Thursday, March 20, 2014

An Alaska Pictorial: Denali--Mount McKinley

The months of February and March are appropriate times to look to and celebrate our forty-ninth state, Alaska, and one of its most famous landmarks as well as the third-highest mountain in the world, Denali, also known as Mount McKinley. 

Why these months, you ask? Because they are the official, or maybe unofficial, American "birthday"months of what today constitutes the state of Alaska and the national park over which its highest mountain presides. The park, first designated Mount McKinley National Park but now called Denali National Park and Preserve, was established by Congress on February 26, 1917, making it 97 years old.

The state of Alaska may be a mere 55 years old, having received Congress' approval only in 1959. But the birthday to which I refer was on March 30, 1867, when Alaska was "reborn" as part of the United States. It was first designated a "department" before becoming a state, then a "district," and then a "territory." So, at the end of this month, this Alaska of many designations will be 147 years old.

Happy birthday, Alaska and Denali.

Randolph Rogers, William H. Seward, 1876, New York City, Madison Square Park

I begin, briefly, with William Seward, a great Republican, back when America's Grand Old Party produced many such men. He served as Governor of New York, United States Senator, and then Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson. It was Seward, as Secretary of State, who negotiated the treaty with Russia that gave Alaska to the United States. Many of his contemporaries lambasted this action as “Seward’s Folly,” but only until gold was discovered there in 1898.

Russia had sold Alaska (for $7 million, or two-cents/acre) because its remote location made the region difficult to defend and Russia feared losing it in another possible war with the British. Given Russia’s most recent history--its invasion of Crimea and claim that Krushchev made a mistake in 1954 by handing it over to the Ukraine--one might wonder what designs Putin might have on Alaska. A Russian, after all, could argue that Czar Alexander II made a much bigger mistake than Krushchev when he allowed the sale of Alaska in 1867. 

Of course, it’s also possible that Putin one day may simply want to give some truth to Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin, when Fey uttered one of the funniest comedy lines of 2008: “I can see Russia from my house.”

Today, “Seward’s Folly” would seem a most shrewd piece of statesmanship and horse-trading, even as it was carried off in secretive, all-night sessions, signed at 4:00 am on the 30th of March, and subsequently barely squeaking by the Senate with a single vote, ten days later.

Randolph Rogers, the sculptor of this monument to Seward that sits at the south-west corner of Madison Square Park, was an American expatriate who lived most of his life, and died, in Rome. Still, he was born in New York (Waterloo), and it is claimed that this statue of Seward is the first work of public sculpture in the city dedicated to a person from the state.

Sydney Laurence, Mount McKinley, 1922, Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, NY

This is one of several paintings of Alaska's Mount McKinley by the American Artist, Sydney Mortimer Laurence. Born in Brooklyn and trained at the Arts Student's League in Manhattan, Laurence moved to Alaska in 1904, becoming the first artist with professional training to settle there.  

Mount McKinley was among his best known subjects, and he captured its looming majesty in a style clearly indebted to such great 19th-century, second-generation Hudson River painters as Frederick Edwin Church

Laurence has been called "the most famous painter of the grandeur of Alaska's landscape," and the writer Deloris Ament observes that "he painted the mountain so often and so devotedly in later years that Alaskans themselves began to see their beloved mountain through Laurence's eyes."

Paul (our pilot), Rust's Flying Service, Stopover in Talkeetna, Alaska, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range (detail), Showing Denali Flightseeing Route

The best way to see Denali, or Mount McKinley, however, is not by a visit to some museum. Rather, make a trip to Anchorage, where Laurence would settle, reserve a flight from one of several flying services, and step into one of those ultra-reliable deHaviland Beavers for a trip up the glaciers and around Denali, itself.

In the top photograph, I show our pilot, Paul, after we landed briefly in Talkeetna on the way back to Anchorage. Although Talkeetna is small, with a population of under 1,000, it also boasts several Denali flying services, and it clearly is a town that knows how to have fun. For example, it's honorary mayor is a cat named Stubbs. It also holds a Moose Dropping Festival every July in which hardened, varnished moose feces are dropped from the sky while participants guess the correct number in a lottery. Then, in December, Talkeetna sponsors the Wilderness Woman and Bachelor Auction & Ball. Need I say more?

