And then those local climate change impacts came home to roost.
I know, I know: Not having Internet access falls very much into the category of #firstworldproblems. But the why of having no Internet access is soon going to be very much an #allworldproblem.
It helps explain why I committed to this blogathon, and this issue, in the first place.
Now, at the outset: Again, I know, I know; no single weather event is evidence of climate change. But I'm not going to be talking about a "single weather event." Rather, I'm going to be talking about our weather here of the last three or four days as part of an overall pattern, one that (for those who pay attention) has been changing rapidly in recent years, and one that has been drastically different this year in significant ways.
To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, our pond was dry when we went to bed night before last. This was the pond yesterday afternoon:
That's over a foot of water at the deepest point. Rain water. In less than 24 hours. More is adding itself as I write this.
Here in this area of northern New Mexico, we're at the end of the Southern Rockies. We get many of the same weather systems as Colorado, and this is no exception: The storms that are currently flooding Colorado are part of a long line of monsoonal storms that stretch down into New Mexico and tend to move from southwest to northeast-ish.
The fact of the storms is normal this time of year; it's why they call it "monsoon season." We depend on these rains to keep our ecosystem alive year-round. In the past, the monsoons of the desert southwest have taken a very specific form — fraught with their own dangers, yes, for those who are careless or unaware, but with knowledge and a little planning, certainly manageable.
These are not those storms.
We call them monsoons, but that's a meteorologist's term. What they are, on a practical level, is a daily series of cloudbursts. In this part of the country, usually through August and much of September, the weather follows an eminently predictable pattern: Brilliantly sunny morning, but with lines of thunderheads, compressed into a line at the horizon, accumulating in the distance. Some mornings, they'll be closer and more substantial-looking.
By noon, the thunderheads have drawn much closer, and they continue to build, tower upon fluffy tower, brilliant white at the top, violet gray underneath. To our north and east, the blinding white tops will come boiling over the mountains until they've moved above the ridgeline, and then you can see threads of clouds splinter off and drift downward to mask the peaks and fill in the valleys.
By mid-afternoon at the latest, the thunderheads have overtaken Father Sun, shielding him from the day. Thunderbird, ascendant, begins to sing and dance, occasionally punctuating his performance by throwing lightning-tipped arrows. The temperature drops drastically; the winds may rise. And then the rains begin — sometimes softly and building to a crescendo, but more often with a smattering of huge hard drops that hit your skin like hailstones, and then the heavens truly open.
It's over in a few minutes.
Typically, a cloudburst around here last from five to twenty minutes or so, with perhaps a little drizzle on the back end. It may or may not include hail. A long storm is half an hour. The key is that they are truly cloudbursts: dumping massive amounts of water in a very short period of time, hence the flooding of arroyos and acequias and the periodic washouts. They also often move in a line, so we may get a series of multiple cloudbursts every afternoon. If we're lucky, we do — and then invariably the sun is shining again well before sunset. We get the most incredible rainbows I've ever seen, anywhere. It may even warm back up again, substantially, before dropping another 20 or 30 degrees in the starlit night air.
These are not those storms.
It rained off and on last Wednesday, and began raining steadily on Thursday. It was lovely, though: a soft, steady, soaking rain, of the kind that kisses the earth and blesses the crops. Perfect for the desert.
During the day, it all soaked in. No puddling, no pooling; just soaking into the soil.
The pond was empty.
The rhythm and tempo of the raindrops increased drastically. It went from a steady drizzle to a torrential downpour, and it lasted several hours. Periodically, it would subside a little, only to re-engage with renewed intensity. And when the sun came up, you could barely tell: The world was gray, invisible beyond a few yards away, and still the rains came. No thunder; no lightning; no wind. Just driving rain. The kind that knocks out the satellite signal that keeps our wireless connection live.
Back in '80s, at the height of the Reaganite iteration of the Cold War, folks in New Mexico used to joke, "The Russians are messing with our weather."
We were so blind.
Thirty years ago, it was a harbinger, and we didn't see it.
Then, it didn't seem like much. What I remember most vividly is that the windy season got longer and more pronounced. In the southern part of the state, trees grew at an angle, permanently bowed toward the northeast, because the spring winds had become so long and so sustained that they bent the trees permanently.
