Archive for July, 2007

Crossing Montana

July 30th, 2007 by David
Trying to do a ninja kick while jumping off a rock in to the Clark Fork river.
Clark Fork River

Bill and I just finished biking across Montana, which receives the award for the best rivers of the trip – nowhere else have we found so many rivers that are clean enough for swimming (which says something about the quality of other rivers around the country as much as it does about Montana’s rivers).

It has also been unusually hot recently (see last entry on the dead fish) – Bill and I have had to take long siestas to avoid the mid-day heat.

In the city of Helena, Montana’s capital, I interviewed people at the supermarket, asking what they think about global warming. It’s not the most professional video, but you can watch people’s responses here. What strikes me most are how many people say that ‘we can’t do anything about global warming,’ which, well, isn’t true.

We were on the NBC news in Missoula at 6pm and 10pm.

In Missoula, Bill and I gave a talk for Adventure Cycling, and also appeared as a feature news spot on the TV nightly news. (We were interviewed at the hottest part of the day, and hopefully the video caught an image of sweat dripping down our foreheads as we talked about how hot future summers will be).

To the swimming hole!  Bill and Ride for Climate groupies take dirt road to the river.
Josh, David, Nicky, Bill

For our final two days in Montana, Josh and Nicky, two local Missoulians, strapped panniers on their bikes and joined us, providing us with company on the roads. We are now in Sandpoint, Idaho.

A Dead Fish

July 25th, 2007 by David
A dead fish in the river. Low stream flows and high water temperatures cause these fish kills.

We saw the fish on the right in the Blackfoot river on our way into Missoula. I later showed the picture to a fisheries biologist in Missoula, who told me it is likely a long nosed or large scale sucker, and that it most likely died of warm water temperatures. Warm weather caused the winter snowpack to melt early, reducing stream flows later in the summer, and it has also kept these low flowing rivers warmer. Consequently, many fish that usually thrive here are dying.

Smart cars and electric cars

July 21st, 2007 by David
ron Gompertz of Eco Auto in Bozeman
Smart Car and Electric Car Dealership in Bozeman

In Bozeman, while biking down Main Street, I saw a Smart car dealership. Smart cars are tiny cars no longer than most cars are wide, yet drive like a normal car and get 60 miles to the gallon. Extremely curious, I went inside, and the owner, Ron, gave me a test drive in the car. It was really fun. (Ron’s website:

I made a video of the experience here, which mostly consists of Ron talking about the safety of the car (which he says is really good) or it’s handling in snow (excellent, he says). When most of our car trips are to work or into town, why not use a small efficient car most of the time? Or, if you are a two-car family and you need a larger car, would it make sense to have one larger car and one smaller commuting car?

Ron also sells electric cars, which are another story. Electric engines are far more efficient than gas engines – the one he drove me around in gets an equivalent of 240 miles to the gallon. His car had a range of 40 miles, which is plenty for most work and grocery-getting.

And for people who think that electric cars are wimpy, check out this new electric sports car (Ron didn’t have this one to show off), which has a range of 200 miles. Costs $100 grand, but hopefully, in a few years, the price will come down….

The Business Community

July 20th, 2007 by Bill
Pacific Outdoor Equipment - they do some great carbon offsets for their products

While we were in Bozeman, MT we stopped by Pacific Outdoor Equipment. They are a small outdoor equipment company that makes sleeping pads, dry bags, backpacks and other gear. We were impressed with their commitment to environmental stewardship and global warming. They try to make the highest quality product so that your gear lasts. They make a sleeping pad (see below) that comes with a renewable energy credit. This is a way to help offset the carbon dioxide produced in making the product by supporting the development of renewable energy. They also send an energy saving compact florescent lightbulb (along with information about why they are a good idea) out to all of the retail shops that order their products. This is a great example. It shows that even a small business can do the right thing, help address global warming and turn a profit.

