All posts by Mitch

From 1998 to 2006, Mitch Tobin covered environmental and other issues for the Napa Valley Register, Tucson Citizen, Arizona Daily Star, and High Country News. He won numerous awards for explanatory, feature, and deadline writing, including two first prizes from the Arizona Associated Press Managing Editors for his stories on water and border issues. Endangered grew out of his yearlong series on Arizona’s endangered species, which was a finalist for the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. As a reporter, Mitch was certified as a wildland firefighter by the Coronado National Forest, which allowed him to embed with crews battling some of the largest blazes in the Southwest’s recorded history. Tobin’s coverage of the 2002 wildfires, including the 470,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire, was honored in the Best of the West contest. In 2006, Mitch was named one of eight fellows of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, sponsor of the nation’s oldest writing fellowship for journalists. Before becoming a reporter, Mitch worked for the Urban Institute in Washington; the Arizona League of Conservation Voters in Tucson; the National Parks Conservation Association in Oakland; and the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. He has also taught English in Ecuador and journalism at Pima Community College. Mitch is a now consultant with California Environmental Associates, a San Francisco-based firm that helps foundations and NGOs with strategic and business planning. Currently, Mitch’s work focuses on evaluating programs and investments for philanthropy and tracking environmental trends through the EcoWest project. At CEA, Mitch was a lead writer of the Design to Win report, which outlined an investment strategy for philanthropists interested in fighting global warming. Design to Win helped inspire the Hewlett, Packard, and McKnight foundations to commit more than $1 billion to create ClimateWorks, a global philanthropic network dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preventing dangerous climate change. Mitch grew up on Long Island, graduated from Yale College with a bachelor’s in Ethics, Politics and Economics, and earned a master’s in political science from UC Berkeley. He lives in Denver.

Womb with a view: ultrasound images

One of the amazing things about modern pregnancy is that you get to see sneak previews through ultrasound sonograms.

While pregnancy is anything but abstract to Ginette, in many ways, I’m on the outside looking in, which has made these in utero images all the more captivating.

Like many expectant parents, I’ve been collecting the views and have assembled them in an online gallery that’s embedded below.

Before Ginette was showing, these images were one of the only ways I could make the pregnancy real. Now, with a little more than two months to go until the due date, and Ginette’s belly seemingly swelling by the day, it’s much easier to visualize something growing and evolving inside her.

The image below was the first glimpse of the embryo and was taken about a month after conception.

7 weeks ultrasound photo

During the ultrasound, the technician or doctor will measure the little creature with a ruler tool on the screen, as shown below.

62 days ultrasound photo

The most recent ultrasound was more than two months ago, at the 20-week milestone that’s roughly the midway point of pregnancy. I was surprised by how developed the fetus’ head was in the image below.

20 weeks ultrasound

We know we’re expecting a girl, but I’ve had trouble finding the right words to describe the life growing inside of Ginette. “Fetus” is the technical term for an unborn, developing mammal that’s beyond the embryonic stage (see graphic below), but that instantly makes me think of the acrimonious abortion fight.

Prenatal development table
Source: Wikipedia

Part of the issue for me is not wanting to jinx the pregnancy. Traditionally, Jews wouldn’t buy anything for a baby or discuss names until it arrived out of fear it would cause a miscarriage. I’m a Jew by birth, devout atheist by choice, and only superstitious about the N.F.L., but it still feels a little like counting your chickens before they hatch to call a fetus a baby or daughter. Perhaps I’m sensitized to the risk because my father lost his first son and my half-brother, Mark, due to sudden infant death syndrome a half-century ago.

Whatever the cause, hopefully this prenatal syntax issue I’m having will become moot in a couple months when our daughter arrives. I’m not sure if we’ll have any more ultrasounds before then, so the next encounter may be in the flesh.

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Pineapple Express ski videos

Over the past two months, Colorado has been slammed by three waves of warm, wet storms that dumped snow measured in feet across the state’s northern and central mountains. These atmospheric rivers are nicknamed the Pineapple Express because they transport subtropical moisture from around Hawaii to the Western United States, as shown in this National Weather Service graphic:

Pineapple Express
Source: National Weather Service

The animation below illustrates the last of the atmospheric river events. The map doesn’t show what happens on land, but this depiction of water vapor gives you a sense of what’s transpiring.

Atmospheric river
Animation of atmospheric river event, February 2014. (Source: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division)

Good things happen, from my perspective, when the jet stream taps the Pacific Ocean and plows it into the Continental Divide. A couple of weeks ago, I skied at Monarch Mountain after 118 inches–nearly 10 feet–had fallen in the prior 14 days. In the shot below (click to enlarge), I would guesstimate the snow drift was 15 feet tall right along the Divide.

