Michelle Nijhuis

2006 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Michelle Nijhuis received the Walter Sullivan Award at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 25 May 2006 in Baltimore, Md. Nijhuis was honored for “Hot Times: Global Warming in the West,” which combines science, policy, and human interest in telling the story of global warming from a regional perspective.


For the past decade, as it has become increasingly apparent that human-caused climate change is the biggest environmental challenge the world has ever faced, the editors of Colorado’s High Country News, like many in the media business, have struggled with a basic question: How can journalists take a mind-numbing jumble of immense databases, complex scientific models, and very little political action and turn it into a meaningful and compelling narrative?

This is the task we gave two years ago to our contributing editor, Michelle Nijhuis, who possesses both the mind of a scientist and the heart of a poet. After a few months of reading and talking with scientists and activists, Michelle came back with the conviction that the American West-because of its incredible topography and aridity-is one of the best places in the world to actually see climate change in action. Her proposed series, which we dubbed “Hot Times,” would focus on the scientists who are drawing together the evidence for the most radical climate shift humanity has experienced in more than 1000 years, if not longer.

Her first article, “Written in the Rings,” investigates a science that was, as she writes, “birthed and raised in the Interior West.”

The study of tree rings began as an Arizona astronomer’s hobby, but it now plays a central role in the global debate over human-caused climate change. Tree ring patterns show, with disturbing certainty, that the Northern Hemisphere has warmed dramatically over the past several decades, a change likely without precedent in the past millennium. They also show that the West’s most recent drought, though extreme, is just the latest in a long series of deep and frequent regional droughts.

Her second story addresses a pressing question for many in the West: “What Happened to Winter?” The winter of 2004-2005 was so dry in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies that governors declared a state of emergency, fearing a summer of massive drought and fires. Many wondered, and worried, if the weird weather was caused by global climate change. Though Michelle’s article made it clear that no one weather event can be blamed on global warming, she explained that last winter may well be a harbinger of the future.

Her third story, “The Ghosts of Yosemite,” looks at the effect of global warming on one of the iconic landscapes of the West: Yosemite National Park. Michelle followed a crew of modern biologists as they retraced the steps of renowned researcher Joseph Grinnell, who surveyed the wildlife of the park in the early 1900s. The modern scientists found that many small mammals had shifted their ranges uphill, a change they say can only be explained by global warming. The shifts in Yosemite’s wildlife mirror changes already under way throughout the world.

Michelle’s stories have provided our readership with a broad scientific understanding of global climate change, based on tangible evidence all of us can understand. We salute Michelle for her dedication to accurate and compelling reporting, for her gift of storytelling, and for her love of the great American West.

—PAUL LARMER, High Country News, Paonia, Colo.


This is a great honor, and I am especially proud to accept it on behalf of High Country News.

In 1970, when a Wyoming rancher named Tom Bell got tired of watching his beloved state torn up by irresponsible logging and coal mining, he founded an independent newspaper. He and his all-but-volunteer staff, sustained by a handful of subscribers, set to work untangling the controversies over land and water in the Rocky Mountain West. At a time when most major newspapers ignored the region, High Country News delved into the details of dams and wilderness, energy development, and wildlife conservation. More than three decades later, those issues are still with us, and High Country News is still a scrappy, low-budget operation.

But we like to think we have grown into something of a public square for the western states, a place where the region’s future gets pondered, scrutinized, and argued over. So we feel it is essential for High Country News to take a close look at climate change, and consider its significance for the region. In doing so, I hope we are clarifying this enormous issue for our readers and continuing the tradition of independent inquiry that Tom Bell began more than a generation ago.

I am especially grateful to High Country News publisher Paul Larmer and editor Greg Hanscom, who made sure I had the time and support I needed to report and write the stories in our “Hot Times” series. Their commitment to the project was invaluable, and their unfailing good humor was always appreciated. The rest of the hardworking High Country News staff supplied wise guidance and assistance and got these stories out the door and into the world. Former publisher Ed Marston and former editor Betsy Marston helped make the paper what it is today, and taught me a lot of what I know about journalism. And my husband, Jack, not only built the office where I work, but also helped me puzzle through the reams of information I filled it with.

I met dozens of scientists in the course of writing these stories, many of them AGU members. All were remarkably generous with their time, and patient with my endless questions. Their enthusiasm for sharing their findings with the general public was crucial to this series. In particular, I would like to thank Jesse Logan of the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Logan, Utah; Tom Swetnam of the University of Arizona; Julio Betancourt of the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona; Kelly Redmond of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nevada; and Jim Patton of the University of California at Berkeley; who went above and beyond in their efforts to introduce me to their work. Connie Millar, Lisa Graumlich, Henry Diaz, and the other organizers of the CIRMOUNT [Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains] group also provided a slew of wonderful ideas and resources.

Finally, I would like to thank all of you for what you do. Your work helps us understand our world and the astounding and disturbing ways in which it is changing. It is a privilege to learn about your discoveries and to share them with others.

—MICHELLE NIJHUIS, High Country News, Paonia, Colo.