Tag Archives: Alaska

Pizzlies and Grolars–Climate-Mediated Combinations?

Pizzlies and Grolars—Climate-Mediated Combinations?   –by Jinny Batterson

During the summer of 2017, I vacationed for two weeks in parts of Alaska. One of the naturalists who guided a bus tour I took in Denali National Park in central Alaska mentioned some new “hybrid” bears that are starting to show up in the far north of Alaska and Canada. As Arctic polar sea ice shrinks, the traditional ice floe habitat of polar bears is shrinking along with it. As temperatures in interior Alaska warm, some grizzlies are moving further north. One result is that the two sub-species of bears, who rarely encountered each other in the past, now have more overlap in their ranges. Sometimes they fight; at other times they interact in different ways. Offspring of polar-grizzly matings are called pizzly or grolar bears. Pizzlies and grolars typically have the coloring of polar bears, with the large head that is more characteristic of a grizzly. A picture of a pizzly that had been killed by a hunter was posted on a National Geographic site (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/12/photogalleries/101215-pizzly-grolar-bear-polar-grizzly-hybrids-nature-arctic-global-warming-pictures/) in 2010.  Only a few of the hybrid bears have been encountered so far, but biologists expect that more matings will likely occur as climate change accelerates. Perhaps, as our planet continues to warm, there may someday be pizzlies and grolars as far south as Denali park. 

My direct knowledge of Alaska’s longer-term weather is nil. However, a friend in Fairbanks who has spent most of his adult life in the now-less-frozen north, told me that the previous year’s winter was exceptionally mild—with overall temperatures about 6 degrees Fahrenheit about average. His back yard developed a lawn-chair sized sinkhole when part of its permafrost melted. Statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. governmental weather agency, bear out that the entire year 2016 was of record-breaking warmth in all reporting stations of our northernmost state (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/2016-shatters-record-alaskas-warmest-year). Climate change in Alaska has been more rapid than in the lower forty-eight states. 

About three years ago, I participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City. For me, part of the event’s inspiration came from seeing so many people of so many different backgrounds engaged in demonstrating for the good of our planet. Even more inspiring to me was the interfaith service held the evening after the march at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Many of the speakers at the service came from areas already experiencing disruptions due to climate change— more intense downpours, longer droughts, stronger typhoons and hurricanes, sea level rise.

The indigenous elders who participated in the service were alarmed and dismayed at the damage we are doing to our planet (the environment that sustains the lives of all species, including humans), but they were not without hope. At the conclusion of an interfaith conference that ran concurrently with the march and its preparations, they issued a call to action:     

“Know that you yourself are essential to this World. Each of us is put here in this time and this place to personally decide the future of humankind. We must sacrifice and move beyond our own comforts and pleasures. We must stop the damaging activities and begin working on restoring the natural environment for the future of All Life.”

The year 2017 has had its share of weather extremes in U.S. states and territories: inhabitants of Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and northern California have now experienced firsthand some of the effects of human-induced climate change. We will all need to adapt. The interbreeding option available to polar bears and grizzlies is not in our future—we have become too differentiated from other animals for that. What can be in our future, if we choose, is increasing cooperation across cultures and religions to reduce our damage to our Earth, and to start to help heal her and ourselves.

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A 49th State of Mind

A 49th State of Mind   —by Jinny Batterson

humpback whale diving after being part of a cooperative “bubble net” near Juneau, Alaska

Alaska is huge. Alaska’s human population is sparse, with overall densities of only about 1 1/3 people per square mile. (For comparison, if New York City had the same population density, it would have just over 400 people.)  Nearly half of Alaska’s roughly 700,000 folks live in or near its largest city, Anchorage.  In some years, according to wild game estimates, Alaska has more caribou than people.

Over 2/3 of the land area of Alaska is owned by the U.S. government. Its most famous park, Denali National Park, though not the state’s largest, still covers as much territory as the entire state of Vermont. Through both military and civilian jobs, the U.S. government is the largest employer in the state. The petroleum industry is also a major sector. Tourism provides a boost in the state’s more accessible regions, with the population of greater Anchorage roughly tripling during the summer tourist season. Alaska produces low-sulfur coal, precious metals, and seafood for export. Alaska has over 4 times as much ocean coastline as second-ranked Florida, and nearly twice as much shoreline as the Great Lakes state of Michigan.

To me, an Easterner with only occasional jaunts west of the Mississippi, Alaska was too much to get my head around. In my 2-week visit, it was impossible to take in the immensity of the place. Partly via packaged tour, partly courtesy of a former high school classmate, I did get to see a small portion of southern and central Alaska.

Arriving in Anchorage on a summer weekend, I went for a ramble through a downtown street fair. Most of the stalls sold food, crafts, or fabulous photographs of the local flora, fauna, and scenery. Near the end of one aisle was a t-shirt booth. Some shirts just showed superimposed maps to scale. Others included text: “Texas is so cute,” one shirt read. “If we split Alaska in half, Texas would become the 3rd largest state,” proclaimed another.

What most impressed me about Alaska, though, were not its huge swaths of empty acreage or its magnificent mountain vistas. What I was most drawn to were its waterways and sea life. My camera finger was not quite quick enough to capture the spectacle of eight adult humpback whales and one calf “bubble net fishing” along the Lynn Canal near Juneau, but the experience was magical. Bubble net fishing can be engaged in either by solitary humpbacks, or as a cooperative effort by temporary groups of up to 15 whales who’ve learned a more productive way to fish.

