The rushing cascades of rainy Strathcona Provincial Park

Strathcona Park is the biggest park on Vancouver Island and the oldest provincial park in all of British Columbia. The park is in the central island, west of Campbell River and encompasses the Elk River Mountains. At 250,000 hectares, there are lots of opportunities for hiking and other outdoor adventures.

Lady Falls in Strathcona Park

I took a trip there in the fall last year after the busy summer season was over and despite the rain, it was a beautiful trip. The park is home to the alpine centre of the island and a large remnant of preserved old forests of fir and hemlock. Wildlife in the park includes the Vancouver Island marmot, Roosevelt Elk and the Vancouver Island wolf as well as cougars and black bears (though we didn’t see any!).

A stream meandering through the forest

As a mountainous park, Strathcona is home to countless waterfalls and lakes, large and small. We stayed in Gold River as it was a bit cold for camping and it was a nice scenic drive to the park from there. With all the rain, it was not great weather for birding, but it was great for the waterfalls!

The main road through the park hugs the shore of Buttle Lake, the source of the Campbell River. Much of the landscape, including Buttle Lake was carved by glaciers 20,000 years ago with the exception of the mountain peaks. At 120m deep, Buttle Lake is a classic glacially carved lake; longer than it is wide, over-deepened in the middle and lying in a U-shaped valley.

A highlight of the trip was Myra Falls, both upper and lower, which lies on Myra Creek and flows into Buttle Lake. Its a short walk to Lower Myra Falls from the parking area, but its a spectacular view of the fall that will leave you wondering what the upper falls could possibly look like. I can only imagine how nice it would be in the summertime, too. The falls were just roaring when we were there; I imagine beautiful cascades in the summer. (A quick google search will show you the falls at a lower flow.)

Lower Myra Falls at high flow in November

The hike to upper Myra Falls is quite a bit longer. The trailhead is at the end of the road after passing a surprising and conspicuous copper mine (it started operations before the park). The trail takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to the waterfall, and is rewarding once you reach the end even in the rain!

It was an enjoyable trip I’d recommend to anyone coming to Vancouver Island. There are a lot of different things to see and I’d love to go back and explore the Forbidden Plateau in the future, as well as visit Della Falls, the tallest waterfall in Canada.

Exploring underground at Horne Lake Caves

Partway up the island, northwest of Qualicum Beach (well-known for its beaches and ban on national chain stores) are the Horne Lake Caves. The four official caves are part of the Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park along the Qualicum River. The caves are part of a karst topography, which typically forms where acidic water (commonly rainwater) dissolves rock. Generally, most caves form in limestone because it is especially susceptible to anything acidic. Limestone is a sedimentary rock made of marine fossils (often micro-fossils). This tell us that millions of years ago, there was once a sea or ocean where there is now limestone rock.

Looking up from the depths of Andre’s Annex at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park.

In 1912, a geologist first wrote about and explored the caves hidden in the woods and tourists followed starting in the ’40s. Today, the park remains a tourist attraction and various tours are available during the warmer months of the year. Tours allow access to parts of the caves otherwise barred from public entry to protect the delicate calcite formations. We went on a short tour of the Main Cave, which was fun and involved a bit of climbing, sliding and scrambling through narrow passages and got to see nice calcite formations. After our tour, we walked around the forested park and explored the open caves on our own as well.

The beach at Horne Lake campground in the morning with smoke rolling over the water.

We camped at the nearby Horne Lake Regional Park perched on the western shore of the beautiful Horne Lake below the peak of Mt Mark. We had a nice time camping here in September, with a tent site well within view of the calm, blue water. As we drove the logging roads to the park, we really felt like we were living most of civilization behind. Besides the lake, the caves are the main attraction here and they can be reached on foot via a trail from the campground.

Horne Lake at dusk.

On our way out, we stopped at Spider Lake for a rest and a swim. It was a little chilly for a swim, but I enjoyed watching the ravens and ducks as I prepped our picnic lunch. It was a lovely, quiet spot, a nice change from listening to the loud motorized boats (and boaters) out on Horne Lake although it was absolutely swarming with wasps which cut our lunch a bit short.

Spider Lake

On the way home, we made a quick stop at Top Bridge on the Englishman River for a stretch and some sun. Its an impressive new suspension bridge linking two popular parks in the area via a regional trail, allowing access to foot or cycle traffic. I imagine it is a popular spot in the summertime for swimming!

Top Bridge over the Englishman River. I was not sure how I’d feel riding a bike over that bridge!

