The New Normal

The world's climate has already changed. Now what?

When the waitress takes our lunch order, the sky outside the Rodeo Grocery & Café is blue. But in the time it takes to power through a smothered burrito, the Chiracahua Mountains to the west have disappeared. The wind has changed, and smoke from the Horseshoe Two fire pours from the canyon, turning the sky here in southwestern New Mexico a thick yellow and scenting the two-hour drive north to the Gila National Forest with smoke.

This spring, I've traveled in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and the Dakotas. Everywhere, the symptoms of climate change have been obvious, whether in the form of flood or drought. In early June, however, I need a few days to quiet my mind from its spin around the environmental issues I report. I'm seeking refuge.

It's dry even in the Gila this year; runoff from snowmelt is about a quarter of average. But we wade in the East Fork of the Gila River, inspecting the damp, cool soil beneath riverbank rocks for hellgrammites, tasting mint from an island in the river and checking out the algae streaming below the water's surface.

Later, we drive past a burn scar from the Miller fire that someone sparked at the end of April. Peering from the edge of the Heart Bar Wildlife Management Area, we can see how the fire has scoured out the underbrush, but also streaked the trunks of conifers and cottonwoods black. The pines will be fine, but the cottonwoods growing at the banks of the river can't withstand that heat.

The next evening, the sun glows pinkish-red over Lake Roberts, near Mimbres. A game warden passes through with a young, cinnamon-colored black bear he has darted for relocation. With the forests crackling dry, bears come into town seeking food to sustain themselves. Asleep with a tag in his ear, the bear likely doesn't have a long life ahead of him.

The smoke clears for Saturday morning's Aldo Leopold Kids Fishing Derby. But just before rush hour the night after we return home, smoke from Arizona's Wallow fire billows across the West Mesa and into Albuquerque. After a week of this smoke—of adjusting my daily schedule around winds and forecasts—it becomes routine.

Then one Sunday afternoon, I call my young daughter to the north side of the house and point out a cloud I think signals the coming monsoon season. But after she's gone to bed, I learn the cloud we celebrated was a pyrocumulus cloud spawned by the Las Conchas fire near Los Alamos. The next morning, I have to admit my mistake and explain how very big fires—fires that grow almost 44,000 acres in a single day—can sometimes create clouds that resemble thunderheads.

This is the new normal, and I must re-evaluate what I thought I knew as fact before explaining the world to my 5-year-old.

Right now, New Mexico is warmer than it was a decade ago. Since the 1960s, the growing season has lengthened. More than half of the state's native plants and animals have already been affected by climate change; some bird populations have shifted; some flowers bloom earlier. Sand dunes are spreading as vegetation dies. Conifer forests, weakened by drought and susceptible to bark beetles (whose numbers soared thanks to warmer temperatures) are suffering die-offs. Day to day, we have low river flows, dry soils and wildfires. Already this fiscal year, 1,242 square miles of New Mexico have burned. Worldwide, scientists are watching their models and predictions play out—and we're all experiencing symptoms no one expected.

Smoke quickly turns skies from blue to yellow around Rodeo.
Credits: Laura Paskus

As Las Conchas raged—and Santa Feans had a front-row seat to a megafire—Patrick McCarthy was shocked by the fire's ferocity. "No one has quite seen anything like this in New Mexico in terms of wildfire behavior, the speed at which it travelled, the incredible flame lengths," he says. "It was even creating its own weather in a roaring vortex."

McCarthy is The Nature Conservancy's director of conservation programs and also director of the Conservancy's Southwest Climate Change Initiative. He has authored a number of reports detailing changes already occurring, predictions and adaptive management. He also works on what used to be called "ecological management" and is now known as "transformation ecology." As one of the first places hit by human-caused climate change in New Mexico, the Jemez Mountains have become a laboratory. (The only place in the state that has warmed more in recent years is southwestern New Mexico's boot heel.) "We're moving beyond denial to acceptance that we can't restore these forests anymore—because the forest of 50, 100 years ago wouldn't survive in 2050," McCarthy says. "So the question becomes: What is an ecosystem that's sustainable in 20 or 50 years?"

Watching Las Conchas rage in the Jemez Mountains—it burned between the 2000 Cerro Grande fire and the 1996 Dome fire, then reburned the Cerro Grande scar—was a difficult experience for many researchers, including McCarthy.

