Cookies help us run our site more efficiently.

By clicking “Accept”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information or to customize your cookie preferences.

Could Giant Blankets and Other Extreme Actions Save Glaciers?

News Feed
Monday, March 6, 2023

Plastic coverings, gravity snow guns and painted rocks could slow ice melt in high mountains

Plastic coverings, gravity snow guns and painted rocks could slow ice melt in high mountains

Plastic coverings, gravity snow guns and painted rocks could slow ice melt in high mountains

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Rocky Mountain gray wolves won't get endangered species protections

Gray wolves that inhabit the Northern Rocky Mountains will not receive protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on Friday. In making this determination, the federal agency rejected petitions from wildlife conservation groups to list the animals under the ESA in the Northern Rockies and the Western U.S. The...

Gray wolves that inhabit the Northern Rocky Mountains will not receive protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced on Friday. In making this determination, the federal agency rejected petitions from wildlife conservation groups to list the animals under the ESA in the Northern Rockies and the Western U.S. The decision, which maintains the status quo, stems from a comprehensive analysis that incorporated best available data from federal, state and tribal sources, according to FWS. After modeling various threats to the wolves, such as human-induced mortality and diseases , the agency concluded that the wolves are not at risk of extinction in the U.S. West. Gray wolves are currently deemed endangered under the ESA in 44 states, threatened in Minnesota and under state jurisdiction in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and portions of eastern Oregon and Washington, per FWS. Agency data as of the end of 2022 indicated that there were about 2,797 wolves distributed across at least 286 packs in seven U.S. West states. “This population size and widespread distribution contribute to the resiliency and redundancy of wolves in this region,” FWS said in a statement. “The population maintains high genetic diversity and connectivity, further supporting their ability to adapt to future changes,” the agency added. The goal of providing ESA protections would have been to prevent “states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming from allowing the widespread killings of wolves,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which co-sponsored one of the two petitions. “By denying protections to these beautiful creatures the Service is letting northern Rockies states continue erasing decades of recovery efforts,” Kristine Akland, a program director for the Center, said in a statement. In Idaho, for example, the state can hire private contractors to kill wolves, while also letting hunters target an unlimited number of animals year-round, the conservation group noted. Montana wolf trappers can use night-vision scopes on private land, strangulation snares on both public and private property and bait to lure the animals, according to the group.  And across most of Wyoming, gray wolves are considered predatory animals and can therefore be killed at any time without a license, the petitioners added. “We won’t stand idly by and watch as northern Rockies wolves are slaughtered year after year,” Akland said. “Wolves are an invaluable part of their ecosystems and deserve strong federal protections.” The Center for Biological Diversity said that it is considering taking legal action against FWS’s denial of the listing petition. Some 70 groups behind the second petition, led by the Western Watersheds Project, likewise stressed on Friday that they were preparing to potentially challenge the refusal in court. “Wolves aren’t a political football, they are a native wildlife species key to balancing ecosystem health,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement on Friday. Molvar expressed disappointment in the decision, emphasizing that “the Biden administration had the opportunity to follow the science and the law, and ensure real recovery for the species.” “A handful of states are standing in the way of wolf recovery nationwide, espousing an outdated, anti-science, eradication mindset,” added Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. The FWS decision comes less than two months after Colorado parks officials received a green light from a federal court to begin reintroducing gray wolves into their native habitats in the Centennial State. While that effort — a voter-approved Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan — faced  pushback from ranchers, FWS in November designated the gray wolves as an “experimental population” in Colorado, enabling their reintroduction outside their current range. Responding to the FWS determination on Friday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle slammed the ruling — but for varying reasons and opposing aims.  Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said that the decision “fails to alleviate the concerns of the millions of Americans impacted by an unchecked gray wolf population.” Westerman argued that ESA rulings have the potential to impact American “lives and livelihoods time and time again” and are “illustrative of a broken system that allows bureaucrats to make decisions without local community input.” “Despite today's announcement, it remains clear that the gray wolf is a recovered species, and its management should be transferred over to the states,” he added. The top-ranking Democrat in the same committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Az.), likewise expressed disappointment in the FWS decision but for different reasons. As opposed to Westerman’s call to weaken federal ESA powers, Grijalva expressed support for strengthened protections and improvements in the agency’s approach to “harmful state regulations.” The Arizona Democrat accused FWS of ignoring “the existential threat — which the Service has acknowledged — that reckless state laws, like those in Montana and Idaho, pose to the species.” “These state regulations have proven to be anti-science, anti-conservation, and cruel,” Grijalva said. “Now they’ve gotten the rubber stamp from FWS to maintain this status quo.”

