Last week I relearned an important lesson: life is a force to be reckoned with.
Returning to New Mexico from a nearly two-week canoeing adventure in northern Minnesota with my son and his Boy Scout Troop, I couldn’t believe what I saw: the color green – everywhere! It had rained so much during July that the land around Santa Fe had exploded in green. A lot of it is annual weeds, including an amazing amount of purslane, but a lot of it is perennial grass too. This was amazing news for two reasons. First, New Mexico is an arid place and we don’t normally get a lot of “green-up” during the summer, but the amount of vegetation that greeted me last week was as much as I’ve seen in twenty-one years of living here.
Second, six weeks ago I thought all our grass was dead.
It had been a bad year for moisture. According to NOAA, the region was deep in the grip of an “exceptional” drought that began in 2012. Other agencies said the prospects for summer monsoon rains were bleak. I believed them all – that’s because the land surrounding our house certainly looked like it was suffering. Very few weeds had come up, the grass plants showed no sign of life and winds kicked up a fine dust from the trails near where we live – something I had not seen before. The color green was conspicuously missing and I began to fret that we’d never see it again given the dire warnings about hotter and drier conditions prevailing in the Southwest due to climate change. I wondered: was this the beginning of the end?
Then it began to rain. And rain. And rain.
The monsoons arrived in force at the end of June and it rained nearly every evening in July, it seemed. By the end of the month, according to weather data, the amount of rain that had fallen was double the average for July. In the mountains above Santa Fe, the amount was seven times as much. And many of the storms were monsters, causing bad floods as a result. On July 27th, for example, the entire town of Corrales, located near Albuquerque, was flooded by a massive storm. The flooding was so intense and so widespread across the state, in fact, that Governor Susanna Martinez issued an executive order on July 31st making emergency funding available for flood assistance. Talk about climate whiplash!
And it’s still raining.
Looking at the land, the contrast with mid-June is stark. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I flew into the Albuquerque airport – there was a carpet of green across the land as far as I could see. Just a few weeks earlier I had been lamenting to family and friends about the Dust Bowl-like conditions in the area. On a drive to Cochiti Lake, south of Santa Fe, to train for our canoeing odyssey, I had to avert my eyes. Hammered by overgrazing and drought, the land looked dead. It was depressing and my son did his best to cheer me up. Today, the same stretch of land is covered with green fuzz – the color of life.
What does this all mean and what does it tell us about the future?
First, it’s a testament to the resiliency of nature, grass especially, and the power of life. This is important because when we discuss the future, especially under climate change, we tend to overlook nature’s intrinsic and powerful capability to ‘bounce back.’ That’s what I was doing until the rains came. I assumed the grass was dead, just as I had assumed that the drought was here to stay. Predictions of a permanent Dust Bowl for the region, frequently cited in the media, looked to be true – and early! I had already started the grieving process.
Then it rained. And green returned, reminding me that life will do its best to find a way. Nature is stronger and more resilient than we think, which is good news. This is not to say that there won’t be changes or that thresholds and tipping points won’t be breached in the long run under a changing climate – they will, most likely. It just means nature is tougher than we give it credit. Let’s not despair so quickly, in other words. Where there is green, there is hope.
Second, we need to be careful about our messaging. Although the rains made a dent in the drought, we’re still a long way from “normal” amounts of precipitation for the year. To the public, however, it certainly looks like the drought is over. But what about all those gloomy predictions of a hotter and drier future? In June, they looked to be accurate (as letters-to-the-editor to our local paper pointed out); but by August, not so much. Unfortunately, this adds to the confusion that much of the public feels about climate change – what they hear and what they see sometimes don’t mesh, and when they don’t doubt is sowed.
It’s a tricky situation. Heavy rains and flooding can be a sign of a changing climate – though both conditions can be considered ‘normal’ in northern New Mexico – but they also make the land turn green. One is bad, the other good – all from the same source. We have to be careful about crying wolf as a consequence. While it’s necessary to raise alarms in order to get people’s attention, but it also sets up the crier to look like a fool. I’m certain many residents here are looking at their windows right now and thinking “If this is climate change, bring it on!”
So, it’s complicated. That doesn’t help much. It doesn’t motivate people to action, but it’s the reality of the situation. Life is a force. Nature heals as it destroys, which means it will continue to defy our need to pigeonhole it, control it, or grieve for it. We’ll just have to deal with it – and figure out a way to explain it to the public.
In the meantime, I’m going to outside and enjoy the sudden burst of colorful wildflowers among the grasses and weeds taking place – at least until I start sneezing from all the pollen!
A New Mexico thunderstorm: