This past week of pristine springtime weather in the Pacific Northwest has reinforced an important idea: The world we live on is precious, life-giving and worth saving from ourselves.

A year of the coronavirus pandemic has brought great hardship and loss. For many, it’s been difficult to think about anything else, between deadly illness, our kids’ education and a depressed economy, to a vaccine that could bring us back to some sort of normal.

But this Earth Day might serve as a reminder of the pressing crisis of climate change threatening the world we share.

Here are six highlights from The Seattle Times’ coverage of the environment in the Pacific Northwest.

Wells Dam, owned by the Douglas County Public Utility District, will supply electricity to pull hydrogen gas out of well water. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Wells Dam, owned by the Douglas County Public Utility District, will supply electricity to pull hydrogen gas out of well water. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

It was an old apple orchard. Now it could be the future of clean hydrogen energy in Washington state.

Unless humans limit the greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels, like natural gas, coal and gasoline, Earth will continue to warm.

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But people still need to heat their homes, cook their food and get around. So to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change, we’ll need more renewable sources of energy.

One of those sources could be hydrogen gas, and in an old apple orchard in Washington state, a small public utility district has built a facility that can pull it from well water, using surplus hydropower to break apart the components of H2O.

This technology takes a lot of electricity to work, but the result could help power trucks, ships and airplanes. It could even make its way to existing natural gas pipelines. When burned, hydrogen emits harmless water vapor.

Could hydrogen be a building block of a low-carbon economy? Environment reporter Hal Bernton explored this question and the Pacific Northwest’s role in the future of hydrogen power.

Giant landfill in tiny Washington hamlet turns trash to natural gas, as utilities fight for a future

Another renewable fuel, methane, is created by our trash. And another small utility district is capturing it, cleaning it up and putting it right into natural gas pipelines.

Methane, a heavy greenhouse gas polluter, is emitted from decaying food scraps, dog poop, yard clippings, paper and other organic materials mixed in with garbage at landfills.

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Each day more than 12 million pounds of garbage is dumped, spread, compacted and finally covered with a layer of dirt at the Klickitat County landfill owned by Republic Services. It sits on a plateau above the Columbia River in Southern Washington.  (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Each day more than 12 million pounds of garbage is dumped, spread, compacted and finally covered with a layer of dirt at the Klickitat County landfill owned by Republic Services. It sits on a plateau above the Columbia River in Southern Washington. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Klickitat Public Utility District raised some $40 million to build a processing plant to strip out the gas’s impurities.

The production fuels a high-stakes political battle unfolding in Washington and elsewhere in the nation over the future of gas utilities in a century of intensifying climate change driven by the global use of fossil fuels.

Environment reporter Hal Bernton looked at the technology and its future in Washington state.

These petroglyphs at Buffalo Eddy on the banks overlooking the Snake River in Idaho are just one indication of the long presence of the Nez Perce people in Snake River country. The figures are pecked into the surface of the rock.   (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
These petroglyphs at Buffalo Eddy on the banks overlooking the Snake River in Idaho are just one indication of the long presence of the Nez Perce people in Snake River country. The figures are pecked into the surface of the rock. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Salmon People: A tribe’s decades-long fight to take down the Lower Snake River dams and restore a way of life

The Pacific Northwest ecosystems are a balancing act. The clouds build the snowpack, the snowmelt feeds the rivers, the river water and its nutrients flow to the sea to feed the small creatures that feed the bigger ones.

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Salmon that hatch in rivers, grow big in the ocean and come back again ride this system with grace — if we let them. And people living in this land for millennia have benefited from nature’s symbiotic relationship, building a diet, a culture, a way of life.

The Nez Perce are Salmon People. But the fish they’ve relied on for so long are endangered, facing warming rivers, dams and overfishing. Environment reporter Lynda Mapes spoke with the Nez Perce people about their decades-long fight to take down the Lower Snake River dams.

GOP congressman pitches $34 billion plan to breach Lower Snake River dams in new vision for Northwest

For nearly three decades, the region has been stuck with unending litigation and spiraling costs as salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers decline toward extinction.

But Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from a conservative district in eastern Idaho, has proposed a $34 billion plan to tear down the Lower Snake River hydroelectric dams to let the river run free, help save salmon from extinction, and replace the benefits of the dams for agriculture, energy and transportation.

The proposal faces a steep climb toward becoming reality, but it’s sparked a new phase in this long-running controversy.

Environment reporter Lynda Mapes evaluated the proposal and measured its outlook.

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Remnants of red fire retardant are visible from above days after hundreds of homes were destroyed by an urban wildfire in Talent, Oregon, and other nearby towns. This aerial image made from a drone was shot Sept. 12, 2020. (David Ryder / Getty Images)
Remnants of red fire retardant are visible from above days after hundreds of homes were destroyed by an urban wildfire in Talent, Oregon, and other nearby towns. This aerial image made from a drone was shot Sept. 12, 2020. (David Ryder / Getty Images)

Urban wildfire: When homes are the fuel for a runaway blaze, how do you rebuild a safer community?

Springtime will give way to summer. Then the smoke hits. Some years are worse than others, but smoky skies have become more common during the Pacific Northwest’s fire seasons.

Warmer temperatures are drying up wildfire fuel: trees and shrubs and grass. Last year, parts of Washington and Oregon burned. Even whole neighborhoods were razed.

The Almeda fire in Oregon had nothing to with backcountry forests. It started in a patch of grass next to a dog park. Especially hard hit were low-income residents, who’ve long struggled to find affordable housing.

Environment reporter Hal Bernton explored the changing makeup of wildfires and how to rebuild in a way that is more resistant to the flames.

Forest ecologist Greg Ettl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Sustainable Forestry at the Pack Forest, checks the flow of sap from a bigleaf maple tree in February. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Forest ecologist Greg Ettl, the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Sustainable Forestry at the Pack Forest, checks the flow of sap from a bigleaf maple tree in February. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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Northwest maple syrup? UW testing local bigleaf maples for sweet industry

Here’s some sweet news: Researchers at the University of Washington are collecting sap from local bigleaf maples.

The experiment could lead to a maple syrup industry in the Northwest, boost margins for small landowners, prevent the conversion of forest land for development and nourish a more diverse forest.

If Washington landowners can produce a liquid this delicious from bigleaf maples, which many consider a weed best to eradicate, the UW team reasons it will provide incentive enough to keep these beneficial trees on the landscape.

Climate reporter Evan Bush took us to the foothills of Mount Rainier to see the woodland operation in action.