Director’s Message: Spring 2016

We are all highly aware of the extreme polarization across all aspects of the political sphere in the United States, especially during this presidential election. Front and center in this tense landscape are issues surrounding the environment and the appropriate management of our public lands—with the recent Malheur occupation in Oregon reflecting some of this friction, and only amplifying the divide.

However, in this age of changing climate and declining forest health, I believe there’s an enormous opportunity to find common ground through sustainable forest management and mass timber products—specifically, through the emergence of cross-laminated timber (CLT).

Gifford Pinchot, the founding head of the U.S. Forest Service, envisioned foresters as conservationists and frontline stewards of the land. But from the 1950s to the 1980s, the practice of forestry on federal lands strayed from its conservation roots to an economically driven model of harvesting and replanting. The goal became maximum production rather than sustainable management, and the health of the federal forest system quickly declined.

As the impacts of these practices became clearer, the public began to equate forestry with extractive industries, such as mining and oil exploration. This shift in public perception fueled demand for greater conservation of public lands, and also helped drive major policy changes to federal forest management. The result was an abrupt reduction in forest harvest on federal lands from the mid-1990s to today (timber harvest on U.S. Forest Service land in Washington is now at 5 percent of what it had been in the ‘60s), leaving what were once heavily managed forests in a state of unmanaged regeneration. The impetus for these changes—preserving our forests—was noble and necessary. Yet wholly unmanaged regeneration, without the purifying and stochastic influences of fire or wind-throw, end up creating overstocked forest stands that are neither appropriate as wildlife habitat nor productive as forests.

So the question is, “How can forestry, something that was deeply embroiled in polarization in the Pacific Northwest, and an engineered wood product simultaneously help address ecological and social divides?”

Constructed from cross-laminated timber panels from the first floor up, nine-story Murray Grove—designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects—was the world's tallest modern timber residential building at the time of its completion in 2009.

Constructed with cross-laminated timber panels from the first floor up, nine-story Murray Grove—designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects—was the world’s tallest modern timber residential building at the time of its completion in 2009.

In the last decade, we’ve observed a revolution in wood building products that began in Europe and eventually spread to Canada and Australia. That revolution is the generation of mass timber products—extremely strong panels and beams created from the glue lamination of smaller boards—that can be used as structural components in large buildings. These CLT panels can be up to 40 feet in length by 10 feet tall and eight inches wide, and they can be used partially in place of steel and concrete in the production of wood-based tall buildings—allowing wood construction 10 to 20 stories tall (and reducing the impact of steel and concrete as major sources of CO2 emissions in the region). They create buildings that are structurally sound and fire-resilient, and they use materials that are fully renewable and that can be produced sustainably.

Since CLT is built from smaller boards, as well, I believe it could increase the value of small-diameter trees taken via thinning and restoration harvests. Targeting those trees could help improve the health and resilience of previously overstocked stands, restore wildlife habitat and reduce fire severity, and facilitate carbon storage in preserved mature trees and in CLT panels. Finally, building tall with wood represents a smart approach to urban densification, reducing pressure on rural landscapes and changing the way our cities and towns grow in the next 50 years.

There’s still more to learn about CLT and how best to build an industry that upholds and respects the values of so many interests. But the potential is real, and clearly gaining momentum.

During the last year, along with a number of faculty and staff in SEFS, I have been working with a group of researchers, agency personnel, environmental organizations, architects and private industry who have come together to plot the future of CLT in the state of Washington—and to do it right on all fronts. We see CLT as a catalyst for change in the built environment that is holistically integrated with sustainable land management, and we have organized events and testified in senate and house hearings on the development of CLT. Coming up on April 21, a well, we—SEFS, Forterra, the Washington Department of Commerce, and the Washington Forest Protection Association—will host renowned architect Andrew Waugh for a guest lecture on green building with mass timber products in Europe (RSVP to join us at the talk!).