Video Montage – South Dakota and Wyoming

July 19th, 2007 by David

Here is a short montage we put together combining the best videos and pictures from South Dakota and Wyoming. Thanks to the Resophonics for letting us use their music in the background.

Yellowstone – fires, pests, and fishing

July 19th, 2007 by David
Descending through Shell Canyon
Bikes and the Big Horn Mountains

After a day in Sheridan (where we talked at a library and spent half an hour in an interview on the morning talk radio), Bill and I climbed into the Big Horn Mountains, thus officially entering the Rocky Mountains. The 5,000 ft climb brought cooler temperatures, pine forests, and a great descent when we reached the far end of the mountains.

Riding across more dry rangeland, and spending one day in Cody, WY, we climbed again, this time into Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is a high volcanic plateau covered with evergreen trees and abundant wildlife. We saw elk, bison, eagles, osprey, and—to our surprise—even a wolf (see photo below & far right). As none of the wildlife is hunted, the animals approach cars and people, resulting in frequent bison traffic jams. (A ranger told us not to approach the bison on our bicycles – which turned out to be pretty much impossible as the bison would walk across the road both in front of and behind us.)

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Traffic
Yes - that is a wolf

I was also struck by the number of large cars and large RVs (many of the RVs had large SUVs in tow). Everyone was driving to see the wildlife and features of the park, and likely enjoying great road trips.

Lots of cars in Yellowstone
Lots of large RVs pulling SUVs behind them
Lots of large RVs in this part of the country

I must admit, though, that it is hard to see so much gasoline use, knowing what effects global warming will have on this region.

Dead trees in Yellowstone due to fire
Memorial to firefighters - in this region, forest fires may be 4 times as common due to global warming.

What does global warming mean for Yellowstone? Well, for starters we think forest fires may be five times more common in this part of the country, as drier and hotter summers cause fires to burn hotter. In addition to reshaping the natural environment, there is another cost — entering the park we saw a memorial to 12 firefighters who died fighting a forest fire.

Bark beetles taking a toll on the forest.

Secondly, we have seen lots of dead trees in the mountains from another source – bark beetles, which burrow into the bark of trees and kill them in large numbers. Descending out of the Bighorn Mountains, an entire mountainside appeared to be dead (photo left). Outbreaks of these beetles have become more common in recent years, as warmer temperatures have helped them reproduce faster and reach higher altitudes. As the earth warms, we are likely to see pests like these to spread in places we have not seen before.

Fishing on the Yellowstone River

And finally, we just read an interesting piece in a local paper – fishing in this region has had to be restricted, as an unusually hot summer and low water flow has caused fish die out in the Yellowstone region. More summers in the future will be like this, which raises questions for future sport fishing in in this region.

All of this points the same way – warming the earth will seriously and irreversibly change natural systems. These are examples of why we think we may loose as much as 20% of all known plants and animals to extinction if continue with business as usual.

A Measure of Success

July 15th, 2007 by Bill
Thank you letters from students and Maumee Valley Country Day School

We received these awesome thank you cards from kids at the school near Toledo where we gave talks and led a bike ride in May. It was really nice for us to see that our project had an impact. Have you made any changes or become more aware of global warming since we gave a presentation or appeared in the media in your town? Let us know! We want to hear your stories.

Radio Interview in Sheridan

Speaking of media, we have done quite well in the past month. The more conservative parts of America seem much more intrigued by our message on global warming. Crossing South Dakota and Wyoming, we have completed 6 newspaper interviews, 3 radio interviews, and 1 television interview. You can see them here.

Bill talks to kids at the Bauen camp
The Bauen Camp is in a beautiful place

In other news, we just spent two days at a summer art camp just outside Sheridan, WY. The Bauen Camp, which attracts teenagers from around the country, sits on the side of the Big Horn Mountains in a spectacular setting. We used our time to have an extended conversation with the students about global warming. (We also just received an email from them saying that, after we left, they did a dramatic interpretation of global warming in the form of a play).