Tectonic Tales of Life: How Geology Has Influenced Evolution for the Past 500 Million Years

Recent research reveals a striking correlation to how life evolved over 500 million years. The movement of rivers, mountains, oceans, and sediment nutrients at the...

Recent research highlights a significant link between Earth’s geological activities, like plate tectonics and river movements, and the evolution of biodiversity, offering a comprehensive view of how life has been influenced over 500 million years by Earth’s physical evolution. Recent research reveals a striking correlation to how life evolved over 500 million years. The movement of rivers, mountains, oceans, and sediment nutrients at the geological timescale are central drivers of Earth’s biodiversity, new research recently published in Nature reveals. The research also shows that biodiversity evolves at rates similar to the pace of plate tectonics, the slow geological processes shaping continents, mountains, and oceans. “That is a rate incomparably slower than the current rates of extinction caused by human activity,” said lead author Dr Tristan Salles from the School of Geosciences. The research looks back over 500 million years of Earth’s history to the period just after the Cambrian explosion of life, which established the main species types of modern life. Rivers: Earth’s Circulatory System Dr Salles said: “Earth’s surface is the living skin of our planet. Over geological time, this surface evolves with rivers fragmenting the landscape into an environmentally diverse range of habitats. “However, these rivers not only carve canyons and form valleys, but play the role of Earth’s circulatory system as the main conduits for nutrient and sediment transfer from sources (mountains) to sinks (oceans). While modern science has a growing understanding of global biodiversity, we tend to view this through the prism of narrow expertise,” Dr Salles said. “This is like looking inside a house from just one window and thinking we understand its architecture. Our model connects physical, chemical, and biological systems over half a billion years in five-million-year chunks at a resolution of five kilometers. This gives an unprecedented understanding of what has driven the shape and timing of species diversity,” he said. Sediment flux to the oceans and diversity of marine animal families over the past 540 million years. The Pearson coefficient of 0.88 indicates a strong positive correlation between the two variables. The Cambrian explosion and Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (GOBE), as well as the big five mass extinction events, are indicated. Cm, Cambrian; O, Ordovician; S, Silurian; D, Devonian; Carb, Carboniferous; P, Permian; Tr, Triassic;J, Jurassic; K, Cretaceous; Pg, Palaeogene; Ng, Neogene. Credit: Nature The discovery in 1994 of the ancient Wollemi pine species in a secluded valley in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney gives us a glimpse into the holistic role that time, geology, hydrology, climate and genetics play in biodiversity and species survival. Historical Perspective on Landscapes and Life The idea that landscapes play a role in the trajectory of life on Earth can be traced back to German naturalist and polymath Alexander von Humboldt. His work inspired Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, who were the first to note that animal species boundaries correspond to landscape discontinuities and gradients. Dr Tristan Salles in his office at the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. Credit: Stefanie Zingsheim/The University of Sydney “Fast forwarding nearly 200 years, our understanding of how the diversity of marine and terrestrial life was assembled over the past 540 million years is still emerging,” University of Sydney PhD student Beatriz Hadler Boggiani said. “Biodiversity patterns are well identified from the fossil record and genetic studies. Yet, many aspects of this evolution remain enigmatic, such as the 100 million years delay between the expansion of plants on continents and the rapid diversification of marine life.” A Unified Theory of Biodiversity In groundbreaking research a team of scientists – from the University of Sydney, ISTerre at the French state research organization CNRS, and the University of Grenoble Alpes in France – has proposed a unified theory that connects the evolution of life in the marine and terrestrial realms to sediment pulses controlled by past landscapes. “Because the evolution of the Earth’s surface is set by the interplay between the geosphere and the atmosphere, it records their cumulative interactions and should, therefore, provide the context for biodiversity to evolve,” said Dr Laurent Husson from the University of Grenoble Alpes. Instead of considering isolated pieces of the environmental puzzle independently, the team developed a model that combines them and simulates at high resolution the compounding effect of these forces. The top panel shows reconstructed sediment fluxes to the oceans vs the diversity of marine animals. The bottom panel shows sediment cover in continental regions vs the long-term trend in land-plant diversity. Credit: Dr Tristan Salles/The University of Sydney   “It is through calibration of this physical memory etched in the Earth’s skin with genetics, fossils, climate, hydrology, and tectonics by which we have investigated our hypothesis,” Dr Salles said. Using open-source scientific code published by the team in Science in March, the detailed simulation was calibrated using modern information about landscape elevations, erosion rates, major river waters, and the geological transport of sediment (known as sediment flux). Comparing Predictions and Paleontological Data This allowed the team to evaluate their predictions over 500 million years using a combination of geochemical proxies and testing different tectonic and climatic reconstructions. The geoscientists then compared the predicted sediment pulses to the evolution of life in both the marine and terrestrial realms obtained from a compilation of paleontological data. “In a nutshell, we reconstructed Earth landforms over the Phanerozoic era, which started 540 million years ago, and looked at the correlations between the evolving river networks, sediment transfers and known distribution of marine and plant families,” University of Grenoble PhD student Manon Lorcery said. When comparing predicted sediment flux into the oceans with marine biodiversity, the analysis shows a strong, positive correlation. On land, the authors designed a model integrating sediment cover and landscape variability to describe the capacity of the landscape to host diverse species. Here again, they found a striking correlation between their proxy and plant diversification for the past 450 million years. In his 1864 novel A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne attributes this to his fictitious hero, Professor Otto Lidenbrock: “Animal life existed upon the Earth only in the secondary period, when a sediment of soil had been deposited by the rivers and taken the place of the incandescent rocks of the primitive period.” Dr Salles said: “This observation by Professor Lidenbrock to his nephew Axel fits strikingly well with our hypothesis. So, it should be no surprise that Jules Verne was greatly inspired by Humboldt’s work.” Reference: “Landscape dynamics and the Phanerozoic diversification of the biosphere” by Tristan Salles, Laurent Husson, Manon Lorcery and Beatriz Hadler Boggiani, 29 November 2023, Nature.DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06777-z This research was undertaken with resources from the National Computational Infrastructure supported by the Australian Government and from Artemis HPC supported by the University of Sydney. The study was funded by the Australian Research Council.

