Signals from a Changing Planet

Scientists can find the prints of human impact all over the environment. These trails lead to a climate-changed future. Could how we respond change everything?

California’s nickname—The Golden State—calls to mind its sun-kissed coast, the literal gold that rushed through its river veins, and its rolling hills that shine like El Dorado every summer.

Our very idea of California wilderness would be incomplete without those golden hills. But the yellow grasses that blanket them are not actually part of the state’s native landscape. Like the Mission de Santa Clara Asís, the grasses came to the American West with the Spaniards. The invasive species from the Mediterranean pushed out the native perennial greens long ago.

“That replacement has really big consequences for fire [and] also a lot of important consequences for ranchers,” says Brody Sandel, an associate biology professor at SCU.

Human Spark

Since our beginning, humans have changed the world. Literally. Someone burying shells in the dirt thousands of years ago changed the soil, which consequently changed the plants that grow from it, which changed the wildlife that congregates on its branches. 

“Everything’s not just settled in its current state; things are constantly in a state of change,” Sandel says. “And therefore, things are constantly reflecting what occurred there sometime in the past 10 years, 100 years, or even 10,000 years ago.”

Sandel can see our impact on the landscape—from those golden hills to the wolves roaming Yellowstone. But what actions led to which changes is hard to decipher. That’s what Sandel and his students try to unpack. They track rainfall and grass growth to see how dry years change prairies. In spring 2021, Sandel received $627,832 from The National Science Foundation to fund the work.

One major change? The amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans thrived off technological progress—progress that feeds on fossil fuels. It sparked warming at speeds the Earth has never experienced before, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

While the rock we live on will survive, there are questions about the life it sustains.

Sandel believes we can reduce our impact, and collectively decide to combat climate change. It is not, however, easy to roll back to pre-Industrial Revolution carbon levels or to before the galleons sailed along the Pacific coast. But the answer is not in the past anyhow, he says; it’s here, now, working toward a healthier future.

Folsom Lake
The shore of Folsom Lake extends across what was once the waterline. The lake, like many others in thirsty California, has shrunk from its average. As of this writing, it is 41 percent below average and 23 percent below capacity. / Image courtesy iStock.

Ripples of Drought

California’s lakes are shrinking. Two dry years pushed water levels at Sonoma and Mendocino lakes to all-time lows, likely due to our carbon-fueled growth. According to the Intergovernmental Panel, “Continued global warming is projected to further intensify the global water cycle, including its variability, global monsoon precipitation, and the severity of wet and dry events.”

More droughts. More floods. And potentially more pests, says Ed Maurer, chair of SCU’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering. 

After a seven-year drought, California got a single year’s reprieve in 2019. For farmers, drought means shriveled plants and parched animals. Withered crops and lost profits drive higher beef costs or a lack of peaches, for instance, at local grocery stores. In Santa Clara County, droughts mean water restrictions. 

“Water is experienced locally,” Maurer says. “Each area has its own issues it has to deal with.”

One event ripples into another. Melting ice caps raise sea levels; water floods over grasslands; animals flee to higher grounds.

Meanwhile, our response to any problem has its own consequences. For instance, farmers relying on irrigation resort to digging deeper for groundwater, but this dries up shallow wells that are the lifeline of rural communities.

The arrival of a wet season is not truly a reprieve. Droughts are forecasted to return as the climate processes the heavy carbon load. The space between emergencies is a time to reflect, Maurer says. “When the next [drought] comes in three years, what did we do right? What didn’t work? And how can we do better next time?”

A crop sprouting in the Forge Garden on campus. What we eat will change with the climate. What we eat can help stabilize the climate, too. / Image by Jim Gensheimer.

We Are What We Eat

Imagine visiting Seattle without a 10-buck pour-over as more than half the world’s coffee species are extinct due to deforestation, human settlement, and climate instability. Or strolling along the Champs-Élysées without a pain au chocolat because food scientists weren’t able to modify the DNA of the cacao plant to deal with rising temperatures in time to save the chocolate made from its beans.

This isn’t science fiction. Think of a banana. It’s bright yellow. Maybe you had one for breakfast. That banana is a Cavendish banana. It is the world’s most popular strain—practically the only one grown today. Increased temperatures and moisture make the perfect environment for a fungus lethal to Cavendish trees. While farmers diversify their crops, a shifting climate threatens our bananas.