Long-term, I have great hope for CLT development in the state, in large part because of the diverse cross-section of stakeholders invested in its success. We represent what might be considered disparate interests, yet we share a strong desire for a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future. That’s a powerful roadmap for overcoming polarization and political gridlock, and I look forward to our role in advancing this movement.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Photo of Murray Grove © Waugh Thistleton Architects.

 

Director’s Message: Winter 2016

While I was biking into work this past Monday, the air was incredibly cool and crisp, and the sky was actually somewhat blue for a change. I remember thinking, “What a perfect way to start another work week in January.” Then, as I walked into Anderson Hall I heard the sound of someone playing piano up in the Forest Club Room. Those notes reinforced my optimistic feeling for the week and made me think of our wonderful community at SEFS—and, in many ways, how much of it revolves around that room.

The 26-foot noble fir, brought up from Pack Forest for the SEFS Holiday Party this year, soars toward the ceiling of the Forest Club Room.

The 26-foot noble fir, brought up from Pack Forest for the SEFS Holiday Party this year, soars toward the ceiling of the Forest Club Room.

When Agnes Anderson donated the financial support to build Anderson Hall in the early 1920s, she stipulated that the large room on the second floor was to be known as the Forest Club Room, and that it would forever be dedicated to students within our School. Her intent was to create a reading room and a common space where students could gather, discuss, study, invent, reflect, forecast and celebrate. The room also happens to be visually impressive, as it has a vaulted gabled ceiling with chandelier lights, a balcony, a large fireplace that we use at annual events, and tall multi-paneled windows that create a cozy, naturally lit atmosphere. It has picked up a few other more eclectic features over the years—such as the elk head mounted on the balcony railing—yet is has remained a warm and inviting space.

For us, as well, it means so much more. Since coming to the University of Washington in 2012, I have emphasized the importance of community within the School, and the Forest Club Room plays a key role in uniting us as friends and colleagues. Sure, the couches are a bit tattered and the tables wobbly—and the carpet seems to attract a remarkable assortment of crumbs—but the room represents so much that is great about our programs, our history, our integrity, our enthusiasm and dedication to our science. It’s the staging ground for scores of meetings and social events, and a catalyst for interdisciplinary activities. Just in the past few months, the room has hosted receptions after SEFS graduate seminars; it was the site of the SEFS Holiday party, a Pecha Kucha night with the International Forestry Students’ Association, and a couple Dead Elk parties that echoed laughter through Anderson Hall late into the evening. In the next few months, the room will be home to a Natural Resources Career Fair, the Graduate Student Symposium and prospective graduate student weekend, a Capstone Poster Session to showcase undergraduate research, thesis and dissertation defenses, and so many other solo and group work sessions. The secret is out, too, as just last year the UW Daily ranked the room as one of the best study spots on campus.

Even as we plan for Anderson Hall to get a major refurbishment in the next several years, we will make sure the Forest Club Room remains almost exactly as it is today, just with updated lighting, insulation and windows. After all, the room is like so much of what we offer in our School—unpretentious, welcoming and enriching. On chilly and rainy winter days, especially, it is both a place of retreat and the platform for an advance. It is part of the very fabric that makes us such a special and cohesive program. So, as the piano softly plays in the Forest Club Room, I welcome you as students, colleagues, alumni and friends to come and enjoy this warm and wonderful space during the cold, dark months of winter—and any other time you find yourself in these halls.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Carbon Seminar: Winter 2016 Schedule

This winter, we are excited to host the first Carbon Seminar (ESRM 429a), which runs Tuesday mornings from 8:30 to 9:20 a.m. in Anderson 223 (apologies for this announcement coming too late for the first talk). It features weekly lectures from leading UW scientists who are covering the applications and cycles of carbon—the most interdisciplinary element!

