In and around the yurt

As Ground Truth Trekking, we spend a lot of time thinking about issues much bigger than ourselves. Large proposals to extract metals or coal, the true costs of this resource extraction, problems with storing waste forever, the impacts of a changing climate… But as people, we use resources, we burn fuels, and we contribute to climate change. What about our own lives? Given that we’re about to give a presentation for an initiative that seeks to reduce household carbon footprints, it seemed like a good time to figure out our own.

Carbon Footprint

Why look at carbon footprint? We have impacts in all sorts of ways, from our use of water to our consumption of metals. But climate change is a present, growing, and increasingly worrisome problem, fueled by our use of fossil fuels. Many people believe we need to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 levels at a point less than where they are now to head off potentially catastrophic consequences for people.

Once a glacier that stretched far down the fjord McCarty glacier has retreated many miles since it was first mapped.

Carbon footprint calculators are fashionable these days, and can be found nearly everywhere. And they all give different results. Some include food, some don’t. Some include stuff you buy, some don’t. They all ask their questions in a slightly different way – air miles or hours? monthly spending or specific stuff you own? And it’s not clear what to include. Do Hig’s fieldwork flights count, or should they be shunted over into “work” (which is generally not counted in any of the calculators)?

I played around with them – adding some numbers from one calculator (one that allowed me to enter small airplane flights) to the answers from a more comprehensive one (that included food and goods). I did include Hig’s fieldwork, and anything else I could think of. Which turned out to give me 16.8 metric tons of CO2/year for our household of 4 people (counting from April 2010 to April 2011).

What does 16.8 tons mean? It’s equivalent to 1900 gallons of gasoline. It’s about 2/5 as much carbon dioxide as the average U.S. household emits (42 tons/yr) but over twice as much as the average world household (8 tons/yr).

Near the edge of Malaspina Glacier, erosion is so rapid that even the bear trails can’t keep up, and forests wash into the sea.

What should the number be? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The target, really, is a level of climate change we’re willing to accept – the limit at which we think things might not be too catastrophic. Any warming (even the warming we already have) will have negative impacts, so this is a value judgment. Many people think that level is a warming of about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Then you have to figure out what the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere needs to stay below to keep us in that “safe zone.” This is a scientific question, dependent on climate models. The current scientific thinking is that this is somewhere close to 350 ppm (we’re at 391 ppm now). So, how do we get there? If you want to get to a stable or equilibrium concentration, you can’t emit any more CO2 than the planet (forests, oceans, etc…) can absorb each year. And to get an actual reduction in concentration, you have to go further. The ultimate answer is that global emissions probably need to end up pretty close to zero eventually. Or faster than that. There is no “right number”, but as a world, the trend needs to be towards dramatic reduction.

What can we do about it?

toddler gardening

To get that number anywhere near zero, we need technology, infrastructure, policy, and culture to come together to accomplish it. Lifestyle can’t do it alone (one study estimated the footprint of even a homeless American as 8.5 tons of CO2/yr). But the sum of all our individual lifestyles is still a big piece of that solution.

Eat differently. Food footprint is kind of a hard thing to calculate, since it depends so much on specifics. And I have only rough guesses how much we spend or eat per month of different types of food. But the calculator took a stab at it, and told me that our eating emitted 4.5 tons of CO2, or 27% of our total. The main thing we could do to improve this is to eat less dairy products. The methane produced by cows is a huge contributor to climate change, and animal foods are more energy intensive than plant foods, since it takes a lot of plants to feed an animal. Meat would be a big factor as well, but we never buy farmed meat, and usually only eat it when a hunting friend gives us some. Our fish is all wild salmon and halibut caught very close to home, so not a lot of fossil fuels go into that. But I do like my cheese and yogurt and butter…

Katmai was less interested in flightseeing than in the cool headphones.

Don’t leave town. Between Hig’s fieldwork, flights to Anchorage, Kotzebue, and Sitka, drives from Homer to Anchorage, and various other bits and pieces, leaving town makes up 42% of our emissions for the year. And since one of our kids now gets his own seat, and the other will follow in a couple years, emissions per trip will only get bigger.

In fact, leaving town dwarfs a lot of things I think of as more stereotypical footprint reducing habits. One person taking one roundtrip flight from Anchorage to Seattle (3000 air miles) is about 1.4 tons of CO2. My entire household electricity usage for our family of four for a year is about 1.5 tons of CO2. Which suggests to me, that despite everything I’ve heard about “electricity vampires”, whether or not I remember to unplug my laptop or turn off my porch light tonight is far smaller than travel choices.

Travel is by far the thorniest issue for us, as I suspect it is for many people. Expeditions are a huge part of our life and work. Hig’s aerial surveys were done to get important data relevant to earthquake risk at the Pebble Mine. One of the things we’re traveling for this month is to talk about climate change, and our next expedition is directed towards that issue as well. We live near some family, but also have family far away, and would like to see them too.

We already combine trips where we can. Fewer expeditions for longer chunks of time minimizes the flights required, and also the logistical chaos. But how to decide if a trip is worth it? If we visit family less, should we also discourage them from visiting us? Or should we encourage it, since it’s usually only one or two people flying, instead of 4?

What about driving, household energy use, etc?

In a land of melting glaciers, this lake, and the land around it, are too new to be marked on any maps.

Another person’s list of what they can do may well be very different than mine. A lot of the low-hanging fruits are things we’ve already done (which is the reason our footprint is smaller than average). We’ve replaced our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and since we live in a one-room 450 square foot yurt, we never need more than 3 lightbulbs on anyway. Living in a small space, we don’t use much electricity. We heat the yurt with wood (since it’s not a fossil fuel, sustainably harvested wood is carbon-neutral). We work at home, eliminating the commute problem, walk most of where we want to go, don’t own a car, live somewhere where there’s not really anywhere to drive, and carpool about 12 miles a week to get groceries and do errands.


Fall storms hit this coast with less protection from sea ice, leading to rapid erosion.

Why should we bother doing anything about it?

Because climate change is going to be a big problem for a lot of humanity. Droughts, floods, extinctions, erosion, storms, etc… Our whole civilization, from where we place our cities to where we grow our crops, is adapted to the climate as it used to be. Rapid change and unpredictability is going to be much more negative than positive. Here in Alaska, and in polar regions around the globe, it’s warming faster. Impacts on arctic communities are already significant. Rather than just being poster children for the problem, Alaskans should be leaders in solving it.

P.S. Come to our slideshow talk Wednesday in Anchorage, and reduce your own carbon footprint.