Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

I suppose I can’t not write about Sharpie-gate, as much as I’d rather not. After all, of the myriad episodes that have defined the Trump administration’s idiocracy, few have reached this peak of stupidity.

On Saturday, Aug. 31, with Hurricane Dorian bearing down on the U.S., President Trump warned that it posed a serious risk to Alabama, though forecasters had days earlier said Alabama was out of danger. The next day, after receiving calls from worried residents, the Birmingham office of the National Weather Service tweeted that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”

For reasons best left to a psychologist, Trump refused to let it go. He spent the next week obsessing over it, insisting that he was right and the NWS experts (and the media that covered them) were wrong and fake. By Wednesday, he was in the Oval Office with a hurricane forecast from Aug. 29, altered by a hand-drawn Sharpie to include Alabama in the storm’s projected path. By Friday night—after the storm had left the North Carolina coast, and we were still talking about this—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a statement “correcting” the NWS tweet from a week earlier and backing the president. (The justification: One model showed a tiny chance of tropical-storm-force winds in a sliver of Alabama.)

By Saturday, Sept. 7, The Washington Post had reported that, the day after Trump’s Alabama flub, the NOAA sent a directive to NWS meteorologists ordering them not to contradict the president, even though he was wrong, and they were right, and part of their job is to correct misinformation. NOAA sent a similar directive after the Sharpie display.

“I have never been so embarrassed,” the head of the NWS union tweeted Friday.

So say we all, pal.

Under different circumstances—say, if he were hosting a reality TV show—the president’s pathetically pathological need to be right and his lackeys’ compulsion to assuage his fragile ego might be amusing. But this is real life, where undermining the credibility of the government’s information during a disaster puts lives at risk.

This is part of a larger problem, of course. On Friday, Sept. 6, Business Insider reported that “aides and confidants are concerned about his mental state after days of erratic behavior and wild outbursts.” According to one former White House official: “His mood changes from one minute to the next based on some headline or tweet, and the next thing you know, his entire schedule gets tossed out the window because he’s losing his shit.”

In the UK, when Trump-lite Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to go around Parliament to facilitate a disastrous no-deal Brexit, defections within his own party blocked him and then prevented him from calling snap elections. Country was more important than party. Here, administration officials have shown no such spine, even on matters as banal as Sharpie-gate. The higher the stakes—and the more unhinged Trump becomes—the more dangerous that gets.

Plenty of ink has been spilled explaining how we got here—how, since the civil rights movement, the Republican Party’s embrace of white racial grievance and the cultivation of authoritarianism in its pursuit of power have destroyed liberal democracy’s guardrails, allowing a pernicious oaf like Trump into the Oval Office. But we shouldn’t overlook the behind-the-scenes roles played by men like Thomas Hofeller, who made the radicalization of the GOP possible.

Hofeller, who died last year, was a Republican redistricting consultant, a number-cruncher who helped gerrymander congressional and legislative districts all over the country, most famously in North Carolina, where his work has been subject to numerous lawsuits. The districts he helped draw in 2011 were struck down as racial gerrymanders. The congressional districts he helped draw to replace them were then struck down as partisan gerrymanders, though earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering was constitutional.

But last week, a state court struck down the redrawn legislative districts, ruling that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the state Constitution. This followed a lawsuit Common Cause filed in 2018, after North Carolina Democrats won more votes for state House and Senate, but Republicans emerged with strong majorities. Facing a Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court, Republican lawmakers declined an appeal, meaning North Carolina could see its first fair election in a decade next year.

This is where it gets fun: Much to Republicans’ chagrin, Hofeller’s daughter had turned over thousands of his files to Common Cause. On Friday, Sept. 6, The New Yorker reported their contents. As you’d expect, they showed that Hofeller compiled “intensely detailed” data on race, as well as things like whether college students were likely to have the state-required ID to vote. 

He got particularly deep in the weeds at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, the nation’s largest historically black college. Hofeller used dorm-level data to draw congressional districts that literally bisected the campus, ensuring that Greensboro would have two Republican representatives. This, Republicans argued, was about partisan advantage, not race.

