When the rains don’t come

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA sprightly woman 70-years-young walked into my office a year ago.  I’d grown used to the constant interruptions that came with working at a healthy conservation non-profit in a vibrant Colorado farm town on the edge of the wild Rockies.  People had their opinions, their questions, and above all, their unsolicited suggestions.  As the communications coordinator, my job was to listen to everybody who wanted to talk. To say, yes, you’re right, that is a good idea.  Or, yes, that is a reasonable concern.  Or, sure, I’ll have a cookie.

I had already pegged this particular community member as one of the isn’t-our-town-the-best-town-in-all-the-world contingent–but I hadn’t expected her to also be a part of the even more extreme shit’s-going-down-sometime-soon-so-we-better-prepare-for-it-here-and-now crew.  She’d brought in a flyer for an event she was organizing that week at the art center: an evening of community discussion about how we can prepare.  Just what she was thinking we needed to prepare for, I wasn’t sure.  Systematic collapse, I supposed.  I didn’t go to the event to find out.

I tend to scoff at apocalyptic talk.  It sounds a little too much like Revelations.  Besides the gay thing, that final book of the Bible was probably one of the larger contributing factors to my exodus from Christianity.  Blood and ash, really?  Burning skies?  The living dead?  Horsemen of death?! No thanks.

Last year, though, western Colorado, like much of the country, was being hit by a very severe drought.  Farmers had to harvest their hay early and sell their livestock.  The forests turned into tinder.  Driving the five-hours east to Denver, I felt as though I could have lit any hillside ablaze with a single match.  Anybody could start a maelstrom.  I heard reports of fires, big ones, and saw their smoke drift in from around the state.  Whole neighborhoods burned, whole mountainsides.  Many of the fires began from the most mundane sources: a chain bouncing along the road, a broken muffler, even somebody’s target-practice bullets.  Wildfire gets a lot more real when anything and everything could burn.

The reservoirs, which had been overly full from a big snow winter the year prior, were now running on empty.  Having grown up in the Midwest, going to school up on the Great Lakes, living as an adult in Alaska and Montana, for the first time in my life, I lived somewhere where the water was running out.  Fortunately, my small town has access to a few reliable springs that flow out from the base of the West Elk peaks that rise to an elevation of 12,000 feet just a few miles east of town.  Even if the river ran dry (which it did by August) with the little surface water diverted into the irrigation canals which were slowly forced to shut off one by one, the town still had its municipal supply of water.  And our valley, unlike more populated, lower-lying areas in the southwest United States, only needed one good snow year to top off our reservoirs once again.  Even so, it was a drought.  Not the end of the world.

Apocalyptic PlanetToward the end of the summer, I volunteered for a local writer’s book reading.  Craig Child’s book, titled Apocalyptic Planet, is “a field guide to the everending earth.”  In the book, as well as at the reading, Craig shared a series of natural history stories from around the world, places where Craig dug into the past of each respective place and gave the audience a deep and often disturbingly violent story of upheaval and change.  It turns out that the planet is dynamic.  It is constantly turning over, reshaping itself.  In the book, he points out that according to our current understanding of the globe, humans arose as a species, and our civilizations with us, during a particularly pleasant time to be on Earth.  Sure, there is still cataclysm, but there have been greater floods, bigger impacts, drier droughts than what humans have known in our short time on the planet. Instead of using these stories as justifications to continue our course of global change, however, Craig carefully constructs the feeling that the balance we’ve got right now is something we probably shouldn’t choose to throw to the wind.  We are living in a world finely balanced, but this particular global climate state is more of a rarity than we might have imagined, and more easily lost than we might guess.

Since reading his book and hearing Craig speak, I’ve heard other people talking about the long-time perspective as well–and not in the most cheery ways.  Particularly out west, there’s reason to be concerned about water.   My friend and fellow small-town resident, radio producer Julia Kumari-Drapkin, recently produced a piece for This American Lifes global warming episode.  The whole episode is spot-on, more about the dialogue of climate change than the current science of it.  Julia’s piece in particular is both captivating and a little bit heart-breaking.  The story delves into last year’s drought in Colorado and the struggle scientists have to give news they don’t think people want to hear.

The news, in our particular case, was about the droughts of the future, the droughts that the climate models are predicting, the droughts exacerbated by anthropogenic (human-made) climate change.  What the climatologists are beginning to tell the public is that the drought of 2012 could look like an average year within a decade or two.  These future droughts look eerily similar to the  sort of droughts that Craig chronicles in his book, the ones that have been marked in the recent geologic record across the western United States.  We’re not talking about the dust bowl.  We’re talking about droughts that last centuries.  Droughts when there are no good snow years–for three hundred years.  Reach even farther back in the geologic record, and we are talking about droughts that are very difficult to imagine: thousand-year-droughts, that then, aren’t really droughts, but instead a complete shift in climate regimes.  Think large dune complexes in Nebraska, dry grasslands in Minnesota, think a whole lot of desert everywhere west.

This NASA climate model video of projected rainfall changes particularly struck close-to-home.  I recently moved from Colorado to the central Sierras in California to work on a restoration crew in Yosemite National Park.  The long-term precipitation outlook for California and the southwest looks grim.  I get to spend my time out in the high alpine of the Sierras, restoring habitat for rare species like the Yosemite Toad and other sovereign creatures.  And yet, what will happen to them when the big drought hits?  What will happen to these entire ecosystems?  Then there are the people: what will happen to the cities of the Southwest?  To the agriculture of western Colorado?  To the springs at the base of the West Elks?

No one knows what will happen, but one thing for certain is that change is inevitable.  What sort of change, well, I suppose we still have some say in the matter.  I’m going to keep restoring habitat.  And I’m going to keep demanding my government to curb greenhouse gases.  As Bill McKibben is warning in his current Do The Math campaign, climate change is beyond each of our own individual control.  If we are going to curb carbon, it’s going to be a global effort.

We cannot stop change.  In fact, no “balance” on this planet will ever be permanent.  This dynamic world is constantly shifting from one form to another.  Rather than accelerating global change, toward any number of possible future conditions while preparing for collapse, but I’d rather fight hard to hold onto what we’ve got for as long as we can keep it.

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