All in all, it was a great weekend getaway and the close proximity of the campground to the caves was nice so we could walk between the two. The lakes were beautiful and the surrounding hills were, too. I would definitely love to go  back another time and I bet it would be busy in the summer!

Thoughts and memories of Kaikoura

a rocky beach in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Since hearing about the big earthquake on the weekend, my thoughts have been drifting to New Zealand more frequently than usual. I was lucky enough to live there for a number of years, and I am so in love with the place – it has to be my favourite and most beautiful place on earth.

Town of Kaikoura, New Zealand on the east coast with the Kaikoura Ranges in the background

I visited Kaikoura a number of times while there, which is where the earthquake really hit hard. Its a small town on the north-east coast of the South Island perched along a beautiful area of coastline. Its renowned for whale watching because of a deep offshore canyon (Kaikoura Canyon) full of nutrients and fish, bringing whales closer to the shore than usual. Whale watching and tourism are economic staples for the town.

With an economy heavily reliant on tourism, many beautiful murals of whales and marine life can be found all over the town of Kaikoura.

After my first visit, it was very memorable and it stuck in my memory as one of my favourite places in New Zealand for a long time. It was here that I first went on a whale watching tour, though I did not see any whales, but lots of vomiting tourists!

Kaikoura beach

Kaikoura is also well known for its local seal colony where seals come to mate and can almost be seen relaxing on the rocky coastline. It was a delightful little spot just off the highway, popular with tourists, which I used to like visiting and taking visitors to see. Unfortunately, it looks like their favourite beaching area was buried under rockfall from a landslide induced by the earthquake. I hope not many seals were lost in the slide and that those that return find a new place to call home.

New Zealand fur seals at their colony in Kaikoura
the rocky Kaikoura coastline

I hope Kaikoura is able to recover from the damage from the quake – its a beautiful place everyone should visit when going to New Zealand and it would be a shame to miss out on. I hope people don’t let it stop them from visting. After 5 years, Christchurch is still recovering, and I hope all the residents of Kaikoura and other areas hit recover physically, mentally, emotionally and economically. I hope to go back again someday and enjoy the rocky coast and seal colony again… kia kaha, Kaikoura.

Kaikora beach with cliffs in the background

The lost waterfall, ammonites & an American Dipper

On a search to find the hike to Benson Creek Falls and Ammonite Falls near Nanaimo, my partner and I walked through the forest listening for the sound of flowing water. After a summer of drought, the creek was running pretty low and the falls turned out to be only a mere trickle. We weren’t even sure we found the right waterfall.  Unfortunately, the trail signs at Benson Creek Falls Regional Park are not all that well marked and there is no signed map at the parking lot.

However, we still managed to have a nice walk and found some other surprising things instead. Its not the first time one of our hike hasn’t gone to plan for whatever reason, and for the most part, we tend to look on the bright side. Even if we miss what we came to see, its usually still an enjoyable walk and time spent outside.

Falls run dry with little rain over the summer

Its a pretty steep descent heading down to the stream bed and at one point there are nice ropes to help you down. I could see it being very slippery after a good rain. Once we reached the creek, we soon found a small, dry rock outcrop where  a waterfall might be during the winter. The rocks here are part of the Cretaceous (145 to 65 million years ago) Nanaimo Group – basically a group of sedimentary rocks which were mostly deposited as a marine environment. That’s why there are so many marine fossils in the rock when you get further upstream in the creekbed.

A little bit of waterfall cascading down into a lovely pool

In fact, that’s how Ammonite Falls gets its name – because of the ammonite fossils that can be found in the rock here. Ammonites were essentially ancient ancestors of cephalopods (think octopus or squid) that lived on earth 420 to 65 million years ago, some of them growing up 2m in size! At the end of the Cretaceous period, they went extinct along with the dinosaurs.

While I sat on the rocks enjoying the lovely pool at the waterfall’s bottom and geeking out looking at the fossils, we suddenly spotted an American Dipper at the bottom of the waterfall! My partner frequently sees these little songbirds while out paddling whitewater, for which I am insanely jealous of him, so I was very excited to see the dipper on my walk!

Highlight of the day: an American Dipper skipped up the rocks on the outcrop

The dipper bobbed his head and skipped up the slippery rock wall nimbly and quickly. He reminded me of a chickadee because he almost never sat still for a photo! The comparison is fair, I suppose, since he is a songbird, after all.