Toward the late '70s, there was a ramping up of tornadic winds in the summertime, with increasingly large and vicious hailstorms. There was 1980, when one day at the end of January, it hit 80; that summer would be the massive heatwave in large swaths of the country that killed people — in at least one Texas instance, because someone fell off a rooftop in his sleep, having decided to camp out atop his own hime to escape the suffocating heat indoors. And there was the increasing lack of any snow at all in the winter — or, indeed, any winter at all.
In the northern part of the state, of course, it was less obvious. In an area with four discrete seasons marked by temperature and weather extremes, it's easy to write off unusual occurrences as a one-off — even when the one-offs begin stacking on top of each other again and again and again.
And still, we were blind. Much easier just to blame the Russians.
By the time I returned to New Mexico in the early days of the new century, the notion of anthropogenic climate change was already well established, at least for those of us who cared to accept scientific reality, to say nothing of the evidence of our own senses. But even then, the perceptible changes were still so relatively minimal, so relatively gradual, that it was easy to forget that they were there. And that they were increasing, in quantity, in volume, in intensity, in severity of effects. In irreversibility.
We first really began to notice it — and talk about it — on a daily basis about five or six years ago. I believe it was 2007 when the monsoon season effectively began toward the end of May . . . and didn't stop until the end of September. Through that period, I think there was exactly one day when we didn't get at least a few sprinkles here.
But still. A one-off. "Crazy weather."
We usually get our first snow down here, on the land, sometime in October. It might even be a real snow, measured in feet rather than inches. But we don't usually get sustained dangerously cold temperatures until January. And we can get snow well into May; I think the latest I've ever seen it was June 10, five years ago. No, it didn't stick. But well fell out of the sky around my head, to melt upon hitting the warmer ground, was snow.
The winter of 2008-2009 upended all of that — and with it, for us, any notion of climate normalcy.
That December, we got repeated heavy snows. Three-foot accumulations. And then the temperature dropped, to the sub-zero range that is normally the province of January and February. Everything froze rock-solid.
Until the second week of January. It warmed up into the fifties, even crossing the threshold of 60 a couple of times. And blocks of ice turned to rivers of mud. Mud everywhere: here at home, at the gallery, rivers of it flowing through the old village, standing puddles a foot deep. They brought in earth-moving equipment to try to get it under control.
The humans weren't the only ones who were dazed by the weather. The birds and other wildlife spent 2009 in a state of constant confusion.
That was, I believe, the first year that I saw the starlings don their winter plumage early. As in, in August. Normal is late October into November. The next year, it would happen in July.
From 2009 to 2011, the hummingbirds disappeared. Entirely. So did the dragonflies, the butterflies, the bumblebees, the honeybees. The bluebirds and scrub jays did too; their numbers lessened every year until by last year, we had virtually none. Even the blackbirds and the grackles stayed mostly absent. Only the small birds — the juncos, the house sparrows, the house and Cassin's finches — and the magpies and the ravens and the invasive Eurasian collared doves remained constant.
Meanwhile, the coyotes came closer every year, increasingly pushed out of their usual habitat by drought and the accompanying lack of water and food. We've even had bear visits, although the most recent one's visit, a couple of weeks ago, was evident only from what he left behind.
The elk are coming closer than ever before, too; the mountain herd always visits in the wintertime, but they usually stay behind the fenceline. In early 2010, they came past the house one night, and into the hay bar — and the dogs, evidently aware that the herd was in desperate need, allowed them to eat unmolested. Now, on the other side of the mountain range, an entire herd has been found dead of an as-yet-unknown cause. So this year, I wonder whether we'll have the elk at all.
Then there are the other oddities:
The near-complete absence of herons and cranes. The absence, in the winter months, of woodpeckers and chickadees — except, of course, for the two woodpeckers that showed up for a few days a couple of summers ago, utterly lost. Oh, and the chickadee that appeared on the feeder here on August 12th, at least three months early. A salamander who lost his way and had to be rescued from the ravens. Snakes that show up closer and closer to human habitation, including the young prairie rattler that bit major four years ago (yes, I did the old-fashioned suck-and-spit routine on a dog's muzzle), or the dying prairie rattler, bisected by the baler, that used his last gasp to try to bite through my cowboy boot last fall. There's the friendly butterfly with the large-out-of-all-proportion tiger-striped body that neither of us could identify. There was the equally unidentifiable foot-long rat-like creature with the stiff, catfish-like whiskers that Wings fished, drowned, out of a rain barrel a couple of weeks ago.