The talks are open to the public, so check out the full schedule below and join us as often as you can!

posterWeek 1: January 5
“Diagnosing drought in a changing climate”
Professor Abigail Swann, Atmospheric Sciences & Biology

Week 2: January 12
“Forests, fire and reality in the global C cycle”
Director Tom DeLuca, SEFS

Week 3: January 19
“Deep soil C quantification and modeling”
Jason James, SEFS doctoral student

Week 4: January 26
“Climate adaptations in the Pacific Northwest”
Dean Amy Snover, Director, Climate Impacts Group

Week 5: February 2
“Life Cycle Assessment of bio-products and technology”
Professor Indroneil Ganguly, SEFS/CINTRAFOR

Week 6: February 9
“Crude oil remediation of soils by earthworm symbionts”
Professor Seana Davidson, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Week 7: February 16
“Water remediation from biomass-based C nanomaterials”
Professor Anthony Dichiara, SEFS

Week 8: February 23
“Microbial C production and diversity on the early Earth”
Dr. Eva Stueeken, NASA Postdoctoral Associate, Astrobiology

Week 9: March 1
“Applied climatology and wildfire C emissions”
Dr. Sim Larkin, Research Physical Climatologist and Team Leader, U.S. Forest Service AirFire Team

Week 10: March 8
“Microorganisms and the marine C cycle”
Professor Anitra Ingalls, Oceanography

SEFS Seminar Series: Winter 2016 Schedule!

The schedule is set for the Winter 2016 SEFS Seminar Series, and this quarter we’ve organized the talks around the theme of “Ecosystem Carbon.” Topics range from carbon nanomaterials to the oil sands of Alberta, and SEFS Director Tom DeLuca will kick off the series on Wednesday, January 6!

Held on Wednesdays from 3:30 to 4:20 p.m. in Anderson 223, the talks are always open to the public, and the first seminar of each month will be followed by a casual reception down the hall in the Forest Club Room. Students can register for course credit under SEFS 529a.

SEFS SEMINAR Carbon: Nanotubes to Biome Fluxes  Winter 2016 223Check out the schedule below and join us for as many talks as you can!

Week 1: January 6*
“Why the food yard waste bin is a good thing (carbon accounting for food scraps)”
Professor Sally Brown, SEFS

Week 2: January 13
“Carbon in New Guinea rain forests: Storage, dynamics and community-based conservation”
Dr. John Vincent, SEFS

Week 3: January 20
“Synthesis of carbon nanomaterials from biomass for environmental remediation”
Professor Anthony Dichiara, SEFS

Week 4: January 27
“Ecosystem genetics and riparian forest carbon flux: From common garden experiments to the field”
Professor Dylan Fischer, The Evergreen State College

Week 5: February 3*
“The carbon conundrum for aquatic ecosystems: Where does it all come from?”
Professor David Butman, SEFS

Week 6: February 10
“Soil carbon: A future for sequestration?”
Director Tom DeLuca, SEFS

Week 7: February 17
“Controlling processes of carbon uptake and distribution and their importance for productivity”
Professor Emeritus David Ford, SEFS

Week 8: February 24
“What deep soils can tell us about forest productivity and resilience”
Professor Rob Harrison, SEFS

Week 9: March 2*
“Forest community reassembly with climate change”
Professor Janneke Hille Ris Lambers, UW Biology

Week 10: March 9

“Measuring ecosystem function in the Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta: Problems and solutions”
Professor Derek MacKenzie, University of Alberta

* Indicates reception after seminar

Director’s Message: Autumn 2015 (The Starcraft Enterprise)

Autumn is such a special time of year, and the first weeks of the season always remind me of my years as a professor of forest soils at the University of Montana. Much like in our courses here at SEFS, our students there spent part of every week out in the field experiencing soils firsthand—getting their hands dirty, quite literally, with scientific discovery. We also embraced the lessons of my predecessor in Missoula, Professor Tom Nimlos, who insisted that “you can’t know anything about soils if you don’t know your plants.” So my classes made weekly forays into the prairie, woodland and subalpine ecosystems around us, simultaneously learning soils, plant species and how plant communities reflect the soils below. We explored how soil moisture and chemistry determine what can and cannot grow in a given climatic zone, and how plant communities in turn help shape the morphological characteristics of the soil below. The class was difficult, yet our students loved being outside every week—even in rain and snow—learning soils in a holistic and applied framework.