We watched him for some time as he made his way up the waterfall, bobbing his head this way and that. I noticed his eye blinking frequently as it would go white and then black and then flash white again and the flashing of white really caught my attention. It turns out, the white is actually the Dipper’s eyelid and not its third eyelid as I (and many others) would assume given their aquatic nature.

But then, wildlife is so full of surprises and interesting new things to learn, it is one of the greatest joys in watching birds and other animals. So while we may not have reached the proper waterfall we set out to see, we still got to see some interesting things. To watch and enjoy the Dipper yourself at home, view my video below.

americandipper1

Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 2: Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley

Following my overview of some birds I saw on the Canadian Rockies trip I took in April, part 1 was the birds I saw in and around the parks themselves. Part 2 is what I saw en route from Vancouver to the Columbia River Valley including some birds and other sights. Driving from the chaos and traffic of Vancouver, we took the scenic route through the Coast Mountains via Whistler on the Sea-to-Sky Highway past Stawamus Chief and Mt Garibaldi.

Shannon Falls near Stawamus Chief (below) south of Squamish, BC

Standing out above Howe Sound and the highway, Stawamus Chief is a granite monolith akin to Half Dome in Yosemite. Nearby Mt Garibaldi is a 2,678m high stratovolcano. It is the northernmost volcano of the Cascade magmatic arc which also includes Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker (Mathews and Monger, 2005).

Stawamus Chief
Mt Garibaldi

Coming down from the snowy Coast Mountains and onto the flat dry interior, we arrived at our halfway point – Kamloops, BC. As part of a semi-arid region reaching down to the deserts of Nevada, it is a stark contrast to the green west coast.

It certainly brought back memories of the Nevada and Utah desert with prickly pear cactus, sagebrush, Ponderosa Pine and yes, even rattlesnakes (Yep, rattlesnakes in Canada). Along with these geographical changes came some different birds, including the Black-billed Magpie and the yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.

Kamloops, BC sits on the confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers in the semi-arid interior
Black-billed magpie, Kamloops, BC
yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, Kamloops, BC

East from Kamloops, we headed toward the Selkirk Mountains and Mt Revelstoke, passing through Glacier National Park and the Monashee Mountains via Roger’s Pass to come out at the Columbia River Valley. This valley is one of the few remaining mountain valleys where natural wetlands remain today and it is incredible. I could have stopped here for a few days to explore its rich wildlife. We passed more osprey nests along the river than I’ve ever seen in one area before!

Our first significant snow of the trip in Glacier National Park. We stopped to have a play for a bit. This is more snow than we’ve seen in all of our Victoria winters combined.

In the valley, we stopped at Reflection Lake just south of Golden, BC for a break and some dinner cooked on the camping stove. It was a lovely site to watch birds, with lots of American Coots, Canada Geese, Mallards, Buffleheads, Song Sparrows, Marsh Wrens and Red-winged Blackbirds. It was a lovely and refreshing stop to watch the birds in the late afternoon as the sun began to fade behind the snow-flecked mountain peaks. That night, we would finally reach the Rocky Mountains proper, in Radium Hot Springs and Kootenay National Park.

American Coot at Reflection Lake
a Song Sparrow at Reflection Lake
Looking west toward the Monashee Mountains at Reflection Lake outside Golden, BC

Next up is the final Birding highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 3 – heading home from Jasper to the Fraser Valley.


References
Mathews, B. and J. Monger, 2005. Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia.

Related posts:
Birding Highlights of the Canadian Rockies Part 1: the mountains and valleys

How glaciers carved Lake Louise & the Rockies: what remains today

Everywhere, the Canadian Rockies are scoured and marked by the power of ice. We have these powerful glaciers to thank for much of the beauty we now enjoy. Banff NP’s Lake Louise at 1,731m elevation is one example of one such famous site created by glacial erosion.

The Victoria Glacier above the head of Lake Louise, feeds the glacial lake with meltwater.

Above the head of the lake lies Victoria Glacier, a valley glacier, which feeds Lake Louise with beautiful blue-green meltwater (Britannica). Years ago, the Victoria glacier probably once extended much further into the valley while only a fraction of it remains today.

The end of the trail approaching the head of Lake Louise. Beyond this point the trail crosses avalanche paths. It appears not everyone heeded the warnings; see footprints litter the snow just beyond the sign.
The mini-avalanche we witnessed at Lake Louise still roared and crumbled despite the small size of the collapse. I still wouldn’t want to be anywhere near it! These falls must happen regularly based on the debris pile at the bottom. Spring is avalanche season in the mountains.

