New Mexico’s Apocalyptic Summer

A drive through the Land of Enchantment in the early days of summer has been a hazy and futuristic journey into a land of dust, smoke and ash. Skies dimmed by wildfires in the Santa Fe, Jemez and Gila forests are streaked by ashen clouds rising from canyons and spreading into the horizon. Haze from Mexican fires to the south drifts into the soupy mix, while haze from the U.S. fires threatens the air quality to the south.

If the findings of some scientists are on target, we are witnessing nothing less than the end of the great Southwestern forests as we know them

Since 2011, more than 630,000 acres of New Mexico forest land have succumbed to major blazes. To put this number in perspective, a 2000 study by Renee A. O’Brien for the United States Department of Agriculture, which was completed before the recent conflagrations, estimated 16.7 million acres of forest canopied New Mexico.

The talk in the scientific community is of a mega-drought ravaging the region, possibly even leading to the disappearance of the forests and the species that inhabit them. As the horrific fires in Colorado and Arizona attest, the potential geographic scope of the environmental transformation is immense.

“Currently suffering the worst drought in the U.S., New Mexico has emerged as a ‘natural experiment’ in megadrought, a laboratory for understanding drought’s deep history in the region-and what might lay in store in an era of rapid, human-caused warming,” wrote Carolina Fraser in a sobering piece for Yale Environment 360.

Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Nate McDowell was quoted this week by Albuquerque media outlet KRQE predicting the death of the Southwest’s conifer forests in the next 40 years if high temperatures continue. “Warmer air can hold more water,” McDowell said. “So the more water it can hold, the more it will suck out of the earth.”

McDowell, who is working on a Department of Energy-funded research project, distinguished the current drought from historic ones, stressing the added factor of warmer weather.  If the Southwest’s forests wither, burn and die, they won’t go down cheaply. Battling last year’s blazes in New Mexico alone cost $42.4 million, the Associated Press recently reported.

With the fire season upon us with a vengeance, the public has been barred from visiting huge zones of the famed outdoors. Summer plans must change, and rural economies that usually benefit from visitors’ dollars feel pinched.

Animals are on the move, thrust into migration by drought, fire and hunger. Early in the season, black bears are stumbling into Albuquerque and Rio Rancho. The hungry young bear captured and photographed on the edge of the Duke City could well be the poster child of the Great Drought.  Ironically, the oso (bear) is New Mexico’s official state mammal.  In the 21st century, Smokey the Bear has become Scrawny the Bear.

All their technological and super-analytical wizardry aside, humans will simply never know what is going through the mind of a bear, a mountain lion or a deer as the creature attempts to cope with a planet turned upside down.

The splash of water in the Rio Grande in recent days was a welcome sight to behold after months of severely reduced or virtually nil flows. But the water deliveries to farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and points south are, as they say, “The best it’s going to get.”

Unless sufficient rain falls over the summer, growers who do not have access to well water are plum out of luck. Unfortunately, any rain will also carry debris from the burned and eroded landscape. But so far, rain is a scarce commodity.

As monsoon season gets underway, afternoon clouds drooping with pregnant black bellies rally in the sky. By evening they dissipate in a big tease, inviting the ever-fat cockroaches to play.  If rain does come, will it fall in the traditional nourishing showers that revive the greenery and recharge the aquifers?

Or, will it drown the land in unimaginable quantities like it did to the south on the Texas/Coahuila border last month?

Remember Little Katrina?  The deluge that flooded southern New Mexico, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez back in 2006?

The crazy climate is the big story this year. Sudden wind bursts and dust storms pound the land, bend trees, snap branches and trigger power outages. Dust devils seem to be more frequent, jumping out of the desert and into the paths of startled motorists.

On the evening of July 1, campers at Elephant Butte, the depleted reservoir that waters the farmland of the Paso del Norte borderland,  reportedly escaped injury when they were whipped by furious wind, screaming hail and a “funnel cloud” that hinted of a tornado.

Does all this represent an especially nasty but ultimately passing season, or is it the new normal?

Last week, the Obama administration released a plan to reduce carbon emissions and begin turning back the tide of climate change. In a prescient weekly address delivered the day before 19 Arizona firefighters lost their lives to one of the great infernos of  2013, the President repeated the urgency of his plan.

“Those who already feel the effects of a changing climate don’t have time to deny it-they’re busy dealing with it. The firefighters  who brave longer wildfire seasons. The farmers who see crops wilted one year, and washed away the next. Western families worried about water that’s drying up,” Obama said.

“The cost of these events can be measured in lost lives and livelihoods, lost homes and businesses, and hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency services and disaster relief. And Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in higher food costs, insurance premiums, and the tab for rebuilding.”

In a world dizzied and dazzled by the ever-changing news cycle and the latest electronic toy, Obama’s weekend address didn’t get much play. But as the summer of 2013 grimly illustrates, the President’s words were certainly some of the most important ones coming from the White House, leaving aside for now debates over policy particulars and strategic directions.

“The question is not whether we need to act,” Obama declared. “The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.”

For the moment, though, much of Washington is heeding the sounds of other pipers, as Nero’s symphony cranks into overdrive.

Have a great Fourth of July holiday break!

-Kent Paterson

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