Research about whale feeding behavior continues, but based on studies so far, it seems that cooperative bubble net efforts are usually led by an older female. A bubble “net” can be cast starting up to 60 feet underwater. Multiple whales exhale while swimming in circles around a large school of fish, creating a cylinder of surface-bound bubbles.  The whales also emit a curtain of sound, audible to underwater sonic devices. Schools of herring and/or other small fish are confused and frightened by the bubbles and the whales’ vocalizations. Most remained trapped in an ever tightening net. Gradually the whales and fish move inward and upward, until all break the surface in a huge explosion of open-mouthed whales and silver-sided fish. Swarms of gulls swoop in to pick up the scraps. 

My prior images of Alaska were of rugged individuals—solitary survivors of harsh natural conditions, perhaps hoping to strike it rich during a gold rush, or braving winter blizzards to win a sled dog race. This is part of the Alaskan ethos. But it is not the whole. There are also the whales—once hunted to near-extinction, these huge mammals have benefited from whaling restrictions. They also have learned that it can sometimes be in their best interest to cooperate.     

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses

little girls in frilly dresses, Qingdao, China

Chinese Girls in Frilly Dresses    —by Jinny Batterson

Last fall, one of our favorite former students in China emailed us exciting news—she was about to get married.  A few weeks later, our former student, “Mona,”  sent a second message with an attachment: a picture of her and her new husband in their wedding clothes.  Mona looked fetching, much dressier than the Mona I was used to—she posed, seated on a high stool, in an elegant flower-print dress with a brimmed hat to match. Her husband, decked out in a casual summer suit, looked over her shoulder.

For much of June this year, I had a chance to travel in mainland China and to reconnect with some former students and colleagues. Especially wonderful was a chance to visit Mona, whose new husband had been a high school classmate I didn’t yet know. They’d chosen each other after a long, sometimes long-distance courtship. I got to spend a couple of days with them. While I was visiting, Mona explained the logistics of arranging her wedding pictures, an increasingly common part of Chinese wedding preparations:

Few people actually buy clothes for their wedding pictures or have pictures taken on the wedding day itself, she explained. Rather, they rent dressy attire from specialized businesses and pick out a place and time to have professional still pictures taken, sometimes adding a brief video. They usually choose a historic or natural beauty spot, on a weekend day when both partners are off work. Because Mona is short for a woman of her generation in China, preparations were somewhat complicated. One weekend, she and her groom-to-be visited a rental agency and picked out clothes they liked in close to the proper size. The following weekend, they went back to the agency to pick up the clothes, which had been altered slightly for better fit.  On still a third weekend, she and her fiancé dressed in their rented finery and met a hired wedding photographer at the agreed upon site and time. Scheduling was tight and did not make allowances for weather. The day Mona’s pictures were taken, it poured down rain. The search for a “perfect shot” took most of a very long day and left both photographer and subjects tired and bedraggled. It took a fourth week to get the rental clothes dried, cleaned, and returned to the rental agency.   

Not long after my visit with Mona and her new spouse, I ventured out on my own to parts of central and northern China where I’d never visited before. In the northern seaside town of Qingdao, I came across a cobblestone plaza more filled than usual with elaborately dressed Chinese.  Primed by Mona’s descriptions of her wedding picture adventures, I realized that what I was viewing were a whole series of wedding photo shoots. June is a prime wedding month in China, just as in the U.S.  I counted eighteen different couples having their wedding pictures taken. The weather was windy and blustery—gowns and photo accessories were hard to keep steady. A dozen of the brides were wearing western-style dresses in white, while others had flowing formals in red, considered a lucky color in China. For one set of pictures, an entire wedding party was assembled, including five or six young girls in frilly white dresses. 

Over the course of this China visit, I noticed more and more young girls dressed in frills and bows, and not always in wedding groups. I’d see them on public busses, on trains and subways, in public parks. All were with at least one parent or grandparent. Often, a parkland family group would be taking selfies, the grandparents somewhat subdued in both manner and dress, the dads fairly casual, the moms dressier, anchored with the latest shoe fashions, the daughters often in white or pastel lacy dresses not much less formal than bridal finery. I crossed my fingers that the attention these girls were getting was a sign that the traditional stigma of having a daughter in China was lessening. None of the girls I saw looked neglected or abused. Many were far from docile. Most seemed valued family members, confident without being arrogant.

A few times, I saw girls and young women in less frilly outfits—on one park walk, the mom and dad in front of me strolled along at a normal pace, while their two daughters in trainers, shorts and tank tops raced ahead running sprints. At another public square, I noticed a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt with an English-language slogan: “Women are the Future,” it proclaimed.

My re-entry into the U.S. was through our 49th state, Alaska, where few women are shrinking violets. I saw the kennels run by the family of Susan Butcher, who’d earlier won the  long-distance Iditerod sled dog race four times.  I got to meet her elder daughter, now actively involved in training new generations of sled dogs for new challenges. Perhaps China’s daughters, and America’s, will one day soon be ready to take their places in a rapidly changing world that needs and welcomes their skills.