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Pygmy Mammoths, Climate Change, and a Fond Farewell to a Man I Never Met


WEIRDER BY THE MINUTE: I regret to say I never met Larry Agenbroad before he died on October 31. By any reckoning, Larry was an extravagant exuberance of a man — big silver belt buckle, well-worn blue jeans, walrus mustache, and boots grimed forever by the mud of time. I guess when your chosen path in life is paleobiology, certain social defense strategies become necessary. Had I known Larry, he would have been very much in my thoughts last Friday afternoon at State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson’s high-octane summit on climate change, convened in Santa Barbara, by the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management. As dog-n-pony shows go, this was prime cut. The head of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services — Mark Ghilarducci — made the trek from Sacramento to make the scene. As impressive as this was, the event still pushed 11 on my Cognitive Dissonance meter. Outside, it was 84 degrees. It was November 7. That’s just plain wrong. But then why did it feel so right? Climate weirdness may well be bad for the Earth, but here on Planet Santa Barbara, it’s been perpetual Ka-Ching. The tourist season — like fire season — now never ends. And nothing makes wine grapes sweeter than our new endless summer. And what could be more stimulating to the area economy than a bunch of wine-soaked tourists scrambling to find their cruise ships? But inside the county supervisors’ chambers, where the convocation of luminaries gathered, it was another story. There, the ambient temperature was sufficiently depressed that the space could easily have been rented out for lettuce storage. Not one leaf, I assure you, would have succumbed to wilt or rust. But how many baby polar bears, I wondered, were drowned so that I could be made so gloriously uncomfortable? The question, it turns out, was not merely snarky. The issue at hand, State Senator Jackson explained, had become all about adaptation — as in how can We the Species adapt to climate change now that weird has officially become the “new normal.” Jackson was in good form — at ease, in command, keeping things breezy and light. And she asked good questions without converting them into stump winders. And along the way, some genuine nutrient content got exchanged; it was not merely the politically correct flex fest I had expected.

Angry Poodle

It was about the time that Carmen Milanes ­— a high-ranking administrator from a state agency whose initials are pronounced as “Oh-Weee-Hah” — began talking that my mind would have turned to Larry Agenbroad had I known him in the first place. Milanes had helped compile a 3,600-page report chronicling how we are all going to hell in a hand basket. The state’s ambient temperature has risen 1.5 degrees corresponding to an increase in sea levels at 10 of 11 measuring points. Off Golden Gate Park, it’s increased eight inches in the past century; off La Jolla, it’s five inches in 80 years. Snow pack is shrinking, glaciers are melting, and wildfires are both more frequent and intense. Trees are dying, marine species being evicted from their traditional habitats. You get the drill. The answer, as usual, is more advance “resilience” planning. And more money for more plans. It’s reassuring that Caltrans — as we were told — is now trying to adapt by moving stretches of Highway 101 further inland so they’re not totally inundated come the deluge. No doubt Agenbroad would have had a story or two about adaptation of his own.

What Agenbroad didn’t know about mammoths — wooly, pygmy, or otherwise — probably is not knowable. Agenbroad spent much time at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History over the years, which has piles of mammoth bones he studied, tufts of prehistoric wooly mammoth fur he brought back from an ice-shackled specimen discovered in Siberia, and of course, the nearly complete pygmy mammoth skeleton he helped excavate from Santa Rosa Island in 1994. Back about 20,000 years ago, the sea level here was about 360 feet lower. As a result, the four Channel Islands were one large land mass known as Santa Rosae, which then sprouted out of the sea a mere six miles off the coast. Mammoths, as abundant back then as raccoons are now, could have easily made the swim over, their trunks qualifying as the greatest snorkel yet devised by either Man or God. Once there, however, the sea levels rose, leaving the mammoths stranded. They adapted by shrinking. Apparently, that’s what one does when trapped on an island; big creatures get small — not as much food — and small creatures get big — not as many predators. But these mammoths took it even further. They shifted their very DNA to achieve a new front-wheel-drive morphology. As their forelimbs shortened, the model mammoths gained much better torque and traction when climbing the island’s steep terrain. Naturally, this did not happen overnight or as a result of a government-induced plan. But over time, it did happen. As a result, Santa Rosae became party central for all pygmy mammoths and ranked as one of the top two mammoth population centers in all of North America.

Who knew?

Clearly, Larry Agenbroad did. I’m not sure how ironic Larry might have found it that the GOP paused all of three seconds before declaring an all-out fatwa on President Obama’s climate change deal with the Chinese. The icon for the Republican Party, after all, is the elephant, which — to strain an obvious point — is the direct lineal descendant of the now-defunct mammoths. Like I say, I didn’t know Larry. But from what I hear, he longed for the day of finding a human skeleton with mammoth tusks embedded in its remains as opposed to the other way around. As for me, I was thinking now might be a good time to dust off my resilience response plans. But my odds are better if I steal a page from Chucky Darwin’s book and simply sprout a mammoth trunk where my nose now is. In the meantime, I’ll see you swimming out to the islands

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