The northern arm of the Rocky Mountains is sometimes called "the crown of the continent," and its jewels are glaciers and snowfields that irrigate large parts of North America during spring thaw.
But the region is getting warmer, even faster than the rest of the world. Scientists now say warming is scrambling the complex relationship between water and nature and could threaten some species with extinction as well as bring hardship to ranchers and farmers already suffering from prolonged drought.
To see how this vast natural irrigation system works, it's best to fly over it. Seated next to Richard Hauer in a Cessna he calls "Montana Rose," I can see snowcapped mountains and wide valleys spread out below. Hauer, an ecologist at the University of Montana, calls this place a giant sponge.
Moist air from the Pacific hits the mountains and falls as snow and ice. The mountains hold that water until spring. Then it melts and runs through the gravel valleys and across big parts of North America.
It's worked that way for millennia. But lately, Hauer says, Montana is warmer, and spring's melt starts earlier. "When that happens, all that storage of snow and water in the high country will go through the system [the mountains and valleys] much faster," he explains. "It's a change that's taking place because the snowmelt is occurring earlier. ... Basically, if you turn the spigot on earlier, it runs out of water sooner."
Running out of water sooner means drier summers — just when plants, animals and people need it most.
Ecologists like Hauer say there are other changes happening as well — retreating glaciers, and more flash floods. "One of the expectations with climate change is that we're going to see a decrease in the permanent streams, particularly in the high alpine, and an increase in the temporary, ephemeral streams," Hauer says.
Already, scientists have noted the shrinking of the more than two dozen glaciers in Glacier National Park, as well as the disappearance of some snowfields that once lasted through summer.
Now they're trying to find out how this affects wildlife — wildlife that's important for holding together the complex food web here.
I join three scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey on a mountainside a couple of thousand feet below Hauer's flight path. We're hiking up into a snowfield in the park, toward a stream flowing down from the snow. "It's a great place to be if you are an obscure, high-alpine-stream insect," says aquatic entomologist Joe Giersch. Obscure insects are Giersch's life. Several species of very rare but important insects live here, in 40-degree meltwater.
Giersch bends over the stream — it's only a few inches deep — and turns over a few rocks. In 10 minutes, he finds what he wants: a tiny, brown, wet smudge of a fly. "All right! This is Lednia tumana." It's smaller than the head of a match and, to my eye, is just a brown blob. Giersch assures me that's what it is. "I've looked at a lot of these," he says. He calls the fly "charismatic microfauna."
Charismatic may be a stretch, but micro for sure. Lednia tumana is a stonefly. It spends part of its life in streams, but only icy streams in these mountains. It eats algae and other tiny organisms in the streams, and other insects and fish eat it. Stoneflies are part of a larger food web. Pull out one string, says our hiking companion, Daniel Fagre, and the web starts to come apart.
"In only a few decades, we're going to lose all the glaciers here," says Fagre, a research ecologist with the USGS at the West Glacier Field Station. "And they've been persistent on the landscape here for 7,000 years — so suddenly you are having a profound change in just a few decades, and that's very difficult for many organisms to adapt to."
What's happening is that as the average temperature increases here, the snow and ice, in effect, retreat up the mountain to colder air. Ecologist Clint Muhlfeld, who also studies this fly, says eventually the ice and the insects will run out of mountain. "You know, there's nowhere to go," he says. "They're at the top of the continent — the water tower of the continent — and it's a squeeze play." Muhlfeld notes that the federal government is considering listing Lednia as an endangered species because of the effects of climate change.
Moving farther down the mountain, you can see more signs of this disruption in the way water works here — in places like Montana's Flathead Lake, for example, one of the biggest lakes in the country.
Jack Stanford, who runs the Flathead Lake Biological Station, has spent decades studying the complex interactions of plants, animals and water. "The way in which water is deposited first and then transported by the rivers is fundamental to the distribution and abundance of organisms," he says.
Some of those organisms — for instance, salmon — are important, not only to nature but to people too.
If you get a warmer spring, you get flash floods, because the rain comes in before the snow has melted. It's called a "rain on snow event," and it can be trouble for salmon, which lay eggs in the gravel of stream beds. Rain on snow is like rain falling on pavement — it creates floods that wash the young salmon away, decimating the population.
"The way it plays out is that the food web gets a shakeup," Stanford says. "And ... the bottom line is, some players in that complex food web will be winners, and some will be losers."
Stanford says humans have already changed the natural world in ways we couldn't predict. Climate change is like putting another pair of dice in play.
For a visitor to Scotland, it can be difficult to understand the local passion for a neon orange soda that locals call "the brew." The drink is Irn Bru (pronounced "iron brew").
You can find it from McDonald's to corner stores and pubs across Scotland. It is such a powerful force that it may even outsell Coca-Cola here — making it one of the few places on the globe where Coke isn't the leading brand.
