In preparation for taking over at Emeraldology, I took a day trip to Mount Rainier National Park and hiked from Paradise (5,400 ft) to Camp Muir (10,118 ft). Among other reasons, I embarked on this nine-mile journey – climbing more than 4,600 feet of elevation and crossing vast snowfields – to rediscover the dynamics at play on the mountain and, in turn, remind myself of the fragility and power of the natural world.

Life in Mount Rainier’s meadows

These dynamics become especially apparent in Mount Rainier’s alpine meadows. Plants here spend much of the year buried in snow, getting at most six weeks per year to gather energy, grow and reproduce. During this brief period, flower blooms attract insects, birds and large mammals, creating a vibrant ecosystem in place that often appears uninhabitable. Even well above the alpine meadows, in the vast snowfields and glaciers surrounding Camp Muir, specialized insects, birds and small mammals carve out a living.

Mount Rainier
An alpine meadow near Paradise with a sign asking hikers to stay on the trail. Photo by Sam Wigness.

Over hundreds of thousands of years these species have evolved to thrive in this harsh environment, with some colonies of heather lasting up to 10,000 years, yet a portion of this work is undone each year by humans walking off trail (despite constant reminders from signs, volunteers and Park Rangers to stay on the trails) and unknowingly transporting invasive species into the park. I would hate to see the destruction of these meadows if they were not so closely guarded by the National Park Service. Even with strict supervision, the human impact is such that it requires the ecological restoration team to propagate and plant nearly 80,000 native plants each year.

Now if these native species are impacted so greatly by something like human foot traffic, it makes me wonder about the effects of human caused air pollution and climate change. How much sudden change can this ecosystem handle?

The human touch

Like Mount Rainier, Earth is teeming with life forms that have adapted to live in just about every corner of the planet – from the deepest parts of the ocean, to the highest mountain peaks, to the driest deserts. Despite being just one of the two billion species of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and protists on Earth (as estimated by researchers at University of Chicago to be on Earth), many of which evolved to survive within certain environmental parameters, humans have an unparalleled ability to change the planet and affect life. Our choices as consumers, producers and commuters directly impact which parts of the natural world are disturbed or left untouched, which chemicals are released into the air and water, and which species are exploited for our gain.

Sitting at 10,188 feet, staring over miles of “untouched” wilderness, I couldn’t help but marvel at the reach of human impact on Earth despite our relatively small stature and minuscule place in the tree of life; how the seemingly insignificant choices of a one species are deciding the fate of nearly two billion others.

The view from Camp Muir is a reminder of what’s at stake. Photo by Sam Wigness.

Mount Rainier as a reminder

With its position overlooking the greater Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia areas, I think Rainier is an ideal symbol to remind Washingtonians to make Earth-friendly choices, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the entire natural world. Let the mountain remind you buy organic produce to help reduce agricultural runoff, take public transit to work to reduce carbon emissions and add solar panels to your home to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Fortunately, as our species becomes more aware of its global impact, it’s becoming easier to make Earth-friendly consumer and lifestyle choices. It’s my goal with Emeraldology to seek out and share Earth-friendly ways to spend time and money, focusing largely on the Pudget Sound region. Whether you’re looking to invest in Earth-friendly technologies, eat at restaurants that use sustainable practices or buy pollutant-free cleaning products, I hope Emeraldology will guide those choices.

My motivation is Mount Rainier. Not only does it remind me that well-being of life on our planet is largely in our hands, it also symbolizes the ability of Earth – with or without our help – to wipe out entire species (including ours) in a relatively short period of time. Like the species of the alpine meadows, life on Earth exists a knife’s edge. The slightest changes to global climate can, and do, affect ecosystems around the world and in many cases species simply cannot evolve fast enough to survive. Why would we contribute to something like that?

The future

Now that we are aware of the consequences of our actions there is no excuse not to change. At this point, we are intentionally harming the planet as we drill for oil, burn coal, destroy forests and push species to extinction with our irresponsible practices.

While it will certainly take a worldwide effort to combat climate change, I believe much of this change can be directed by consumer choices. Money speaks louder than words, and it’s time to let producers know that we demand and prefer Earth-friendly options.