"It was affecting places we care about, places we've been working on in some cases for decades," he says. Scientists are methodical, cautious. But bearing witness to the destruction of landscapes is an emotional experience. "It's reached the point for me [where] the changes are so evident that they're really reaching deeply into my soul and how I feel about the relationship between humans and the climate, and especially our relationships with these places."

As certain ecosystems—like deep, dark pine forests or certain perennial streams—fail to survive, humans will need to decide where and how we live. "What kind of ecological processes that sustain people—like in Santa Fe or the Gunnison Basin, or Bear River in Utah—are we going to be able to sustain in the face of climate change?" McCarthy asks. "You can walk out of the discussion, keep it at arm's length; but at strange, odd times, it comes back to me. It's poignant, riveting."

Climate change is already measurable, but may also prove itself unpredictable.

"It's going to continue to bring this combination of projected effects and surprises that involve the crossing of these ecological or physiological thresholds that bring phenomena the likes of which we haven't seen before," he says. "There are things we can predict—droughts, larger wildfires—and there are things that are going to surprise us, things we can't predict."

It's clear that the changing planet calls for changes in human behavior. Unfortunately for us, humans are slow to change. Confronted with events that confuse or frighten us, we cling all the more fiercely to what we've known.

Last spring, I sat rapt while Santa Fe archaeologist Eric Blinman delivered a lecture titled "The Rear View Mirror: 2,000 Years of People and Climate Change in the Southwest." New Mexico is an excellent place to study how people adapt to changes in their climate. Not only are there tree ring and pollen records, but archaeological remains show where people lived and farmed. As a former archaeologist—I spent six years surveying and occasionally excavating the remains of prehistoric communities in the Southwest—I find myself reading and rereading the notes I scrawled out during Blinman's talk. Whenever hiking, I still scan landscapes for signs of human habitation, gauging the closest water source and evaluating food sources. That fascination has only deepened since I began writing about climate change and the environment.

Taken in combination with climate data, the archaeological record offers a comprehensive view of the past—of how in AD 300, when a prolonged drought began, it was too cold for farmers to move upslope to chase the rains. There is evidence of violence and of migrations to the south. Three hundred years later, a warming trend opened higher elevations to farming. As the moisture also increased, agricultural communities returned to the Four Corners. This warp and woof continues through time. It's plain to see in the record.

Climate change is both a crisis and an opportunity, Blinman pointed out during his lecture, calling the Galisteo Basin the "poster child for climate change." Beginning in the 1190s, corn farmers, who relied on monsoon rains for their crops, moved into the Galisteo Basin. By the 1300s, the hamlets had begun growing larger. A hundred years later, the isolated hamlets had consolidated into eight large pueblos. This growth, Blinman said, was fueled by corn—in an area where corn can no longer grow.

By around 1500, the system crashed. The climate pattern had returned to "normal," and significant rainfalls were no longer falling in the Galisteo Basin. Unable to coax reliable crops from the high desert basin, the communities could no longer survive in the area.

Blinman drew four lessons from these people who relied upon corn and rain: Cultural expectations are abandoned with difficulty; people try to persist until too late; social conflict and breakdown make the economy worse; and migration is the ultimate solution to climate change.

I've copied down these four lessons and posted them above my desk. There are lessons for the present, as well. "The climate will change, regardless of cause," Blinman said. "And we have the potential for preventative adaptation."

Here in New Mexico, we're not yet exercising that potential. As a journalist, I watch this play out time and again when covering the news. I've grown weary, in fact, of reporting one event or announcement without drawing attention to connections, repercussions.

The week before the Fourth of July, for instance, Gov. Susana Martinez and many others called for statewide bans and boycotts on fireworks. With fires burning around the state, that made perfect sense. But it didn't make sense to blame
fireworks for the state's wildfire woes while not acknowledging—let alone addressing—the larger causes behind the Southwest's forest fires.

In fact, the same day the governor declared a state of emergency regarding the use of fireworks statewide, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which the nonprofit New Energy Economy was seeking to intervene in an appeal filed by Public Service Company of New Mexico against the Environmental Improvement Board. By providing electricity to New Mexicans via two coal-fired power plants, PNM is the state's largest source of carbon emissions. The energy company is asking the Court of Appeals to invalidate New Mexico's 2010 carbon pollution reduction law—a law Martinez tried unsuccessfully to overturn immediately upon becoming governor.

