This isn’t just another dry year, it’s climate change coming home to roost

Back in June, as the 416 Fire raged outside of Durango, Colorado, I wrote an essay about how the conflagration illustrated the way that climate change was affecting life in places that once seemed invulnerable, like the tiny town of Silverton, elevation 9,318 feet.

As is often the case with articles on this topic, it drew the trolls into the comment section. “A drought in the desert Southwest? Unheard of,” one man wrote, facetiously. “Is there nothing that climate change can’t do.” Another man, who seems only to read in order to pen disparaging comments responded: “No science in this article to support that it’s the fault of climate change … much less man made climate change. Give that a shot would ya? I’m old. I’ve seen lots of droughts i’ve seen floods too. Long before climate change was a mantra, and a scapegoat for everything.”

Well, I’m no spring chicken, myself, and I, too, have seen droughts and floods, dry years and wet. Now in middle-age, I’ve accumulated nearly a half-century of observations from one particular corner of the world, southwest Colorado. And it has become abundantly clear that the climate in the Four Corners has shifted over the last five decades.

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2018 wasn’t quite as grim as 2002 when it comes to Animas River flows for most of the spring and summer. In 2002, however, the rains finally came, providing a bit of salvation. Not so this year. In September 2018 the river ebbed to a record-breaking trickle and even dropped below 100 cfs for nearly a week. USGS data. 

I remember when winter in my hometown, nestled in a mountain valley at 6,512 feet in elevation, was still winter. When snow piled up in our yards so deep we’d almost have to tunnel through it, when we’d carve caves into the mountains left behind by the snowplows, and when Snowdown, Durango’s winter festival, was primarily about playing in the snow — with in-town gelande jumping, ski races, and snow sculpture contests. I remember when the summer monsoon arrived reliably in late July or early August, delivering regular afternoon tempests made up of clouds of cobalt and drenchers that sent flash floods roaring down the arroyos. I also remember how strange it felt during that winter of 1989-90 when it was so dry that for the first time ever we played volleyball during our Christmas family gathering rather than go sledding. 

A decade ago, I cringed each time a news outlet automatically attributed variations in weather to climate change, and I scolded the reporters who insisted that that particular drought was “unprecedented.” Look back far enough and you could always find a drier year, a wetter year, a warmer year. Weather is wacky by its nature. It’s variable, unpredictable and, more often than not, a dry year will be followed by a wet one, and vice versa.

Then along comes a year like this one, when the snowpack is scant, the river’s reduced to a trickle, and the fires rage uncontrollably across the West. It’s just another regular drought in the desert, our commenter tells us, nothing to see here. It’s not unprecedented, my former self might say, while pointing to the historic data. I mean, look, it was drier and warmer and the river was lower back in … oh. Oh, dear.

During the late summer of 1956 the Animas River shrank to a record low that stood for 62 years. This year’s dryness shattered that record, causing the river in September to ebb to a mere trickle, far lower than in 1956 or even than 2002 or 2013, the previous benchmarks for dry years around here. For the first time since 1897, when record-keeping began, flows lingered below 100 cubic feet per second for an entire week to finish off the water year (Oct. 1 – Sept. 30).

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The data don’t lie. Spring runoff is shrinking on the Animas. USGS data. 

This is not just a low point in the up-down cycle, nor is it an outlier. It’s part of a much larger pattern, clearly visible when one zooms out and looks back at the last century of records. Our very baseline has changed. Not only are dry years getting drier, but the wet years also aren’t nearly as wet as they once were. Flows on the Animas River are diminishing. Yearly peak streamflows have trended downward, and have been especially meager during the last two decades. Water levels during the peak runoff in May have been below average for all of the last nine years, even as the historic average continues to drop. Heavy precipitation still can hit Durango in January and February, but it is more likely to fall as rain or slush than as full-on snow of the pile-up and stick-around kind. Snow forts in town are a rarity. Volleyball and backcountry mountain biking have become the norm during the winter holidays, sledding the aberration. And a persistent lack of snow has transformed Snowdown into an indoor drinking festival. The monsoon arrives late, if at all, and rarely delivers that old windy, watery punch. 

Perhaps it’s a bit rash to directly attribute this year’s drought or the 416 Fire to climate change. Tree rings tell of crippling dry spells and catastrophic conflagrations playing out on this landscape long before the Industrial Revolution began. But it is willful ignorance, at best, to attempt to consider this summer’s fires outside of the context of a warming planet, outside of a reality in which humans have spilled trillions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, wreaking havoc in ways that are becoming more and more apparent as sea levels rise, weather gets even more wacky, and desertification creeps across the land.

What we are seeing is confirmation that climate change has come home to roost. To try to pass this off as just another dry year is folly, and we do so at our own peril.

AnimasPeakFlow

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RLSCoverSmallJonathan P. Thompson is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster. It’s about a heck of a lot more than just that, though, it’s more like a people’s history of the Four Corners region. Get a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine. 

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