Could Climate Change “Steal” New Mexico’s Identity?

, senior climate scientist | April 26, 2016, 9:35 am EST
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There’s an “identity thief” on the loose in New Mexico, and authorities have identified the culprit: climate change. So far, it has attempted to take away the livelihoods, agriculture, homes, ecosystems, and historical touchstones that shape the lives and identities of many New Mexicans—with some success. And it’s just getting started. Fortunately, New Mexico can take some practical and commonsense steps to safeguard its identity against the impacts of a changing climate.

Climate change is leaving fingerprints all over New Mexico

UCS has assembled the evidence of climate change impacts in a new report on New Mexico, which has been warming at a rate of more than half a degree per decade since 1970. Recent years have seen record summer heat, acute water shortages, and devastating wildfires. These are the telltale signs of climate change, easily interpreted by experts. There’s a fingerprint to climate change, and in New Mexico, it looks like this:

Graph of summer temperatures

Temperatures in summer have been rising steadily for over 100 years, with faster increases in recent decades.

Unfortunately, many New Mexicans are still unclear about how the risks of climate change could affect key aspects of their lives and what could be done to protect the fundamental identity of their state. Actions today could make them less vulnerable to these impacts, but only if policy makers take pragmatic steps to protect them and the things they care about.

Security starts with the home

The home is often the place where we are most ourselves, the setting for many key events of our lives, and our personal sanctuary within the busy wider world. Unfortunately, climate change is threatening the security of many New Mexicans’ homes.

Of all Western states, New Mexico has the highest proportion of homes at “high” or “very high” risk from wildfire, and climate change is making wildfires larger and more frequent over time. Many will remember the devastating wildfire seasons of 2011 and 2012, when the Las Conchas Fire burned over 150,000 acres, followed by the Whitewater Baldy Complex Fire the next year, which was almost twice as large. In those years, fires destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings, threatened water supplies and nuclear facilities, triggered the evacuation of whole communities, and sapped the state fire suppression budget. For many, the devastation and destruction caused by these fires have left a sense of violation in their wake.

Fire near homes

Wildfires will pose an increasing threat to homes in New Mexico.

Stealing water means stealing agricultural livelihoods

Climate change is also threatening to steal away the livelihoods of New Mexicans who are connected to the agriculture industry, which is worth billions of dollars to the state every year.

Since 2000, the flows of major rivers across the West—including the Rio Grande—have diminished significantly, usually due to shrinking snowpacks in their headwaters. When temperatures stay warmer in the winter, more precipitation tends to fall as rain rather than snow, quickly running off into the river systems. Then, when temperatures warm earlier in the spring, the snowpack melts even more. The valuable water flows away long before the hot days of summer, when crops need it most.

New Mexico has only recently broken a prolonged drought that lasted five years and included the two hottest and driest years on record (2011 and 2013). During this drought, water allocations to farmers were cut by as much as 90 percent, and reservoirs like Elephant Butte reached historically low levels.. Some cities and towns were forced to rely on groundwater or even bottled water for their drinking water supply. Farmers and ranchers have faced hard decisions about drilling deeper for water and reducing the size of their herds.

In 2013, the Elephant Butte Reservoir reached its lowest level in 40 years (right)—just 3 percent of its storage capacity, compared with a nearly full reservoir in 1994 (left).

In 2013, the Elephant Butte Reservoir reached its lowest level in 40 years (right)—just 3 percent of its storage capacity, compared with a nearly full reservoir in 1994 (left).

Touchstones of New Mexico’s history may be snatched away

Through wildfire and floods, climate change poses a threat to some of the most precious and iconic features of New Mexico’s heritage. In 2000, the Cerro Grande Fire, accelerated by bone-dry drought conditions, raced through areas of Bandelier National Monument and the adjacent property of Los Alamos National Laboratory, destroying structures from the Manhattan Project era and threatening access to ancient rock carvings and cliff dwellings made by some of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas. Later, in 2011, the Las Conchas Fire burned thousands of acres of forests in the same area. Beyond the destruction directly caused by the fires, they also baked the underlying soils, causing rainwater to run off rather than percolate down. This set the stage for disastrous flooding in successive years, when severe thunderstorms arrived and caused flooding that washed out trails and threatened archaeological sites.

Even the continued existence of the state tree, the piñon pine, is threatened by climate change. Recent droughts, high temperatures, and insect infestations—all hallmarks of climate change—have caused hundreds of millions of piñon pines to die across the West, with mortality rates exceeding 90 percent in the middle Rio Grande Basin. Projections of the future climate suggest that large areas of the piñon pine’s historical range could become unsuitable for the species within the next few decades.

The degree of climate change will affect the amount of western land suitable for piñon pines in 2030. These maps depict areas modeled to be climatically suitable for the tree species under the recent historical (1961–1990) climate (left), conditions projected for 2030 given lower levels of heat-trapping emissions (center), and conditions projected for 2030 given medium-high levels of emissions (right).

The degree of climate change will affect the amount of western land suitable for piñon pines in 2030. These maps depict areas modeled to be climatically suitable for the tree species under the recent historical (1961–1990) climate (left), conditions projected for 2030 given lower levels of heat-trapping emissions (center), and conditions projected for 2030 given medium-high levels of emissions (right).

Robbing long-standing communities of their traditions

The tribal and acequia communities that have sustained themselves in New Mexico the longest are perhaps the most at risk from climate change. Diminishing water resources could affect the viability of the acequia water management systems and the communities that depend on them, while culturally important forest and wildlife resources will face growing risks from heat, drought, wildfire, and other stressors.

These communities have shown resilience and adaptability in the face of past challenges, but their capacities may be strained by the changes now underway. The impacts we expect from climate change are likely to make life more difficult for these communities, potentially forcing them to make hard choices about how to sustain their traditions and cultural practices.

New Mexico can take sensible precautions to safeguard its identity

While New Mexico can’t reverse climate change on its own, the state can take steps to limit the risks and prepare for the expected impacts. It can help limit the risks by shifting away from a fossil-fuel-dependent energy system that contributes to the problem and instead make better use of its vast renewable energy potential. Developing and strengthening its policies on renewable electricity, energy efficiency, and emissions reductions would pave the way for this transition and send the right signals to the energy sector.

At the same time, New Mexico could invest in climate resilience. Communities within New Mexico are already building innovative approaches to protect their water security and reduce their risks from wildfire. The lessons from these approaches should be shared throughout the state. Furthermore, statewide support for monitoring systems, water infrastructure, and groundwater measurement will help New Mexicans protect their water security. Critically, water planning should take climate change projections into account, rather than basing plans on outdated historical information.

Editor’s note: This post was revised on 4/28/16 for clarity and to add additional hyperlinks.

Posted in: Global Warming

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