Saturday, December 3, 2011

Above Tree Line

In the late 1990s, I was on a summer hike in the Rockies with a group of about a dozen people to a lake at an altitude of about 12,000 feet. As often happens on summer afternoons, a thunderstorm started to form. We were already at an abandoned mine about 800 feet below our destination when it became clear that the storm was coming toward us.

Any experienced hiker knows that the chances of being hit by lightning increase with elevation, and one of the most dangerous places to be is in an exposed area above tree line. It is also irresponsible to split up a group in such a situation. Half of the group defied both responsibility and safety, and chose to go up to the lake, while the rest of us waited for them at the mine, which had modest cover and was about 500 feet above tree line.

Less than a half-hour later, the storm moved in, just as we were joined by another group of hikers who were much less prepared than we were for both hiking and bad weather. Those of us with extra supplies helped out the newcomers, and showed them how to “hunker down,” making themselves a smaller target for the lightning. While waiting, we watched in horror as a lone climber on a nearby peak attempted to navigate along a ledge to get out of harm's way.

We debated whether to go back down the trail or stay at the mine. With so many people, there wasn't enough natural or artificial cover to keep us all from getting soaked and safe from the lightning. When the storm let up a little, we decided to make a dash toward the trees. The leader and a few others chose to wait at tree line while the newcomers and the rest of our group headed down the mountain.

Emergency vehicles were at the trailhead when we arrived, called by stranded hikers with a cell phone. We relayed our story, and waited for the rest of our group to arrive, which thankfully they did.

I recalled this story recently while working on my projections of world economic growth. Like hikers on a mountain, we are eagerly trying to get higher and higher.  Tree line represents the Earth's ecological carrying capacity, life's limit, beyond which we risk encountering lethal storms, such as those spawned by global climate change. We are currently above that point, and the storm is nearly on top of us. Some of us (climate change deniers) are in denial that the storm is dangerous, while others (business leaders and politicians) deny that we're even near the peak of a mountain, and like the hikers who split from the group are going higher regardless of the risk – perhaps even because of it. The trailhead is the safest place to be (the economy of a sustainable civilization), but it seems to be the last place anyone wants to stay.

We are already seeing casualties of the freaky weather we've gotten “closer” to. How many of us are smart enough to get below tree line and out of the rain before it's too late?

No comments: