Last year, Gizmodo launched Earther, a new website dedicated to the environment, the people and entities working to save or destroy it, and those who will be most impacted by its destruction. We’ve survived a lot in the past 12 months, from Scott Pruitt’s EPA to rising CO2 levels and natural disasters changing the lives of thousands. It’s been difficult, but we’ve also seen resilience, recovery, and people who are doing everything in their power to stand up for their communities and for the planet.
On Earther’s first anniversary, we wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of our favorite stories from the past year, covering everything from hot sauce to open skies, and everything in between. We hope you stick around for our next year, and beyond, as we continue to bring you coverage of the fight for the planet, through the midterms and beyond.
After years of painstaking acoustic measurements, Gordon Hempton identified this spot on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as the quietest place in the U.S.—the spot most free of our man-made noise pollution. He has nurtured this square inch, guided people to it, and protected it from encroaching cacophony of our modern world. But now it faces its biggest threat yet.
As I stood listening to bird calls, leftover rain dropping from higher parts of the canopy, and creatures scattering in the underbrush, a plane flew overhead like static in the middle of a sonata. Later David Youngberg, one of my fellow hikers and a former Navy mechanic, will tell me it was likely a Growler, one of the Navy’s loudest jets. Flights of these planes are ramping up over America’s quietest place, turning a secluded spot on the Olympic Peninsula into a playground for wargames.
Americans devote 70 hours, annually, to pushing petrol-powered spinning death blades over aggressively pointless green carpets to meet an embarrassingly destructive beauty standard based on specious homogeneity. We marvel at how verdant we manage to make our overwatered, chemical-soaked, ecologically-sterile backyards. That’s just biblically, nay, God-of-War-ishly violent.
To understand the sheer inanity of devoting 40 million acres, nearly half as much land as we set aside for our biggest crops, to an inedible carpet, we need to back up—beyond the modern lawn’s origins with a real estate familypeddling the “American Dream” as Whites-only cookie-cutter suburbs—to the evolution of grass.
But I can’t talk about any of these things without first addressing how lazy and short-sighted it is for Americans to allow the Pacific Northwest to be logged routinely for disposable paper products. You know what I mean: the paper cups many of us don’t even reuse over the course of a single barbecue, the quilted napkins we rest our phones on because we’re afraid of café tables, and yes, the toilet paper upon which we wipe our butts.
Lastly, I want to tell you to save up and buy a bidet.
Two and a half miles east of Aileen Román Rodríguez’s home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico lies the Battery Recycling Company Superfund Site, a 16-acre former lead-smelting facility that shut down in 2014, after the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed its 20 years of operations had resulted in toxic levels of heavy metalsat and around the site. It flooded during Hurricane Maria, too.
What’s clear is that the Battery Recycling Company Superfund—and other industrial sites like it around Arecibo—continue to threaten Rodríguez and her community, in ways that natural disasters will only exacerbate.
Even though it’s only 152 feet above sea level at its peak, Avery Island is one the highest points in the Gulf Coast. A two hour drive west of New Orleans, it sits atop an enormous salt dome that bulges from the earth, elevating the land above the swamps and bayous that surround it. A generation ago, it was unthinkable that this natural fortress could be overcome by water. But Hurricane Rita’s threatening surges were a symptom of an immense shift in the Gulf Coast, the result of decades of harsh land use practices and climate change.
Now, the McIlhenny are fighting to save the island to which their family history and business are inextricably linked.
Back in Torrey, Utah, Bendingfield-Smith, who fought for her town to become a designated Dark Sky community, looks at the stars above her home every single night. As night falls on a cloudless night, the sky is revealed to be brimming with stars, she says.
“The stars are so bright here, like you can reach your hand out and touch time,” she told me, referring to the eons-old light of distant stars and galaxies, which is clearly visible in the very dark sky.
“It just reminds us where we are, who we are, and that we’re just a small part of something a lot bigger than us.”
From academia to activism, more and more people are recognizing that gang violence is an environmental health issue and should be treated like one.