The files show that Hofeller was involved in Republican gerrymandering efforts in Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Texas and Florida, and that “he was part of a Republican effort to add a citizenship question to the Census … which Hofeller believed would make it easier to pack Democrats and minorities into fewer districts, giving an advantage to Republicans.” Trump, you’ll recall, championed this cause—even after the Supreme Court turned rejected the question because the administration couldn’t be bothered to hide its political motives.

Hofeller and the Republicans who employed him contorted democracy to their own ends. But by creating ruby-red districts in which Republicans could only lose in primaries, they fostered an incentive structured that pulled the GOP further and further right, the kind of asymmetric polarization that, in short order, gave us a president who draws hurricane projections with a Sharpie and a party that whistles in democracy’s graveyard.

Contact Jeffrey C. Billman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in National/International

It is snowing in Washington, D.C.—strange in early March after an insanely warm winter, but nothing compared to the cold many of the activists and tribal members gathered here endured in North Dakota while fighting against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Kristen Tuske, a 39-year-old woman from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, stands with several other women in front of the White House, her back to it, fist raised in the air. She has pink hair, sculpted arches for eyebrows and tattoos on the side of her face. She lived at the camp where thousands of “water protectors” gathered to fight the pipeline for seven months.

“The last couple weeks at the camp were sad, and everyone was a little angry,” she said. “A lot of feelings are hurt. ... That was our home, and we got kicked out.”

The last protesters left the camp on Feb. 23.

The struggle started last summer when the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes sued the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the construction of the oil pipeline, claiming it could contaminate their water supply and destroy significant archeological sites. That kicked off months of protests, often pitting camps of indigenous people—and the environmentalists and veterans that had come to fight with them—against an increasingly militarized police presence. President Obama twice ordered construction stopped, but, after taking office, Trump gave the go-ahead to the pipeline, insisting publicly that it must be constructed of American steel (a stance he quietly reversed this month).

The evacuation of the camp may be a defeat for Standing Rock, but, in the eyes of those gathered in front of the White House, it may also signal the beginning of something greater—the possibility of a real environmental movement in America.

“The reason I am here is to represent our future generations and be their voice, part of the resistance in decolonizing our minds,” said JoRee LaFrance, a member of the Crow tribe from Montana. “Protecting our waters should be our No. 1 priority, and that’s why we’re all here is to unite and protect tribal sovereignty and to protect indigenous people and their waters. People need to realize indigenous people are doing this for all people, not just indigenous people. We’re here to protect the water for all people.”

As I talk to people at the rally, I hear that sentiment again and again. It is not just about the water at Standing Rock. It is a symbolic battle, a turning point. Indigenous people are stepping forward to save the planet—and to save us from ourselves.

Little Thunder, an elder from South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, is standing apart from the crowd in full ceremonial regalia: a feathered headdress, a circular feather shield, and some mirrored sunglasses. He came all the way to Washington to “let people know and let Trump know that this is not just a Standing Rock or a Washington, D.C., or a politics issue. This is for the whole Earth. We’re trying to save the water, because water is life.”

Little Thunder says he is a single father of six children, four of them living at Standing Rock. His voice is high and pinched; he’s almost singing as he speaks.

“Once he let (Standing Rock) go through, they think they can destroy the water, which is life every place else on this Earth, not just Standing Rock,” he says.

David Kenny, a member of the Seneca Nation, is standing with a sign that reads “Water Is Life.”

“It’s not just about Native Americans anymore. It’s about everyone,” he says. “Because if you keep poisoning the water, you’re going to start paying for it, and they’re going to shoot that price up. You’re going to be paying $20 for a bottle of it. It’s not just about the tribes anymore.”

He turns his attention toward the White House and the white man inside it. “Can you stop this pipeline, please?” he asks, his voice soft. “It’s not about business anymore. It’s not just us that’s going to fall—it’s you, too. Everybody is going to die if this continues. The Earth is dying.”