Field excursions are crucial to the understanding of all the natural resource sciences, and we have an especially long and varied tradition at SEFS of leading student research throughout the Cascades, Olympics and beyond. Whether studying soils, wildlife, forest management, ecology, recreation or hydrology, lectures and labs can only take you so far; at some point you need to see, touch and interact with natural and managed landscapes in order to grasp exactly how they function. In many ways, these trips—and the applied nature of our degree programs—are what separate us from other programs, and what make our curriculum so effective at delivering a comprehensive education in natural resource and environmental sciences.

The Starcraft Enterprise

The Starcraft Enterprise (minus the SEFS wrap it will have for the start of fall courses).

That’s why I’m so excited to introduce a new upgrade to our field programs this fall: We’re leasing a 30-passenger bus, the Starcraft XL 32, to shuttle our students in larger groups. That might not sound revolutionary at first, but we’ve grappled for a long time with the challenge, especially for larger classes, of how to transport students safely and efficiently to distant sites. We’ve often had to reserve several Suburbans and travel in caravans, requiring multiple drivers and limiting the potential for using drive time productively as a class.

During the last year, though, we worked closely with UW Fleet Services to arrange the lease for this bus, which we’ve dubbed the “Starcraft Enterprise.” We had it outfitted with a few special features for us, including a PA system for on-the-road lectures, its own wireless network, USB and charging ports, a 36-inch overhead monitor for presentations, and even our school logo on the side to advertise our research trips. The bus is designed for muddy boots and wet gear, as well—easy to clean out after a soggy day of stream surveys, or trudging through Pack Forest after the first snow of the season (hopefully coming earlier than last year!). I think it’s going to be a major improvement, and our faculty have already booked the bus for just about the whole year.

Not every field trip will require the bus, of course, and it won’t be able to access some of the rougher roads across the state. But maintaining our field courses is fundamental to the success of our programs, and the Starcraft Enterprise gives us a real boost to keep costs sustainable—and also to keep our students moving safely. I can’t wait to hear the first reports from the field!

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Summer 2015

In mid-June, on a visit to the Olympic Natural Resources Center out in Forks, Wash., I had the opportunity to tour the Hoh River Trust lands on the Olympic Peninsula. The Trust purchased and set aside these lands, which cover about 7,000 acres, during the last 20 years. The goal was to preserve the beauty of the 56-mile Hoh River that runs through the heart of the property, and create a zone of ecological integrity along the watershed.

Much of the area had been heavily managed in the previous 80 years, passing from small landowners to timber companies and ultimately to the Trust, and the forest is still managed today. In general, timber is being harvested at a sustainable rate and in a manner that supports continuous cover and habitat between harvest entries—and with an eye toward long-term habitat restoration and improvement. You have to marvel at the sheer size of some of the older stumps, and while I know it will take many, many years to restore the forest to the grandeur of those historical stands, I also know that much of that potential hinges on how we manage the forest today.

2015_07_Summer_HohSo the forest isn’t ‘idle,’ and neither is the land. It is an intense and ever-changing ecosystem driven by the hydraulic power of the Hoh River and the forces of fire and wind. One of the original European homesteads on the land has been lost to bank erosion from the river shifting across the floodplain at an average rate of about 20 feet per year, drawing rocks, trees, house and soil into the river, and leaving behind fresh-cut bank with exposed roots and burrow holes—all to be washed away in the next large runoff event. Amazingly, a day before our tour, two fires had broken out in this wet part of Washington in June, and one was still burning more than 20 days later. The lesson: Landscapes are incredibly dynamic, whether they experience constant human intervention or none at all. Such dynamism is found everywhere in nature, and our ability to address and work with these forces requires us to explore and understand ecological systems in their entirety.

