We humans, and maybe particularly we humans in the news business, spend an inordinate amount of time pulling things apart. Sometimes, to examine something closely, we artificially isolate it from its surrounding countries or conditions. We count the rings on a tree and miss that the likelihood of catastrophic forest fire is growing around it.
In my home state of New Mexico that likelihood of fire catastrophe may be at an historic high. Since October, it’s been hotter than usual, but it’s been historically dry – the weather and everything that it grows.
There’s been virtually no precipitation for 6 months, parching the soil, pinching plant life, denying snowpack from our mountains. Rivers, creeks and streams are drying up. Fire season usually starts in New Mexico in May or June, but this year, by mid-March, there’d been some scary flare-ups and one big Stateline Fire which burned more than 27,000 acres in New Mexico and Colorado.
But wait, set aside the fire, and the warm and dry conditions that fostered it, and concentrate on the date. It’s historic for New Mexico to have such a big fire before mid-March.
When we talk about climate change, we tend to focus on the what of heat and humidity, and extreme weather events as evidence. But the when of seasonal rhythms is important, too. A new study led by Shaleene Chavarria of the University of New Mexico used data on climate and streamflow from 1958 through 2015 and found, “Big changes in winter temperature, increases in springtime temperatures and decreases in streamflow.”
Over 57 years, the trend is towards shorter winters, with shallower snowpack deposits, yielding to earlier, warmer Springs, with streamflow starting earlier, but running shallower and shorter, especially in the summer season, when farmers need it most.
57 years of history, describing changing temperatures and humidity and water-flows, trends fulfilled, you might say, this year, 2018 – which is looking a year of historic drought in the Land of Enchantment.
Near my house, a walk in a nearby open space offers a misleading first impression: the trees, junipers and pinon pines, are their usual rich green, and the grasses still shimmer against afternoon sun. But the ground is turning to deep dust, and can collapse a startling few inches under your footstep.
Our next hope for rain is what’s called Monsoon, a pattern of scattered but persistent squalls drawn from the Gulf of Mexico that usually wets down New Mexico in July and August. We’re hoping it’s doing that seasonal shift and will come early, but we’re all in deep trouble, in NM and throughout the Southwest, if Monsoon doesn’t come at all.
Laura Paskus is an environmental reporter with long experience in New Mexico and the Southwest. She currently files regular reports for the Environmental Project of the New Mexico Political Report and is writing a book that’s based on a year-long project, “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate,” done for New Mexico In Depth. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, Ms. Magazine, Indian Country Today, The Progressive, Columbia Journalism Review, and High Country News, where she also served as Assistant Editor.