A few weeks ago, I mused that the American Southwest may be on borrowed time. Forget that.
The Southwest is toast.
A new paper in Nature spells doom. From the abstract:
The potential for increased drought frequency and severity linked to anthropogenic climate change in the semi-arid regions of the southwestern United States is a serious concern. Multi-year droughts during the instrumental period and decadal-length droughts of the past two millennia were shorter and climatically different from the future permanent, “˜dust-bowl-like’ megadrought conditions, lasting decades to a century, that are predicted as a consequence of warming.
Nature’s Quirin Schiermeier has an article on the study, and this eye-popping quote from Richard Seager, a Columbia University climate researcher:
The drying we expect for the twenty-first century is entirely the result of increased greenhouse forcing.
But we’re not there yet, Seager tells Nature:
A signal of anthropogenic drying is emerging, but it is still small. I’d expect that by mid-century the human signal will exceed the amplitude of natural climate variability. Then we can safely say that the Southwest has entered a new climate stage.
UPDATE: Prehistoric drought in the SW is a big interest of mine, so I’m going to provide all the relevant press coverage links, as they come in. John Fleck, a science writer for The Albuquerque Journal, has a story and a post at his blog.
Living in a marginal (but stunning) landscape with obvious constraints has its drawbacks when too many people move there and the natural resources become depleted. In the American Southwest, those drawbacks are not really being felt by the hordes who live there now.
But based on my own knowledge of the drought history of the Southwest (specifically the last one thousand years), I’ve always felt that a cruel reckoning was just around the corner.
The report found that the already dry states of the American Southwest””Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah””will face a major water shortfall over the next century just based on population and income growth alone. (The region has long been one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., in part because of the hot and dry weather.) But climate change could make the situation much, much worse.
Now there are a couple ways to look at this. Like the recent debate over Egypt and food prices, the underlying problems in the Southwest are not related to greenhouse gases. But when you look at the way people live in those Southwestern states (in terms of lifestyle, sprawl, and unchecked development), there is a business-as-usual attitude. Do folks out there really feel they are being pushed to the limits of their environment? My sense from afar (and based on intermittent travel and one recent year spent in Colorado) is no.
So given all this, it seems that irrespective of climate change, Southwesterners have plenty of good reasons to get their house in order. Will yet another report warning of imminent climate change related impacts nudge them in that direction? Maybe, but I doubt it.
And even if Southwestern states go ahead and implement all the Stockholm Institute’s water use recommendations, but demographic and growth trends remain the same, will it even matter?
It’s out there, lurking. Here’s something warm and fuzzy for Westerners to wake up to this morning:
Now before I get into the piece that follows I should explain that I don’t hold any particular animus towards the states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming or Idaho, and so when I start talking about disposing of nuclear weapons in those states by making use of them it should be taken as merely a technical discussion (grin).
Hey, nothing personal guys. If peak oil hits sooner than expected, what’s a hungry, oil-starved world gonna do? You’ll just have to grin and bear it.
UPDATE: The nuke the shale out hypothesis has largely generated disgust and disdain from Oil Drum readers. But this person cautions that nothing will be off the table if there’s a true energy shortage:
Well, most may think this is a non starter, but if Peak Oil decline is half as bad as some here think, then you should not be surprised by what actually happens to keep gas tanks full.
That’s the title of this counterintuitive post from Jonathan Thompson, the editor-in-chief of an environmental magazine. He riffs off a brewing controversy over spectacular places in the Southwest that might soon be nominated as National Monuments.
Except it’s not some off-the-cuff riff. Thompson writes a poignant meditation on the complicated feelings he has about a quintessentially Western issue. It’s so pitch perfect I don’t even want to quote from it. I just encourage anyone with his own soulful remembrance of a landscape to read it.
After you’ve done that, I’ve got something else for you to consider. So head over to Thompson’s piece, then come back.
Okay, if you’ve ever spent time hiking or camping in the Southwest, particularly southern Utah, chances are you’re acquainted with a legendary nature writer, who, in the best damn book introduction I know of, reels the reader in with this kicker:
Finally a word of caution:
Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place, you can’t see anything from a car; youv’e got to get out of the goddamn contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone adn through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.
In the second place, most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memoir. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot–throw it at something big and glossy. What do you have to lose?
Well, if this iconic book left its mark on you, as it did with me, then you know I’m quoting from Ed Abbey’s classic. And you also probably know how deeply influential that book has been since it was published in 1967. How the hordes that now descend annually on Arches National Park (and, to a lesser extent, Canyonlands), make a mockery of Abbey’s mournful testimonial from four decades ago.
Yet what he felt to be already lost was surely true to him.
Still, where does that leave the rest of us who came after? Those of us who perhaps went there because of Desert Solitaire? I can only tell you that I keep going back, and that I now bring my own children too.
