OnSafari: Rain

OnSafari: Rain

The rains start north to south, and we traveled north to south and always seemed to be just a day or two ahead of the rains. It was so dry and dusty in Tarangire when we got there Monday that the interior of my room was 105F and my hands were dry after washing my face in the sink before I could get to the towel rack.

We followed the Tarangire sand river and found lots of elephant but little else. At least the tse-tse were down in such conditions. Tuesday morning our dawn drive headed to the Silale Swamp and I swear that every animal in Tarangire was there.
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Climate Conflict

Climate Conflict

The worst locust outbreak ever seen in Africa, the most insidious virus ever known to man, the most flooding and worst earthquakes in history… then, bloodshed.

All Africa journalist Jerry Chifamba has just completed a series of in-depth reports on how accelerating conflict in Africa is directly linked to climate change. No surprise, or is it just that we don’t want to be surprised, anymore.

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People or Wildlife?

People or Wildlife?

angry villager fight eleIt’s immoral to support saving wildlife at the expense of saving people. It’s that simple and today in Kenya I realized first-hand this travesty.

It begins with climate change. Surely you notice weather is changing where you live, and I’ve often explained that the developed world is more capable of adjusting to this than the developing world.  But when you feel compelled to assist efforts to mitigate climate change in the developing world, shouldn’t you consider the people who live there rather than just the wildlife?

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Rainy Days Are Here Again!

Rainy Days Are Here Again!

tsavoeasteleEl-Nino’s coming! This means I’m carefully reviewing all the safari itineraries for next year.

We’ve known that El-Nino was on its way, but the extent of it is only now being understood better. For safari guides like me, it’s going to be a challenge.

El-Nino effects different places differently. In my home in the Midwest of the U.S., temperatures will be mild and there will be lots less snow than normal.
On the California coasts and the south of the country, heavy rains … some which have already begun.

And that’s the prediction for East Africa where most of my safaris occur. The chart to the right was taken yesterday from the Climate Prediction Center of NOAA.

It shows the “precipitation anomaly” for three-month periods, starting from the top: Sep-Nov; Dec-Feb; and Feb-Apr. The bluer the shading, the greater the added precipitation expected.

Heavy rain is generally good for the animals. It just causes us guides some transport difficulties.

I realize, now, for example, that my penchant for traveling into the backside of Lake Manyara National Park is likely going to be impossible, as there are two river washes likely to be too high.

It means that multiple vehicle safaris only will be allowed into off-road areas of the NCAA, where black cotton soil, some quicksand and marsh turf, could become saturated. We space our vehicles out a bit further from one another so that multiple vehicles don’t get stuck at the same time in the same place.

On the other hand, there should be some impressively good news for the Kenyan portion of the my safaris, including Samburu, the Mara and Tsavo East.

These normally dry areas will likely get some water. In fact as shown by the picture above presumably taken in the last week, the rains have already greened up Tsavo East, a good month or two before normal.

That’s good. It will increase the survivability of animal births, pretty up the veld and reduce the horrible dust we normally have to endure in these areas.

So don’t change your plans! Just make sure that your safari operator is prepared! In fact, it’s usually been in years of unusually high rains that I’ve had the best experiences with the Great Migration!

Finding 2 Million

Finding 2 Million

GolApr8The great wildebeest migration is the greatest wildlife spectacle left on earth and the main reason that visitors come to East Africa. Things are changing.

“The wild beest migration is unexpectedly … back around Central Serengeti,” Tanzania Adventure Safaris newsletter reported a few days ago.

“As there have been good rains this year… the herds [are] moving all the way down to the short grass plains … when they would not be expected.”

The migration occurs in the Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem, roughly a 200-mile vertical oval east of Lake Victoria. About 3/4 of this area is in Tanzania, and the remainder in Kenya as the Mara.

There are now numerous wildebeest migration watcher sites, such as “Herdtracker,” all of which I’ve found biased, incomplete or irregular at some point when I checked. Geared mostly to the particular camps or companies with which the site is associated, a snippet of where the migration is, is generally truthfully reported, but the overall picture is never explained.

With two million animals involved, there really isn’t a focal point for the migration. Moreover, at various times during the annual year’s migration, the great herds may be cleaved into halves or quarters traveling sometimes in nearly opposite directions.

Predicting where and when a safari can intersect the great migration was never an exact science but always a pretty good bet. The two million migrating herbivores involved eat virtually nothing but grass and grass grows when it rains and rain cycles were quite predictable.