"This stuff runs in my blood," says Chris Young, as he walks through downtown Glasgow carrying a bottle.
Perhaps he's not a fair sample, though, since he is actually drinking the stuff. The woman with him, Gayle Fergus, has no such bottle. So is she as devoted a fan?
"Probably more," she says.
This seems impossible, given that her buddy claims the soda courses through his veins. But she insists.
"I've got the pens, I've got the merchandise as well." Fergus even speaks longingly of Irn Bru kilts, in bright orange and blue.
These people are not outliers. Even the first person we stop at random on a Glasgow street professes a seemingly unnatural passion for the brew.
"For my wedding toast, I had Irn Bru in champagne glasses instead of champagne," says Laura Calgie.
For the sake of journalistic integrity, it's important to confirm that she has no family connection to the company. She insists she does not, then pauses.
"I was brought up about 10 minutes away from the factory, so maybe they put something in the water," she says.
As Scots prepare to vote on independence next month, the fizzy fervor for this fluorescent fluid may offer some insights into Scottish nationalistic tendencies. When asked why they're so crazy for this Scottish soda, people most often reply, "Because it's Scottish."
"We're proud of what we have. That's why it outsells Coca-Cola," says Fergus. "Because we're so proud of our own products."
At a nearby old-fashioned candy store, shop worker Agnes Plunkett has shelves of Irn Bru-flavored sweets, from sticky taffy to translucent lollipops. Though since these are not officially licensed products, they're spelled "Iron Brew."
"This is the chews. This is Iron Brew humbugs. Orange flavored as well, orange colored," she says, walking down the shelf of candies. Every thing Iron Brew flavored is a great seller, she says. "Very popular."
Plunkett lets a visitor sample one of the hard candies. It starts out sweet, followed by a burst of acidity. And, of course, it's bright orange.
Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitsch. Kilts. Haggis. Bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn Bru's advertising slogans is "Made in Scotland, from girders." Girders, as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.
"People call Irn Bru Scotland's other national drink, after whisky," says Sara Grady of the market research firm Datamonitor Consumer. "Whereas I think Coke prides itself on being a brand that's the same all over the world, Irn Bru appeals to people because it's so Scottish."
Grady explains that she's English, "and so everything I see of English culture, we're kind of shy about it. Whereas they're just loud and proud."
"In some ways, I guess you could say that while Coca-Cola embodies the American dream, Irn Bru could be the Scottish version of that," she says.
At the Irn Bru factory just outside Glasgow, visitors must wear protective earphones. The rattling sound is constant as 96,000 cans an hour fly down the line.
"We'll sell about the equivalent of 17 cans a second, which is a huge volume to keep up with," says brand manager Martin Steele, who's serving as our tour guide.
When the tour is done, I tell Steele that I have a confession.
I still have not actually tasted Irn Bru soda.
"Shall we do that? Shall I get you a can and you can try it?" he says. "Give me two seconds. I'll nip into the factory and get you a can."
He brings back an ice-cold bottle, straight off the factory floor. The contents are the color of a sunset in a hazy sky.
I take a sip. And it tastes like ... soda. Sweet. Fizzy. A bit bubble-gummy.
To me, it seems like nothing special. Then again, I'm not Scottish.
The world is full of people talking about how right they are. Today on the show, we try something different: we talk to smart, thoughtful people about times they got things really, really wrong.
Lifetime's new show Girlfriend Intervention is not subtle about its message. Its premise is four black women giving a makeover to a white woman on the theory that, as they put it, "Trapped inside of every white girl is a strong black woman ready to bust out."
They don't even have to say "weak white girl" or "lame white girl" or "ugly white girl" or "unfashionable white girl" or "boring white girl," because all those things are, before long, implied.
The four makeover makers are Tracy Balan on beauty, Nikki Chu on "home and sanctuary," Tiffiny Dixon on fashion, and many-many-many-time reality star Tanisha Thomas (most notably of Oxygen's Bad Girls Club) as your — this is real — "soul coach." Thomas lays out her philosophy early in the first episode, saying that black women are taught that no matter what else is going on in your life, "as long as you look fabulous, that's all that matters." On the other hand, she says, "with Caucasian women, you get married, you marry the man of your dreams, you have his children, and now it's time to stop taking care of you? Girl, I missed that memo."
Are you a black woman? You might find this offensive. Are you a white woman? You might find this offensive. Are you neither? You might be thinking at this point that you're lucky to be left out of the entire thing. (Be aware, though, that no one is safe. Near the end of the first episode, Thomas exaggeratedly compliments the hotness of the made-over white woman by yelling, "Muy caliente, salsa picante mucho!")
Like so much of makeover television, this is shaming dressed up as encouragement (they actually call the segment where the makeover candidate shows them how she currently dresses the "catwalk of shame"). It's conformity dressed up as individuality, and it's submission to the expectations of others dressed up as self-confidence.
Only now, with obnoxious racial politics slathered all over the entire thing!