Snow drifts atop Continental Divide at Monarch Mountain. Photo by Mitch Tobin.
Snow drift atop Continental Divide at Monarch Mountain. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Here’s a video I filmed during my day at Monarch, where I’ve been able to ski for free this year in abundance thanks to the perks of annual passes at Loveland and Copper/Winter Park.

118″ at Monarch from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

The atmospheric rivers haven’t been enough to overcome California’s epic drought. In Colorado, the San Juan Mountains have been bypassed by some of this moisture. But most of Colorado’s ski areas are enjoying one of their best seasons in years.

Here’s a video I shot with my buddy Forrest at Loveland Ski Area, which includes some of my best impressions of farm animals during the walk under the I-70 tunnel.

Loveland Jan 30 2014 from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

I had fun with these two videos, but there’s no story, so I decided to create a clip with some narration and a narrative. The video below, filmed at Copper and Winter Park, includes cameos by friends Pat and Diane.

Rocky Mountain Way from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

I flexed some new video muscles with this last piece, though it did require a fair bit of time to record and time the narration. My goal was to create a 90-second video with about 30 clips averaging 3 seconds each.

In addition to skiing/snowboarding as much as I can before becoming a father, I’m trying to improve my video skills (see more clips here). I’ve found the only way to do all of this while maintaining a full-time job is to combine the alpine exploits with the filming. It’s the editing that takes forever, and it’s not nearly as fun as pushing the start button on the GoPro camera and then carving turns down the mountain.

Time-lapse video: assembling the crib

Instead of skiing last weekend, I assembled a crib for my daughter to-be. She’s scheduled to arrive around May 5.  I still couldn’t put down my video cameras, so rather than film a mogul run, I did a time-lapse of the furniture assembly.

Crib assembly time lapse from Mitch Tobin on Vimeo.

The video above took about 2 hours to capture. I used an iPhone app called TimeLapse, which I typically employ for sunsets and cloud formations.

I’ve come to expect maddening directions (or lack thereof) when it comes to assembling products, but aside from having three different sizes of screws that were nearly indistinguishable, the crib was relatively straightforward to construct.

I suppose this is one of my first acts of parenting!

The president at Dubrow’s: How my dad led JFK to the toilet

In the fall of 1960, a few weeks before the November 8 presidential election, John F. Kennedy came to Brooklyn’s Kings Highway for a campaign rally at Dubrow’s Cafeteria, the restaurant chain started in 1929 by my great-grandfather, Benjamin Dubrow. Kennedy, locked in a tight race with Richard Nixon, was seeking to energize the base in a Democratic stronghold.

Dubrow's cafeteria, Kings Highway, Brooklyn. Source: Wikipedia
Dubrow’s cafeteria, Kings Highway, Brooklyn. Source: Wikipedia

My grandfather, Max Tobin, and my father, Paul Tobin, were working at the store in 1960. I was given a name starting with “M” in honor of Max, who died a year and a half before my birth in 1970. He looks like he’s bursting with pride in the photo below.

My grandfather and JFK at Dubrow's Cafeteria. Photographer unknown, via Sandra Cohen.
JFK at Dubrow’s Cafeteria. My grandfather Max stands directly above the candidate. Photographer unknown, via Sandra Cohen.

I’ve had trouble confirming details about the 1960 rally, such as the exact date, but my dad, now 78, told me this week that he worked with Kennedy aide Larry O’Brien to arrange the visit.

“I was the go-between,” he said. “It was about two weeks before the election and Kennedy came on a Thursday night.”

O’Brien, who would later serve as NBA commissioner, was the advance man. He had a critical mission: ensure Dubrow’s had something his boss liked to eat. The only problem was that Dubrow’s was a working-class, Jewish-style cafeteria, and JFK was a Roman Catholic blue blood from New England.

“He loved shrimp cocktail, but we didn’t make shrimp cocktail at our place, so we sent someone to Lundy’s world-famous seafood house in Sheepshead Bay,” my dad said. “He also wanted lobster bisque. We weren’t kosher, but that wasn’t one of our soups.”

John F. Kennedy at Dubrows Cafeteria in 1960. Photographer unknown, via Sandra Cohen.
John F. Kennedy at Dubrow’s Cafeteria in 1960. Photographer unknown, via Sandra Cohen.

JFK also had a steak and Heineken beer. For some reason, “London broil” comes to mind when I think of this story, which became part of the family folklore, but my dad wasn’t sure what type of beef Kennedy ate that night.