In the north, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, it rains almost every day of the year except in October and the beginning of November. The grass, though, in the higher elevations of the Mara isn’t quite as nutritious as the grass in the far south of the Serengeti. So even though grass is growing almost all the time in the Mara, if there is better grass to the south, that’s where the herds will go.

The circle of rain is like a big hula hoop with Lake Victoria as its center. The great herds move with the edge of that circle as it contracts into Lake Victoria until finally they get diverted to the last place in the area where it’s raining, the north of the ecosystem, Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

Sounds simple, eh? All you have to do is predict when the rains will stop. The herds then move north, sometimes frantically depending upon how quickly the rain turns off down south.

So a really safe bet was to visit Tanzania’s Serengeti really any time in the first half of the year (although February and March were always a sure bet), and Kenya’s Maasai Mara in July – October (although August and September were considered the best).

Didn’t happen this year.

This October much of the central and southern Serengeti received up to four inches of rain. Normally there would be no rain at all.

Two things are happening:
First, rains are much heavier than normal during the historically normal rainy season. You can see that from the NOA chart to the right. Green is a 100% increase over normal, so twice as much as usual.

Second, the rainy season itself is growing. You can see that from the second NOA chart just below the first. Green is a 50% increase over normal. Blue, which shows through much of the equatorial region, is a 100% increase.

More rain and a longer season is going to keep the wildebeest for a longer time in Tanzania’s Serengeti and delay their arrival and hasten their departure from Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

Is this a trend, or just something unusual for these past few years?

According to the Stockholm Environment Institute (weADAPT), one of the few professional meteorological organizations to study East African climate:

“…there has been an increase in the number of reported hydrometeorological disasters in the region, from an average of less than 3 events per year in the 1980s to … 10 events per year from 2000 to 2006, with a particular increase in floods.”

weADAPT and most organizations are concerned mostly by how this effects people, and the news in that regards isn’t good. Malaria, for one thing, will increase with increased temperatures and precipitation.

But the wildebeest and zebra love it. Their numbers are increasing, more and more grass is growing, and with time they’ll be spending more and more of their time in Tanzania rather than Kenya.

But at the same time as the rains increase there will be less of a need “to herd.” The animals may just start wandering, because wherever they wander, there will be food to eat.

The hard-wired aspect of wildebeest migrating — which we normally see as files of running animals — isn’t going to change or adapt as fast as global warming. We’ll always see them running, and it’s a magnificent sight!

But as it rains more and more, they might not have to.

Rain Rain Won’t Go Away

Rain Rain Won’t Go Away

rainbow.serengeti.peronThe rains have come back to the Serengeti; the wildebeest are moving south; all is well.

Last month the travel media went ballistic worrying that the wildebeest migration had been historically altered from eons of pattern and was going to spend the season in Kenya, when they should be in Tanzania.

The rains were late … well, maybe 3-4 weeks late. And there were plenty of YouTube videos and blogs documenting large groups of wildebeest moving north over the Sand, Mara and Balaganjwe rivers, when they should have been moving south.

Well, they’re back on track now.

“Wildebeest on a southerly course,” writes the very respected tour company, Nomads, yesterday. Their blog continued:

“There has been rain in the crater area towards Endulen, Central Serengeti, some in Ndutu and even in Loliondo so we are hoping for the plains to be green soon and the movement to proceed southwards, and by the time Christmas comes they should hopefully all be where they should be.”

And the weather report for the Serengeti is all but boringly normal.

This is tedious.

Whether it is the wildebeest migration, the coming apocalypse or the conversion of Obama as a mullah in Iran, our current world of instant communication takes the least bit of misinformation and spreads it around the world as the gospel truth.

A month ago, travel professionals were lamenting the end of the Serengeti migration. Yes, the rains may have been late, if 3 or 4 weeks is late in today’s crazy climate change world, and what do you expect a half million animals that have to eat grass to do?

They went where it was raining, and that was – for a short period of time – in an opposite direction from the norm.

How has your weather been recently?

But it’s been a very short time that the weather was out of sync in the Serengeti, a very short turnabout, and they’re back on track. And even if it had been longer, it would hardly have been the “end of the migration.”

We’re all adjusting at home and abroad to changing weather. And so are the wildebeest. And for us travel professionals it means certain caution about promising anything that has to do with weather.

But don’t worry about the wildebeest. They’re extremely adaptable.

Which is a lot more than I can say for most travel professionals.