The lower photograph, shown above, plots the general route that our plane took around Denali last February. Our approach was from the left (see "Tokositna Glacier") and our return took us down Ruth Glacier, to the right.

Other than this, I am afraid that I can't be more specific. In fact, I am hoping that one of you readers may be familiar enough with Denali to identify some of the following twenty photographs, which I selected out of over 100 that I took just of the Alaskan Range once we closed in on it. The best I can do is present these 20 photographs in the order of the actual flight.

Maybe someone will send this blog post to Paul, our pilot. I am sure that he can identify every one of these photographs.  For the rest of you, my readers, please enjoy this spectacular winter scenery.

Alaska Range, Foothills, February 25, 2013

We are not, yet, near Denali, even though these mountain peaks already look formidable. Keep in mind that the Denali National Park and Preserve now covers 6 million acres, so we must first fly over the flat tundra and lowland areas, which offer their own fascination, before arriving here.

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

That may be Denali in the last of these three photographs, with a cloud halo circling its summit. Interestingly, because of the Pacific Plate is subducting under the North American Plate here, Denali continues to gain about a millimeter in height each year. Also, because it is mainly a hard granite, it does not easily erode. The tectonic activity that formed the Alaskan Range began about 60 million years ago.

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, Andrea taking a cel-phone picture, February 25, 2013

Sometimes, it seemed that our plane was a mere twenty feet away from a sheer cliff of rock and ice, which is what I tried to capture in this photograph of my wife looking out from the other side of the plane. I didn't succeed in conveying the drama of the moment.

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

I am fascinated by the abrupt edges, sharp as a razor, that are enhanced by the equally sharp contrasts of light. What doesn't come through clearly is the scale--our insignificance in relation to the size of these peaks and cliffs of snow-covered granite.

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

A face in the snow. I'm sure the Athabascans and other members of the local indigenous cultures could tell me much about the snow and its various configurations, but I simply enjoyed the differing contours, pleats and flow patterns that covered the surfaces lying below. 

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

I am guessing that this is one of several shots of Denali, which is 20,237 feet high, or 6,168 meters, measured by topographic prominence. When measured in isolation from base to peak, Denali alone is ca. 18,000 feet high, making it the largest  mountain anywhere, situated entirely above sea level.

The topographic prominence of Mount Everest may be greater. However, Everest's vertical rise, base to peak, is only ca. 12,000 feet. Denali, also, records brutally cold temperatures year-round, often as low as -75°F (-60°C), with windchill taking the temperature down to -118°F (-83°C), "cold enough to flash freeze a human."

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

The abstract rhythm of a sheer cliff of snow and ice.

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

Alaska Range, February 25, 2013

As this is the last photograph I selected, I am pretty sure this is a section of Ruth Glacier.

Once again, happy birthday months to Denali and Alaska.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Keystone XL Pipeline: Thoughts from the 'NO KXL' Vigil, Union Square, NYC

A month ago, on a cold Monday night, February 3, 2014, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered in Union Square to participate in a candlelight vigil and to urge President Obama to reject the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL).

Similar #NOKXL vigils took place in 283 venues across the country and in forty-nine of our states.  These gatherings were organized in a mere seventy-two hours through the efforts of several activist organizations: Public Citizen,  CREDO,  Rainforest Action Network,  Sierra Club,  Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline,,  Center for Biological Diversity,  Oil Change International,  Energy Action Coalition,  National Resources Defense Council,  Environmental Action,  Bold Nebraska,  League of Conservation Voters,  Friends of the Earth, Waterkeeper Alliance,  The Hip Hop Caucus,  The Other 98%,  Overpass Light Brigade,  Forest Ethics,  Forecast the Facts,  and some others.