COP28: Earth's frozen zones are in trouble – we're already seeing the consequences

The world is on track to exceed 2°C warming within the next five years, with dire consequences for polar ice, mountain glaciers and permafrost – and human society.

As this year’s UN climate summit (COP28) gets under way in Dubai, scientists studying Earth’s frozen regions have been delivering an urgent call for action to policy makers. But is anyone listening? Throughout 2023, we have been warning of an impending series of crises occurring in the cryosphere – polar ice sheets, ice shelves, sea ice, mountain glaciers and permafrost. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) released its decadal synopsis on the state of Antarctic climate change and ecosystems. It led the recent Antarctic Treaty meeting to issue the Helsinki Declaration to highlight that significant observed changes in Antarctica influence climate impacts globally. The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) has prepared the Kigali Declaration, summarising the latest climate science to highlight the urgency at COP28. And this month, a State of the Cryosphere 2023 report assessing the most recent science warned that even 2°C of warming would trigger irreversible loss of ice sheets, glaciers, snow, sea ice and permafrost, with disastrous consequences for society and nature. I have contributed to all three documents. Some of the most dramatic changes are occurring in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, including extreme heatwaves, record lows in sea ice and the emergence of an amplified warming pattern across the entire Antarctic continent. These changes are melting Antarctica’s ice sheet and delivering vast quantities of freshwater to the ocean. This in turn drives an accelerating rise in shorelines around the world. Polar warming is also contributing to drought and wildfires in Australia, floods in New Zealand and extreme weather at every latitude. Read more: We can still prevent the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet – if we act fast to keep future warming in check Breaching planetary thresholds In July this year, average monthly global temperatures breached 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels for the first time. With a large El Niño event underway in the Pacific, 2023 is virtually certain to be the hottest year on record. The World Meteorological Organisation predicts the world is on track to exceed the Paris target to keep warming below 2°C within the next five years, on an annual basis. Scientific evidence is clear that due to the current trajectory of human-derived greenhouse gas emissions, the polar regions will continue to warm at rates of up to four times the global average. This is because of self-reinforcing feedbacks, such as those related to retreating sea ice. The more sea ice melts, the more energy the darker ocean surface absorbs, in turn leading to more land ice melting and the potential crossing of tipping points linked to temperature thresholds close to 1.5-2°C of global warming. Several of Earth’s potential tipping points are in the cryosphere. Author supplied, CC BY-SA There are two key planetary thresholds in the polar regions. Firstly, thawing permafrost in the Arctic has the potential for widespread release of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further enhancing global heating. Secondly, meltdown of up to two-thirds of Antarctica’s ice sheet may become irreversible, locking in multi-metre sea-level rise for generations to come even if the warming were to stop or reverse after peaking before 2100. Dramatic consequences at all latitudes The Southern Ocean has taken up most of the heat from global warming (70%). This excess energy will remain in the ocean for centuries and continue melting parts of the coastal fringes of Antarctica from underneath. The amplified polar warming is accelerating the melting of ice sheets. They are now the largest contributors to rising global sea levels. But they respond