There is no indication that Trump or anyone else in the White House hears this, despite the fact that native nations have spent the last four days with teepees set up on the mall, raising awareness of indigenous and environmental issues. On March 9, the day before the gathering across from the White House, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said he would not agree that climate change caused by human activity is “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

But as the Native Nations Rise rally went down, thousands more people were calling the EPA to complain about Pruitt’s disavowal of accepted science.

On the very same day as the rally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a study reporting that carbon dioxide levels rose at a “record pace for second straight year.”

“The two-year, 6-ppm surge in the greenhouse gas between 2015 and 2017 is unprecedented in the observatory’s 59-year record,” the report read.

Trump’s budget proposal, released a week after the rally, slashed the EPA by more than 30 percent. NOAA is not included in the final proposal, but a leaked draft showed a 17 percent decrease in funding.

Back at the rally, the snow falls on the demonstrators, as well as the dancers and the speakers on the stage. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas takes the stage. He is part Shoshone and organized the release of a song recorded by a collection of mostly native artists to bring attention to Native American issues.

It is a strange moment, watching the snow fall as this pop star in a floppy hat sings over a recording of his band’s song “I Gotta Feeling,” and people sway and dance and sing along, making it feel, for a moment, more like spring break than a deadly serious fight for the fate of the world.

Looking over at the White House, I have a feeling that tonight’s probably not gonna be a good night. But if we listen to the water protectors, we may still have some good nights left.

Democracy in Crisis is a joint project of alternative newspapers around the country, including the Coachella Valley Independent. Baynard Woods is editor at large at the Baltimore City Paper. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Salon, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review and many other publications. Send tips to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Twitter @demoincrisis. Podcast every Thursday at

Published in Environment

I first wrote about Pacific sea stars falling victim to a mysterious disease last fall for High Country News. The starfish are turning into goo and dying, and the aptly-named “starfish wasting syndrome” has not—as scientists hoped—subsided on its own.

It’s gotten much, much worse.

How much worse, you ask? Well, from the get-go, this iteration of starfish wasting was more widespread and severe than previous outbreaks, which have historically spiked during warm-water El Niño years and then quickly subsided. By the time it was identified late last summer, the disease had already caused localized die-offs of up to 95 percent of ochre sea stars in Santa Cruz, and was spotted as far north as Alaska. Tens of thousands of starfish simply wasted away and died, literally before researchers’ eyes.

Yet it seemed for a while that Washington and Oregon would be spared. This May, just a little more than 1 percent of ochre sea stars in Oregon were affected.

But now—just a little more than a month later—an estimated 30 to 50 percent are dying, and scientists predict a 100 percent mortality rate in some places. In parts of Washington’s San Juan Islands, mortality jumped from 10 to 40 percent over the course of a single week in June, and the disease has now been confirmed in more than a dozen species.

“This is an unprecedented event,” says Bruce Menge, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. “We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before.”

You might be wondering what’s behind this intertidal horror show. Funny you should ask. Though the outbreak has prompted a slew of research and emergency funding from the National Science Foundation, no one really knows. We’re 11 months into an epidemic that could wreak havoc on entire ecosystems from Mexico to Alaska, and we can’t pin down the cause.

That’s because unlike, say, salmon or even sea cucumbers, starfish aren’t commercially important, so research until now has been scarce. When Cornell University marine epidemiologist Drew Harvell was dispatched to Washington this year to study the dead invertebrates, for example, she was forced to set up a makeshift lab in a fish-virus facility. Funding for her work is “limited.”

Nonetheless, Harvell and her colleagues have managed to identify bacteria and viruses in sick starfish that don’t seem to be present in healthy ones. But since no one really knows what a sea star’s “normal” microbiome looks like, they still don’t know whether the microbes are causing the disease or are an effect of it. Even if they’re able to figure that out, the disease’s mode of transmission from one starfish to the next is still unclear.

All of this underscores the need for better marine science funding. The ocean is at least as important to our future, our livelihoods and our sense of wonder as outer space, and yet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gets only about $5 billion to NASA’s $17 billion. A report card from the national ocean advocacy group Joint Ocean Commission Initiative gives the U.S. a D- in its funding for ocean science and calls the field “chronically underfunded.”