You can get closer to the  Victoria Glacier on the Plain of Six Glaciers trail, but the latter part of the trail was closed to us (like a few others on our trip) due to potential avalanches. In fact, while we walked along the frozen lake, we witnessed a mini-avalanche on the opposite shore.

Lake Louise still frozen in late April.

Even when frozen, the lake’s waters are blue because it is a glacial-fed lake. As glaciers grind up rocks above the lake, fine glacial silt is created and deposited into the lake by meltwater. The sediment is then suspended in the lake as it slowly settles to the bottom and the sunlight reflects off the sediment is what gives it such rich hues.

As we walked along the lake, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels scurried along the edges of the frozen lake while Clark’s Nutcrackers were unperturbed by tourists, seeking out an easy meal.

The small Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, commonly confused with a chipmunk!
Clark’s Nutcracker, not at all bothered by the noisy tourists.

While much of the ice that once existed is now gone, glaciers still persist in the Rockies high in the mountains and down alpine valleys. At 2,800m elevation, the Columbia Icefield exists today due to the buildup of the annual fall of 7m of snow; the accumulation of snow over time forms the icefield (Parks Canada).

Perched along the Continental Divide, the approximately 215 square kilometer icefield is a major source of freshwater in North America (Gadd, 2008). The Athabasca River, the North Saskatchewan River and the  Columbia River are all sourced from the icefield, their waters eventually reaching the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, respectively.

Part of the Columbia Icefield in Jaser NP, AB. The Snow Glacier is the lumpy looking snow on the right of the photo. To the left of the glacier is the Snow Dome at 3,456m elevation which lies directly on the Alberta-British Columbia border.

From the top of the Icefield, seven valley glaciers flow downward, one of which is the easily accessible Athabasca Glacier. The Athabasca Glacier is currently retreating although it once reached as far as where the Icefields Visitor Center stands today (Gadd, 2008).

The Athabasca Glacier, Columbia Icefields, Jasper NP, AB.

While glaciers are mighty erosive forces, they also deposit incredible loads of sediment. By studying the erosive features and deposits left behind by glacier, geologists can determine how far the glacier extended in the past.

athabascaglacier
The Athabasca Glacier valley with some glacial features labelled. Glaciers scour through rock, leaving behind characteristic round-bottomed and steep-sided U-shaped valleys as opposed to rivers cutting out V-shaped valleys. (Click for full size image)

The Athabasca Glacier valley where the U-shape of the valley is clearly seen. Lateral moraines are piles of rock debris deposited along the edges of a glacier as it recedes. Here, they mark where the glacier extended much wider into the valley than it does today, almost outlining the glacier’s previous boundaries.

The rocky debris in the foreground of the photo (a recessional moraine) was deposited as the glacier retreated from a former position further into the valley; the land where I stood taking this photo was once covered by ice as recently as the early 1800s (Patton, 2014). A glacier retreats when melting occurs faster at the toe than snow and ice can accumulate further up on the glacier. Basically, it is like simple math. If what goes in (snowfall) is less than what goes out (melt), the glacier retreats.

The North Saskatchewan River flows from the Rocky Mountains east toward Lake Winnipeg, its waters eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean at the Hudson Bay via the Nelson River (Jasper NP, AB).

Freshwater is a critical resource not only for human survival, but flora and fauna of all kinds, and the Columbia Icefield is an important resource for all living things besides its simple beauty. The melting and building of the Columbia Icefield impacts what happens downstream in the Columbia River and as far away as the Arctic Ocean where the Mackenzie River (the largest and longest river in Canada) empties into its seas.

All things in nature are inter-connected. Wildlife is wild. When will more people realize this? Animals and plants do not recognize park, provincial or national boundaries. Wolves and bears protected within the park boundaries wander out where they are hunted and killed because legislation permits hunting these animals. Pollution does not stop at the border with Alberta because it is from British Columbia. Invasive species from the U.S. do not stop at a border crossing with Canada to get their passport stamped and approved. When will people work together as stewards and take responsibility for our impact, both positive and negative, on this earth before it is too late for everyone, including ourselves?


References
Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier, Parks Canada
Gadd, B., 2008. Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Glacier in Canadian Rockies Geology Road Tours, pp. 335-342.
Lake Louise in: Encyclopedia Britannica
Patton, B., 2014. Icefields Parkway Driving Guide in Parkways of the Canadian Rockies.