slowly, trapping heat and releasing it over long timescales. Sea-level rise will therefore continue for centuries to come, even with net zero emissions. Projections show substantial differences between low- and high-emissions scenarios, especially after 2050. A high-emissions scenario could result in multi-metre sea-level rise for coming centuries. This includes a “low likelihood, high impact” scenario in which two metres by 2100 cannot be ruled out due to rapid loss of Antarctica’s fringing ice shelves and consequent melting of the ice sheet. The ice shelves currently stabilise the interior ice sheet and protect it from erosion by encroaching warming ocean waters. Evidence suggests the Paris climate target of limiting heating to 1.5-2C°C is a threshold for widespread ice shelf loss. The loss of two-thirds of the world’s high mountain glaciers (often referred to as the third pole) is also likely. This will affect two billion people who depend on these frozen water stores for their drinking, power production, agriculture and related ecosystems services. As glacial lakes fill up, more people will be exposed to hazards such as the recent glacial outburst flood and landslides in Sikkim in India’s northeast. Intense high-latitude, low-pressure systems – “bomb cyclones” – are now bringing extreme temperatures and precipitation via atmospheric rivers to coastal regions and the interior of Antarctica and Greenland. These extremes cause unseasonal weather not only in polar regions, but also in lower latitudes, including New Zealand. Changing icescapes An unprecedented heat wave occurred over East Antarctica in March 2022, peaking at 39°C above the climatological average. It was the largest temperature anomaly ever recorded globally. A local ice shelf, which was in a vulnerable state, collapsed within days. This demonstrates the potential of future heatwaves over the warmer, lower-elevation West Antarctic Ice Sheet to trigger surface melting and collapse of ice shelves. During this year’s southern hemisphere winter, Antarctica’s sea ice cover reached a 40-year low. This followed the record low annual sea-ice minimum in early 2023, due to an unseasonably warm Southern Ocean and changed atmospheric circulation patterns that brought warm air south. During 2023, the extent of Antarctica’s sea ice reached a record low. National Snow and Ice Data Centre, CC BY-SA These unprecedented changes were well outside the range of natural variability. They coincide with new evidence from a study of ice cores that shows the emergence of an amplified surface-warming pattern over Antarctica. Decision makers still hold the power The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reinforces that “limiting warming well below 2°C involves rapid, deep and in most cases immediate greenhouse gas emissions reductions”. However, it is now clearer than ever that policy is not responding at the pace and scale required to avert the impending nexus of global climate, ecological and environmental catastrophes. Read more: Antarctica's heart of ice has skipped a beat. Time to take our medicine Every nation’s emissions policy settings are insufficient to achieve the Paris target. New Zealand’s climate policies are assessed as “highly insufficient”, but the country is not alone. The global policy response remains grossly ineffective and has been that way since the IPCC’s first report in 1990. But the report provides some hope through “multiple feasible and effective, sustainable and equitable options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human caused climate change”. Scientists made this clear in a policy briefing on sea-level rise to the UN General Assembly, stating: Ambitious mitigation in line with the Paris Agreement is critical to avoiding thresholds that would yield rapid and irreversible sea-level rise and to enabling successful adaptation. Timothy Naish does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Rock climbers like to connect with nature – but are they also destroying it?

