“The Westerner is less a person than a continuing adaptation. The West is less a place than a process.” ~ Wallace Stegner
From prehistoric times to the present, human societies have successfully adapted to the challenges of a changing West, including periods of severe drought, limitations created by scarce resources and shifting cultural and economic pressures. However, the American West is entering an era of unprecedented change brought on by new climate realities, which will test our capacity for adaptation as well as challenge the resilience of the region’s native flora and fauna. It is therefore paramount that we find and share inspiring ideas and practical strategies that will help all of the region’s inhabitants adapt to a rapidly changing world.
But what is adaptation anyway? What I’ve learned over the past year is that there are two types of adaptation: short-tem and long-term. In the short-term, adaptation is a type of first responder—i.e., individuals, groups, communities and cities who see the early effects of a warming world, sense an emergency in the making and are taking action.
First responders aren’t particularly interested in why the emergency happened in the first place. Their job is to deliver aid, fix things that are broken, troubleshoot and deal with the mess generally. Their focus is on the acute side of the spectrum: hotter weather, bigger storms and more frost-free days. Triage here includes maintaining human well-being, dealing with natural disasters, repairing infrastructure, adjusting to distorted rhythms of nature and coping with the cost of it all.
And it’s not just about humans. Heat-induced stress or a lack of food brought on by drought conditions are beginning to impact a wide variety of wildlife species as well.
On the long-term or chronic side of the adaptation spectrum are the compounding effects of prolonged drought on water supplies and plant productivity, an increase in intensity and quantity of wildfire, expanded tree and wildlife mortality, and reduced values associated with nature. Adapting to these latter challenges will be much more difficult and complex, partly because they are unprecedented. They will also require a different sort of professional response—the difference, say, between an emergency room doctor and a research physician or a medical disaster planner.
As Wallace Stegner noted, none of this should be news to westerners, especially the indigenous populations of the region. The West and water scarcity have gone hand in hand for centuries. Recently, however, we’ve managed to inoculate ourselves against climatic seesaws. We built reservoirs on the meager rivers to trap the water; we dug wells into the ground and attached electric pumps in order to draw out precious water from the deep; and lately we’ve inserted long metal straws into the Rio Grande and have begun sucking on their ends like someone trying to siphon gasoline from a car’s tank with a plastic hose.
It’s worked—at least temporarily. We’ve become so accustomed to this state of affairs, however, that we’ve let our guard down and eroded our ability to respond to the short-term emergencies or to take long-term threats seriously. The latter requires planning and transformational changes, rather than business as usual. Are we willing to try? Tweaks won’t do it—a water conservation plan here, a “green” building there, a research study in this place, a task force in that place—not in the long-run anyway.
Fortunately, there are a lot of scientists, ranchers, farmers, conservationists, urban planners and others who are working on short-term and long-term solutions and have bright ideas and important tools to share from their adaptation toolbox. We’ve assembled a wonderful group of them in this year’s Quivira Conference, this November in Albuquerque. One of them is Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, a leading climate scientist. He’ll be talking about the long-term picture in the Southwest – an op-ed version of which is included below.
I encourage everyone to the conference and be inspired! Link: http://www.quiviracoalition.org/
Here’s the poster for our Conference:
What Does the Drought Mean for the Future?
by Dr. Jonathan Overpeck, Professor of Geosciences and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Arizona, Tucson
Drought means many things to many people, but to most, it means not getting enough rain to meet your needs. Not enough rain to maintain healthy range or forest conditions, supply enough water, produce a good harvest, or sustain other needs. Drought can also be a rainfall deficient from some “normal” conditions.
In the Southwest, we have plenty of drought experience. The region has been in drought much of the last 14 years, including several years of unprecedented drought – first early in the 21st century, and then eclipsed by the burning dry of the last two years. Burning dry because we’ve literally seen unprecedented wildfire, but also because Southwest droughts of last two decades have been hotter than any time since we started keeping track.
Droughts are tough on our water supply, forests, range and much more. They seldom leave human and natural systems better off than before the drought, but each drought does provide clues about what might lie ahead, and what we can do about it. As a climate scientist who tries to read and understand everything about drought, especially in the Southwest, I see key lessons emerging from the hardships of our current drought.
First, droughts can happen for a variety of reasons and have a variety of impacts. In the Southwest, droughts just happen – they happen when ocean temperature patterns line up right, and they seem to do this all too often. The science of drought tells us a great deal about causes, but not enough to say when the next drought will hit, nor exactly where, or how bad. But, one thing you can take to the bank – there will be more drought. No doubt about it.
Second, a lot of folks want to ignore the issue of human caused climate change. On one hand, that’s ok, because droughts can happen naturally, and it’s a solid no-regrets strategy to always be planning for the next drought. Our recent drought, as bad as it has been, is nothing compared to some of droughts the Southwest has seen over the last 2000 years. There is little doubt that the tree-ring records are correct in telling us that droughts lasting several decades can happen. Imagine that. One of the most severe droughts affecting the headwaters of the Rio Grande – and more – lasted 51 years, with only one year of above normal rainfall. Hard to imagine that.
Third, although a megadrought lasting decades can happen naturally, they are still pretty rare. We lack a good understanding of why they persist so long, and thus we can’t even say whether the drought we’ve been in will end next year or twenty years from now. Best bet is that it will persist at least another year as we continue to wait for a strong El Niño or some other driver of big winter rain and snow to hopefully push our region back out of drought.
Fourth, the story is more complex because of the influence humans have on the climate system. There is now almost no doubt among climate scientists that global warming is real, and that it is driven mostly by humans releasing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Global warming is the reason the Southwest has been warming so dramatically, and another reason why our recent droughts have been so severe. The last 14 years have been dry, but they have also been hotter than any comparable period for many centuries.
This last lesson is perhaps the most important. As the Earth’s atmosphere warms up, it can hold more water, and it will therefore demand more water from wherever it can get it – soil and plants are a prime source. We can measure this, and we see it happening as the Earth gets warmer. And everyone reading this probably knows firsthand what happens on those really hot dry days to soil and plants that don’t get enough water – they wilt, and in some cases, they die. This lesson is key because we know why its warming, and why drought impacts are getting worse – its like finally understanding why a prized animal is sick, and knowing that there is a cure if we want to pay for it.
What’s ahead then? More drought – sure bet. Hotter drought – ditto. The climate baseline is changing so that the old “normal” will look wetter and wetter as we move further into a progressively drier future. The best science also says that continued warming will bring less snow and less flow in our big rivers. The last two years have started to give us a clear vision of what climate change will mean to the Southwest. Hotter, drier and more drought prone. And as I’ve already noted, if you know the cause, you know how to stop it if you want. The first step is to take climate change seriously and decide what we can and can’t adapt to. Then we have to talk about how to limit the climate change we can’t adapt to. With the drought, we all have a better idea of what’s at stake.
We will still get good years – wet years – but, they will be more and more the exception. A better bet is to expect more drought, and plan for it. And, if you don’t like the idea of an increasingly hot and dry Southwest, then join in conversations about what to do about climate change: it is fixable, and the fixes will likely mean more jobs in the sunshine- and wind-rich Southwest.
Here’s a drought map from the U of Arizona’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) program, at http://www.climas.arizona.edu/