What my dad does remember is leading JFK to the toilet in Dubrow’s, with Secret Service in tow.

“I was in the men’s room with him,” he said.

Four decades later, I wound up leading another presidential candidate to the bathroom. I was a reporter at the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, and one day while walking across the newsroom, I looked up to see Arizona Senator John McCain striding toward me. “Which way to the men’s room?” asked McCain, who was there for an editorial board meeting. I shook his hand, pointed him in the right direction, and he was gone. I’ve always regretted not walking with him, spending a few more seconds with a historic figure, but he seemed to be in a hurry. Maybe he really had to go.

John F. Kennedy at Dubrow's Cafeteria in 1960. Photographer unknown, via Sandra Cohen.
John F. Kennedy at Dubrow’s Cafeteria in 1960. Photographer unknown, via Sandra Cohen.

I haven’t found any press accounts of the 1960 event at the Kings Highway Dubrow’s, so I’m not sure how many people attended, but my dad said “the crowd was so huge that after it dispersed, there were three or four or five bushels of shoes lost in the avalanche of people coming through.” It must have been some stampede.

These photos of the event, posted by Eve Lyons, another great-grandchild of Benjamin Dubrow, show Kennedy mixing with the crowd in an intimate manner you wouldn’t see today, at least not without having passed through metal detectors.

The Wikipedia entry on Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood provides some background on Dubrow’s and the Kennedy rally:

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Kings Highway had Dubrow’s Cafeteria, a classic cafeteria where holes would be punched in patrons’ printed tickets, which would total the cost of the meal. It was a popular place to eat and schmooze . . . In his run for the White House, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy held a massive campaign rally just outside Dubrow’s Cafeteria. A huge crowd of people turned out to hear this popular political icon speak, stretching for blocks in all directions. Years later his brother Senator Robert F. Kennedy (“Bobby”) held a similar campaign rally there for his run for President, with a similarly large audience.

A few weeks after the 1960  Brooklyn rally, Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon. He carried New York 52% to 47% and won the national vote by just 0.17%.

The Dubrow’s on Kings Highway closed in the late 1970s, but another Dubrow’s in Manhattan stayed open until 1985. On October 30, 1980, President Jimmy Carter held a campaign event in front of the Manhattan restaurant, located on Seventh Avenue in the Garment District, another stronghold for unions and Democrats.

Carter ate at the Manhattan Dubrow’s the day of his rally. Like JFK, the peanut farmer from Georgia wasn’t quite kosher.

“He ate a corned beef sandwich with mayonnaise,” my dad told me.

Jimmy Carter at rally outside of Dubrow's Manhattan store.
Jimmy Carter at a rally outside of Dubrow’s Manhattan store. He put mayo on his corn beef sandwich, according to my dad. Photographer unknown.

Video: mountain species, climate change, and the escalator effect

I’ve been shooting more video lately, so I wanted to share the first movie I’ve created for EcoWest. This 2 minute 40 second video explains how climate change will affect pikas, marmots, and other mountain species in the American West.

I attended a great, weeklong training in video this summer at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. The course was geared toward one-man bands and backpack video journalists. Nowadays, a single person can capture great HD video and audio. As media outlets continue to struggle financially, there’s immense pressure to force journalists to wear several hats and do the jobs of many people.

I filmed this video with fairly simple gear: my iPhone and a Canon Vixia HF R20 handheld camcorder.  I used Adobe Premiere Pro for editing, including generous doses of its warp stabilizer tool to reduce the shaking. It’s not easy to hold a camera steady when the wind is howling at 40 mph on the lee side of the Continental Divide. For some of the scenic footage, I was using a monopole that doubles as a hiking stick. There’s no substitute for a sturdy tripod, but I’m never anxious to carry one while climbing a Colorado mountain.

Creating videos sure does take time, but I’m having fun with it and I’ll be creating more in the months to come. Below is the video and the post from EcoWest that provides more detail on how warming temperatures will force mountain species uphill.

Escalator effect: mountain species and climate change

Mountains are especially vulnerable to climate change, so scientists are keeping a close watch on species such as the American pika (Ochotona princeps). This small mammal, which resembles a hamster and is a relative of the rabbit, lives in alpine and subalpine terrain across Western North America.

Although relatively widespread and usually found in protected public lands, the American pika is considered an indicator species for climate change and may face a challenging future. These cute critters are super-sensitive to heat and can die in a matter of hours is exposed to temperatures of 78 degrees or above.

As the mercury continues to rise in the decades ahead, pikas and many other mountain species are expected to ascend in elevation in search of cooler conditions—what’s been dubbed the “escalator effect.” But mountains eventually top out at a summit or ridge, so plants and animals can only climb so high.