Scant Rains is No Drought

Scant Rains is No Drought

migration.cartoonReports of a massive drought in the game rich areas of northern Tanzania may be exaggerated, although the wildebeest migration is off at least a month. That doesn’t mean several months down the line everything won’t be in sync.

The media, today, operates on the assumption that “if it bleeds, it reads.” It’s no less true of Obamacare than of the Serengeti migration.

In the case of the Serengeti migration, no less reputable media than the BBC report that the unusual weather-related movement of the great wildebeest migration has “never been seen before.”

Hmm. “Before” is a relative term. The BBC was quoting an official overseeing Kenya’s Maasai Mara ecosystem and perhaps he’s young, perhaps he’s inexperienced, or perhaps he’s more interested in promoting tourism than the truth. I’ve seen “it” before.

“It” is when the great wildebeest migration veers from its normal pattern. In this case it’s at least a month off: Right about now the migration should be moving slowly but certainly south through Tanzania’s northern Serengeti. It isn’t. The bulk of the wildebeest are lingering in Kenya’s far north Maasai Mara.

Several times in my career I’ve seen this, as well as a real reversal which this isn’t … yet. It’s proof that the migration is not a neurological hard-wiring, but a response to environmental conditions.

Click here for a fuller understanding of a normal migration.

The reason the migration is lingering in the north is because normal October and November rainfall was missed. NOAA’s satellites show that parts of the northern Serengeti received less than a tenth the normal rainfall for October and November.

Normally, heavy rains occur in November and the first part of December. They then reduce substantially, although the rains do continue right through June. Heavy “normal November” rains don’t normally start up again until March.

This drives the migration, as the great herds go where the grasses are growing.

NOAA’s mid-term (March through May) forecast is for normal or better than average rainfall.

That means all safaris planned for March on — if NOAA is correct as I expect it is — will not notice anything unusual.

But safaris, for example, expecting to see the migration in the Serengeti in November won’t. And safaris planned for December-February will experience difficulties finding the migration as it likely fragments more than normal, depending upon how soon we return to normal precipitation.

(For local farmers, by the way, it could be worse: wildebeest and zebra will now seep out of the national park onto ranches and compete with cows for pasture.)

Remember, too, that most of the animals on the veld don’t migrate. Indeed, they all suffer with scant rainfall, although the predators often prosper at these times. But unless an entire year of abnormal precipitation occurs, most animal life cycles aren’t effected enough that a casual visitor would notice anything significant.

There is even an indication that right now things are getting better. Surveying a number of traveler blogs being posted right now, I find pictures with green grass and accounts of some rain, already.

It’s infuriating when media like UPI misstate the situation, along with much of its historical evidence. Respectable journals like the South African Business Daily were even more off-the-mark.

“If it bleeds, it reads.”

It’s always dangerous to analyze anything that’s dependent on the weather, and I always caution my clients to never presume they’re going to see the migration, ever. But the facts right now do not suggest that migration patterns in just a few months will be anything but normal.

We will certainly lose a fraction of the animal, especially the herbivore population. But that’s the wild.

And it’s hardly the end of the game.

Equatorial Success

Equatorial Success

nestingtropicbirdThe short-term, visible effects of climate change on equatorial Africa are destructive to human populations but seem to be less damaging to overall species survival than elsewhere in the world.

Not sure that’s good news, but recent reports from such places as the Seychelles on current equatorial seabird populations suggests they are doing much better than seabirds in northern and southern climes.

Seabirds provide good evidence for relatively short-term effects of climate change. This is because they are most closely associated to the most effected natural phenomenon on earth, the sea temperature.

Worldwide as we would expect, therefore, seabird populations are in a steep decline. In fact, of 346 seabird families almost a third (98) are “globally threatened,” an IUCN term suggesting that intervention will be needed soon to stop extinction.

The most critical of these declines is in the northern hemisphere. Puffin populations, for example, in Maine and tern populations in northern Britain are in currently very critical conditions.

The opposite of these declines — although it’s hardly robust growth — are the seabirds found in the equatorial regions, and in Africa the Seychelles provides an excellent place to study them.

This August count of the white-tailed tropicbird and other seabirds that nest in the Seychelles was encouraging, although the study has yet to be published.

The group performing the study did release an interesting single statistic, though, that 57% of the nesting population survives. This is the most critical period in the life cycle of any bird, because once fledged survivability increases dramatically.

