William deBuys

The only conference I regularly attend is the annual Quivira Coalition gathering in Albuquerque. Usually I stop by for a morning or an afternoon to see old friends. At the event in 2005 I found myself alone in the hotel hallway when everyone went into the ballroom to hear a talk about climate change. After a while, I went in too and took a seat in the back. The speaker turned out to be Jonathan Overpeck, a major figure within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which the U.N. had established in 1988. (In 2007 the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore.)

I have a hard time during presentations. My mind wanders. I don’t pay attention. Overpeck was an engaging speaker, but even so, I was thinking about something far away, probably something unmentionable, when he flashed a map on the screen. It showed the United States in shades of red and blue – red where climate models predicted streamflow – surface runoff in rivers – would decline over the next half century, blue for where it would increase. The greater the change, the stronger was the color, and the Southwest – my home – burned red. The image was like a siren going off.

That moment, when the bright reds of that map called me to attention, was the starting point for A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, which is just now being published. The map on the screen essentially said that the rivers of the region, which provide water for tens of millions of people, would shrink in the decades ahead by 10 to 30 percent, roughly one fifth.

Anyone who knows the Southwest knows that its rivers, the Colorado and Rio Grande foremost among them, are already over-allocated. More is asked of them than they can give. If their flows decline by the amount predicted, the impacts will be enormous, maybe catastrophic. I stared at the map. The ballroom felt suddenly cold. Then, as Overpeck moved on to the next slide, and still feeling stunned, I stared at the chair in front of me. To this day, I can remember the ugly pattern of the fabric on its back.

In 2008, a Guggenheim fellowship, the opportunity of a lifetime, allowed me to plunge into the project that Overpeck’s presentation had sparked. Essentially, I took to the road to talk to the people who best knew the lands of the Southwest and the likely impacts that climate change would have on them. Overpeck was among the first I called on. Later, at NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, I interviewed Chris Milly, the leader of the team that produced the streamflow map. And in New York, at Columbia University, I talked with Richard Seager, the lead author of “Imminent Transition to a More Arid Climate in Southwestern North America,” a 2007 article in Science that became a benchmark in my research.

I relished the travel and interviews, spending a week at a research station in northwest Chihuahua, and exploring ruins near Cortez, Colorado, and Zuni, New Mexico. I floated Lava Falls Rapid in the Grand Canyon and tramped migrant trails on the Arizona border. I talked with dendrochronologists, archaeologists, ecologists, hydrologists – a great number of “-ists.” Also urban planners, enviros, and water managers like the redoubtable Patricia Mulroy of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. In the company of biologist Peter Warshall, I camped atop Arizona’s Mt. Graham, where the impacts of climate change, expressed in forest fires and insect outbreaks, have wrecked a fragile biome.

The news for the Southwest is not good: the droughts, fires, social strains and other stresses that lie ahead will challenge the region to the utmost. But the stories about how people came to understand those problems are endlessly fascinating, at least for me. In A Great Aridness I have tried to capture the “eureka moments” when the researchers I talked with glimpsed new and resonant insights – like when Tom Swetnam, who heads the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, and Julio Betancourt of the USGS made the link between forest fire frequency and the El Nino/La Nina cycle. Or when Mark Varien of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center found a great kiva at Sand Canyon Pueblo and was able to visualize in a completely new way the pueblo’s final days. Or when Chris Milly or Richard Seager, separately, realized that their climate models were telling them something big.

The surprise for me in writing the book was to come full circle back to issues I had been working on for many years. Yes, we urgently need to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, which for virtually all of us means a radical change in the way we live. But we also need to take care of business that has long been unfinished, like living within a sustainable water budget and restoring fire resilience to our forests. Climate change only makes more urgent the big task that has always been before us: to learn how to live in the marvelous arid lands of this continent without further spoiling them. It is an old challenge. We have already had a lot of practice, and we should be better at it. We can be.

Bill deBuys is speaking at the 10th Anniversary Conference along with Bill McKibben on November 8th in ABQ.  This book will be coming out just before the conference.