And one last thing. If you’re wondering about the enchanting spell of a landscape, how it sometimes takes hold in the mind, in the case of Abbey and Desert Solitaire, consider this interesting supposition from a biology professor:
When Edward Abbey signed and dated the author’s introduction to Desert Solitaire, he appended the location as Nelson’s Marine Bar, Hoboken. After his first term as a seasonal ranger in 1956, Abbey left Arches National Park for Hoboken, New Jersey, where his wife and son were living. On his ostensible last day at Arches, Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire: “After twenty-six weeks of sunlight and stars, wind and sky and golden sand, I want to hear once more the crackle of clamshells on the floor of the bar in the Clam Broth House in Hoboken. I long for a view of the jolly, rosy faces on 42nd Street and the cheerful throngs on the sidewalks of Atlantic Avenue.” I’m uncertain how much of Desert Solitaire was composed in Hoboken or whether any of the author’s introduction was written in one of the city’s bars. The earliest surviving outline of what would become Desert Solitaire dates from July 1962, when Abbey was working as a welfare caseworker in Hoboken. The possibility that Desert Solitaire, one of the most beautiful books about the Colorado Plateau, was conceived and composed in Hoboken is fascinating; it raises the question how one place influences our view of another. Abbey’s longing on city streets and in Hoboken bars must have elicited a memory shadowed by distance, shifting subtly the tones of the sandstone landscape of Utah. I am curious about the desires we fulfill in prose rather than place.
That might take us into the realm of nostalgia, which is deserving of another post some other time…
UPDATE: Gambler’s House weighs in with a thoughtful post. Some mighty interesting recollections of attitudes towards Abbey, too.
The pothunting story in Utah that has captured my attention is actually just one tentacle of a sprawling illegal antiquities investigation across the Southwest. I’ve known this for some time, having talked to various dealers snared in the federal sting operation. None of them have been arrested so their role has gone largely unmentioned in the media.
But there are two newspaper reporters who are connecting the dots, bit by bit. I’ve been following their reporting with great interest over the last month. Their latest scoops can be read here and here.
Here’s a recipe for Memorial Day weekend madness: two boys, ages 2 and 4, two sleep-deprived parents, endless rain, long stretches in a car listening to the same three CD’s (Backyardigans, Dan Zanes, and some random Micky D’s happy meal compilation that includes a Cindy Lauper classic.)
Incredibly, we decided to extend the insanity by a day.
Back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.
Here’s the understated yet majestic lede in this poignant essay by Laura Paskus in the current issue of High Country News:
On the outskirts of Albuquerque, the desert has surrendered the bones of 12 young women.
I’m a little uneasy with the larger theme of the piece, though, mainly because I think violence to women need not be compared–even for literary purposes–to a landscape torn up by gas drilling and real estate development.
The brutality that scores of women experience everyday and everywhere in the world–and the shameful response in some cases–is a blight on humanity. The blight to our treasured landscapes may be heinous to some, but that is another moral realm altogether.
As I outlined here, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is grappling with global warming in a big way. Additionally, federal biologists from Florida to Arizona are currently at work on new long-range plans that factor in the unpredictable effects of climate change on vulnerable species. It’s a complicated task, fraught with many uncertainties.
Yet they are proceeding. “Among us biologists, climate change is a real issue that we have to deal with now,” Scott Richardson, a FWS biologist based in Tucson, Arizona, told me today. There, in the biodiversity-rich Sonoran desert, where invasive species and sprawl are already stressing the native ecosystem to a near breaking point, climate change is a devilish wild card.
“Most of the [climate] models out there show the Southwest becoming hotter and drier, beyond what it already is,” says Richardson. “It’s assumed that many species will shift north, but in some places like the Sky Islands–our mountain ranges–you can’t go north. You can go higher, but you can only move up so far.” That means less suitable habitat for at-risk species such as the Mexican spotted owl and mount Graham squirrel.
As if crafting these new recovery plans weren’t complex enough, federal biologists also have to decide which species have the best shot at making it. Says Richardson, “The really frustrating thing about this is that you have to prioritize because resources and funding are limited. What you hope for is that you’re basing your decision on the best information available.”
Even then, success is far from assured. As described in its draft strategic plan, the FWS identifies two types of adaptive managment for climate change: “reactive” and “anticipatory.”
For example, “combating rising sea level by pumping sand ashore to replenish beaches and maintain habitat for nesting sea turtles and shorebirds” is considered reactive adaptation.
The second approach manages “toward future, and often less certain, landscape conditions by predicting and working with the effects of climate change.” So to use the same example, anticipatory adaptation would mean sacrificing existing beaches to rising sea level to focus instead on establishing “new shorelines landward for nesting sea turtles and shorebirds.”