Connie from Brooklyn, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

When I arrived, the Vigil had already begun and speakers were addressing the circled crowd. Among the speakers was Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of, and Clayton Thomas-Muller, member of the Cree Nation and of the indigenous movement, Idle No More. Unfortunately, I found myself six-to-eight bodies back and too far away to hear very well (especially given my old, challenged ears), so I briefly turned my attention to Connie, also on the periphery.

Her sign, even with its small lettering, gently and poetically encapsulates the problem of KXL--an ecological disaster for our country, and maybe even our earth.  On it, Connie has penned the words from the first stanza of Pete Seeger's, My Rainbow Race (listen here):

One blue sky above us, one ocean lapping all our shore 

One earth so green and round, who could ask for more? 

And because I love you I'll give it one more try 

To show my rainbow race, it's too soon to die......

The second stanza begins: Some folks want to be like an ostrich, 
Bury their heads in the sand... This is precisely what the proponents of KXL are doing: burying their heads in the sand, pretending things are all right....but things are not all right, and I would hope that all of us would agree, it's too soon to die.

Crowd, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

View to Speakers, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

Crowd, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

These three photographs capture the extent of the crowd which braved freezing temperatures to stand against the folly of KXL. 

Fittingly, the photo immediately above shows George Washington on horseback overlooking the protesters. This equestrian statue, modeled by the American artist Henry Kirke Brown and dedicated in 1865, presides over the gathering and, with raised right hand, seems to gesture approvingly. And why not?

After all, our first president had shown an early interest in husbandry and in agricultural improvement and reform, and so would have been most sympathetic to the farmers of Nebraska and several other states, whose livelihood is being threatened by the pipeline coming down from Alberta, Canada on its way to Texas.

Crowd, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

But even before the Keystone pipeline crosses the border into Nebraska and the United States, it has already shown its untrustworthiness in Alberta. Of the existing pipelines in Canada, some are dedicated to carrying crude oil, while others, called multi-phase, carry a combination of crude oil and gas. Between 2006-1010, Alberta experienced 109 crude oil pipeline failures and 1, 538 multi-phase failures.  This amounted to what York University Professor Sean Kheraj termed a "staggering" volume of 174,213 barrels of oil, and he further states the fact that "a spill-free system is an impossible goal." 

Alberta, Canada, Red Deer River Pipeline Blowout, 2012

To put the spills just in Alberta in a different light, the total failures, simply for the year 2010, came out to a failure every 1.4 days. It would seem to me that the oil industry can't even discuss a "spill-free system." What they have is a spill system, built on a 150-year old technology for transporting oil, the main changes to which are merely larger diameter pipes and more efficient pumping stations.

Candle Cups, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

We know how destructive to our environment and our economy crude oil spills can be. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound (1989) and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010) are events etched in our memories. However the KXL will be carrying a product much more corrosive and destructive than crude (or refined) oil. That product is dilbit, or diluted bitumen.

Dilbit is not a liquid that gushes from underground, as we have come to expect from images depicting oil exploration. It is a dilution of bitumen with benzene, naphtha, hydrogen sulfide, and other (proprietary) ingredients. The bitumen is strip mined, as coal might be, and for over a century it was considered a worthless, junky, oily rock-like substance. Its main use in the 19th-20th centuries was as asphalt for road building or roof waterproofing.

The diluting ingredients--dilutent--that enable bitumen to flow in pipes (at higher temperatures, by the way) are volatile, toxic and carcinogenic. Benzene is a notorious cause of bone marrow failure, as well as anemia and leukemia. In fact, in 1948, the American Petroleum Institute (API) stated that "it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero." Clearly, the API is now disregarding its own, earlier findings.

Naphtha is a colorless and volatile liquid similar to gasoline. In some forms it is carcinogenic, and acute exposure causes dizziness, narcosis and loss of consciousness. Exposure to naphtha also causes global brain disorder (encepalopathy).  

Hydrogen Sulfide, the third known, common diluent, is flammable, highly toxic and, being heavier than air, it sinks. It is a broad-spectrum poison that also can affect the brain, causing the death of cells in the cerebral cortex, cerebral edema, and is known to affect the nervous system and cellular respiration.