Outdoor climbing has boomed in popularity worldwide but some experts say the pursuit can push vulnerable cliff-dwelling species to the brinkWhen Laura Boggess first visited the cliff face in Boone, North Carolina, she admired the colourful rock tripe covering the vertical surface, and the green moss mats perched on top.The crag was part of a rolling, mountainous landscape, sheer cliffs jutting above an enormous valley filled with trees of varying shades of green. It showcased the pristine, usually inaccessible natural beauty that draws so many climbers to the sport. Continue reading...

When Laura Boggess first visited the cliff face in Boone, North Carolina, she admired the colourful rock tripe covering the vertical surface, and the green moss mats perched on top.The crag was part of a rolling, mountainous landscape, sheer cliffs jutting above an enormous valley filled with trees of varying shades of green. It showcased the pristine, usually inaccessible natural beauty that draws so many climbers to the sport.We’re not going to be able to discourage people from climbing – you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tubeBut when Boggess returned to the cliff face almost a decade later, in 2022, she found it dramatically changed. Since she first visited the spot, it had spiked in popularity among climbers. The moss mats had been torn down, and the rock tripe scrubbed away.“I’m not speaking like a scientist here, but the energy of the route felt different, like the area had changed,” says Boggess, a rock climber and assistant professor in biology at Mars Hill University, North Carolina, who is keeping the name of the crag a secret – hoping to protect it from further damage.Cliffs, largely for accessibility reasons, are among the world’s least-disturbed ecosystems. Their walls can house rich communities of rare plants, lichens, nesting birds and bats. Increasingly, however, a new species has been taking to the cliffs: humans, in their millions. From fewer than 500,000 climbers in the US in the late 1990s, there are now more than 10 million. Worldwide, there are between 40 and 50 million climbers, and enthusiasm for the sport is continuing to grow. For many rock-climbers and boulderers, the chance to connect with nature in pristine, isolated locations is part of the attraction. But the rising popularity of rock climbing has some ecologists concerned.Enciña da Lastra natural park in Spain, where the Petrocoptis grandiflora flower is being threatened by climbers. Photograph: agefotostock/AlamyIn the Enciña da Lastra natural park in Spain, the Petrocoptis grandiflora flower is under threat: a subshrub with purple petals, it prefers sparsely vegetated land and a temperate biome, and is considered vulnerable on the IUCN red list.Martí March-Salas, a postdoctoral researcher in plant evolutionary ecology at Goethe University Frankfurt, says there are only two to three populations of the species left in the area – and increasingly, they were coming into contact with climbers. “Climbers were installing climbing routes very close together that were absolutely damaging one population,” says March-Salas. That damage, he says, made the likelihood of species extinction higher.Research suggests that cliffs hold at least 35% of native plant species, and provide refuge for a range of rock-dwelling animals. The physical act of climbing has been shown to affect animal and plant species, as has the use of chalk in the sport. Climbers use chalk to improve friction between their hands and the rock, but the magnesium content changes the pH of the surface, affecting the ability of plants to grow. In many areas, there is also little regulation of where climbing routes can be set.The magnesium content in the chalk used by climbers changes the pH of the rock surface, affecting the ability of plants to grow. Photograph: Tom Grundy/Alamy“Nowadays if you’re a climber and you have the knowledge to establish a climbing route, you can go to almost any place and install one,” says March-Salas, who used to be a climber. He recently wrote a letter in Conservation Biology calling for better regulation of climbing routes to protect cliff ecosystems.Though he wants more regulation, March-Salas isn’t trying to stop people from climbing because, he says, the sport provides physical and mental health benefits. He