“The pika is toast,” is how environmental law expert J.B. Ruhl opened his 2008 Boston University Law Review article on the challenge of administering the Endangered Species Act in an era of climate change.

Although some scientists and conservation groups remain deeply troubled about the pika’s prospects, recent research on the species has suggested it may be more resilient than previously thought.

Because pikas are photogenic and mountains are at the heart of the American West, I thought they would be fitting subjects for our first EcoWest video, which is embedded below (you can also watch on our Vimeo and YouTube channels). This is a new format that we’d like to explore further, so I’d welcome any feedback from viewers.

Escalator effect: climate change and mountains from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Background on boulder bunnies

Pikas live near sea level in parts of Western Canada, but in the United States they’re found much higher up. In places such as Nevada and Southern California, they’re rarely observed below 8,200 feet. In North America, as one moves southward toward warmer climes, pikas live at progressively higher elevations.

Here in Colorado, pikas are a common sight on talus slopes around treeline (roughly 11,000 feet) and above. The five-ounce animals blend in well with the boulders and scree, so you’re likely to hear them chirping first. But they’re not hard to see in summer as they scurry to gather grass and flowers for “hay piles” that will sustain them through the brutal alpine winter.

“Charismatic and conspicuous” is how the National Park Service’s Pikas in Peril project describes the animals, which were called “little chief hares” in the 19th century and are nicknamed “boulder bunnies” today.

American pika in Colorado
American pika in Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Conservation status and climate change

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, which rates the status of species around the world, puts the American pika in its “least concern” category. But the IUCN also notes that “the most pervasive threat affecting the American pika appears to be contemporary climate change.”

The map below (from this presentation by Scott Loarie at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution) shows the probability of pikas going locally extinct in the American West in the 21st century. Areas in red, such as Northern California, Oregon, and the Great Basin, are where pikas face the greatest threats of extirpation. They’re expected to fare better in higher-elevation blue areas, in places like Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. (This map includes areas with suitable habitat but no pikas; for the outlines of the pika’s current range, see this image.)

Probability of pika extirpation in 21st century

Noted conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, who taught Loarie in graduate school, says that “if Scott’s map is correct, pikas will no longer be charming companions to weary, out-of-breath hikers like me in Nevada, Oregon, and most of California.”

Below is another set of projections from University of Idaho researchers. These maps show the pika’s suitable habitat under three climate change projections: B1 is an optimistic scenario for greenhouse gases, A2 is pessimistic about our ability to contain carbon emissions, and A1B lies in between. According to this study, higher emissions and warmer temperatures will shrink the pika’s range.
Current and projected suitable habitat for pikas

Current and projected suitable habitat for pikas

Steep declines in Great Basin

Besides increasing heat-related stress, global warming could, paradoxically, cause pikas to freeze to death. If warming temperatures thin the snowpack, the animals will have less insulation during the winter, when they retreat beneath the surface but don’t actually hibernate.

In a place like the Great Basin, where climate change is projected to boost summer temperatures and shrink the winter snowpack, pikas face a “perfect storm,” the IPCC says. A 2011 paper in Global Change Biology concluded that the extinction rate for pikas in the Great Basin had increased nearly five-fold over the past decade. Examining 25 sites with historical records of pikas in the 20th century, the researchers found that nearly half of the local extinctions had occurred since 1999. Pikas in the Great Basin have been moving upslope at an average rate of nearly 500 feet per decade since 1999, 11 times faster than before (see this ScienceDaily story for details).

American pika in Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado
American pika in Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Resilient species?

While Great Basin pikas appear to be in deep trouble, other research in the American West has found that the species is adapting to the 21st century climate. A 2011 study of 69 historical pika sites in the Southern Rockies, some dating back more than a century, found the animals still present at 65 of the locations.

Since the 1940s, scientists have been observing pikas living in ore dumps near Bodie, California, at about 8,400 feet elevation. “There appears to be no evidence that heat stress in summer at Bodie causes mortality or population decline of pikas on these small habitat islands,” the IUCN said, although warmer temperatures may have inhibited pikas from colonizing unoccupied habitat.

Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service describes the situation:

Despite the trends of increasing American pika declines in the Great Basin due to increasing temperatures, there is ample evidence that the species can survive and thrive in some habitats with relatively hot surface temperatures. American pika populations thrive at a lower elevation site in the mountains near Bodie, California and in the hot climates of Craters of the Moon (Idaho) and Lava Beds National Monuments (California). Pika persist at these sites because they reduce activity during hot mid-day temperatures by retreating to significantly cooler conditions under the loose rock areas and perform daily activities during the cooler morning and evening periods. Despite altering their behavior in response to high temperatures, pikas can maintain high birth and low mortality rates.

