Climate Change in the Southwest

Climate change is directly affecting New Mexico's forests.
Climate change is directly affecting New Mexico’s forests.

Climate change is happening now, affecting communities and ecosystems. Locations around the Northern Hemisphere experienced their hottest temperatures on record this summer. During 19 of the past 20 years, almost all of New Mexico has experienced drought. Much of the West remains in the grip of “aridification,” despite late-summer and fall rains and a predicted El Niño weather pattern this winter.

Because of minimal snowpack, some farmers in northern New Mexico decided not to plant this year. In the southern part of the state, ranchers have begun to adjust to drought by relocating herds, planting less feed or selling off cows. The sky over New Mexico this summer was periodically filled with smoke from fires in Colorado and California. Children’s summer camps were canceled because of fire dangers. Nationally, over the last few decades, the amount of land consumed by wildfire has more than doubled and fire seasons have become longer. Hotter weather means faster evaporation. Trees, brush and other plants are drier, so it’s easier for fires to start, spread and burn more intensely.

In the Southwest, generations-old ponderosa pine forests are dying as a result of constant high temperatures and prolonged drought that prevent the pines from regenerating after wildfires. A huge swath of piñon trees—from Santa Fe to Flagstaff—have been decimated by drought and bark beetle attacks. Scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory recently released the results of a 10-year bird study of the Pajarito (Spanish for little birds) Plateau in the Jémez Mountains, which show a 73 percent decrease in abundance and 45 percent decrease in species variety. They believe that a massive die-off of the piñon tree on the plateau and decline of birds such as the pinyon jay are potential markers for effects of global warming.

A report published in August in the journal Science says that Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems and vegetation are at risk of a fast transformation unless aggressive action is taken. Stephen Jackson, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Climate Science Adaptation Center, was lead author of the study. “It is hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about,” he said. “It is concerning how rapidly the change is likely to happen and how little capacity we have to predict the exact course.” In addition to temperature increases, ecological disruption is compounded by pollution, deforestation and other human activities.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just hit its highest level in 800,000 years. The planet risks soon becoming “Hothouse Earth” if carbon emissions aren’t curbed. William Nordhaus, the “father of climate-change economics,” who grew up in Albuquerque, last month he was one of two men to win the Nobel prize in economics. Nordhaus called for urgent action and endorsed a universal tax on carbon, which would require polluters to pay for the damages they cause to the environment and peoples health.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, released on Oct. 8, authored by 91 scientists, representing 40 countries and based on over 6,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies, concludes that humanity has “only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change.”

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