How the montane & thermal springs provide habitat in Banff’s iconic Bow Valley

The Bow Valley of Banff NP, which today provides a rich habitat we are familiar with, was once covered by glaciers and ice 20,000 years ago during a period of time known as the Last Glacial Maximum. Glaciers carved through the mountains, creating a U-shaped valley with a flat bottom and steep sides. These glaciers disappeared from the Bow Valley by about 13,000 years ago, beginning the development of today’s modern montane valley (Reasoner and Huber, 1999).

The Bow River Valley on a rainy day in  Banff, AB, Banff NP viewed from Tunnel Mountain. The Vermillion Lakes (discussed below) are on the far right of the photo.

Canada’s oldest national park (established in 1887), Banff lies in the heart of the Rockies and the town of 8,000 residents sits in Bow River valley. The Bow River is sourced from the Bow Glacier, part of the Wapta Icefield and flows into Bow Lake before joining the South Saskatchewan River. The Bow Valley provides important montane habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, from birds and small mammals like squirrels all the way up to grizzly bear and elk.

American Red Squirrels were commonly seen on forested hikes darting quickly among and up the trees, and were sometimes very noisy. Perhaps they were announcing potential predators (probably us humans) in the area.

With wetlands, grasslands and open forest, an alpine montane ecosystem like the Bow Valley lies below the subalpine zone and is generally warmer and snow-free in the winter, providing habitat for a large range of animals (Parks Canada). Unfortunately, the montane is also an area humans prefer to occupy, putting constant pressure on wildlife in the region.

The Vermillion Lakes lie within the Bow River valley and provide habitat for many species. Birds I watched here included the Red-Winged Blackbird, Northern Shoveler, Buffleheads, Common Merganser, Canada Gees and Mallards.
Northern Shoveler at the Vermillion Lakes, Banff NP.

Across the Bow River from the Vermillion Lakes, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site marks where the Banff Thermal springs were discovered and the location of the original baths. The water from the thermal springs provides a niche habitat for species not found elsewhere in the area, including killdeer, garter snakes,  introduced tropical fish and the endangered Banff Springs Snail (Parks Canada).

The cave where Banff’s thermal springs were discovered at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

In the wetlands and lake below the cave, we were lucky to spy what we thought was a beaver in the water. Now I am not sure if it could be a muskrat. We spied his body moving through the water and then he climbed up on shore and began eating some twigs for a while before eventually moving away out of sight.

A beaver or muskrat (I am no longer sure!) in Banff NP, AB in the wetlands below the Cave and Basin Historic Site.

Among many other birds, I was pleased to spy a White-Winged Crossbill in the trees, a new bird and first sighting for me.

Around the town and the Bow Valley floor, Columbian Ground Squirrels were a common sight. Unlike tree-dwelling American Red squirrels, these ground squirrels dig burrows underground where they spend winter. Without the lush, warm habitat of the Bow Valley montane or the microclimate of the hotsprings, none of these animals would thrive in the cold Rocky Mountains.

Columbian Ground Squirrel, Banff NP, AB.
Columbian Ground Squirrel standing up attentively to warn others of potential threats (probably humans) Banff NP, AB.

References
Ecoregions of Banff National Park, Parks Canada
Reasoner, M.A. and U.M. Huber, 1999. Postglacial paleoenvironments of the upper Bow Valley, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews 18.
Thermal Waters, Parks Canada

Respecting the bear in Jasper National Park: my first grizzly bear sighting

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If last week was kind to animals week, this post is appropriately timed although I believe in always being kind to animals every day. Mutts Comic strip, May 4, 2016 by Patrick McDonnell. (From: Mutts Comics)

My partner and I are by no means experienced hikers in bear country. A few years ago, we lived in New Zealand where, well, bears don’t exist. In fact, the biggest danger while hiking there is the ever-changing maritime or alpine weather. I’m from the east, where suburban sprawl has all but pushed out the black bear and seeing one is extremely rare.

Needless to say, Canada is quite a change for us in that regard. I have really only been hiking in bear country in these recent years, but we educated ourselves on what to do to prevent encounters and what to do if you do see one. In the last year and a half on Vancouver Island, I’ve seen four black bear – two from a vehicle and two while outside working. Each was from a distance. The parks recommend staying 100 yards from bear. Obviously its always a good idea to give any wild animal space.

Black bear on Vancouver Island from a great distance. See the small, black spec on the far shoreline? This was my first black bear sighting on the island and my only documented one, shot in the days before I had a camera with higher zoom. It was actually a mum with a cub nearby.