Rural communities, with their interdependency on nearby forests and links to regional cities and international markets, also display complex dynamism. In those environments, creating a more integrated ecological and community system adds an additional layer of complexity—and also risk. Matching timber maturity and harvest scheduling with ecological objectives, for instance, can lead to cash flow challenges that cripple an organization or a company.

But that’s what makes this human ecosystem along the Hoh such an ideal test ground, and why I’m excited for the opportunity to partner with the Hoh River Trust, as well as the neighboring Olympic Experimental State Forest and Olympic National Forest, to conduct research involving faculty and students from our School. Natural laboratories like these lands, which share elements of the wild and of human management, are essential to sustainable forestry and the forest products industry. They give us a chance to integrate research across multiple disciplines, combining the expertise of our foresters, social scientists, ecologists, microbiologists, engineers, hydrologists and economists, among others.

Using these lands as an open research laboratory would allow us to conduct long-term studies experimenting with new approaches to silviculture, timber harvest and wood utilization that emphasize habitat objectives and continuous cover—all while achieving a sustainable flow of timber and revenue that supports regional demand and community well-being. I can envision us developing alternative strategies for restoration and conservation along the Hoh that will help increase the resilience of our ecosystems, economies and social networks throughout the Pacific Northwest.

There’s so much potential in this dynamic environment, and I heartily welcome the opportunity for us to help study, understand, manage, restore and sustain these rural landscapes.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Director’s Message: Spring 2015

While I was out running at 5 a.m. the other morning, I was thrilled to see the sky beginning to lighten on the horizon. Getting up and out the door at that hour is pretty brutal any time of year, but it’s particularly discouraging during the darkest, dampest months. So that faint glow offered a wonderful promise of lengthening days throughout April and into the summer.

We’re starting to see a similar horizon in our school, and it comes on the heels of an extended ‘winter’ of retirements. Each quarter, it seems, we’ve had to say goodbye to another round of great friends and colleagues, including some of our longest-tenured professors—from Dave Manuwal, Tom Hinckley and Bob Edmonds to Steve West, then David Ford and Kevin Hodgson, and now Frank Greulich, Bruce Bare and Gordon Bradley.

2015_04_Spring 2015These farewells have been sad and profound, and it’s hard to quantify just how much their absence will affect our community. The personality of a school or university, after all, is never static. It’s always shifting and evolving with the people who work here, and you can never exactly replace the experience—let alone the institutional memory and character—of one faculty member with another.

Yet these departures have also signaled a period of opportunity and new beginnings for the school. We’ve already added three new professors this year, and I’m excited to welcome their energy and ideas. Professor David Butman is a watershed biogeochemist who has joined us from Yale University as a joint appointment with Civil and Environmental Engineering. David studies carbon and nitrogen flux in whole watershed studies, and he provides our programs with an increasingly important perspective in freshwater ecosystems. Professor Patrick Tobin is our new disturbance ecologist who joined us from the U.S. Forest Service in Morgantown, W.Va. Patrick is an entomologist and forest health specialist who primarily focuses on large-scale insect infestations of forest ecosystems, and his work has broad applications for forest management. Through some internal shuffling, we were then able to hire Professor Peter Kahn in a half-time capacity. Peter is an eco-psychologist who works on evaluating the human relationship with nature, and he holds a joint appointment with the Department of Psychology.

As our new faculty members have gotten settled, we have also hosted several additional searches this winter and spring. We have now hired—or are in the process of hiring—three more professors, with the possibility of a fourth coming soon. On April 1, Dr. Bernard Bormann took over as the new director of our Olympic Natural Resources Center in Forks, Wash. Bernard joins us after 34 years with the Forest Service, and his research focuses on forest ecology and physiology. Dr. Anthony Dichiara is a chemical engineer who comes to us from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Anthony will join our bioresource science and engineering group this fall, providing new expertise in bioproducts. By then, we’ll also be welcoming at least one new quantitative wildlife ecologist, and it now looks like we’ll be able to hire two.

