by Jack Haworth

Climate Change, SUP and the Paddlers Fighting the Plight

Photo courtesy of Chase Kosterlitz 

Earth is a phenomenal and beautiful place. It sustains life in endless variety and environments, from the depths of the sea to the peaks of mountains. Every resource we need to survive and thrive is found on our planet.

Unfortunately, climate change is flagrantly affecting our waterways, and it’s getting exponentially worse. We SUP and we see it manifesting all around us—dry lake beds plagued by severe drought (see California), cities flooded from unprecedented sea level rises (see Miami), melting icebergs, record forest fires and graveyards of coral. Along with the flora and fauna of these habitats, paddlers are the first to feel the impacts of climate change. And that gives us the unique opportunity to fight it.

The dramatic difference between the waterline and the current level of the lake exemplifies the severity of California’s drought.
Photo courtesy of Chase Kosterlitz

Water is like the blood of the earth. Without it, life cannot exist. With it, life abounds. Whether on oceans, lakes, rivers or streams, standup paddling places us in the lifelines of the natural world. Paddlers are privileged with a unique connection to the intricacies of earth’s ecosystems. No other activity puts people more in touch with Mother Nature’s pulse.

Paddling earth’s lifelines, we bear witness to nature’s endless and ephemeral beauties, both alive and inanimate. In effect, we also bear witness to climate change in its most severe manifestations. Raging rivers, gone. Giant glaciers, melted. Cities undersea.

Our waterways are the frontlines of the battle to salvage earth’s injured ozone layer. From coral graveyards to arid lakebeds—paddling habitats are global warming’s first casualties. But hope exists for these habitats, in part due to the paddling community that’s standing up for them.

Chase Kosterlitz is a professional paddler from California turned environmental activist on a mission to decrease emissions. In recent years, he has watched the waterlines of his West Coast paddling paradises steadily descend. He recalls one recent trip to Truckee River near Lake Tahoe, a place that only a few years ago was a raging and deep flowing river.

“We spent the whole day trying to find a section with enough fin clearance to paddle, to no avail,” Kosterlitz said.
“This is the sad reality for many inland paddlers dealing with the drought in the west.”

Photo courtesy of Chase Kosterlitz

However, instead of just lamenting the fact that the drought had taken away his paddle spots, Kosterlitz decided to take action. He created a short film to expose climate change as a leading cause of the devastating drought and how it affects SUP in his home state. In addition, he has also begun advocating for people to consume a more environmentally sustainable diet.

“Once I learned about the huge environmental impact of eating meat I limited my consumption drastically,” says Kosterlitz. “I’m no environmental saint but simply try to take small steps in the direction of sustainability.”

California’s current drought is the worst the state’s seen in more than a millennium.
Photo courtesy of Chase Kosterlitz

To understand the drought’s cause, and the cause of climate change in general, it’s critical to address our climate’s fundamental assailant.

Carbon dioxide.

CO2 is the the super villain of our current climate scenario and its atmospheric concentration has risen by a third since pre-industrial times. This rise in CO2 has led to an acceleration of the “greenhouse effect” that traps heat within our atmosphere, equating to global temperature rise.

The immediate effect, as applied to paddlers, doesn’t seem all that bad on the surface. More warm-weather days on the water, better tans and bikini bods, right? Sure, but with potentially catastrophic caveats.

Unprecedented drought, extreme weather anomalies and perhaps most concerning for standup paddlers, sea level rise. The consensus among climate experts holds that these issues will intensify exponentially if the global temperature rises by another two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Among the prospective effects: an ice-free Arctic Ocean, deadly acidification of seas and a multitude of island communities swallowed by the sea, for starters. At our current rate of industrial emission, prevailing predictions among the scientific community anticipate we’ll reach that temperature by 2050. In short, the effects we’re experiencing now in our paddling trails and surf spots are merely the tip of a (melting) iceberg of disastrous proportions.

“Sea level rise can fundamentally effect surf spots by changing the depth, but this is a minor concern in light of the others,” said Christian Shaw, adventure paddler and founder of the environmental, SUP-based nonprofit Plastic Tides.

Sea level rise is already beginning to eat away at Southern California’s coastline. Photo courtesy of Aaron Schmidt

Like Kosterlitz, Shaw is among a growing number of paddlers already taking action to improve our environment’s current condition. He and Plastic Tides co-founder, Gordon Middleton—along with a team of passion-driven Plastic Tides ambassadors—focus primarily on ridding our waterways of plastic pollution. Shaw, Middleton and their team use standup paddleboards to collect water samples, which they quantify into research that exposes the negative impact of microbeads (tiny plastic pollutants) in aquatic habitats. Applying their research in legislation, last year Plastic Tides successfully influenced a ban on the sale of products that contain microbeads in multiple counties in New York, which soon led to a national ban signed by President Obama.  

“The momentum created by our campaigns accelerated a national ban which is definitely a big accomplishment,” says Shaw. “It is something we have been working on almost exclusively for a year and a half.”

The efforts of Kosterlitz, Shaw and a handful of paddling compatriots are but a few examples of standup paddlers’ potential impact as stewards of the environment, using SUP to drive their initiatives. Plenty of methods exist for applying the paddle to environmentally beneficial pursuits; all it takes is a little passion and creativity.

On the international political scale, the battle to reverse, or at least neutralize mankind’s industrial impact finds hope in the renewed enthusiasm of global interest. In December 2015, a major milestone was reached in the global fight against climate change with the COP 21 agreement in Paris. More than 190 countries opted into an agreement to collectively cut carbon emissions by honoring internationally imposed regulatory system. The task is ambitious, the timeline long, and guidelines for implementing the COP 21 treaty have yet to be conceived. The most challenging task will be to turn the agreement into action.

Riding your bike is just one of many great ways to cut your carbon emissions and help fight climate change.  
Photo courtesy of Aaron Schmidt

“There is no easy solution to most environmental problems,” Kosterlitz said. “We must pay attention to the problems we face, vote in elections, and get involved at whatever level we can.”

Photo courtesy of Chase Kosterlitz