It is not like those politics need to be introduced by the viewer, either: They are the premise of the show, and they are repeated over and over. Black women, we are told in so many words, are unerringly confident, gorgeous, stylish, unflappable, and — ah, yes — better at pleasing men, especially black men. In the first episode, the target, Joanie, has a good-looking black husband, which the women make clear makes sloppy dressing a worse crime than it would be otherwise. "A black woman would never let herself go with a man like that," the soul consultant announces. The second episode, in fact, also features a woman, Emily, whose partner is a black man. "Now, I know there's a hot mama hidden in Emily. After all, she got a black man!" says Tracy.
(By the way, just when you think the show can't get more awkward, the second episode brings a moment in which Emily explains that she met her husband when she reached out and, fascinated, touched his hair. Do we need to talk about how one does not do that? One does not do that. This goes unmentioned.)
Black women are also presented as more fundamentally honest. Your white friends are lying to you: "With Caucasian women, everybody's afraid to say how they really feel." Your new black friends, on the other hand, are here to save the day: We are told that they "have the guts to tell you what everybody is really thinking." But they're not mean! "We do it out of love. Tough love, as a sister to another sister."
All of this is overtly about the manipulation of identity. It is made clear from the beginning that dressing in the way these consultants suggest is, to them, fundamental to being truly black if you're black, and to bringing out your inner black woman (who is presumed to be superior to your outer white woman) if you are white. The fashion consultant, as she observes Joanie's clothes, says, "No self-respecting black woman would ever hide herself in this if she wants to keep her black card." And the hits go on and on: In the second episode, Emily is taken to a studio to rap. And she's given a gold chain. And a hoodie. For the empowerment, you know.
On this show, all toughness, and in fact all showing of spine among women, is associated with being black, as we learn when Joanie shoots one of the consultants an unhappy look about an unflattering outfit in which they've placed her, and they immediately seize upon how easy it was to bring out her "black woman." With all due respect to these particular four women, I learned the throwing of a proper stink-eye from my mother, thank you very much, and I would put my stink-eye up against anyone's.
The casually insulting way these consultants approach their white ... clients? ... is unappealing, certainly, but the show's approach to the consultants themselves, and to black women in general, is hugely problematic, too. The black women on Girlfriend Intervention, like the gay men who did the work on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, are supposedly being saluted for their (stereotypically) superior style and knowledge and backbone, but are cast as helpers and facilitators for the benefit of, respectively, white women and straight men, valued for what they can offer and required to display sass at all times in sufficient amounts. (Among other things, it's unfortunate that other than Thomas being the loudest, they don't much distinguish the four stylists from each other, either.)
Popular entertainment targeted to white women is thick with obnoxiously other-ish fairy godpeople: the gay friend, the keeping-it-real black friend, the Latina neighbor, the wise black boss. There's always some earthier, real-er, truer person whose task it is to flutter around to provide perspective, to fix what's broken, and often to embarrass you for your foolishness. This is problematic for white women who don't care to be cast as badly dressed, helpless dummies who need constant life coaching, but it's no better for black women who don't care to be cast as flashy-dressing, finger-waving, fast-talking fixers whose mission is making Cinderella presentable for the ball, or for gay men who don't care to be asked to tag along on shopping trips.
It's not your black friend's job to tell you how to believe in yourself and keep your man (the concept of not having a man one is desperate to keep is seemingly foreign to the interventionists); it's not your gay friend's job to style you. Friendship is not quite so transactional.
(It must be said, too, that one of the show's challenges is a simple and serious one: at least in the first couple of episodes, the woman doesn't look very good or very comfortable in the things they choose for her. It's one thing to be in charge of sewing Cinderella's dress, but if she looked better when she was cleaning out the fireplace, you have a problem.)
What makes this particularly disappointing as a Lifetime show is that Lifetime is a network that has actually tried to appeal to more diverse audiences, as NPR's Priska Neely reported just last month. It's entirely possible, moreover, that there's a good show to be made in which black women and white women talk about beauty, confidence, self-care, and how they may see and experience some of those things differently. There's such a thing as the politics and emotional weight of hair, of style, of body image. But you don't get there by appointing black women as essentially beauty and style assistants to white women they treat like dolts.
Speaking personally, I walked away unconvinced that I have an inner black woman. I probably have an inner white woman who's more confident than the outer one. I probably have an inner white woman who's better at dressing myself, and I probably have an inner white woman who's better at interior decorating. I definitely have an inner white woman who wears better shoes. But no matter what women I manage to raise from within, they will all be white women. Nothing I say, nothing I do with my hair, no color I put on my walls, will make that any less true. And frankly, I feel neither entitled nor required to act otherwise.
C.K. won an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series for an episode on his FX show Louie. In 2011, C.K. told Fresh Air about making his comedy special and his relationship with other comedians.
Originally broadcast Dec. 13, 2011.