These faculty members bring a wealth of new strengths and capacities. They’ll greatly enhance our ability to address the complexities of land management, and the potential for new and dynamic products both here and abroad. And they give me hope for what we’ll be able to accomplish in the coming years—in the lab and in the classroom, and in all of the environments around us.

So while it would be easy to dwell on all we’re losing, I’ll also hold onto the feeling of that sunrise, and the promise of new beginnings.

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences

Water Seminar: Spring 2015

Professor David Butman is leading the Water Seminar (ESRM 429) this spring, and you can catch the action on Tuesday mornings from 8:30 to 9:20 a.m. in Anderson 223. We apologize for sharing this schedule too late for you to see Professor Butman’s introduction, but there are plenty of great talks and speakers lined up for the rest of the quarter!

Week 1: March 31
“Overview: Land-use and riverine biogeochemistry from a carbon perspective”
Professor David Butman, SEFS and Civil and Environmental Engineering

Week 2: April 7
“What stable isotopes can tell us about inputs to freshwater ecosystems”
Professor Michael Brett, UW Civil and Environmental Engineering

Week 3: April 14
“Biological N2 fixation explains ancient sustained use of subarctic alluvial meadows”
SEFS Director Tom DeLuca

Week 4: April 21
“Does shoreline development impact herring in Puget Sound?”
Tessa Francis, lead ecosystem ecologist
Puget Sound Institute, UW Tacoma

Week 5: April 28
“Effects of land use on the predictability of land-atmosphere fluxes and moisture transport in the North American monsoon region”
Dr. Ted Bohn, School of Earth and Space Exploration
Arizona State University

Week 6: May 5
“Carbon storage in terrestrial systems inferred from riverine chemistry”
Dr. Erin Martin, The Evergreen State College

Week 7: May 12
“Global watershed management tools”
Professor Jeff Richey, UW School of Oceanography
Adjunct Professor, Quaternary Research Center, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Week 8: May 19
“Sediment and chemical loading from the Green River watershed to the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund site”
Kathleen Conn, hydrologist, USGS

Week 9: May 26
“Hama Hama Seafood Co.: What resource management and conservation means for a sustainable seafood business in Puget Sound”
Lissa James Monberg, Hama Hama Seafood Co.

Week 10: June 2
“Lake Washington Ship Canal and current water management operations”
Kenneth Brettmann, senior water manager, Western Washington
Water Management Section, Army Corps of Engineers, Seattle District

Jim Furnish: Toward a Natural Forest

On Friday, April 10, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in the Forest Club Room, we are very pleased to host a special seminar featuring Jim Furnish, former deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who recently published a memoir about his career, Toward a Natural Forest: The Forest Service in Transition.

Toward a Natural ForestThe program will include a brief talk and reading by Furnish, who spent 34 years with the Forest Service and now works as a consulting forester in the Washington, D.C. area. We’ll also be viewing of a short documentary film by Seattle videographer Alan Honick, Seeing the Forest, which captures 20 years in the Siuslaw National Forest (where Furnish served as supervisor from 1992 to 1999).

Then, following the book and film presentations, Mike Anderson, a senior policy analyst with the Wilderness Society, will moderate a panel discussion about themes from the video and memoir—and their implications for public land management. SEFS Director Tom DeLuca will be joining Furnish and Honick on the panel, and we’re looking forward to a lively discussion!

You can check out a four-minute trailer for Honick’s video to get a look at his work, and Furnish’s memoir, published by Oregon State University Press, will be released on April 1.

The presentation is free and open to the public, so come out and join us!

From the Publisher
“Jim Furnish joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1965, enthusiastic and naive, proud to be part of such a storied and accomplished agency. Nothing could have prepared him for the crisis that would soon rock the agency to its foundation, as a burgeoning environmental movement challenged the Forest Service’s legacy and legitimacy.

The Forest Service stumbled in responding to a wave of lawsuits from environmental groups in the late 20th Century—a phenomenon best symbolized by the spotted owl controversy that shut down logging on public forests in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. The agency was brought to its knees, pitted between a powerful timber industry that had been having its way with the national forests for decades, and organized environmentalists who believed public lands had been abused and deserved better stewardship.

