The following post is guest-authored by Patrick McCarthy, the director of the southwest Climate Change Initiative; Nature Conservancy Director of Conservation Programs, New Mexico.
Watching Russia struggle through a deadly summer of heat, drought and wildfires was déjà vu for many of us here in the Southwestern United States.
The scenes unfolding in news photographs – of residents and tourists outfitted with surgical masks against the famous backdrop of St. Basil’s Cathedral barely visible amid the smoke – reminded me of the summers of 2000-2003 when breathing smoke from wildfires became a frequent occurrence in Arizona and New Mexico.
During one of these wildfire outbreaks, I knew parents of a newborn baby who traveled south and stayed away for weeks to keep their child’s lungs clear of smoke from the fires – just as this month, mothers in Moscow were trying to flee the city’s acrid air with their small children, if they had somewhere else to go. The health effects of inhaling smoke and fine particles from wildfires can include eye and respiratory tract irritation, reduced lung function and worsening of asthma and bronchitis.
Arizona’s largest-ever recorded wildfire, the Rodeo-Chediski fire, occurred in June 2002, when two fires merged together, burning 467,000 acres before finally being controlled nearly three weeks later. Much of the area in Navajo County was sparsely populated, but about 30,000 people were evacuated and the ponderosa pine forest was largely lost and transformed into a different landscape.
The Arizona fire, burning simultaneously with Colorado’s Hayman fire, and many others during a succession of exceptionally warm summer droughts, was a wake-up call to many people in the Southwest that climate change was really happening.
This view is supported by concrete evidence:
- Analysis of retrospective data (actual temperatures recorded by hundreds of weather stations) shows that the Southwest is warming more rapidly than many other parts of the U.S. except Alaska. Mean annual temperature increased across most locations in the Four Corners states, with some habitats, such as alpine areas, warming more than 2 degrees F between 1951 and 2006.
- Throughout the western U.S., including Southwest forests, there has been a significant increase in uncharacteristically large and severe fires. A study of a database of Western wildfires since 1970 led by A.L. Westerling of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California found that increased spring and summer temperatures and earlier spring snowmelt were associated with an increase in the frequency, duration and seasonal extent of large wildfire activity.
- Recent warming has extended the period in which bark beetles are able to reproduce, allowing them to attack drought-stressed trees in droves and resulting in widespread infestations and wholesale changes in the structure of Western forests.
- The Southwest Climate Change Initiative identified 48 cases of recent ecological change in the Southwest that may be linked to climate change.
More than half involved population declines of species, with the rest including shifts in species’ geographical distribution, timing of life events like breeding and increases in invasive species. Most were from high-elevation forested areas, such as the Jemez and Sacramento Mountains, where recent climate exposure has been particularly extreme (warm and dry).
If we allow greenhouse gases to continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, we are loading the dice and increasing the likelihood of extreme — and potentially deadly — weather events.
Even the vast, largely intact landscapes of the Southwest are at risk from climate change, especially in a region where the natural forces of fire and water drive ecosystems. Land management goals once developed for a stable environment may become irrelevant, unattainable or impractical across the rapidly warming Colorado Plateau – the high-elevation Four Corners region that is studded with national parks.
This is why The Nature Conservancy is acting now to help southwestern forests — such as the Jemez Mountains, near Los Alamos, New Mexico — to cope with rapid climate change. Using our science-based and collaborative approach, the Conservancy is working with government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service to integrate comprehensive planning for climate change into routine fire and forest management practices for federal lands and surrounding areas.
For example, in the forests of northern Arizona — a habitat of the endangered Mexican spotted owl — the Conservancy is working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative to pursue strategies such as low-intensity controlled burns and forest thinning to promote resilience. Protecting cool, moist refuges and connecting habitat patches are strategies to help the owls get where they need to go for food and nesting even as the climate changes.
The time is now to prepare our forests and our communities for what is to come. When we work to lower emissions, restore and protect our forests, and make our cities and landscapes healthier and more resilient, we do what we can to lower our collective risk for the kind of wildfire disaster we’ve seen before in the Southwest – and saw again this summer in Central Russia.
(Photo: A fire crew comprised of members from The Nature Conservancy, US Forest Service, The Arizona Land Department and the City of Flagstaff set prescribed fires to build forest resilience at the Conservancy’s Hart Prairie Preserve near Flagstaff, AZ – part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative area. Photo Credit: Edward Smith)