Even if we do nothing, we will change. One thing we can do to protect our way of life is change food cultures.

“Food systems have a huge impact on the climate and the climate has a huge impact on food systems,” says Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences Christopher Bacon. Our diets depend on the unique balance of culture, environment, and technology that nurtured them into being. Shifting one thing could shift everything—remember the shells buried in dirt?

Eating habits that lean toward meat favor animal-based agriculture, one of the highest producers of greenhouse gases. A single cow produces 220 pounds of methane, hastening climate change. 

While a plant-based diet is better for the environment, thinking critically about what’s on your plate is key: Is the food grown in place with enough water, using technology that protects topsoil, or shipped over long distances, launching more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? It is a lot to consider.

“From the farm to the fork, there are power relations. Not only is eating an agricultural act and climate act, it’s also a political act and choice in terms of where we’re engaging,” Bacon says, who received a $285,722 grant from the National Science Foundation. “I encourage people to think about those relationships on an individual scale, on a household scale, and even on a community scale.”

In just 24 months, millions of acres in California burned, destroying 10 to 14 percent of mature Sequoia trees, according to the National Parks Service. / Image courtesy Shutterstock.

Care a whole awful lot

Even the most resilient of trees can fall. The 2020 Castle Fire alone destroyed 10 percent of the world’s mature giant sequoia trees, according to the National Park Service.

English lecturer Melissa Donegan, who incorporates the natural world into her Critical Thinking and Writing classes, says these trees are far too precious to ignore their destruction. 

“Even if we didn’t set the fire on purpose,” she says, “our behavior is creating this cycle where we can’t get any of these wonderful things: We don’t get the seasonal changes, fruit, or the habitats for the animals. Even just waving in the wind, the trees are telling us to pay attention.”

During Donegan’s first summer in California, the landscape grabbed her attention. Out on a walk, the heat surprised her, and trees provided shady reprieve. That gift is now a deep connection. On hikes, Donegan has wondered at fledgling barn owls peeking past foliage and a bobcat perched in the fork of a tree. She aims to instill such awe in her classes—where students explore nature in words.

A single tree holds numerous creatures and stories within it. “If students can start to develop a relationship or an understanding of all that the trees offer in their neighborhood,” Donegan says, “then they will be more willing to protect them.”

“In Richard Powers’ [novel] The Overstory, one of the characters says most people aren’t going to be convinced by an argument; the only thing that really convinces people is a good story,” she says. “So we have to get out there and do the things that give us good stories to tell and [find] stories that celebrate what it is we love about the world and what we want to protect.”

Those same students Donegan teaches give Maurer hope. “When I look at how to get people excited about things, look at how things are now, all these injustices people are rebelling against. We can solve all these and climate change at the same time,” he says. We are the masters of ourselves—how we eat, how we farm, how we nurture or ignore or destroy our environment. “We made those rules. We can change them.”

On the Santa Clara University campus, something new grows in the hands of students, who care for plants and bees in the Forge Garden. / Image by Jim Genshiemer.

Place of Change

Busy bees bumble near flowers. Clucking chickens clip across peat. Stalwart sunflowers stand guard. This place is the Forge Garden, where shades of a changing food culture, policy change studies, and sustainability take root.

Here is a piece of green in a golden state, where food is understood, stories are found, and students dig in the dirt.

Madeline Pugh ’23, an apprentice at The Forge, begins each week walking through gardens with other volunteers. A low hum grows and soon a cloud of bees buzz overhead. Pausing work for the day, Pugh and the other interns learn, “You should never really expect a totally normal day at the garden,” she says. “There’s always surprises popping up and unexpected things to learn.”

The cascading impacts of ecology carry hope here. During the pandemic, the food grown at the garden fed students through the Bronco Pantry program and 22 families. 

Here, the smallest acts, like planting a garden bed, can have the biggest impacts.

While much of the work at The Forge involves upkeep, lessons may stray into hydroponic systems and recipe books. Creativity flourishes just as much as the plants. This is a place where students can become purposeful about the fingerprints they leave on the world.

We cannot turn California’s golden hills green again. Like Sandel says, getting to zero would be very hard. But we can respond to change better. The world is telling us that we need to act. And we can care enough to listen, and be mindful when we put our hands in the dirt.

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