Despite all the education and these experiences, I still get nervous when going out in bear country and going to the Rockies is like stepping into their backyard. I admit, it scares me. We prepare ourselves, we make noise, we watch for signs of bear activity in the area and that’s all you can really do aside from never leaving your house.

It was still a crisp morning when we started the trail, having arrived earlier than many others. I was hoping to see some birds and maybe a beaver, both of which were a good possibility where we were heading. I never expected what we did see only 15 minutes down the trail… a grizzly bear.

My first grizzly bear sighting, easily distinguished from black bear by its hump on the shoulders

I think my heart might have stopped for a minute as I exclaimed for my partner to stop and pointed out the bear in the distance. She looked absolutely huge in the distance on the opposite hill. Once I got over the surprise, I took a photo and we watched in awe for a few minutes. My partner said I was surprisingly calm, but I think everything I’ve read may have helped. Its not a bad idea to educate yourself about something you fear.

Grizzly bear, notice her collar

It was the ideal sighting because we were far away (hundreds of meters), we did not take the bear by surprise, and she was easily visible in the wide open area on the opposite slope from our position. When we yelled and made some noise, she didn’t appear to notice, she was merely grazing on vegetation. However, she was standing very near to where we could see the trail lead and I’m not going to push my luck. So, we decided to respect the bear and turn back. We hadn’t come far and we could return later once she’d moved on.

This is a zoomed out view of where the grizzly was from our position. She was on the other side of the boardwalk just next to the bare tree on the left of the middle. I took this photo when we returned later.

After reporting our sighting to Parks Canada, we were informed she is a “people tolerant” bear and others we encountered on the trail decided to go onward anyway. Because she had a GPS tracking collar and unique ID, they were able to locate her and knew which bear she was. As it turns out, when we returned to the trailhead later on, no one else reported seeing the bear, even a woman who had been behind us by about 5-10 minutes and was really hoping to. So she must have been just moving through, but you never know where a bear might be headed and it doesn’t seem smart to me to knowingly head toward one.

We finished the rest of the hike the second time sans bear sighting. It was our last day and we considered our ideal grizzly bear sighting quite the highlight of an amazing trip! It was certainly very memorable. Seeing something I’d been dreading and fearing turned out to be an amazing experience, seeing this most wild of wild animals, the very symbol of the wilderness.

Kettle hole at Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta. Kettle holes are formed during glacial retreat when blocks of ice get left behind. These blocks of ice later melt and form kettle holes.
Valley of the Five Lakes, Jasper NP, Alberta

Why does 400ppm matter? & what it has to do with the Pliocene

In May 2013, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai’i recorded the first time global carbon dioxide levels surpassed 400ppm (parts per million). As of this Tuesday, we are sitting at 403.98ppm and have been over 400ppm for much of the last year (Scripps). This observatory has been measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1958. So, you might ask, why is the number 400 so important?

mlo_one_year
Average atmospheric carbon dioxide levels for the last 12 months at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawai’i. (From: Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Basically, the answer is: the earth hasn’t seen such high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the mid-Pliocene warm period. 3.3 to 3 billion years ago. During that time, the continents looked much like they do today, but otherwise, the world was quite different. The climate was 2-3°C warmer than it is today and sea level was 25m higher. The expansive ice-sheets of today’s Antarctica had just begun forming. As atmospheric carbon dioxide continues to climb, our world could start looking more like the Pliocene in the future. (Haywood and others, 2009)

Charles Lyell, an important historical figure in geology, once said “the present is the key to the past.” But it could also be said that the past is the key to the present. That is the case for the mid-Pliocene warm period. The hope is that the more that can be learned and understood about the earth in the past, the better the changes happening today can be understood.

A little more about the Pliocene
The Pliocene epoch covers the time between 5.4 and 2.5 million years before present. On the geological timescale, it precedes the Pleistocene epoch which is known for its repeated glaciations and being the time of the last great ice age. While it was significantly warmer during the Pliocene than it is today, the Pliocene actually encompasses a marked cooling from the preceding warm Miocene epoch. Much of today’s forests were grasslands then, creating ideal conditions for grazing mammals which were plentiful.

One of the biggest changes to occur during the Pliocene was the joining of North and South America by the Panama land bridge. This allowed the spread and mingling of many species which were previously isolated from each other. This probably had a big effect on ocean circulation and because ocean circulation is closely linked with climate, this may have impacted climate as well. (University of California Museum of Paleontology, Encyclopedia Britannica)