And you got pissed off at piping plovers because their seasonal nesting protections cut into your beach volleyball. How does no beach at all strike you?
I jest. What I’m getting at here is that safeguarding vulnerable wildlife from climate change will require many tough calls in the months and years ahead. Land managers and biologists are already agonizing over this.
Tomorrow, Florida FWS biologists weigh in with their titanic climate change quandry.
A big reason I’m drawn to the Southwest is for its well preserved archaeology. But that doesn’t mean it’s well protected, much less appreciated by native residents or politicians. That said, a cruel irony is that most new sites on public and state land are only discovered when a highway or shopping center or gas pipeline gets built.
In such cases, archaeologists are often working one step ahead of the bulldozer. Excavations are done quick and dirty. Salvage what you can for posterity.
Occasionally, though, a site is so important that even southwestern archaeologists are united (which is not often) in their conviction that preservation should win out over development. Such is now the case in Utah, where archaeologists are lobbying to keep a proposed rail station in a Salt Lake City suburb from being built over a 3,000 year old “archaic” village site, which was discovered in 2007.
Usually, Utah archaeologists don’t rock the boat. (More on that in a minute.) But preliminary findings from this ancient site reveal the presence of maize. That’s incredible. Most scientists today believe farming didn’t hit the Great Basin until 2,000 years ago. So I can understand why the site is considered so “rare and unique” by members of the Utah Professional Archaeological Council (UPAC). Matthew Seddon, a UPAC member, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the ruins
could reshape our understanding of the development of agriculture in the West.
So UPAC members, who have mobilized on their listserv, are to be applauded for taking the fight to their state legislature. I just wish they had this kind of fight in them when it became clear that Nine Mile Canyon, another rare Utah archaeological treasure, was being overrun by hundreds of oil and gas trucks a day. (To learn how the BLM allowed that to happen, see my story here in High Country News.)
I guess its easier taking on a suburban developer than the BLM or the oil and gas industry.
This absurd post by Joseph Romm, in which he accuses The New York Times of “media malpractice” due to supposed errant climate change coverage in several recent stories, reveals a doctrinaire mindset on the relationship between global warming and natural disasters that is becoming all too common in environmentalists.
Romm is ticked off because, among other things, this front-page Times piece on California’s drought didn’t mention human-induced climate change as a “likely” factor and that another Times piece on Australia’s catastrophic fires (“Australia Police Confirm Arson Role in Wildfires”) was improperly headlined. Regarding the latter, let’s remember that straight news coverage of major disasters tend to highlight the newsiest developments of the moment. To Romm, though, the Times headline was a missed opportunity:
Apparently, the editors believe that blaming individual bad guys is the best way to frame the story, not blaming us all for all our contribution to human-caused global warming.
So let me get this straight: Australia’s tragic fires shouldn’t be pinned on arson, or bad fire managment, or recent settlement patterns, or least of all, parched conditions resulting from cyclical drought, but rather all of humanity?
Romm is particularly histrionic over the Caifornia drought story (“Severe Drought Adds to Hardships in California”) that appeared on Monday. The Times reporter, Jesse McKinley, writes that:
The country’s biggest agricultural engine, California’s sprawling Central Valley, is being battered by the recession like farmland most everywhere. But in an unlucky strike of nature, the downturn is being deepened by a severe drought that threatens to drive up joblessness, increase food prices and cripple farms and towns.
To Romm, there is nothing “unlucky” about this drought. As he rightly points out, California is experiencing a record drop in snowpack and rainfall. But it is also true that California has a long history of severe, periodic droughts, some of which McKinley informs readers of later in his piece. Romm never acknowledges this larger perspective in his post. Instead, he claims there is “abundant science” that shows the currently reduced snowpack and rainfall to be “precisely what we would expect from human-caused climate change…”
That’s not to say McKinley’s story couldn’t have been leavened with a forward-looking graph on climate change and projected linkages to future California droughts.
Somehow, though, I doubt this would have satisfied Romm, who lately sees climate change behind every wildfire, drought and heat wave.
In his latest rant, Romm seems to argue that any story on extreme weather should amount to a story on climate change:
In the past, I think the media and scientists felt they had to bend over backwards not to attribute any single weather event 100 percent to human-caused global warming — but today there is no excuse whatsoever for a senior reporter at a major newspaper not reporting that what is occurring now is precisely what climate science has been predicting would happen.
Better yet, Romm advises, why even bother with mainstream newspaper reporters, when
if you want to find the best journalism now on climate — the most science-based, the most fact-based, the most integrated and comprehensive, the most relevant to your lives and the lives of your children and the people you care about and indeed all of humanity — you must go to the web, specifically the blogosphere.
I’m down with that. I just wouldn’t advise anyone to seek out Joe Romm as your fact-based, truth-seeking guide.