“We’re finally at a place where the science is catching up with the anecdotal information that we’ve had for years,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, the senior vice president of climate justice at the Hip Hop Caucus, told me.
If the big players in the environmental movement took on the issue of gang violence, environmentalism could accomplish far more in terms of cleaning up communities. “The idea that some lives are worth protecting and others are not is kind of the core issue of environmental justice,” Julie Sze, an American Studies professor at the University of California at Davis, said.
The American Museum of Natural History’s New Climate Exhibit Delivers on Science But Avoids Solutions
The new AMNH exhibit may choose to focus on the science, but we don’t have the luxury of abstaining from getting political about climate change—it’s always been a political issue, even before Scott Pruitt graced the EPA with his presence. Although there’s an argument to be made that a permanent exhibit in a museum shouldn’t feature newsy information that could quickly change (such as the beliefs and behavior of our elected officials), above all else, a museum’s role is to educate the public. Discussing the realities of our world—messy human politics and all—doesn’t reduce a museum’s credibility. It shows the institution is dedicated to spreading truth, no matter where that truth comes from.
Today, the Legendary Sirens take to the water at Florida’s Weeki Wachee springs once a month to remind visitors that once a mermaid, always a mermaid. But 71-year-old Rita King’s’s performance serves another purpose, as well. She becomes a mermaid to teach visitors about the threats the spring is facing from pollution and development. As a Native woman—part-Hopi and Zuni—King’s relationship to Mother Earth, as she describes it, is rooted in her culture and in a sense of self-preservation.
Weeki Wachee took 40 million years to form, but in just 40 years, its flow has decreased by more than 10 million gallons of water a day. If the flow were to stop, the spring would cease to exist. It would dry, and, ultimately, it would die.
Like other so-called geoengineering schemes, Direct Air Capture, where scientists capture human-emitted CO2 and stop it from escaping back into the atmosphere, makes big promises that will require major investments before it can be realized. And whether or not the technology can be scaled up, it’s no panacea for climate change.
At its core, though, the idea is alluring for its simplicity.
“It’s a waste management problem,” Klaus Lackner, the Director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University, told Earther. “It’s about picking up the litter we have left in the street.”
Earther traveled to Sanibel Island, Florida to check out the biggest shell show in America. Exhibitors showed off their collections, competed for prizes and swapped shelling stories and knowledge at the 81st edition of the Sanibel Shell Show. Thousands of locals and tourists, some of whom came just for the show, shuffled through the rows of exhibits.
“You can’t do what we do if you don’t love shells,” Mary Burton, the co-chair of the Sanibel Shell Show’s artistic division, told Earther.
Virtually every type of locomotion has spawned a hobbyist community, from tinkerers who build their own cars to moonlighting aerospace engineers who fly their own ultra-light aircraft. But somehow, the idea of a homemade sub feels even more unusual and dangerous than taking to the skies in a DIY-plane.
“There are endless numbers of hazards” at the bottom of the ocean, John Wiltshire, the director of Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa told Earther. He named just a few, including getting stuck under a ledge, trapped in a cave, or simply becoming so mesmerized with your surroundings you forget to keep an eye out for danger.
Those hazards haven’t deterred a niche community of DIY-ers from trying to explore the ocean on their own, without insurance or the aid of an expensive, certified vehicle.
In this context, it’s easy to understand why the those at the America First Energy conference have fear in their hearts. This is final death rattle, and Donald Trump is the only thing standing between them and a new age of progress. And they know it.
“The Donald J. Trump administration is perhaps our last political chance at freedom,” Tim Huelskamp, Heartland’s director, said in his closing remarks.
Since 2017, Native Hawaiians have been restoring taro patches, also known as lo‘i kalo, as part of a federally-designated estuarine research reserve with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Through this partnership between government, community groups, and academia, participants hope to revive an ancient sustainable land management system to improve the region’s water quality. But if the project proves successful, it would do more than that. It would demonstrate that traditional knowledge can help tackle some of Hawaii’s most pressing environmental challenges, from collapsing coral reefs to invasive species.