That may help explain our tenuous grasp of how carbon emissions, overfishing, development and other human activities fit together to impact the health of the world’s oceans—and why, when disease strikes, we’re often left scratching our heads. This year, for example, some 367 sea lions—more than five times the average—have washed up sick in northern California (and 600 have washed up in Southern California). Puffins are disappearing from the Northeast. A strange virus is afflicting some 1,200 dolphins on the Eastern Seaboard. In each case, we’re not quite sure why. Warming and acidifying oceans likely play a role, but the complete picture is still fuzzy.

The lack of concrete information also provides fertile ground for conspiracy theorists, particularly those who like to blame all mysterious ocean problems on Fukushima radiation—an idea roundly dismissed by scientists. But without better collaboration, funding and research, the real root of these diseases remains speculative.

As Seattle Aquarium veterinarian Lesanna Lahner told reporter Kate Lunau, “This is one of the largest wildlife die-offs that we know of. It’s a signal in the ecosystem that something’s not right.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this article was originally published. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

May they whose Lot this Log to keep

Be worthy of the Task complete

And never leave a sentence out

Which should occur the voyage about

—Inscription on the cover of a 19th century ship’s logbook

The morning of April 19, 1875, dawned cool and foggy in San Francisco Harbor.

Aboard the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship Yukon, Assistant Commanding Officer Gershom Bradford stepped onto the deck. He watched as the men set up the rigging and filled large tanks with fresh water in preparation for the schooner’s upcoming voyage. He was eager to be under way.

As was I, having recently joined the crew.

Well, sort of. As Bradford gazed into the mist 138 years ago, so do I gaze into my laptop’s soft glow. The officer’s script in the electronic scan of the Yukon’s logbook is antiquely florid, but I do my best to transcribe his observations. Once finished, I click “Save.” One day down, thousands to go.

This is Old Weather, a citizen-science project run in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as a host of museums, universities and historical societies. It conscripts members of the willing public, like me, to sift through logs from 19th and 20th century U.S. Arctic surveys, and transfer ship locations, weather observations, air and water temperature, and barometric pressure data into spreadsheets more suitable for statistical analysis. Ultimately, the data will help scientists better understand how the climate has varied in the past, and improve projections of change in the future.

I feel a thrill at the thought of joining the Yukon on this adventurous and newly virtuous mission. I chose her because she was one of the first American vessels to explore the western Aleutian Islands—a place I’ve always wanted to see. But when we ship out, we don’t head for Alaska. Instead, we sail up the coast to Eureka, where we spend a few weeks measuring the depth of the seafloor by day, returning to the harbor at night.

Sometimes we anchor off Humboldt Point, which I’m sure is very pretty.

Still, it’s not exactly the derring-do I was hoping for.

Old Weather was originally a British project. In 2010, climatologists with the U.K. Met Office (roughly the British equivalent of the National Weather Service) were looking for ways to test how well their climate models could re-create known conditions. The better the models performed on the past, the more trustworthy their predictions of the future.

But almost all available historical data came from land-based weather stations, starting in the 1920s. What was needed was older data, marine data—and there happened to be a group of people known for their meticulous weather records: sailors.

The first Old Weather ships were from the Royal Navy during World War I. Even in the heat of battle, sailors had taken time to note whether it was raining. But those logbooks were scattered in archives and libraries. Simply scanning and transcribing them could take years, and no one had the time, the money or, frankly, the inclination. Why not subcontract the drudgery to volunteers?

Old Weather was in its early stages when Kevin Wood, a historical climatologist with the Seattle-based NOAA-University of Washington Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, met one of the project’s leaders at a talk in Baltimore. The fellow worried he would soon run out of ships; volunteers had blitzed through the logs of 238 in just a few months.

Wood felt the click of a good idea: What if they expanded the project to include Arctic surveys from the 1800s and 1900s, when the U.S. government sent ship after ship to Alaska and beyond? The region was a sort of historical climatic frontier, since there weren’t many weather stations at those high latitudes until recently. He returned to Seattle and spent the next year and a half convincing the National Archives to photograph logbook pages. Last October, the first 14 ships were put online; now, the imaging team has photographed nearly 275,000 pages. Close to 25 million new data points are now available, helping establish a climatic baseline for the Arctic against which to compare current changes.