Wyoming and the Powder River Basin

July 8th, 2007 by Bill
Coal mine in Gillette, WY.
Coal train leaving Gillette. Each train pulls about 16,000 tons of coal.

For a long time biking west, we have seen full coal trains traveling east and empty coal trains returning. Following I-90 (biking on the freeway for one of the first times this trip), we entered Wyoming and the Powder River Basin. We had heard that this is where the coal has been coming from, but the scale of the mining became more amazing as we biked into Gillette. Every few hours we saw a 100+ car coal train, and we learned that around 85 coal trains – each carrying 16,000 tons of coal – leave this region every day. We also saw an open pit mine right next to the freeway, and another just outside of Gillette. Burning coal provides 52% of America’s energy and it’s also the biggest worldwide contributor to global warming pollution.

Checking out a coal bed methane compressing station. Methane is pumped out of coal beds and then compressed and sent by pipeline
Jenny points out the coal bed methane wells around the region

Gillette is the largest city in this basin – the self proclaimed energy capital of the world – and there we stayed with Jenny, a wildlife biologist who told us more about the town. Gillette, like many in the west that rely on natural resources, has undergone several booms and busts. Currently, the town has jobs galore, an incredibly tight housing market and a meth-amphetamine problem. We didn’t know about the recent boom in coal bed methane. This boom has been going on for about 7 years and a map of the region shows thousands of wells dotting the landscape (Jenny pointing out wells on the right). The wells are small boxes located all over the range lands. Pipelines hidden below ground allow all of the gas to be piped to garage-size compression facilities where powerful 12 cylinder engines compress the gas to be piped along to market. Water is also pumped out of the coal beds along with the methane so the landscape is now dotted with ponds where the water is siphoned off and left to evaporate or (hopefully) seep back into the aquifer. Several people we spoke with were concerned about the water that was being lost in an already desert-like landscape and the impacts this water is having on private lands.

Like many ranchers and farmers, Robert needs a large pick-up. But his 300 horse power Dodge diesel gets over 15 mpg.
David takes a turn in the tractor - they were cutting hay which would be baled the next day.

Traveling on, we stayed on the Sorenson ranch (Powder River Angus) and were given a tour of the ranch and surrounding lands. After living on the coasts, David and I found this an amazing and largely foreign way of life. One thing that became clear to us is how much more dependent a farmer or rancher is on fossil fuels. The marginal land here requires farms of 5,000 acres or more and taking care of this land requires a lot of driving of trucks and tractors. The Sorensons chose a 300 horsepower 4-wheel drive Dodge diesel pick-up that gets over 15 mpg. Compare that with a Ford F-350 that gets about 8 mpg and you can see that they will burn half as much fuel in a year and that means half as much global warming pollution. In fact, at 15 mpg, their pick-up truck that is used to cover the toughest terrain and serious winter storms gets about as good mileage as the SUV many people use to pick up groceries. Being here made us wonder how we can devise an equitable way to reduce our use of fossil fuels when some people rely on them so much more than others.

Riding off the ranch and on to Sheridan. My bike computer showed 119 degrees F in the direct sun that day.
An amazing dinner on the Sorenson ranch.

After providing a hearty breakfast and a lunch to go, the Sorenson’s saw us off. We biked a couple miles along the dirt road (scoria really) that the coal bed methane industry is now putting in and maintaining all over the region. We reached the highway before 8am and it was already 75 degrees. Along the 80 mile journey to Sheridan my bike computer read 119 in the direct sunlight. Luckily the looming Big Horn Mountains will bring not only steep climbs, but also cooler temperatures. It’s scorching hot in the west right now. Is this our global warming future?

Wind Power in the Great Plains

July 5th, 2007 by David
Highway - not many people west of the Missouri River...

