It was early on the bright April Sunday before Anchorage’s winter relapse. Strong sunlight crystallized the bare birch branches and glittered the few remaining patches of snow. I was drinking coffee in my rocking chair, reveling in the spring warmth, when a loud thud hit the window high above the kitchen sink, and the house shuddered. Something large and heavy had interrupted my morning reverie.
In my robe and slippers, I tiptoed outside to inspect. A spruce grouse lay on its back on the deck, legs quivering, eyes closed tightly, a tiny bead of blood gathering on the end of its chipped beak. I crouched and whispered, “I’m sorry,” then stroked its breast until it laid still.
Up in the window, a perfect image of the bird’s impact lay imprinted as a fine white layer of dust. Sharp lines of fully spread wings. A wide body and fanned tail. And where the head hit hard, the shadow of a beak. A ghost bird, captured in full flight.
“Paper-thin layer,” I heard a voice speak in my head. It’s my husband’s refrain whenever we wonder anxiously about the fate of the human race. A “paper-thin layer” in the rock – the Earth’s record of geologic time – is all that some scientists predict will be left to show that our species ever existed, thanks to the rapid rate at which we’re destroying our atmosphere. International experts give us a dozen years to drastically reduce our carbon emissions before climate change irrevocably alters the Earth as we know it. For the Arctic, which is warming faster than anywhere, we have half as much time – not even five years.
Friends in the neighborhood would have cooked the grouse for lunch, but instead I walked its warm limp body to the nearby woods and placed it in a bed of moss beneath a tiny spruce. Better a lynx, or an owl, or even a bear, I thought. Somehow, I didn’t want humans to take it. We’ve taken so much already.
Back in my rocking chair, the imprint of the unfortunate bird’s last flight haunted me. Like many Alaskans, I love to fly. As a child in Fairbanks, it was rare to leave the state, and prohibitively expensive. But as an adult, lower fares, wider options, and the luxuries of vacation time and discretionary income have fed a serious travel bug. Whether escaping long winters or adventuring to new horizons, I’ve racked up airline miles happily for years. Yet the harm flying contributes to the planet through high carbon emissions is well documented. I felt for the first time a tug of curiosity. I pulled out my cell phone, found an online carbon calculator, and began to tally my flights.
Immediately, I was overwhelmed. Did I count business travel? Did I count travel for volunteer conferences? Did I count trips home to family for weddings and funerals and milestone birthdays? Did I count the numerous short trips to the desert Southwest, where part of my restless soul seems to lie, despite my deep attachment to Alaska?
Ultimately, I decided to concentrate on just the big trips – the trips abroad purely for pleasure. In the past twenty years, I’ve taken thirteen such trips: six to Mexico, five to Europe, one to South America, and one to Asia. According to the carbon calculator, these trips alone emitted 56 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Numbers themselves say little to me, so I tried to create an image of what this meant. I didn’t have to search far. Scientists have estimated that every ton of carbon released into the atmosphere effectively melts three square meters of Arctic sea ice. By this calculation, my foreign travel alone melted 174 square meters, or about 1,872 square feet.
Again, numbers alone are too abstract, so I tried to apply this loss of ice to something tangible. Which got me thinking about the size of a walrus. As the Arctic ice melts, walrus are among the animals most affected. Traditionally, they’ve spent much of their lives on ice, near the seafloors on which they feed. As ice has disappeared, they’ve been forced to haul out on land, far from their food supplies, often on beaches that are crowded and precarious.
Recently, a huge herd of walrus was filmed wedged beneath rocky cliffs on a strip of beach too narrow to hold them. To escape the crush, many had edged themselves up a steep slope above the mass and hunkered down. But walrus are not natural climbers. When it came time to return to the water to feed, many fell tumbling to their deaths.
Unscientifically, I tried to calculate how many walrus have been deprived of their traditional space on the ice because of my foreign air travel. A large male walrus can weigh up to 1200 pounds and measure 12 feet long. I decided that each male walrus needed a 12 x 12 (144 square feet) space of ice on which to haul out. Dividing the amount of ice my foreign travel has melted by my space-per-walrus allocation yielded thirteen. Thirteen walrus. Not so many really, I think, uncomfortably. One big bull, a small harem.
But I catch myself, because I haven’t even scratched the surface. The average American’s carbon footprint is 16.4 tons per year, and as an Alaskan I’m sure mine is higher. So I’ve been responsible for at least 328 additional tons of carbon emissions in the past twenty years just by living an American lifestyle. This represents 10,592 square feet of lost ice, or enough room for 73 walruses. Combined, my walrus footprint is now at least 86. A sizeable herd, displaced because of me.
And of course the walrus aren’t the only ones suffering from the loss of sea ice. Polar bears and seals and countless other Arctic marine creatures have lost their foundations, too. Arctic coastal communities that have relied on ice from time immemorial, for hunting and traveling and protection from storms, are grieving its passing. A few years back, a youth group from Southwest Alaska filmed a video about climate change, and one young man in a white hunter’s parka spoke eloquently of its impacts, confidently telling his story, until suddenly his voice caught and he turned from the camera, sobbing. “The ice needs to come back,” he finally said.
Spruce grouse typically freeze when you encounter them in the woods, assuming that by staying still they can escape danger. When you pass ptarmigan, their cousins, on a winter trail, their heads stand out from snow burrows as plain as day, but they’re convinced they’re protected, and they don’t move. Not the smartest birds, we’ve always mused. Their apparent survival strategy is to do nothing.
Examining my own behavior, it’s clear that my salvation strategy in the face of climate change has been the same. Slow and steady, loathe to getting ruffled. I’ve driven a fuel-efficient car, recycled conscientiously, used energy saver light bulbs, and kept the heat down in the house. But I’ve flown with abandon, far and often, avoiding the mounting evidence of its impacts. I’ve practiced Survival Lite: just enough to feel responsible, not enough to risk discomfort. Like the grouse, I’ve pretended that troubling shadows on the horizon have nothing to do with me.
After that sunny April morning, snow returned for ten more days. Once again, I yearned for another trip to the sun, another plane ride. But the Bering Sea never iced over this winter, for the first time on record. Temperatures in the Arctic were twenty degrees higher than usual, and each new winter month set a record for warmth. Children across the world are angry that adults are threatening their future, and are urging us to action.
Suddenly, my travel plans are no longer simply a matter of financial cost and time. My complicity now laid bare, there are other questions to consider: How much ice am I willing to sacrifice? How many walrus am I willing to exile? How many kids am I willing to betray?
I try to think of my life’s sublime moments, so many of which have happened close to home. Walking at Eklutna Lake on a clear cold winter day. Passing through shoulder-high grass in the Chugach at the peak of summer. Following the trail though Gold Mint Valley when the hills are ablaze with autumn fireweed. More of these, I tell myself. You don’t need to go far away. You don’t need a fancy bucket list. Besides, I remind myself, the best flights are always on the inside.
But I know better than to make grand promises. Instead, I negotiate. Fewer trips. Shorter trips. Drive instead when possible. I search for ways to avoid the sting. Even faced with reality as it is, I still hold to reality as I want it to be. A reality where you can wake up from the grip of winter on a warm spring day, lift your wings to the wind, and fly hard into the open sky. A reality where you can soar aloft in joy and freedom, with nothing but blue skies ahead.
The next Youth Climate Strike in Anchorage will take place at 1:30 PM on Friday, May 3, at Town Square.