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New Mexico is at cutting edge of change—climate change

New Mexico In Depth, October 14, 2015

As anyone can attest who survived the 1950s drought – or whose ancestors weathered long, dry spells in centuries past—drought is not unusual in New Mexico.

But unlike in the past, when changes in long-term, large-scale precipitation patterns drove drought in the Southwest, changes in temperature will drive drought in the future.

That’s according to Dr. David Gutzler, a professor in the University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Studies Department and one of the lead authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 Assessment Report.

As the region continues to warm, snowpack will continue to decrease, the snow line will move higher in elevation and farther north, and winter snows will start later and end earlier in the season. Evaporation from reservoirs will increase; water storage in reservoirs will decrease.

Under the current projections, according to Gutzler, the Rio Grande basin will see a 4 to 14 percent reduction in the amount of water in the Rio Grande and its tributaries in the 2030s, and an 8 to 29 percent reduction by the 2080s. There will be less water to go around for agriculture, for cities—for you and me; and more importantly, for our descendants.

The declines will be even greater in the Colorado River basin, which sits to our immediate west, and from which Albuquerque and Santa Fe receive some of their drinking water.

And experts predict the Colorado River Compact—the agreement by which the basin’s water is tallied among seven states—will become unenforceable by the mid- to late-21st century. That’s because water rights and allocations will exceed the amount of water actually flowing in the Colorado and its tributaries.

As the southwestern United States continues to warm, soil moisture will also decrease—on croplands, as well as in forests and grasslands.

Based on one of the more conservative models, Gutzler found that by the mid-21st century, summers in New Mexico will be much warmer than humans have ever experienced in the area.

But already, we can see the impacts of climate change across New Mexico.

In the Rio Grande Valley, more days of the year are frost free due to warmer weather; consequently, the growing season has lengthened by about a week since the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean it’s a better growing season or a boon to farmers and ranchers. That’s because drought and uncertain water supplies limit crop and rangeland production.

Across the west, the fire season is longer than it was 30 years ago.

And scientists have determined that about 20 percent of the forests in New Mexico and Arizona have already “reset.” That is, drought, high-intensity fires and insect infestations have eliminated large swaths of conifer forests—landscapes that are now repopulating with grasses and shrubs.

Why do these changes matter? Because they affect everything from watershed health and fire regimes to what sorts of bird, bug, mammal and fish species thrive or survive in those ecosystems. The changes also affect people who earn a living off harvesting trees for firewood and building materials.

If that’s not enough, consider how different our state may someday smell. Our mountains are infused with the warm vanilla of ponderosa pines and cedar has long burned within our hearths.

Climate change is obviously an issue that New Mexicans need to better understand. That’s in large part because it isn’t just an environmental issue. The warming climate affects the economy, public health, traditional cultures, education, hunting and recreation, infrastructure, demographics, wildlife, and even how resources may be allocated to cities and rural areas. It will change where we build our homes, when we plant our gardens, and how we construct our public buildings and prisons.

For more than a decade, I’ve reported on the science of climate change, the physical impacts of warming and state and federal policies. During that time, the science has solidified. Yet, both Congress and the New Mexico State Legislature—under the leadership of Democrats and Republicans—have neglected to take substantive action on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions or adapting to changes in the planet’s climatic conditions. And with extraordinarily few exceptions, businesses are not talking about or planning for New Mexico’s warmer, drier future.

With this new project at New Mexico In Depth, I’ll be sorting through the science and the policy. And trying to figure out what is—and what is not—happening on the ground right here in New Mexico.

Over the next year, I’ll be interviewing scientists and natural resource managers, business owners and environmentalists, city planners, farmers and ranchers, elders and young people, from all over the state. Together, we’ll to learn what’s happening, on the ground, across the entire state—not just in Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

I know how difficult it is to change habits, alter trends and revamp the policies and practices that have led to increased greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. I drive a gas-guzzling truck, my house is heated with natural gas and my electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant. Water pours out of my tap after being pumped from an aquifer or pulled from the Rio Grande. I travel on airplanes.

But I think about the future. I wonder what life will be like for New Mexicans living here in 50, 100 or 200 years. I wonder which ecosystems our mountains will support, how our rivers will survive, where people will get their water, which communities will flourish or disappear, what kinds of jobs might be available and what children will be taught in school.

This project will be a journey. And I want all of you along with me. In fact, I need all of you along with me, asking questions, sharing your observations, and initiating new conversations.

Because, fellow New Mexicans, we’re all in this together.

 To see the entire series of stories on climate change in New Mexico, visit: http://nmindepth.com/series/new-mexico-climate/

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