We became very familiar with South Dakota’s wind energy potential. Every day the wind would howl at us from a different direction. We were a bit lucky as well – we ended up have slightly more tailwinds than headwinds.

Wind potential in the U.S.  South Dakota is near the top.

The map shown on the right shows the potential wind energy from different states around the region (I took this photo next to a wind farm in South Dakota). One of the problems with wind is that it is most windy in the Great Plains, where few people live. Also, it isn’t windy all the time (so you can’t create electricity all of the time). But, usually it is windy somewhere, so if we have a large electric grid, we can distribute the electricity. We also don’t currently have the distribution network to carry the electricity away from the Great Plains – why not build it? According to the map shown on the right, and comparing with U.S. energy statistics, the combined wind energy potential of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota is roughly equal to the current U.S. yearly electricity generation from all sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear, etc.).

Yes, there are concerns with wind energy, and I am not sure we should cover all of the Great Plains in wind turbines. I encourage you to read this link to learn more (especially issues concerning bird and bat mortality). The bottom line is that the wind turbines are far better than the alternative of global warming.

The 30 second video below, though, sums up how I feel about wind power:

Crossing South Dakota

July 3rd, 2007 by David
Cowboy.  He told us he was out artificially inseminating the cows.
Highway - not many people west of the Missouri River...

Leaving Minnesota and crossing into South Dakota, the land became drier and more sparsely populated, and towns were less frequent. We still saw many fields of wheat and corn, but grazing land became more common. We passed through many small towns, and learned that most of the towns are far smaller than they used to be, as fewer farmers are now needed to farm the same amount of land.

Crossing South Dakota, we expected to find resistance to our message. For some reason, people who are more conservative are less likely to trust the science of global warming, and South Dakota is fairly conservative. How did people respond when we asked them ‘what do people around here think about global warming?’

On Lester's farm.

One woman, a schoolteacher (the wife of a farmer who gave us a tour of his farm and who is shown right), told us that people here are starting to take the issue seriously. In one small town of 100 people, another woman remarked that summers and winters are far warmer than they used to be. Without us telling her what we were doing, she added ‘must be global warming – it’s affecting us too.’ And we found this many places – people are starting to believe it’s for real.

Yet many others gave a reply like the owner of one gas station, who flatly said ‘We are conservative here, we don’t believe it’ (I am unclear on this reasoning). The owner of a bike store in Pierre said that we are just seeing a ‘natural cycle’ and that there was nothing we could do about it (both not true). And, if you look at the article about our trip in the Rapid City Journal, take a look at the comments (readers can comment on the online article) and you can see plenty of resistance.

Volmer explains to Bill his theory of 'Earth Warming'

Most people, though, seem to be like people everywhere else – confused about the basic ideas of global warming. The owner of a steak house, after hearing what we were doing said, ‘that’s a big issue – who do you believe?’ One man argued that he sees smog in cities, and not in South Dakota, so they didn’t have to do anything in South Dakota (smog has very little to do with global warming). One woman, when we told her about our project, looked up in the sky and said ‘it’s too bad when there is a hole in the environment,’ which, we think, was referring to the ozone layer (many people confuse global warming with ozone depletion – they are in fact very different issues). My favorite was an older rancher who, after telling us some jokes, said it is getting warmer due to ‘earth warming,’ but had no explanation for what ‘earth warming’ is.

I guess that it is fair that people are confused on this issue – it is a complicated issue (and, there have been large campaigns to confuse people). Bill is convinced that we need some type of national education program on the issue, to help communicate the basic ideas of global warming – what do you think about this?

We should note that no one was hostile to us – in fact, most people were exceptionally friendly. The restaurant owner who seemed skeptical still ended up giving us dinner when he heard we were biking across the country. The gas station owner had a long friendly conversation with us.

We departed South Dakota via the badlands and the black hills – a scenic finish to the state. Below are photos.

Biking the Badlands
Prairie Dog, Badlands
Dirt road to Spearfish, SD