As the signs of climate change spring up across the state and the consequences of our fossil fuel consumption become more pronounced, I find myself trying to balance my different roles and responsibilities. As a reporter, my duty is to inform the public. As an archaeologist, I'm watching aghast as an over-confident society overuses its resources, ignores global changes and clings ever more fervently to destructive behaviors. And as a mother, I'm fierce about protecting the future.

As forest fires consume more of their habitats, wildlife such as this black bear—being relocated from Mimbres—are displaced into human-inhabited areas in search of food.
Credits: Laura Paskus

Earnest, with a runner's build and a tiny nose piercing, Eileen Everett guides me through the New Mexico Museum of Natural History's new exhibit, Degrees of Change: New Mexico's Climate Forecast.

"It's important when working with kids to leave a positive message at the end, to not leave it as a doom and gloom situation," Everett, the museum's climate change educator, says. It's best, she says, to focus on the basics of climate, such as the difference between climate and weather and how the greenhouse effect works.

People also need to understand scientists are certain that human-caused climate change is occurring. "But there's no place within our educational system that we talk about peer-reviewed research, what that is, how that is different from op-ed information," she says. "I think people don't realize that uncertainty within science is part of the process. Uncertainty is central to science because you're always questioning things—that's very different from what uncertainty means within other parts of our lives."

Although Everett often focuses her efforts on children, she hasn't given up on adults. "I do most of my environmental education outside of my work here through meaningful conversations with family, friends," she laughs. "I do my best climate change education while riding the [New Mexico] Rail Runner [Express]."

Before leaving the exhibit, I approach two 17-year-olds. Everett has managed to buoy my faith in humanity. I ask the teenagers about climate change. Do they talk about it with their friends or at home with their families? "A little bit," the girl answers. What do they know about climate change? The boy answers that it's both good and bad—that the climate has been changing for a long time, but it's slowing down now. "It doesn't come into concern," he adds. I turn to the girl. In a bland, "I'm talking to an adult" tone, she says, "It's fascinating."

Fighting the urge to smack my notebook over their heads, I talk myself out of feeling discouraged. At least they're at the museum. And other, younger children are there with their mothers and fathers. At 5, my own daughter knows about climate change. She asks deeper and more complex questions all the time, and more and more often, she is calculating solutions. They may be unrealistic—cars that run on bubbles, for instance—but she's thinking about the issue more deeply than most adults I know. By talking with her about climate change, I'm not trying to scare her. Rather, I want her to practice rational leadership in a way adults seemingly cannot. As adults, we are addicted not only to our way of life—and the wealth that has converted abundant cash and ready credit into the carbon dioxide that is causing worldwide temperatures to rise—but also to the myths of unlimited growth and wealth that have coaxed us through and beyond the Industrial Revolution.

Americans need to brush up on our science. According to a recent Yale University poll, only 64 percent of Americans thought global warming was happening, and 21 percent were "extremely sure" it wasn't. But we also need new stories, new myths better suited to a new reality.

To fill that void, science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi riffs off environmental issues such as climate change, genetic engineering and endocrine disruptors. It's pointless to write with optimism for adults, he says: "The implication is if you create myths—and I think about stories as myths, and specifically science fiction, myths of our future, things that we live into—that we create a myth that is unearned," he says. "We create a myth that says 'Oh, it does get solved,' when in fact, the battle is not even engaged yet. We have not even begun to face the question of how we're actually going to deal with climate change, let alone species destruction, let alone questions like population growth."
Within the past couple of years, however, he has targeted a new audience. Writing for kids is different, he says, and he provides them with a new narrative—one that acknowledges adults are the enemy and proves a better world is possible for those brave enough to fight for it.

"Young adult literature is often a rebellious literature. The young adult story demands that parental figures be either dead, impotent, absent or antagonistic, so that kids can take the reins of the story," he says. "And that actually works pretty well when you want to mirror to young people that we adults really are killing their future, that parents and other adults really are the enemy."

Bacigalupi's face breaks into a characteristically diabolical grin.

"It's almost a perfect symmetry for environmental writing that young adult literature already demands a re-evaluation of the parent-child relationship," he says, "and expects children to take over agency in the face of their parents' failures."

Extreme temperature variations place pressure on crops and livestock, as with this stunted corn in Albuquerque’s South Valley.
Credits: Laura Paskus

Even for people who understand that the connection between fossil fuels and climate change is not open to debate, it's convenient to imagine there is time left for a next generation to confront the issue. Despair and overwhelmed inaction are acceptable to some, as well.

But all delusions and excuses disappear in the face of a man whose homeland is already disappearing into the rising sea. At a meeting last year, Eddie Osifelo, a journalist from the Solomon Islands, explained to me how rising waters have caused people to migrate from the coast to the interior of the island. "Will you write about this?" he repeatedly asks me over the course of four days. "Will you let people know what is happening to us?" He explains how fishermen learning to farm must also negotiate with the tribal leaders whose lands they now must share. The island and sea are changing, and so are people's identities and ties to their past. The people living on these islands did not cause climate change. They did not call the seas to rise. But they are calling to the world for help: "We will continue to be as noisy as we can until the water covers our heads," Seychelles Ambassador to the United Nations Ronald Jumeau said at the United Nations climate talks last year. "And even when the water is over our heads, when the bubbles pop, you will hear us yelling."

This sounds like a dystopian future—something Bacigalupi might craft into a novel. But as global average temperatures have risen, African nations are experiencing ever-worsening droughts, food scarcity, and even flooding from extreme storm events. Asian countries that rely on glaciers to store and release water are worried about short-term flooding from accelerated melting in the Himalayas, but also long-term security threats because of water scarcity in the future.

This spring, floods raged along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and tornadoes shredded communities from Alabama to Missouri. Scientists will not attribute single weather events to global climate changes, but in mid-June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out that only halfway through the year, the United States had already experienced eight disasters, each causing more than $1 billion in damages (for a total of $32 billion). This was before hurricane season had even begun—and doesn't include damages from drought. Drought has been declared across the southern US, from Virginia to California, with "exceptional" droughts occurring from Florida, across the Gulf Coast, up into northern Texas and Oklahoma and on across southern New Mexico and Arizona.

On July 1, NOAA also released the "new normals." Based on data collected at more than 7,500 stations nationwide, normals are the 30-year average of climate variables such as temperature and precipitation. Meteorologists use them when forecasting weather; electric and gas utilities gauge short- and long-term energy use projections. The 1981-2010 normals are approximately 0.5 degree warmer than the previous 30-year

The new normals are also important to New Mexico's farmers—people who rely on consistent growing seasons and average temperatures, reliable spring runoff and the start of monsoon season.
On Ironwood Farm in the South Valley of Albuquerque, Chris Altenbach is already trying to adapt to extreme weather fluctuations. His livestock survived January's deep freeze, but this spring's weather has thrown his crops for a loop. The weather has not only been dry—the period from Jan. 1 through the end of May was the driest on record—but also unpredictable. On May 31, for instance, Altenbach and his neighbors woke to a late freeze. By afternoon, temperatures soared to the 90s.

Variation like that places pressure on crops and livestock, he says. And while the freeze didn't kill his corn, its growth slowed. The corn right now is tasseling, he says, but the plants are only four to five feet tall—small for this time of year.
In adapting to the new normal, Altenbach has given up on his fruit trees—late freezes and drought make harvests unreliable—and decided to focus on annual vegetables. He's going to have to build another greenhouse to grow more crops in controlled conditions. He's also considering using row cover—hoops that hold fabric over the plants to moderate temperatures, increase humidity and protect plants from insects—and will have to adjust infrastructure to deal with unanticipated freezes.

"I'm also doing more successional plantings," he says. "Rather than waiting for a certain time that I think is going to work, I'll plant a couple weeks apart just to try to make sure I get something to come in if there's an event that takes it out."
Off the grid and committed to the practice of permaculture, Altenbach worries that, in having to adapt, larger operations will increase their dependence on fossil fuels. "By trying to mitigate for extremes in weather," he says, "other farmers are putting a little bit more strain on the environment." This reminds me of Blinman's four lessons and how past desert dwellers lost control of their societies.

Whenever I finish interviewing a source, I reflect on the other pieces of the story: what other people have told me, what I have learned from them and how their stories fit together. Climate change is the biggest science story in a generation. But it’s also a story that people need to feel in order to understand. The story of our changing landscapes is written in the flames licking forests, in the topsoil that blows away when spring winds follow bone-dry winters.

But it’s also found within corn stalks and desert ruins. And all of those pieces tie back to the note of inquiry within my daughter’s voice one recent morning: “What are humans doing about climate change?”  SFR

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