believes better communication would help to protect cliff ecosystems. “I think it’s really important to put some signs close to the cliffs for climbers to understand what is there and what they can admire in the place that they’re climbing,” he says.Boggess agrees that climbers need to be part of the solution. “We’re not going to be able to discourage people from climbing – you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube,” she says.The Carolina Climbers Coalition bought some land in Rumbling Bald, North Carolina, to stop development on it and protect the endangered small whorled pogonia. Climbers helped gather data by doing species counts and monitoring every year. Now, the perennial orchid is stable in the area, Boggess says.“Many of the conservation biologists and land managers are pretty overtaxed when it comes to monitoring, and climbers go to a certain area over and over again,” she says. “Climbers visit through all the seasons, through all times of year, and you can develop this really special relationship with your local crag. That’s a really deep and beautiful thing that many people don’t have the opportunity to experience.”Rob Roy Ramey’s first job as a biologist was as a climber abseiling into peregrine falcon nests in the 1980s when the insecticide DDT threatened the birds. In the decades since, he has gained a PhD in ecology and has worked with nesting raptors across many parts of the US. Part of his expertise is in finding nesting sites and determining which are being used – knowing where birds are nesting allows parks to open and close routes at the right times, to protect them from climbers.Rob Roy Ramey and Aurelia Denasha, a US Forest Service biologist, investigate the death of a golden eagle chick high on a cliff in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, in July 2020. Photograph: Dr. Tim Mehan/AudubonThis year, to help safeguard a successful golden eagle nest in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, Ramey helped remove traverse ropes over the Colorado River in collaboration with the US Forest Service. “The river is too high and you’ll drown if you try to cross it,” he says. “So that eliminated the problem.”While aware of the impact of rock climbing on cliff ecosystems, Ramey thinks the problem is overstated and says there are far bigger issues for birds – including lead poisoning from bullets they ingest from their prey, and avian influenza. “The younger cadre of sport climbers, I think, should just be more mindful of cleaning cliffs and cutting trees,” he says.When they are armed with knowledge, climbers can be a potent self-regulating force. Ramey recalls seeing one climber violate a closure, and how the man in question was shamed on social media – which, Ramey says, helped avoid problems for many years. “Climbers have to be our own sort of police force in some ways,” he says.Indra deCastro-Arrazola, a climber with a PhD in biology who has studied cliff ecosystems, agrees that the ecological impact of rock climbing might be exaggerated. “We’re trying to find the ants in the room when there is an elephant in the room,” he says. He recognises his involvement in the sport and his job as a mountain guide might present conflicts of interest, but says bigger threats are habitat loss and pollution.An endemic campion on a limestone cliff in the Pyrenees, Spain. Often climbers don’t know if a species is threatened. Photograph: Bob Gibbons/AlamyFor species that are highly endangered, however, even small interventions can push them towards the brink. March-Salas refers back to species such as the Petrocoptis grandiflora flower in Spain. “Climbers didn’t know that this plant was under protection and that it was very vulnerable to disturbance,” he says.Because so many rock faces are essentially unregulated – with climbers able to open routes wherever they choose – other rare or endangered species could be affected too. March-Salas wants more research on cliff ecosystems, and he and DeCastro-Arrazola called for environmental impact assessments to better determine which cliffs can be climbed, and which should be left alone.“The problem is the lack of knowledge,” he says. “As climbers, we are blind in what we are affecting.”Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X (formerly known as Twitter) for all the latest news and features