Bitumen and its diluent are the reasons that concerned and informed citizens are braving the cold, here in New York City and across our country. The effects of KXL will be global--even with no spills, which we know is an impossibility. KXL is not a matter of environmental effect localized to a part of Alaska (Exxon Valdez) or to four Gulf States (Deepwater Horizon). Its effects will be global. Stopping Keystone should, and must, be a matter of national priority. 

KXL = Climate Change, #NOKXL Vigil, Union Square, New York City, February 3, 2014

This sign, equating KXL with climate change, reveals the core of the problem. The pipeline, if completed and put into operation, will give TransCanada Corporation its only, truly affordable way to transport the dilbit to a refinery (in this case, in Texas) capable of processing it for export (mainly to China). This will mean that Canada gets a green light to continue to exploit its tar sands to the fullest.

If we are to have any chance to fight global warming, 80% of those tar sand reserves must stay in the ground, and if they stay in the ground (which they must) then there is no need for KXL, as Andy Rowell argues in an article from last December. The case for leaving the tar sands and their bitumen in the ground is made most powerfully by NASA climate scientist, James Hansen. As he wrote in the New York Times in May of 2012, "if Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate." 

One Day, Son, This Will All Be Yours..., my apologies to the artist, whose signature I was unable to read (and I tried)

Hansen goes on to explain his dire prediction as follows.  Canada's tar sands "contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history." If we exploit this new source, rather than find ways to reduce emissions, the "concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is temperatures would become intolerable [and] twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction."

Matt Wuerker, How To Build A Pipeline,

Are we really going to disregard the warnings of a scientist who has spent decades studying the causes and issues of global warming? As Hansen concludes, "the science of the situation is clear — it’s time for the politics to follow." Unfortunately, many of our politicians have allowed themselves to be swayed by the assurances and pressure of the oil interests--they who have almost never told the truth about anything.

President Obama, In support of the southern half of KXL, Ripley, Oklahoma, March, 2012 

But the final decision has come down to President Obama. Some of us may recall his 2008 Inauguration speech, in which he made this promise: "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." 

Then, on June 25, 2013, he gave a talk about America's energy future at Georgetown University. In it, the President painted in great detail a rosy picture of how America was embracing clean energy and leading the world in that direction. When he came to KXL, this is what he said: "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

Near the end of his speech, Obama enlisted the help of his audience and its generational cohorts with these words: "Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I'm going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends....Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution."

This past Sunday, college students from all over the country took Obama's words to heart. Over a thousand students from at least fifty colleges gathered at Georgetown University and marched to the White House to take part in what they called XL Dissent. They participated in non-violent civil disobedience, and 398 were arrested. Among the many signs they carried, possibly the most poignant one read, "There Is No Planet B."

These students understand that President Obama will need help if he is to keep his word and be a proper custodian of our planet. Because a faulty study concluded that KXL poses no environmental risks, Obama has an "out" that might possibly allow him to approve the pipeline. Doing so, however,  would fly in the face of the science of environmental policy, while once again succumbing to the vested interests of corporations and their lobbyists.  As Representative Raúl Grijalva (D, AZ) wrote in a recent New York Times article entitled "Obama's Pipeline," "Keystone is about more than one pipeline. It is about establishing once and for all whether we have moved on from the disastrous Bush-Cheney view of environmental policy."

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, provided the perfect metaphor to characterize President Obama's upcoming decision on KXL: If Mr. Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, Mr. Brune said, it will be “the Vietnam of his presidency.”

If you would like to add your name to those who would like to stop the building of KXL, look up any of the groups that I list in my second paragraph (above) or open this link from CREDO Mobilize.

Here, also, is a very good video featuring Van Jones that deals with Obama's dilemma in regard to KXL.

And here are two of many fairly thorough articles that will offer more explanation of KXL:  "Why Oppose KXL?" and "Why It's Worth Going to Jail to Stop Keystone XL."