It’s also particularly interesting for the tropicbird, which like many seabirds doesn’t actually build a nest. With feet incapable of balancing the bird (they are designed for swimming and flying), the bird must nest on the ground.

Seabirds choose island nesting sites that are as safe from predation as possible. In Hawaii, for example, the white-tailed tropicbird nests on high cliffs. In the Seychelles, where the islands are mostly predator-free, it nests right on the ground.

This dynamic that’s possibly being clarified by how seabirds are adjusting to rapid climate change, gives us a good insight into the workings of natural selection.

Given enough time, environmental changes allow species to evolve and reposition themselves, and as a general theory, increase. As slow change allows for niche exploration, more specialized species arise.

But when change happens as unnaturally fast as it’s occurring, today, the normal mechanics of natural selection are compromised. Water temperatures are just increasing too fast for the northern hemisphere puffin to adapt or be replaced by other species. So instead, it just dies out with nothing replacing it.

Whereas in the equatorial belt the decline is not as dramatic. Basically, warmer is better than colder for our petri dish of life on earth. But at the fringes of ecological system, the great norths and the great souths where our life forms have specially adapted to colder temperatures, a rapid warmer is dangerous.

In the equatorial regions, it’s almost ho-hum.

At least until some threshold of warmth is reached, of course. But thanks to the Seychelles field workers, we know it isn’t happening, yet.

The War by Climate

The War by Climate

climatecalamityThe season is changing all around the world. Unusually heavy rains are pounding sub-Saharan Africa. It snowed early at my home near the Mississippi River. Typhoon Haiyan may be the world’s biggest storm. Is Africa, or any of the developing world, ready for climate change?

NOAA estimates Hurricane Sandy’s final economic destruction approached $65 billion. Originally, Bloomberg estimated it at $20 billion.

Today Bloomberg estimates that Typhoon Haiyan will destroy 5% of the Philippine annual economy, which if adjusted to America’s economy would represent more than a half trillion dollars. If Bloomberg’s current estimate is as low as it was for Sandy, the representative destruction to America by a similar situation would approach a trillion dollars.

It’s a simplistic comparison, I know. Half of Sandy’s destruction was insured; less than 10% of Haiyan’s destruction is insured. Virtually none of sub-Saharan African destruction outside South Africa is insured.

And climate destruction in the developing world is far more devastating because there is so little preparatory relief, so much difficulty in rebuilding much less just clearing the debris.

November is when the monsoon changes in sub-Saharan Africa. The change ends a long dry season, not so completely different from spring in the northern hemisphere ending the relatively dry winter.

Every year we waited with utmost impatience for the rains in November. We were ready to plant our gardens, the endless heat which grew steadily was tedious, and I remember sitting on a small boulder behind my house looking up hopefully at the sky.

The first rain was usually a good, hard rain. There was immediate change. Temperatures dropped, as did tempers. The dust was cleared from the air. We had to close the doors to keep the snakes out, and literally overnight new grass grew.

But it’s much different, today. The “good hard rain” is now a torrent.

Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia reported yesterday that Zambia’s Luangwa National park “received an inch in just over an hour – a lot of water created a lot of mud!”

In Rwanda, unnaturally high winds combined with excessive rain Friday destroyed 120 homes.

An area that normally gets very little rain all year long in northern Kenya was so flooded over the weekend, relief efforts are stalled.

And in another desert area of Somali, 100 were killed by rain and wind over the weekend by a freak cyclone that made it up the Red Sea.

Any one of these stories would be unnaturally big news ten years ago. Now, it’s just one of dozens if not hundreds of news reports of climate calamity. Nothing is “freak” anymore.

It snowed at my home, yesterday. This is two weeks earlier than normal. No big deal, right? The temperature was 13F when I walked the dog at dawn. The normal low is 31F. Nothing to worry about, right?

Maybe not in northeast Illinois. Maybe not even in New York City right now with its elaborate weather disaster plans and remarkable disaster insurance.

Not quite the same for the guy who would like to get his millet planted in Somalia, or the young businesswoman in Tacloban. Or for the child trying to go to school in Mfuwe.

There are other ways to dominate your adversaries than by war.

It’s NOT Hot in Africa!

It’s NOT Hot in Africa!

in_hot_africa_800Ok, it’s hot. But it’s NOT “Africa Hot.” That phrase is racing around twitter as a way to describe unusual heat in the U.S., and … it’s blazing wrong!!