Feds decline to list pika under ESA

That statement from the Fish and Wildlife Service came in response to a 2007 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the American pika under the Endangered Species Act.

In February 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service declined to protect the pika under the tough federal law. “Although the American pika could potentially be impacted by climate change, we believe the species as a whole will be able to survive despite higher temperatures in a majority of its range,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said. “We believe the pika will have enough high elevation habitat to ensure its long-term survival.”

Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service developed models to predict if increasing surface temperatures due to climate change would affect the pika (below the surface, in the crevices of a talus slope, temperatures can be as much as 43 degrees cooler).

“New peer-reviewed information and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the pika is able to survive despite higher temperatures and will have enough suitable high elevation habitat to ensure that it will not face extinction in the forseeable [sic] future,” the agency said. The Center for Biological Diversity called the ruling a “political decision that ignores science and the law.”

The history of the Endangered Species Act certainly has its share of political meddling (see my book Endangered for the full story). But in this case, listing the pika wasn’t a biological slam dunk, in part because the danger lies decades ahead. The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged the jeopardy, saying “climate change is a potential threat to the long-term survival of the American pika,” but it concluded that the threat wasn’t urgent enough to warrant regulatory action. About 93 percent of the pika’s habitat is already under federal control and 30 percent is designated as wilderness.

Other species moving uphill

Pikas are just one of many mountain species that are being forced to adapt to climate change by moving uphill.

In August, researchers reported in Ecology and Evolution that plants have been scaling a mountain range near Tucson, Arizona in response to climate change. By re-examining a transect in the Santa Catalina Mountains five decades after a 1963 survey, scientists found “large changes in the elevational ranges of common montane plants” and concluded that “the Southwest is already experiencing a rapid vegetation change.” (See this story from the University of Arizona for more details on the study.)

As shown in the figure below, a Southern Arizona mountain is a layer cake of life zones, ranging from the Sonoran Desert at the bottom to a spruce-fir forest at the top. Enough warming could push the top layers right off these mountains.

Life zones in a typical southern Arizona mountain


Mountains and climate change

Anyone who has climbed to the top of West’s tallest mountains knows that biological diversity tends to decline the higher up you go. Here in Colorado, the tundra above treeline is a harsh environment (it’s already snowing in September), so few species can survive. Yet many mountains are biological gems with large numbers of endemic species found nowhere else. “Although species richness decreases with elevation, mountain regions support many different ecosystems and have among the highest species richness globally,” according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Here’s how the U.S. Global Change Research Program summed up the situation:

Animal and plant species that live in the mountains are among those particularly sensitive to rapid climate change. They include animal species such as the grizzly bear, bighorn sheep, pika, mountain goat, and wolverine. Major changes have already been observed in the pika as previously reported populations have disappeared entirely as climate has warmed over recent decades. One reason mountain species are so vulnerable is that their suitable habitats are being compressed as climatic zones shift upward in elevation. Some species try to shift uphill with the changing climate, but may face constraints related to food, other species present, and so on. In addition, as species move up the mountains, those near the top simply run out of habitat.

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity also petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to grant Endangered Species Act protections to four other mountaintop species: the ‘i‘iwi, a Hawaiian songbird; the white-tailed ptarmigan, a grouse-like bird that lives in the Rockies; Bicknell’s thrush, a songbird from the Northeast; and the San Bernardino flying squirrel of Southern California. All of these petitions are currently under review.

Winners and losers

On balance, scientists see global warming as a threat to fragile mountain ecosystems, but some montane species may actually benefit from climate change.

In 2010, scientists reported in Nature that yellow-bellied marmots (Marmota flaviventris) had increased in both size and number in response to warming conditions. Warmer weather means less time hibernating, more time fattening up, and therefore a higher survival rate for this type of ground squirrel. “Earlier emergence from hibernation and earlier weaning of young has led to a longer growing season and larger body masses before hibernation,” the scientists concluded. (See this companion story in Nature and segment on NPR for more on the marmot study.)

Marmot in Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado
Marmot in Holy Cross Wilderness, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

Climate change will create winners and losers, not only among high-country critters but also in human society and the global economy. A resurgent marmot population will have implications for other species in their habitat, while any declines among pikas will affect their own ecological niche. As challenging as it is to predict the future range and behavior of one species, the situation gets even more complicated once you factor in the many interconnections in the web of life.

EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.