A Family Vacations Amidst Changing Landscape While some may escape to sandy beaches on their summer family vacations, two climate scientists have opted for a less-common destination — the American Southwest. The Arizona couple take their children on an exploration of a changing landscape shaped by drought.
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A Family Vacations Amidst Changing Landscape

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A Family Vacations Amidst Changing Landscape

A Family Vacations Amidst Changing Landscape

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Drought is the focus of Climate Connections this month, our yearlong collaboration with National Geographic that looks at how climate shapes people and how people shape the climate.

Today we meet a married couple, both climate scientists in the American Southwest. Global warming for them is professional and personal as they think about the environment they want their children to inherit.

NPR's Richard Harris joined them on a trip through their rapidly changing landscape.

RICHARD HARRIS: Jonathan, Julie, Jackson and Eli look like any other family out to enjoy a few days under the towering Ponderosa pines, in the highlands of eastern Arizona.

Ms. JULIE COLE (Geologist): Eli, let's go see the lake. Come on, sweetie.

HARRIS: They've driven out of the baking heat of Tucson in an SUV jammed with ice chests, car seats and Rosie, the golden retriever. And now they're breathing the pine-scented mountain air.

(Soundbite of child)

HARRIS: Suddenly a big black and white bird flaps overhead.

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK (Geologist): Wow. That is so cool.

Ms. COLE: It's a bird called an osprey and he had a fish in his claws.

HARRIS: Jonathan Overpeck and Julie Cole see these woods a lot differently from other campers. They're both geologists at the University of Arizona - both specialists in understanding the deep history of climate change in this part of the world, and both worried about the future.

(Soundbite of child)

Ms. COLE: Rosie, come here. Oh you're heavy. Look at that. I hope you rolled on something dead.

HARRIS: They're using the start of their summer vacation to scope out places that are already beginning to change with the climate.

Mr. OVERPECK: You ready? Kids? Let's move.

(Soundbite of car engine starting)

HARRIS: A few hours drive from the mountain lake, we pull off the road and wander into an area that was devastated by the region's biggest forest fire in centuries. Peck and Julie, as they liked to be called, look a little stunned by the scene.

Ms. COLE: Well, at first glance it looks pretty depressing. I mean we're standing amidst a lot of really black and tall trees here, and I would say most of them, 90 percent of them, are dead.

Mr. OVERPECK: The reason it happened when it did just a couple of years ago was we're in a major drought. And a lot of these trees just got real dry, and so when the fire got going there was no stopping it.

HARRIS: It still feels dry under foot.

Mr. OVERPECK: Yeah, we're still in the drought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Peck's nervous laugh underscores his worries about this area. Climate forecasts are almost unanimous. The Southwest could well be heading into a permanent drought this century, the kind of drought that contributed to the demise of previous civilizations in this part of the world. Over the past five years alone, nearly one-fifth of the state's forests have burned. The reservoirs are just half full. And all this is happening in the midst of a huge population boom.

Mr. OVERPECK: And I don't think people understand what they're doing when they build a house up in these fire-adapted pine forests, under the face of climate change, that they're buying a house that has a good chance of burning before the mortgage is paid off.

HARRIS: I wonder how aware people are who are moving into the region that - how rapidly it's changing?

Ms. COLE: You know, that's a good question. Maybe we should put up a billboard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Warning.

Ms. COLE: Warning. Drought ahead.

HARRIS: Julie Cole is happy to see signs that the vegetation here has started to bounce back after the fire.

Ms. COLE: But I do worry quite a bit that with changes in climate that we're seeing, that what we're going to see here in the future is a very different kind of forest. It won't be replaced as easily by the same species.

Mr. OVERPECK: What we see is instead of having little Ponderosa pines coming up to replace them, we're seeing instead these junipers and these yuccas. It's a more dry-adapted vegetation - lots of grass.

HARRIS: Their boys don't seem to care whether they are running around in a Pondaresa pine forest or a landscape dominated by scrubbier Pinon pines.

Mr. ELI COLE (Child): Elk poop.

Ms. COLE: Right. You think it's elk poop, Eli?

Mr. COLE: Yeah.

Ms. COLE: Do you think we're going to see an elk?

Mr. COLE: Yeah.

HARRIS: Their parents though would like them to experience the same wilderness that they love and enjoy.

(Soundbite of campground)

HARRIS: At the end of the day, the Overpeck-Cole family picks out a quiet campground.

Mr. JACKSON OVERPECK (Child): It's a bug.

HARRIS: They settle into rituals that go back generations.

Mr. JACKSON OVERPECK: Can I help you?


Mr. JACKSON OVERPECK: What can I do?

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK: Well, you can put the tent digs in, and I think that's going to mean we need a big old rock.

Mr. JACKSON OVERPECK: All right. I'll get a rock.

HARRIS: The Coleman stove comes out, father and son set to work on the campfire...

Mr. JACKSON OVERPECK: I'll put some pinecones in there.

HARRIS: ...and mom (unintelligible) on the toddler.

Ms. COLE: Eli, Eli, Eli, stay on our side. Okay?

HARRIS: Dinner is whole wheat pasta; then Jackson gets to roast a marshmallow.

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK: You got to rotate it. And it will probably catch on fire any minute.

Mr. JACKSON OVERPECK: Can I blow on it?

(Soundbite of blowing)


HARRIS: Then the kids go to bed, reluctantly, and the parents can finally settle around the fire to talk about their intertwined lives as climate scientists.

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK: Try to imagine, you know, you go to work all day, working on climate issues, and you come home and say, you know, what did you do at work today, dear, climate?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. COLE: Yeah, it's hard to draw the line when you walk in the door and sometimes we do better than others at doing that. But having kids has really helped because man, we have a lot to talk about besides work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HARRIS: Parenting for them means helping their boys grow up, but they're also acutely aware how rapidly the environment in the Southwest is changing - and how different it is likely to be when two-year-old Eli and five-year-old Jackson are adults.

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK: We're doing things to the environment and the impact is going to be greater for future generations. And when that future generation includes your own kids, it really hits home. But you know, we have to start thinking as a society, I think, is - you know, is it really ethical or moral to bequeath future generations a whole lot of costly painful climate change? It's a hard idea to convey to your kids that you better appreciate this because when you come back here when you're a grown-up, it's going to be all different.

Ms. COLE: It's funny because a lot of the places we've been, we could say that about them already. I mean just before Jackson was born, we climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and of course everybody is talking of how there won't be any ice left on Kilimanjaro.

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK: Yeah. It's really sad.

Ms. COLE: And you know, I work on coral reefs and coral reefs are probably not going to be anything like that today in 20, 30, 40 years.

Mr. JONATHAN OVERPECK: And I don't think we can really dwell on that with the kids. You know, I don't think they can - you don't want to hit them with that. And who knows? Maybe, you know, we'll save the day. Maybe it really won't be that bad because we still have time, and that's the good news in this whole story, we still have time.

HARRIS: Jonathan Overpeck and Julie Cole don't plan to leave the region, even though the Southwest is likely to be the part of the U.S. that will suffer most from climate change. They want to stay, and hope to make a difference.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: You can hear more reports on drought done by Richard Harris for this series at npr.org/climateconnections. That's where you can also see the video Richard shot in West Africa for public television's "Wild Chronicles" series.

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