Now, historically, and probably for the whole futures any of us will ever have, most of the United States is hotter than most of the Africa in which I guide and spend nearly half my life.
And for that life of me I’ve spent my career trying to understand why people think otherwise.

Was it the Tarzan movies? Johnny Weissmüller’s hair was always perfectly slicked down, so I suppose you might think that was because of sweat.

Was it because of movies like Africa Queen? Or histories of the early explorers who were always drawn sweating off their clothes?

Or… was it because we associated Africa with slavery, and we associate slaves with the South, and we associated the South with heat?

To be utterly and completely fair, West Africa is a pretty hot place, and North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt) can be extremely hot. If I compiled those statistics I’m guessing it would be a near draw or slight advantage for those parts of Africa as hotter than the U.S.

But those are not the places that most American visit, today, or for that matter have visited in the past.

Sub-Saharan Africa has always been the American destination on the continent (with the notable exception of Egypt, whose tourist market share has fluctuated with great volatility over the years).

Look at my chart. Of the ten most visited places in the U.S. and the ten most visited places in sub-Saharan Africa, 5 of the top 6 hottest destinations are in America!

In fact, by a lot! The most popular safari destination that I guide today is northern Tanzania. That averages ten degrees cooler than where I grew up in Chicago.

By now I hope you’ve realized that I might be ever so slightly manipulating the statistics, so I’ll come completely clean, because I’ll still prevail:

America’s temperature spread, from hottest to lowest in the year, is much greater than for most any other part of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa.

A chart showing my 20 destinations by their averages results in 3 of the top 5 hottest all coming from Africa (Zanzibar, Botswana & Central Tanzania) with only 2 from America (Orlando and Las Vegas).

But that’s not the point, either. The real study would take these twenty places during the times that they were most visited, and remarkably in almost all cases, that’s the end of the year, the holiday periods in December.

Doing that, Africa wins by a long shot, because it’s the coldest time in America and it tends to be the warmest time in Africa. So that’s probably why the “myth” of “hot Africa” exists. It’s when most Americans have visited Africa, during its hottest time.

But I’m not done. Although the end of December is the highest tourist season for most Americans visiting Africa, it shouldn’t be. It’s really not the best time to go, and that’s not because it’s the hottest time. It’s just not a good season for anything, not animal viewing or city touring, or even for experiencing Victoria Falls.

So if we did a chart of when it’s the best time to visit each of those twenty places, the hottest would definitely be almost exclusively all in America.

This is because America’s best city touring is usually during our summer for the eastern and northern cities, and during our winter for the southern cities.

And because for Africa the best time tends to be their coolest times.

That comparison would definitely show that America is hotter than Africa!

So don’t tweet today that it is “Africa Hot!” It isn’t. It’s “America Hot!”

Alaska to Africa: It’s Hot

Alaska to Africa: It’s Hot

    Alaska60NI’m on my way to Africa, to 0 degrees latitude. Right now in Arusha it’s 15C (59F). When Bill Zanetti went swimming yesterday in Prince William Sound, at 60N, the water temperature of the ocean was 68F! (20C)

    I flew over the north pole from Anchorage nonstop to Frankfurt, and fortunately for much of the journey there were no clouds. Only at our topmost point on earth was the ice uniform. Everywhere else it was cracked, with huge rivers and passages, and this is only the beginning of summer.

    We saw yellow-bellied flycatchers in Fairbanks; they belong much further south. We saw more humpback whales than most week cruises in Prince William Sound see in July when it’s more normal for them to congregate here.

    We visited the northern-most oyster hatchery on earth, a single man’s operation in the Sound. Oyster Dave normally gets his oyster “seeds” (young oysters) from places like Vancouver, but he now can see the day when oysters will actually breed this far north. All it takes, he said, was a few weeks of 70F water.

    Alaskan waters hit that high temperature once before, in 2007. Unprepared for such warmth, oyster farms in Alaska were hit by the deadly Vibrio virus. Two years later, a “red tide” also attributed to warming temperatures closed down the Alaskan oyster industry.

    “This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin of the Alaska Division of Public Health who published the Vibrio study.

    Our two-week absolutely fabulous journey through Alaska was characterized by so many wonderful high points it’s hard to summarize, and then I realized that all these “high points” were attributed to unusually beautiful (read: warm and dry) weather.

    Alaska at its best is cool and damp; at its normal wet and cold. Of course there are periods of glorious days of warmth and sunshine, but that’s not normal. At least not until now.

