrong with that? 

We’re better than this. This is America. My grandfather fought with the Marines on Guadalcanal. I would not expect this behavior from my own people. Not when we’re separating kiddos. 

I love the work. I honestly love the work. They’re humble people; work oriented. They clean, they cook, they serve, whatever we ask they’re on it. 

As a former schoolteacher and administrator I worry for the children. What happens to them in September when school starts? Who is going to take them to that front door? Who will sign them up for Head Start? Will they be afraid and stay in their homes? 

In Deming, the refugee crisis has brought our community closer together. In some ways this is exactly what needed to happen. It’s an opportunity for us to reevaluate. We’re tired of the status quo. People have come out of the woodwork to help. We have many people doing good work that I never would have met otherwise. 

 

 

 

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