How Hikers Can Combat Climate Change

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If we don’t act to protect our beloved wild spaces, they’ll be forever altered or lost entirely.

As hikers, we often encounter this maxim, closing out one climate change article after another. It leaves us feeling at once outraged and powerless. We want to help, but don’t know where to begin. "Increasing wildfires and extreme weather events can destroy trails or prevent one from even getting outside, but it can often feel like it's too big of a challenge to tackle on your own,” says Stacy Bare, Director of Sierra Club Outdoors.

We know climate change is real. But how can we best utilize our time and abilities to fight it? To find out, we scoured the web for resources. We talked to hikers and reached out to advocacy groups. But before jumping into solutions, let’s take a look at the bigger problem—because the first step in every fight is to be informed.

Glacier melt and loss of alpine habitat is happening at an alarming rate due to warming temperatures. Washington state’s Mount Rainier, the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, saw record-breaking glacier melting speed in the summer of 2015. When glaciers receded in early July to levels usually seen in late summer, the result was widened crevasses and debris slides earlier and more frequently in the season.

This drastic change in glacial terrain posed difficulties for mountaineers on popular routes on Mount Rainier. Climate change is not only eroding the majestic landscapes around us, it’s also changing how we adventure right now. We can’t help but ask ourselves: When will the iconic ice flows of Glacier National Park or Glacier Bay Basin become just a memory?

Meanwhile, NASA reports that average global temperature is up. Fifteen out of 16 of the warmest years ever recorded have taken place since 2001. Scientists know that snowmelt contributes 75 percent of stream and river water in the western United States. As temperatures rise, milder winters are likely, meaning more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow. With decreased snowmelt, we observe widespread droughts and an increase in wildfires. Massive wildfires throughout California and parts of Oregon during the summer of 2016 caused many hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail to find alternate routes as large sections of the trail was closed due to the impending threat of wildfires.

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Rising temperatures aren’t only affecting our glaciers and watersheds, but global sea levels as well. NASA estimates the global sea level rises at about 3.4 mm per year. Warming ocean temperatures are widely accepted to be the cause of major storm systems like the devastating Hurricane Sandy, and rising sea levels intensify their impact. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have also studied the loss of land along the Atlantic coast, concluding that about 20 square miles of land have been converted to open ocean between 1996 and 2011 alone. The majority of this loss happened in the Southeast—in places like Everglades National Park, where there's a direct threat to paddle routes and backcountry camping in much-loved areas like Cape Sable.

The situation is dire, no doubt. If we don’t act to protect our beloved wild spaces, they’ll be forever altered or lost entirely. But instead of writing a bucket list of places to see before they disappear, let’s explore ways that we as hikers can combat climate change. One hopeful thought to keep in mind is that most Americans believe in climate change, and those most concerned with the effects of climate change come from all gender, age, education, and ethnic groups. Climate scientists and advocacy groups also recognize the strength of recreationists as allies in this effort.

So without further ado, here are a few ways hikers can join the fight against climate change.  

1. Stay Informed and Sign a Petition

It helps to know what you’re fighting for (or against). Stay informed about climate change. Learn the basics of the Paris Agreement: For the very first time, 196 nations agreed on a plan to prevent climate change. The Paris Agreement is unprecedented, but its future remains uncertain. With U.S. political priorities shifting, we must urge our leaders to move forward with actions aimed at curbing climate change.

Signing petitions is an easy way to speak up. The Nature Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting our lands and waters, offers a variety of petitions on their site, including a climate change pledge in support of the Paris Agreement.

2. Get Involved in Your Community

Bare suggests the following ways to make a difference: “It starts with community involvement. Ensure your locally elected state and national officials are passing smart policies focused on solutions and mitigating climate risk; make your purchases from companies who have a strong record and commitment to positive climate and conservation records; invite new people and people with different viewpoints from your own out on the trail with you so you can share why you love these places so much.”

3. Drive Less

Carpooling or taking public transportation to the trailhead is a simple solution that makes a big difference. According to the EPA, America’s Transportation sector was responsible for 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. To reduce emissions, we can ride the bus in areas where such services exist. One resource to make this easier is TOTAGO, an app for planning car-free trips to outdoor destinations.

Of course, public transit may not be an option for hikers whose favorite trail is 15 miles up a forest road. But carpooling can also go a long way in reducing emissions. Find a partner or group of friends with similar interests and hit the road together. Don’t have a car? Offer to pitch in for gas. And if you live close enough to walk or bike to the trailhead, more power to you.

4. Become a Citizen Scientist

One tangible way to take climate change research into our own hands is through citizen science programs. Hikers are uniquely positioned to become citizen scientists, simply because we enjoy walking around and observing our natural surroundings. You can study changing climate conditions in the Southwest by monitoring cacti at Saguaro National Park, documenting life cycle changes due to natural events at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or help monitor mountain goats, a species especially sensitive to climate conditions, at Glacier National Park.

5. Plant Trees

Prefer to really dig in and get your hands dirty? Plant some trees. Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, offsetting carbon emissions. (Although some disagree that planting trees actually has the ability to help slow climate change.) The EPA reports that the Land Use and Forestry Sector offset 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. While 11 percent is significant, we can do even better. Plant trees the old fashioned way, or sign up for a service like TreeEra that plants trees for you. According to TreeEra’s site, “one tree can absorb as much carbon in a year as a car produces while driving 26,000 miles.”

6. Attend an Event

Finally, get out there and meet with other hikers off the trail for the sake of activism. Join the national March for Science in Washington, D.C. and around the U.S. on Earth Day 2017. One week later, on April 29, 2017, the People’s Climate March takes place in Washington, D.C. and across the country. Join the 2017 Climate Hike in August at Glacier National Park. There are many ways to take action and make your voice heard. And there’s never been a more important time to do so than right now.

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