Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Weather Outside...

 Weather satellite images courtesy of the Earth Science Office in Huntsville, Alabama.

When we bought this place in New Mexico seven years ago, a friend in California remarked, "Oh, so you'll have a place to escape when everything goes to shit, eh?" And I said, "Yeah, pretty much." We laughed, ruefully.

Here it is, December 1, and the high desert weather we're enjoying is essentially still Indian Summer. It can get cold overnight, sometimes into the teens, but daytime temps are in the 60s, quite balmy. The skies are pristine deep blue, hardly a cloud to be seen, the nighttime skies can take your breath away with their clarity and billions and billions  of brilliant stars. There's been just a tiny bit of rain, and a tinier bit of snow, since we've been here. There is little wind -- which is unusual, as this area tends to be windblown most of the time (thus the wind-farms down in Willard, for example). The only thing about it is that it is so dry, people are once again worrying about yet another drought.

Meanwhile in California, in the area we left, The Deluge appears to have come. We lived in an area that had been reclaimed from a seasonal lakebed, and our streets would flood from time to time. We were well aware that if the levees were overtopped (which seemed unlikely, but you never knew) our area would be under several feet of water, perhaps right up to our doorstep. Given the sea-level predictions we knew about in 2005, it seemed quite possible that large areas of the Central Valley (and of Sacramento in particular) would become part of an extended San Francisco Bay sometime in the not too distant future, and there would be little that could be (or more particularly, would be)  done about it.

We didn't count on the storms accelerating the process, however, though we were aware that the storms had been turning what was historically a rather dry area into quite a wet one over the course of the previous ten years or so.

I described what was happening to central California as if the region had been shoved some 700 miles northward into the rainforest. Though that was a bit of a stretch, it was remarkable how wet the Central Valley had become. One of the consequences was a very lush urban forest. So lush, in fact, that it had become dangerous to life and limb. What to do about it was a constant worry of public officials. Trees were being uprooted regularly in the many storms, trees and limbs were crashing down all over the place -- sometimes spontaneously, without the impetus of storms --  fire hazards were developing in the summertime, and people just weren't adapting quickly enough. It was impossible to keep up.

Those who lived through the recent climate changes in Central California were aware that the area had gone from quite dry to quite wet in a very short time, but the Official Story tended to claim the changes were only very slight, hardly perceptible, and that these Wet Periods were historically common, going back hundreds of years, so there was no certainty that there was some sort of connection with the realities of Global Climate Change. Officially, the area was still in "drought" for years after the rains came. And by some accounts, it's still in drought even though average rainfall has increased rather smartly.   I never knew whether this was Official Denial or something else, but it was strange...

Here in New Mexico, we're dealing with an opposite set of circumstances, seemingly perpetual drought, or rather, droughts that persist for longer than expected,  broken briefly (large amounts of snow or rain in a short period of time), then return to critically dry conditions that seem to last much longer than before.  The weather patterns are different, leading to overall dryer conditions which in some areas are much dryer. (I intend to post a description of just where we live one day, but not quite yet.)

Where we are is in an intersection of weather patterns. It's actually -- usually -- wetter here than on the west side of the mountains along the Rio Grande. There's at least the chance of more rainfall, but the weather comes in distinct narrow bands. It can be raining hard a few miles on either side of us, but be dry as dust right where we are. Same with snow. Or conditions can reverse: much rain and snow where we are, frightfully dry on either side. It seems that conditions overall are a good deal dryer now than seven years ago, but there was an even dryer period in the interim, so from a relative standpoint, the last few years have been somewhat "wet." It's as if this area had moved some hundreds of miles south into the Chihuahuan Desert of Mexico. It's not a dire situation (yet), but it's not particularly reassuring, either. So few people live in this region, however, that the human presence is not (yet) a huge stress on the land and such water as there is. People are aware that there was a lingering drought in the 1670's that caused the abandonment of the pueblos in the region, and it could happen again. We're not there yet, but it's wise to be on the alert.

In that context, the bloated size of Albuquerque is troublesome. It's New Mexico's one Big City, and from an environmental standpoint, it's way too big. Many times the size it "ought to be." It has only been able to grow as big as it is by extracting practically all the underground water and slurping up every drop it can from the Rio Grande. Realistically, it cannot grow any more, but it will try to anyway. It's the way of cities in the grip of real estate boomers and speculators. They are chock-a-block in ABQ -- and champing at the bit to make more money. The fact that Indian Pueblos border Albuquerque on the north and south and strictly limit the city's growth in those directions serves as a brake on rampant expansion and a reminder of how fragile the environment really is.

One thing that seems clear, though, is that the people in New Mexico are aware of their environmental limitations and they seem to be able to adapt reasonably well -- and reasonably quickly -- to changing conditions whereas people in California seem intent on fighting what's happening or refusing to adapt to changes.

The contrast can be striking sometimes.

We realize we have a lot of work to do on our own outlook before we can say we've adapted to conditions and changing conditions in New Mexico, and we'll make many mistakes along the way. We have a great deal to learn about the local/region environment and how best to live within it.

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