Toward a Natural Forest offers an insider’s view of this tumultuous time in the history of the Forest Service, presenting twin tales of transformation, both within the agency and within the author’s evolving environmental consciousness. While stewarding our national forests with the best of intentions, had the Forest Service diminished their natural essence and ecological values? How could one man confront the crisis while remaining loyal to his employer?

In this revealing memoir, Furnish addresses the fundamental human drive to gain sustenance from and protect the Earth, believing that we need not destroy it in the process. Drawing on the author’s personal experience and his broad professional knowledge, Toward a Natural Forest illuminates the potential of the Forest Service to provide strong leadership in global conservation efforts. Those interested in our public lands—environmentalists, natural resource professionals, academics, and historians—will find Jim Furnish’s story deeply informed, thought-provoking, and ultimately inspiring.”

Photo © Jim Furnish.

Jim Furnish

Director’s Message: Winter 2015

Last weekend, I woke up early and pored over newspapers and websites looking for a place to ski with my sons. I was extremely disappointed to see rain again forecasted for Snoqualmie Pass, with more rain predicted in the next two days, all the way up to 6,000 feet. A few ski areas were open, but those that were had limited runs available, or the conditions were icy and ragged and threatened to tear up your skis. Another time of year, such a soggy forecast would be welcome news. But it was a grim outlook for the first weekend in January.

As an avid alpine and Nordic skier, I am acutely aware of the poor early-season snow conditions that have plagued the Pacific Northwest since my family moved here in 2012. As a natural scientist, I am also keenly aware of the complexities of regional weather patterns, and I have to resist the temptation to ascribe all poor ski conditions to a warming climate. At the same time, climate change is predicted to bring warmer, wetter winters to the region, and the existing conditions at Snoqualmie Pass are bearing that out. I know some might chide me and argue that a shortened ski season is hardly cause for global panic. Yet the effects of our warmer winters will eventually ripple throughout the natural resources sector, threatening forest productivity, widespread insect outbreaks, stand-replacing fires, mudslides and all sorts of critical wildlife habitat, including salmon-spawning streams.

UW Climate Change Video Contest

In our first-ever Climate Change Video Contest, we are asking high school and undergraduate students in the state of Washington: What does climate change mean to you?

I couldn’t sleep later that night, and I found myself thinking about personal responsibility and how we can inspire collective action. Scientists have long understood and attempted to communicate the risks of CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, and the links between our behavior and climate change are very real and well-documented. Yet after decades of trying to build awareness, we have largely failed to move the voting public or our elected leaders to take determined action. During the holidays, I even read several reports that the recent downturn in gasoline prices has spurred higher sales of larger, fuel-consumptive vehicles. This type of short-term thinking reflects the gulf between what we’re constantly warned about climate change, and how we actually react as citizens.

The most frustrating part for me is wondering why these warnings won’t stick, so maybe we need to rethink our approach. Maybe we need to change the message. Or maybe we just need to change who is delivering the message and give prominent voice to younger generations—the future leaders who will inherit and confront the greatest impacts of climate change.

With that goal in mind, this year we are trying a new approach to addressing the climate issue. Rather than asking our scientists to tell a story of modeled predictions of a warming climate, we are hosting a video contest that challenges high school and college students in the state of Washington with a simple prompt: What does climate change mean to you? In the space of three minutes or less, they can approach the issue through virtually any artistic style. How to make this climate message resonate on a personal and actionable level, after all, is all that matters at this point.

So I’m really looking forward to seeing how students frame this issue. I’m excited to see what inspiration and ideas we can draw from them in communicating—and solving—the enormous environmental challenges ahead of us.

I’ll keep eyeing the forecast and hoping for more snow, of course, but always in the much broader context of achieving a sustainable balance with a changing climate and world.

Happy trails,

Tom DeLuca
School of Environmental and Forest Sciences