Navajo people poisoned by uranium mining have been fighting for decades for restitution

The Diné helped dig the raw materials to build the US’s nuclear arsenal, but were never told of the dangerAllen Tsosie was just 14 when he went to work in the uranium mines in the Lukachukai mountains near Cove, Arizona.Tsosie was one of thousands of Navajos who took jobs in the mines, starting in the 1940s. They worked without masks or ventilation to disperse the lethal radon gas, and they were never told the rocks they were handling – leetso in the Diné language, or yellow dirt – were deadly. Continue reading...

Allen Tsosie was just 14 when he went to work in the uranium mines in the Lukachukai mountains near Cove, Arizona.Tsosie was one of thousands of Navajos who took jobs in the mines, starting in the 1940s. They worked without masks or ventilation to disperse the lethal radon gas, and they were never told the rocks they were handling – leetso in the Diné language, or yellow dirt – were deadly.In Cove, “you see a lot of women and children,” said Kathleen Tsosie, Allen’s daughter, because hundreds of men who worked in the mines have died.Between 1944 and 1986, miners excavated nearly 30m tons of uranium ore – material used to develop nuclear weapons – from the Diné homelands, which spread across north-west New Mexico and north-east Arizona, and a sliver of southern Utah. These workers developed respiratory illnesses like lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and silicosis at alarming rates.thumbnail with logo for economic hardship reporting projectAllen, who worked in the mines for three decades, was among the victims: he died of lung cancer in 1985, at age 47.Now, nearly 40 years after the last mine in Navajo country closed, former miners and other members of the Diné community who were exposed to uranium are fighting to get the radioactive waste cleaned up and to get fair compensation for those who have been sickened.In July, the US Senate voted to expand the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (Reca), which is set to expire next year. The original version of the law doesn’t cover those who worked in the industry after 1971 and offered limited coverage to downwinders – people who lived near nuclear weapons test sites or the mines. But if the expansion passes as part of a larger defense spending bill, advocates say it offers life-changing compensation to those who helped build the US’s nuclear arsenal and lived amid its toxic waste.The Guardian spoke with Diné miners and the children of miners about the deadly legacy of the uranium boom.Rain clouds gather over the Lukachukai Mountains, where according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) there are 32 abandoned mines, in Cove, Arizona, on 31 July 2023. Photograph: Adria Malcom/The GuardianFighting for restitution: Phil HarrisonHarrison grew up near Cove, one of the most concentrated areas of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. At night, he said, you could see the flickering of hundreds of miners’ campfires up in the mountains, “like little towns”.Harrison, whose father died of lung disease in his early 40s, has advocated for uranium workers since the 1970s. He worked briefly underground during high school, joining his father in the mines. Later Harrison worked in Tuba City, Arizona, as a surveyor at a shuttered mill while the site was being remediated.He helped to pass the original and also draft the proposed amendment, and has led delegations to Washington to lobby for it.As it stands, miners, millers, and truckers exposed to radiation can apply for a one-time, lump-sum payment of $100,000 as compensation, and downwinders can receive $50,000. But according to Harrison, Reca protections are far too narrow. Downwinders in parts of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado can apply; but those who lived just across the border in New Mexico – where the first atomic bomb was built and tested – cannot. Nor can those who worked in the mines or mills after 1971.Harrison himself has been treated for kidney disease, but he isn’t eligible for restitution: his time underground was too short, and remediation workers aren’t covered.Phil Harrison inside his office at Giving Home Health Care in Farmington, New Mexico, on 31 July 2023. Photograph: Adria Malcolm/The GuardianThe amendment would allow post-1971 workers to apply, expand the list of diseases and job categories eligible for compensation, and would provide larger payouts. It would also vastly expand the borders of downwind territories.Harrison also works as a patient advocate for a home health care company that serves former uranium workers through a Department of Labor program, helping them access home nursing and medical equipment. These services are life saving for the Diné, three-quarters of whom experience food insecurity and otherwise struggle to get the care they need.“The majority of our people were uneducated and couldn’t read,” Harrison said. They took jobs in the mines, unaware of the danger and thinking they would be supporting their families – but now, he said, “people are pinching pennies to make it to their medical appointments”.During a lobbying trip to Washington in July, Harrison said: “It is imperative that this amendment be made as soon as possible. We have lost a lot of people already.” Many more were waiting for funds to pay for medical care – people like Leo Martin, a former remediation specialist who had been diagnosed with advanced kidney disease.In August, Martin told the Guardian he planned to apply for compensation if the amendment passed. In early September, he died.