Old Weather scientists can use the data to reconstruct the weather across the globe, from the surface to an altitude of 30,000 feet, for the past 200 years. They can look at how weather patterns in one part of the world related to events elsewhere—examining, for example, what atmospheric conditions contributed to the formation and trajectory of the Galveston hurricane of 1900.

The precision is intoxicating. “With something like an ice core, you’re just looking at an annual layer,” Wood says. But with Old Weather, you can find out what the weather was doing at a specific time and place in history. Want to know what the weather was like at 4 a.m. on May 19, 1873 at North 54 degrees 31”, West 165 degrees 351”? Now you can!

The Yukon meanders off the California coast for a few weeks, diligently sounding. As the days pass, high on virtue but short on adventure, I’m tempted to desert. Maybe I could go to the U.S.S. Concord, a gunboat sweeping through the South Seas on its way to guard fur-seal colonies in Alaska. But then the log leaps to April 1873. Our quest: a survey of the Unalaska Territory.

The data now take on the giddy momentum of actual transit. As I enter the Yukon’s coordinates into the set fields of the dialogue box provided on the Old Weather website, a little orange ship icon scoots across the cornflower blue sea on a small map beside the log pages. We tack north and west, out across the Pacific.

Though the seas are rough and the skies squally, we make good time. At 11 a.m. on May 16, we see an island some 45 miles distant. We skirt along it and other islands for a few days before anchoring at Unalaska Island. It is the first land we have set foot on in weeks.

If the crew feels excitement or relief, there is no note of it in the log; they are too busy furling the main- and foresails, or salting codfish. I have to content myself with my own awe, distanced as I am in time and space.

I do an image search for Unalaska, and up pops a Google-collage of rugged mountains set against miles of tundra and cold black water. The tableau is breathtaking—not that I can do anything but look. It is like peering through a porthole.

But my remove is also fitting; scientists often have to make do with the proximal and indirect when seeking information on remote regions like the Arctic. When whalers, for instance, would return from their years-long voyages to places no one else dared visit in the 19th century, scientists would eagerly troll the logbooks for notes about geography or animal occurrence to help expand their understanding of the world.

Old Weather continues that tradition of resourcefulness, and Wood has his sights set on those whaling logs for another phase of the project. (More than any other type of merchant ship, whalers ranged far and wide across the oceans, which means even greater geographical coverage.) He says that some participants have found their own layers of meaning in the data, and puts me in touch with Stuart Franklin, one of Old Weather’s most-prolific enterers.

An Englishman, Franklin has lived in Australia for the past 40 years. He worked for the British Merchant Navy, first as a fitter and then a machinist; later, he taught at a technical college. He’s retired now, and estimates that he works on Old Weather for about 30 hours each week, minus the two days that he volunteers at a steam engine museum.

Franklin isn’t only interested in the voyages, but also in what the log comments reveal about the crew. On the Concord, for which he has entered hundreds of pages, Franklin started keeping a list—who deserts, who is commended, who is jailed, who is killed when a steam pipe explodes. He does this out of a sense of responsibility that I understand: We can pretend to higher scientific purpose, overseeing whole voyages without mucking about the daily tasks, but as anonymous volunteers ourselves, our real affinity is with the anonymous sailors who manned these ships. One day, when the results of Old Weather are published, perhaps our own toils will be listed somewhere, but more likely, no one will notice. On the ships’ front pages, where our usernames are listed next to how many records we’ve completed, there is the same dynamic as on ships themselves: People come, people go, the data march on.

I think back to a page from the Yukon’s 1875 voyage. On April 30, a seaman named J.H. Arthington disappeared from a weather station, taking a boat with him. Who was he? Had he stolen the boat and tried to escape? Was he attacked? Was it an accident?

About a month later, there was a small note: “The body of J.H. Arthington was found by Indians on the Beach and brought to Eureka.”

Nothing more. I clicked “Save,” and the page turned, and it was the next day, the Yukon once again sailing for Trinidad to survey the seafloor.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment