The Happiness Equation at Valle Escondido

It is June in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, and we are in our hotel room at Valle Escondido (‘Hidden Valley’). The rain pours in sheets off of the tin metal roof, and I find myself wondering: just how much water can the sky hold? Funny enough, I know the answer to that. In numerical climate models, we can calculate something called precipitable water. This is a measure of how much water we would have pooling at our feet if the sky opened up and dropped everything at once. In the Tropics it’s somewhere around 6-10 centimeters. In the firehose of water pounding the pavement outside the window, I believe that’s an accurate estimate.

The entrance to Valle Escondido Preserve and hotel.
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Skimming the Surface of the South Pacific

Imagine a place where your vision is filled by all the shades of blue at once. A place where bright white foam rolls on the distant horizon, cumulus clouds tinged in gray roll beneath the cirrus that streak across a royal blue sky, above an ocean that shimmers in shades of turquoise as you trace a line from the far horizon to your feet. If you soften your eyes just a bit, you can almost see the curvature of the Earth. This is how I will remember the South Pacific Ocean.

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A Model for the Future at Rancho Margot

Chest-high pink and red stalks of ginger dot the landscape like tiki torches. They brighten the forest as distant thunder echoes through the valley. Hummingbirds dart between the trees and I’m amazed I don’t get impaled by one of them. This is Rancho Margot, just shy of the eastern side of the Continental Divide in the Cordillera Talamanca, in central Costa Rica. We are only a mile or so from the nearest village, a few miles from one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes, Arenal, and about 20 miles (or a 40 minute drive) from the lively restaurants, resort hot springs, and trinket shops of the bustling tourist outpost of La Fortuna. But it feels as though we are on another planet.

Empire torch ginger at Rancho Margot can grow up to five feet high. The colors you see here are actually waxy leaves that resemble a pinecone just before the tiny flowers emerge from between the leaves.
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Feeling a bit lighter in the cloud forest cathedral

Where do you find awe when you need it?

It’s the peak of the first real summer travel season in three years, and nearly every other person I know is visiting Italy, posting photos of cappuccinos, cobblestone streets, and cathedrals. My own first summer travel photos are a bit cloudier. A bit more green. They show the sun filtering through a canopy of leaves and curtains of moss and vine. I wanted to visit a cathedral of another sort for my still-in-the-thick-of-COVID pandemic reintroduction to international travel.

Walking under the mist-shrouded canopy of Monteverde Reserve cloud forest.
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Reconciling travel obsession and climate hypocrisy

(This is a ~10 minute read. If you’re short on time, scroll down to My Travel Manifesto for some tips on reducing your climate impact from travel).

COVID numbers be damned, everyone is traveling this summer. It’s as though two years of cabin fever are sending people on a mad dash out the door to …somewhere. Anywhere.

I admit: I’m guilty of wanting to get back to traveling. I’ve been itchy and irritable, tired of my house, my neighborhood, my city. I’ve taken so many walks in my neighborhood in the past 2+ years, I know exactly where to expect the poppies to come up in the yard at the house down the street. I will also tell you that, as I begin to move around the world again, I’m excited to shift this blog back (mostly) to my original intent: sharing experiences and observations from around the world.

But I wonder: How much does my travel obsession contribute to the ongoing disruption of our global climate? As a climate scientist, can I ethically justify travel? Should I renounce air travel as some scientists, academics, and activists have done?

Pumping out carbon on my last transatlantic flight in 2019, we crossed over the Greenland ice sheet, where pools of sky-blue melt-water sit atop the ice, absorbing summer sunshine.

Or do I fly anyway, then punish myself and hold my head low in climate shame? I know what Greta Thunberg would say. I keenly feel the impact that my generation has had on this planet, even though we were all born into a civilization built on fossil fuel, without any practical way to renounce it.

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Zion: on the cusp of transitions

We’re deep into summer and the winter wonderland photos below might be a bit jarring for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. But this post about a trip to Zion National Park is ready to go out into the world. It’s long overdue. Travel is often my inspiration for blog posts. This past year led me to a lot of closer-to-home discoveries in the natural world – but, also, the lack of motivation to write, as we have all struggled to sort out life in a new version of this dystopian world. But here it is: my first visit to Zion.

I love that my first memories of Zion National Park will always be shrouded in an icy haze. Arriving in a new place after dark – whether it’s a rainforest, a bustling South American city, or a natural cathedral carved through the desert over millions of years – always leaves me disoriented. And then it snowed through the night, covering roads and painting still-bare trees in white. The world felt pillow-soft as I stepped out of my cabin. I walked across the grounds of the lodge, and the fog shifted to give me my first glimpse of a canyon wall. I had no idea how far these walls rose up, but I could feel the ones I couldn’t see – in the stillness, and in that sense of being enclosed and protected.

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America, the unfinished

The last time I flew anywhere was back in November 2019 for a 3-day trip to Washington, D.C.

On my second evening there, after a long day in a working meeting, I arranged to meet a friend at the National Art Gallery on the Capitol Mall. My hotel was roughly within walking distance, but I decided to shave off some time by taking the Metro to the Mall, then walking to the gallery from there.

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All in a cup of tea

Remembering last summer…

“You want to have everything clean before serving tea,” says my great-aunt Anna as she brushes crumbs from her kitchen tablecloth and sets out the tea stand. She moves slowly, using her cane as she shuffles to the refrigerator to pull out the cream. She’s 98 years old – maybe the only person I know who’s more than twice my age. She’s the only person on this planet allowed to pinch my cheeks. I ask if I can help her with anything, but she shakes her head and keeps pulling dishes out of her cupboard.

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Last Stop in Antarctica: Deception Island

Sometime after our first week on the ship, we learned not to ask where we would be going next, or where we would be stopping. Our itinerary was completely dependent on weather, ice, and the comings and goings of other ships in the region. So it wasn’t really a surprise when we were told that we would be making our way back north across the Drake Passage a day earlier than expected. There were two storms coming, we were told, and the captain wanted to outrace the second storm.

Ok – But what about that first storm?

We tried not to think about it too much so we could enjoy one last landing in Antarctica at Deception Island. Because the captain was really eager to get going, we wouldn’t have much time onshore as the ship would be headed out to open sea by 10:30 am.

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Everyone was up and on deck early in the morning for our approach to Neptune’s Bellows, the narrow entrance into the caldera at Deception Island.

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The Post Office at the end of the World – Port Lockroy

As I write this, the fourth Homeward Bound cohort – 100 women from 33 countries – are exploring the Antarctic Peninsula as they work toward empowering themselves and each other to take on leadership roles in this world as it undergoes rapid transformation. Since my own journey to Antarctica last January, I’ve been posting stories here about our trip. The past few weeks I’ve been prompted to relive my experience by updates from Homeward Bound and friends in my HB cohort. I realized I still have a few photos and stories to share from our journey. Today, let me take you to the post office.

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Penguins and people clustering around the museum, gift shop and post-office at Port Lockroy.

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