David Goodrich, PhD, was director of NOAA’s Climate Observations Division from 2009-2011. For three years before that he was director of the Global Climate Observing System at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He earlier had directed the multi-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program, USGCR. He spent two years doing research on the Chesapeake Bay aboard a NOAA research vessel, and he’s done more than 150 dives from NOAA research vessels exploring the Bay.
An avid bicyclist, climate change educator and public speaker, Goodrich, shortly after retiring from NOAA, at age 58 undertook a three-month ride by bicycle from Delaware to Oregon. In 2018 he cycled 1,100 miles from the Alberta oil sands to the Bakken oil field in North Dakota.
In this Q&A, Goodrich discusses his 2011 cross-country bicycling and climate change experiences that led to his book A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey across the U.S..
YCC: Describe the basics, the fundamentals, about your cross-country cycling experience.
Goodrich: I dipped my bicycle tire into the Atlantic at Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and eventually into the Pacific at Waldport, Oregon. In between were the three months of May through July and 4,208 miles, one-way, solo, and without any escort.”‘Somewhere Click To Tweet
Somewhere in Ohio it got real when I recognized that I was out of range of anyone who could conveniently come to pick me up. I averaged 58 miles per day, carrying about 50 pounds and roughly splitting evenings between campgrounds and motels. I rode east to west, the direction of the pioneers … but also largely against the wind. But riding eastbound would have had me on the high passes of the West before the snow cleared, and in the July heat of the East. So I bucked some wind going west.
Since the original ride across the U.S. in 2011, I’ve done a major bike tour – more than 500 miles – each year.
YCC: How did you choose your exact routing on the cross-country trip, and can you show that routing?
Goodrich: The first part of the ride was something of a home brew, linking major bike paths like the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Maryland and the Katy Trail in Missouri. The second half of the route, from Kansas to Oregon, came from the Adventure Cycling Association, which maps a venerable track known as the TransAmerica Trail. The vast majority of the ride was on roads.
YCC: Did you go with a specific goal of wanting to share information with people about climate change? Or was your goal more directed at learning about climate change and its impacts for yourself?
Goodrich: I’d spent my career looking at climate from instruments and observing systems, and I thought that seeing it from a bicycle seat would bring it closer to home. And climate’s not really that complicated, and I thought that I could simply explain it to people if given the chance. As I approached retirement, the idea came that maybe I could just ride my bike across and talk with people. My inspiration came from the movie Animal House: “This situation requires a really futile and stupid gesture on somebody’s part, and we’re just the guys to do it.”
YCC: Were there any extreme weather events or conditions that you encountered along the way that from your perspective may have been exacerbated or otherwise influenced by global warming?
Goodrich: Riding across Kansas put me on the northern edge of an historic drought in the southern Plains. The year 2011 was the driest in Texas history. Droughts have always happened on the Plains, but climate change tips the scales toward more severe events. In Kansas, the drought was a very real thing, but somehow climate change was politics and hence not a subject for polite conversation. You could talk about the weather, but not about climate change.
YCC: Did you meet person-on-the-street climate change “skeptics” along the way?
Goodrich: There were certainly some sentiments right out of talk radio. I spoke with a woman at the front desk at a Kansas motel. She asked about the bike and the ride. I mentioned that I was a retired scientist looking at climate change and observed that the area had quite a dry spell working.
“Well, I don’t know about climate change,” she said, “but it has been a dry patch. Seems like it’s what everybody’s talking about.”
“From what I see it’s even worse down into Texas,” I commented. “Anybody talking about climate?”
“No, not really.” She paused. “Do you know Al Gore?”
I didn’t, but it was clear where she was coming from.
Some weeks earlier, I overheard two farmers in Indiana talking about the heavy rains they’d been having. One mentioned:
“I got some spots won’t dry out for a week even if it stops tomorrow.”
“Must be that global warming thing.”
“Yeah, that’s what they all say. Lotta money in that global warming. Getcha a government grant, you’ll be all set.” The whole greedy-scientist line stung.
YCC: What were particular highlights?
Goodrich: Climate change can be surprising when you see it up close and not in science journal articles. On the coast of Delaware, I came across a barrier island, Fowler Beach, that is in the process of getting washed away. You can see building foundations out in the surf and road guardrails hanging in space. Storms and sea-level rise have led to breaches, new inlets getting punched through the island.
Another surprise was on the Front Range of the Rockies in Colorado. At the summit of an exhausting two-day climb to a place called Cameron Pass, I found a gray forest. It wasn’t dying; it was dead. The culprit was the mountain pine beetle, a tiny bug that drills into the bark of pine trees. Because of climate change, the warm season now lasts long enough that the beetles can go through two generations in a single year. The high-altitude pines have no defenses, and the die-off extends up the spine of the Rockies, well into Canada.
Some of the changes were quite unexpected. A farmer in eastern Montana, great-grandson of a homesteader, told me about his dad’s 50-year-old Quonset hut, dented by hail for the first time the prior year. Now much of the crop damage is from hail. Tornadoes used to be unheard of; they’re not so uncommon anymore.
What’s also striking is the growth of large-scale wind energy development on the Great Plains. When I first rode across Kansas in 2011, I saw only one wind farm on my route. Things have changed dramatically since then. Of 21 existing Kansas wind farms, 11 have come on line since then, with eight more permitted or under construction. Driving across the Plains in 2016, it was difficult to find a place where no turbines were in view.
YCC: From a climate change perspective, what is the single take-home message you take from this experience?
Goodrich: Climate change is something that’s here, now, and not something just for our grandchildren. And it’s not hopeless: Renewable energy is blossoming even in places where climate skepticism is strongest.
YCC: So, it’s now been eight years since that cross-country cycling experience. How do you think it might change if you were to undertake it again this year?
Goodrich: After eight more years of heat, fire, and extreme storms like Sandy, Harvey, and Michael, I suspect that the parts of rural America are getting more and more convinced that there’s something going on. The northern Rockies where I rode have been particularly hard-hit by fire recently. Fire has always been there, but smoke through the summer has not. And the parts of the Great Plains and southern Wyoming where I rode are now heavily invested in wind energy. A big debate in southern Illinois, on my track, has been how much farmland should be devoted to solar energy generation. These places are now far more invested in the renewable energy economy than they were eight years ago.
A Hole in the Wind: A Climate Scientist’s Bicycle Journey Across the United States, published by Pegasus Books, is available at local bookstores, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.