    Cold and wet in Africa but warm and dry in Alaska. I can hear Senator Inofe shouting how global warming is a “hoax!” But global warming doesn’t mean that every single unusual event is warmer. It means overall it’s warmer, and for sure if you average out Africa temperatures with Alaska, you’ve got global warming.

    But more importantly global warming, or for that matter global cooling, coming as ridiculously fast as it is will be noticed primarily in its extremes. Extremes in everything, including coldness. In sum we’re getting warmer, but moving there so fast creates rebounds from weather events that are just as dangerous as the long-term trend.

    And hardly a scientific fact, I was really chilled looking at the North Pole. From my admittedly infinitesimal experience over near 90 degrees latitude, there is no big ice cap, anymore.

    It was great for us, day by day. Mt. McKinley was out almost constantly, and our flightseeing around the mountain was unobscured by a single whiff of cloud.

    Hiking in Denali was a cinch. You didn’t even need the rubber boots that every lodge and camp in the area insists you bring, because the tundra while soft wasn’t damp.

    The bouquet of wildflowers on our hikes near the Eaglek Inlet was really profound: Wild rose, skort, wiggelwort, skunk cabbage, sundew, nagoonberry, dwarf fireweed, bog blue, rosemary avens, shooting stars, dozens of mosses, false heleebores, Labrador tea and blooming water lilies.

    This is a collection of fragile, extraordinarily beautiful flowers that appear quickly and over the course of the summer, collecting the fragmentary and unique moments of warmth and wet in this stressed ecosystem necessary for them to propagate.

    But they’re all here at once! What the hell does this mean?

    It’s a stretch on the pun, but it means it’s too warm; at least too warm for the way we used to understand Alaska and Africa.

    Birds and plants and fishes and whales will all adapt. Many will disappear and be replaced by others; Alaskan scientists are worried that dandelions will replace many of the beautiful little flowers named above. That doesn’t worry me; that’s nature, the beauty of natural selection.

    But while birds and animals and fishes and plants exchange components and reorder themselves for a new, warming world, in order to survive … what are we doing to survive?

    It’s only a hoax, says Senator Inofe. There’s no need to do anything.

Beauty in The Beast

Beauty in The Beast

I swore everyone on the trip not to divulge what happened, today, so I’ll tell you. But it’s such a perfect example of why you have to be so very careful when planning a trip based on the referrals and anecdotes of your friends.

It’s the same problem with the many poorer guide books: things change. Often and much. What your friend saw in Florence that one beautiful winter eve is unlikely to ever happen, again. That outstanding condo in Aspen might have had a tree fall on it last week.

Even “the best time to go” is a dicey question, especially before you’ve highly defined exactly what your goals for the vacation are.

So when Mt. McKinley shows itself, it’s a bonus. You can’t plan a trip to Denali based on the best time to see Mt. McKinley all clear, because that just happens so seldom you better not even make it a goal.

But after your other goals are collected and understood, you can let the trip be tweaked by when the best chances for clarity are, and that’s now. As the weather changes from winter to spring, before the summer storms; and as summer winds down into the very short fall.

So that’s what I do, and this year we lucked out. Statistically, we shouldn’t expect to luck out for another long while, but it could be that global warming is minimizing the importance of statistics for this event, anyway.

I arranged this whole day, and in fact tomorrow, to give us as wide an opportunity as possible of flightseeing up to the mountain. The idea was if today didn’t work, we’d move here to Talkeetna in the southeast from Kantishna in the southwest, and then give it another try.

So we were ready at 8 a.m. this morning, and by 830a we were in the air, three Cessna 206s on what is absolutely the most intense, incredible and beautiful flightseeing of McKinley I’ve ever experienced.

There was not a cloud in the sky, really. We could see from the Wrangell to the end of the Alaska Range, probably 350 miles (175 in each direction). What we thought were the beginnings of clouds on the top of South Peak were snow blizzards being whipped up by what our pilot estimated were 70-80 mph winds at the top near the surface.

But except for a few little bumps, our flight was silk smooth. This is the centennial for the first ascent of Mt. McKinley and there are about 600 climbers on the mountain right now. We flew over base camp and two of the other 16 camps climbers can use to get to the top.

But in our ecstasy was some real dread from the locals. It’s unusual to be this clear, very unusual, but it’s unheard of to be this hot.

This weekend temperatures are forecast to go above 80F. The mean for all of June is 66F. Our pilot said the ice-line on McKinley ten years ago was 7,000′ and today is 11,000′. The Parks Service radioed all the climbers on McKinley yesterday that they could subsequently only climb during the night-time hours (which is kind of funny, since there is no night, now) to avoid the predicted myriad of avalanches expected.

Global warming isn’t good news. One of its spinoffs may have contributed to our fantastic day, but I wager any of us would have given it up to assure at least another year of no Sandy Repeat.

Muskox in Retrospect

Muskox in Retrospect

The most important of many ecological stresses in Africa is human/animal conflict. In Alaska, it’s global warming. How scientists and citizens respond to these stresses reveals the vibrancy of our cultures.

Fairbanks is not exactly your most cosmopolitan town, and we all know that Alaska is truly the last frontier. Wide open spaces and the challenges of a frontier draw special classes of people.

They include military and commercial – particularly the commercial ones dedicated to the extraction of natural resources. But they are predominantly pioneers, which in my day when I thought I was one was called a hippy.

But shake off the labels and you get a collection of people in Alaska, now significantly more powerful and numerous than the original natives, who are immigrating away from development… by choice.

Development is considered by myself, and I think most of the world, and probably 99.9% of Africans, as not only good but imperative to earth’s survival. And I don’t mean splitting logs and plastering up your own log home.

I mean power lines, sewage systems, clean water treatment facilities, railways and airports to name a few of probably thousands of critical community responsibilities that the most basic government is entrusted with.

And yes, conserving the wilderness. At least until we’ve got something sustainable to replace it, which is right now beyond even reasonable scifi.

But I dare say most Alaskans don’t quite see it the way I do. And I understand why. In their own lifetimes, or at least those of their parents, the population of this 15th fastest growing state in the Union came out and staked a claim and not only survived, but maybe even became happy.

On their own, or at least at lot more on their own than my clients who live in the suburbs of New York.

So stipulated. You don’t need the EPA to be happy in Coldfoot.

But … unfortunately for the Alaskans, the New York suburbanites do need the EPA in Coldfoot in order to live happily in Ocean Beach, New Jersey. There is a connection between how well the wilderness is being cared for in Alaska, and to Hurricane Sandy.

And the Valdez oil spill absolutely sensitized a lot of residents of Valdez and Cordova and numerous other communities to the need for serious government regulation.

And today we went to the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska and learned how 4300 muskox in Alaska are important to the retirees in Miami Beach.

It’s complicated, but bioindicators are often ambiguous if not totally confusing. I’ve often written how bird populations are one of the best bioindicators, anywhere. Because they can fly away, or fly back.

But so are the rarer animals on the fringes of our planet’s life systems, like the muskox. When we arrived here as custodians of the earth, working our way every day to become its master, the earth was moving on pretty well. At the end of the Ice Age, ecological change was of course happening, like global warming.

But 25,000 years ago it was happening at normal rate, about 4 ten-thousandths of a degree centigrade per decade. Today? About .13, or roughly 150 times as fast.

And the muskox knew this almost before scientists did, because its population crashed in the 1970s. No one really knew why, then, and careful remedial efforts have allowed a sort of gerrymandering of habitat and a control on what had been natural hunting. So they’re back. Not like they were, but they’re back, with great thanks to LARS.

But more important to LARS scientists is the retroview that they should have seen the muskox decline as a scream for help from the wilderness. They didn’t. Nobody did, not at first.

But the rapid change in temperatures, the warming, reduced food sources – especially lichens, the only food during the arctic winter.

There’s a big difference between the impact of a muskox decline in the arctic and New Jersey beaches wiped out in a single night. But it’s all the same, really.

Thanks, LARS!

On our way to our welcome dinner at a famous Fairbanks bar outside of town we stopped to look at the remarkable Alaskan pipeline. Built in 1970 it is 800-miles of complicated technology that has successfully withstood the arctic climate and numerous earthquakes.

Weather Grounds Drones

Weather Grounds Drones

Predictions about African security linked to global warming have proved frighteningly correct. Does weather trump drones?

As the stubborn, not-too bright bully on the block, America has shifted to accepting global warming as human caused, but it took a few Katrinas and Sandys to tip the balance. And experts still spend inordinate amounts of time explaining the obvious to the recent convert:

“Global warming” or “climate change” or whatever you want to call it is manifest most dangerously in extremes, not just increasing temperatures. So terrible winters on top of terrible summers means we’ve screwed up nature. It’s our fault and we’ve altered nature.

Winter and summer are naturally the opponents in a ping pong game. If one hits harder, it sets up the rebound to be harder as well.

And while it’s been predicted for some time that the short-term global effects of climate change could actually benefit America, because America reigns as the world’s principal power, there’s no way we’ll avoid the much more terrible negative effects:

“The U.S…. may benefit from increased crop yields, [but] its military may be stretched dealing with global “humanitarian emergencies,” Scientific American reported five years ago.

The rest of the world has more or less recognized this for a long time, so there are plenty of studies to refer back to. As America’s conversion into reality became policy when the Obama administration came into power, America began to participate in the global studies.

Africa has the largest percentage of unstable societies in the world, and what early climate change studies show is that these misfortunes were mostly predictable, founded mostly if not exclusively on climate change.

Because Africa is the only continent to stretch so far into both hemispheres, it is unfortunately placed to feel the greatest effects of climate change.

Jihad, civil war, violence after contested elections – even the reemergence of debates about social issues like female circumcision – all seem to ebb and flow with the weather. They are all symptoms of climate change.

John Vidal writing last month in London’s Guardian cited a variety of studies showing that the Arab spring had less to do with human rights than food insecurity:

While the self immolation of the Tunisian street vendor “was in protest at heavy-handed treatment and harassment in the province where he lived… a host of new studies suggest that a major factor in the subsequent uprisings … was food insecurity.”

When the rains returned to drought-stricken Somalia, was it only coincidence that the Kenyan army occupied then pacified the country? Or more likely was the Kenyan army decision triggered by an easier time supplying its troops with food?

And now that drought has turned to floods, pacified Somalia is growing restive, again, and this instability is even spilling into neighboring Kenya.

Even in Namibia, among the least densely populated countries on earth, growing instability from climate change motivated the president to declare a state of emergency on Friday.

Record floods in 2011 have now been replaced by record droughts.

The frequency of climate disaster in Africa is increasing so fast that even statistics are lagging. PreventionWeb is a UN agency that simply documents human disasters. From 1980 – 2008, the ten greatest disasters in Africa were all due to drought.

We expect, now, that the top ten disasters when compiled for 2008-2013 will be from flooding.

It seems pretty simple. Forget about proselytizing or promoting democracy and free trade, cut carbon emissions.

On Safari: Fatal Blow to Manyara

On Safari: Fatal Blow to Manyara

Global warming is devastating earth, and it ruined a day on safari and possibly ruined one of Tanzania’s best game parks for a long, long time.

Worldwide weather is become more and more extreme. In East Africa we have more droughts that are drier and more floods that are heavier, and the frequency at which both occur is mind-boggling.

The developed world is of course no less susceptible, but we have more resources to deal with it. When Super Sandy crushed America, we were able ultimately to deal with it by rebuilding.

But the developed world just doesn’t have those resources.

Four days before we were to visit Lake Manyara National Park, unbelievable rain causing flash floods that no one could have anticipated swept off the Great Rift Valley over the park and poured into the entry gate.

A beautiful visitor’s center with its wonderful little museum, gift shop and toilets were submerged in mud and when the water receded, covered and surrounded by boulders that had fallen from the Rift.

Four days before we were trapped by the same heavy rains in Tarangire National Park, as the only bridge to the outside world had been submerged by a raging river.

I quickly chartered airplanes to fly us the short distance from Tarangire to our next destination, Gibb’s Farm, but my four vehicles and drivers had to wait by the river until the waters subsided.

We knew the waters had subsided somewhat when we were ready to visit Manyara, so we decided to head out to the park early in the morning. It was dry enough, although the scene was so sad.

All the public buildings were buried in rocks and mud. But the road into the park was now dry, and so I thought we’d be able to visit this gem. But the ranger said no. They were too concerned that another flash flood was in the brewing.

So instead we went into Ngorongoro, enjoying an unexpected second game drive in this wonderful park (see tomorrow’s blog for information about those game drives).

We couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay for this trauma than Gibb’s Farm. It’s one of my favorite places on all safaris, and I use it as a base for visiting both Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater.

So we were there for three days. And one of the most wonderful moments came not with anyone in my group, but with many of them watching a 7-year old guest, Eli, as he closely encountered bush babies.

Gibb’s puts out fruit every night at 7 p.m. to attract the local bushbabies (greater galago). They’re a wonderfully curious primate with a very loud voice!

But no one but Eli ever tried to pet them. And guess what? They seemed to like it!