‘We were poisoning ourselves’: Lena Dick CasonLena Cason remembers how her father would bring home jugs of cold water that he collected on the job, while working in uranium mines in the 1950s and 60s. It seemed like an easy perk of the industry: deep underground, along the ridge of a mountain range not far from Cason’s childhood home, cold water spilled down the walls of the caverns where her father and other men labored. “The water was so cool in the mines,” Cason said. “We thought it was delicious, but we were poisoning ourselves.”Lena Cason inside her home in Farmington, New Mexico, on 1 August 2023. Photograph: Adria Malcom/The GuardianNatural spring water is a precious resource for the Diné, 40% of whom still lack running water at home. The water her father brought home was used not just for drinking, but for laundry. Cason helped her mother washed her father’s work clothes in steaming tubs of mine water, which reeked with a sharp, metallic smell of uranium.She still marvels that mine workers weren’t warned against using the radioactive water. The mining companies “knew how dangerous it was, but they made no effort whatsoever to protect the people and the families”.Under a stormy sky in August, Cason stood outside her childhood home in the Red Valley, on the Arizona side of the Navajo nation. The house had been abandoned for many years, but the three apricot trees her parents had planted still grew in the front, and the playhouse her father built for the children out back was still there too.Cason’s father died of lung disease at age 43. Cason, who is 70, was treated for stomach cancer ten years ago and last year had surgery to remove a brain tumor. She has lingering pain and a tremor in her hand. She has been getting physical therapy to help her regain strength and mobility, but she isn’t eligible for home health care – those services are for uranium workers only, not downwinders. If the Reca amendment is passed, she would be able to get physical therapy at home, and a payout to make up for years of lost work.When medical bills pile up: Kathleen TsosieAt age seven, Kathleen Tsosie was already helping her grandmother herd sheep in the Red Valley, near Cove, Arizona. In summer, they moved their flock up into the Lukachukai mountains, where the air was cooler. When Tsosie was free to play, she and her friends scrambled over the piles of discarded uranium ore in their games. Her family, too, drank water from underground, and she remembers trucks rumbling through carrying ore, uncovered, to transfer stations and mills near and far.Posters documenting water contamination hang on the walls inside the library at the Cove Chapter house, which is being rented out to the EPA to conduct remediation work in Cove, Arizona, 31 July 2023. Photograph: Adria Malcom/The GuardianTsosie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, when she was 47; four of her five sisters and her mother also had breast cancer. As a downwinder eligible for Reca, Tsosie received $50,000 in restitution. But chemotherapy and radiation treatments – and the loss of her job as a school aide when the side effects of these treatments became unmanageable – drained those funds. When money ran out, she had to quit making the trip to Albuquerque for doctors’ appointments.Tsosie joined Harrison’s delegation to Washington in July to lobby for the Reca amendment. If it passes, she would receive an additional $100,000, which would allow her to pay her outstanding medical bills. But she didn’t make the trip for herself, she said; she did it for “all my people”.A month after the trip, Tsosie said she had doubts that the bill would pass. In the meantime, she said: “I thank my Creator every day that I get to see the sunrise.”In March, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the Lukachukai mining region where she played as a child to the Superfund list.Dealing with chronic illness, and grief: Albert LeeNearly 50 years ago, along the eastern edge of the Navajo nation near Shiprock, New Mexico, Albert Lee built a one-room house for his family. Frugal by necessity, Lee repurposed materials that were plentiful and free, gathering sand from the abandoned uranium mill down the road, which he then mixed into concrete to build a sturdy foundation.Lee had worked in the mines but like others, he labored without safety gear and received no warnings. “The government never told them what uranium can do to them down the road,” Lee’s son Robert said.These days Lee, 83, rides a mobility scooter and is tethered to an oxygen tank (both courtesy of a local home health care company). He has pulmonary fibrosis and can’t walk more than a few steps without wheezing.In late July, Albert and his wife, Helen, buried their daughter Cheryl, who died just weeks after she was told she had cancer in her lungs, kidneys and pancreas. The family suspects that uranium was to blame.Albert has received a Reca payment, but Cheryl, because she didn’t live in a specified downwind county during the law’s narrowly drawn dates, was not eligible.Albert Lee outside his home in Shiprock, New Mexico on 1 August 2023. Photograph: Adria Malcom/The GuardianThe Shiprock mill, where Albert found abundant sand to build his house with was leveled in the 1980s. A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounds a nearby evaporation pond; on the fence, a sign reads Yíiyá Bááhádzíd. “Danger: humans and animals must not drink the seep water.”Around the time the site was remediated, Robert Lee said, officials from the Navajo Nation came around, asking about radiation exposure and saying they would return to test his parents’ house. If it was found to be hazardous, the family could be relocated. Then, he said, “they took all the documents, the pieces of paper, and they left”.“The wind must have blowed through the car, and blew all the documents away,” Robert joked. “Nobody ever came back to see if we are contaminated.”Almost 40 years later, the Lee family is still waiting for somebody to arrive with a Geiger counter.

Suggested Viewing

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!

CONTACT US

sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.