2019 Online - Silver

Nicholas Kusnetz described the painstaking work of biologist Chris Ray who has been tracking the American pika, a fist-sized denizen of the western mountains of the United States, for more than 30 years. It is “one of the longest-running research projects of one of the West’s most adorable creatures,” Kusnetz wrote.  He added, “The rabbit relatives are highly sensitive to temperature changes. They live high in the mountains, where temperatures are warming faster than the global average. And because pikas occupy a habitat that's critical to life across the West—mountain snowmelt is the primary source of water for the farms and cities that have fueled the region's growth — pika research may have a lot to say about our own future, too.” Better climate models give more accurate forecasts of a warmer future, Kusnetz noted, but there remains tremendous uncertainty about what the warming will mean for critical ecosystems. Will they evolve over time? Could they suddenly collapse? Part of this uncertainty, according to biologist Ray, is that even after decades of research, scientists still have only glimpses into the inner workings of complex ecosystems. But part of it may also be that the climate is changing so fast now, it’s hard to keep up. Judge Larisa Epatko, a freelancer and former reporter-producer for the PBS NewsHour, said Kusnetz’s story was “solidly reported and written, with good supporting visuals.” Kusnetz said that climate change “is so all-encompassing and uncertain that I’m always looking for ways to make the story specific and concrete. I set out to tell the bigger story of what climate change is doing to the Mountain West by focusing on one researcher who is studying one vulnerable animal, the pika, which happens to also be extremely cute.”