A friend of mind, an avid hiker who gets out on Colorado’s trails very often, recently shared with me a couple of photos he took at Lake of the Clouds in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. The photos are of the same scene, taken ten years apart.
The first photo was taken in 2013, the second one in 2023. I was shocked when I first saw these photos. I’m still shocked whenever I look at them. I know these forests, as I’ve been hiking and backpacking the wilderness trails of the Sangre de Cristos for decades. I’ve seen firsthand what is happening to these forests. But the before and after photos were still horrific to see.
Colorado’s subalpine forests, comprised primarily of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, occur between 9,000 and 11,000 feet of elevation. What happened between 2013 and 2023 that would cause such significant tree mortality to these high-elevation forests? Recent research clearly indicates that warmer and drier summer conditions is the cause, and warmer and drier summers are being brought about by the warming climate.
Here are the ten warmest years globally, according to NOAA:
- 2022 (tied with 2015)
- 2021 (tied with 2018)
The very decade that saw the dramatic tree mortality in the Sangre de Cristos contains nine of the ten hottest years on record. The connection is clear – global climate change is wreaking havoc on our forests. According to NASA, human activities – especially the burning of fossil fuels – are driving the warming of the climate, and all the impacts associated with it, like dying forests.
For too many years, the general societal attitude towards global warming/climate change was that it’s a threat for the future, if it was considered a threat at all. The warnings that the scientific community sounded were essentially ignored. It can be argued that there are so many in power that are still ignoring it. Or arguing that human activity has nothing to do with it. Or that there is nothing humans can do about it, even if it is happening.
Well, as the denial, inaction, ignoring, and arguing go on, the trees in Colorado’s forests are dying, and will only continue to die. The warming climate is not only impacting the trees – numerous species of plants, animals, and ecological processes are being impacted as well. Including the human species.
What can any of us do about it? First, allow yourself to feel. If being witness to what is happening to the world evokes sadness, or anger, or anguish, feel those feelings. As Joanna Macy so aptly put it, “The sorrow, grief, and rage you feel is a measure of your humanity and your evolutionary maturity. As your heart breaks open there will be room for the world to heal.”
Then get involved. Here is a short list of the many organizations that are working to address climate change that you can get involved with:
PROTECT OUR WINTERS “We help passionate outdoor people protect the places and lifestyles they love from climate change.”
CLIMATE ACTION NETWORK “A global network of more than 1,900 civil society organizations in over 130 countries driving collective and sustainable action to fight the climate crisis and to achieve social justice.”
CITIZENS’ CLIMATE LOBBY “We empower everyday people to work together on climate policy. Our supporters are organized in 420+ chapters across the United States building support in Congress for a national bipartisan solution to climate change. Globally, we also support 150+ international chapters on six continents.”
THIRD ACT “We are building a community of experienced Americans over the age of sixty determined to change the world for the better. Together, we use our life experience, skills and resources to build better tomorrow.”
When I see the photo of the dying trees, how can I not feel sad, and angry at those that continue to stand in the way of doing what needs to be done to begin turning things around? Out of that sadness and that anger comes the energy to figure out what I can do to make a difference. And to act! Again, Joanna Macy: “Action isn’t a burden to be hoisted up and lugged around on our shoulders. It is something we are. The work we have to do can be seen as a kind of coming alive. More than some moral imperative, it’s an awakening to our true nature, a releasing of our gifts.”