Since 2011, the very earth itself has changed here.
When I returned in early March from a little more than a month in Washington (to help Kitsap River post-transplant surgery), I was shocked at what I saw. The spring winds had arrived early, and had apparently been nearly-constant in my absence. The land itself had been scalped, its lush locks of sage and chamisa torn off by the wind; the surrounding fields were flat and brown and bone-dry. It looked as though someone had ripped up the arid flatlands of the Llano Estacado in the southeast part of the state and transplanted them here.
In some ways, the look of the land was the least of it.
What I discovered, as late winter turned to spring and moved into summer that year, was that we had some new invaders, both rodent and insect. The dogs keep the prairie dog population well in balance, but it's harder to keep up with desert voles. And by mid-spring of 2011, they had torn up the land everywhere, little mounds of soil erupting from the ground where they'd built burrows and warrens. At the same time, ants moved in: first small black ants, then the large ones, and now, more than two laters, joined by the large red ones, as well. They are everywhere, and they bite. Like the voles, they also tear up the land: In what could be called our front yard, between the fencing and the road, they built their own miniature little pueblos, entire stacked villages with holes like chimneys, out of the same red earth. And between the ants and their rodent relations, the subsidence threatens to become dangerous. Hell, it already is dangerous, at least to our ankles, but if we can't bring a halt to it, it will someday do much more damage than that.
And then there are the winds. They used to blow from about noon until not long before sunset. This year, they blew all night, too. They used to be a distinctly spring-into-early-summer phenomenon. Now, they can be year-round; we had more wind (of the kind that brings with it no blessings of moisture) last winter than I can ever remember having outside of the spring months.
And the wind has changed qualitatively. Dust devils have always been common here, but they're just that: small whirlwinds that, while powerful if you're caught in one, tend to do little to no harm and spin themselves out as fast as they form.
Not anymore. Now, they're tornadoes of red dirt, sometimes whole lines of them. You can see them in the distance, miles away. If you're lucky, you can see them coming and take shelter before they lift you off your feet or rip off a piece of sheet-metal roof and send it crashing down on you. Our tipi didn't survive one a few years ago; this year, it was several panels of roof of Wings's studio.
One one day last month, I was home alone as the wind kicked up. I ran outside to shut the studio, take care of the animals, and secure the front gate, and the wind threatened to knock me off my feet. I looked northeast and saw a wall of dirt, whirling and spinning and moving at top speed toward me and the animals. And if either line had come toward us, we might very well not have survived it. But as I watched, it split into two opposing lines — one going south on the east side, the other going south on the west side. It went around us on either side, close enough to see, feeling close enough to touch, almost. And our land remained one still, silent spot in the midst of the fury, and I offered an audible prayer of thanks for what had just passed us by.
It's not just warm weather conditions. The last three winters have seen drastic changes in timing and severity. Two years ago, it was getting down well below zero every night — in the latter half of October. By November, we'd actually hit 40 below on a couple of occasions. And then after Thanksgiving, it warmed back up.
Last year, we had almost no appreciable snow all winter long. And then May came — and brought with it five separate measurable snowstorms. More than we'd had all winter combined. And our gardens thrived immeasurably . . . but the melt from the winter snowpack was still grossly substandard, and the wildlife remained confused by seasons, so out of the natural order.
And this year? This year, the monsoon season began in the latter half of June. By July, it was in full swing, and behaving normally, if here too soon. At first. Then, the rain patterns began to change: a sprinkle, a shower, maybe even a small cloudburst in the afternoon, then sunny again. And then, around sunset, the thunderheads would move back in. And somewhere between 9 PM and 1 AM, the storm (or storms) would hit. On a few occasions, it rained nearly all night.
It's wonderful, of course. For the land, and for the crops, there's virtually nothing better than a cool, steady, soaking nighttime rain. It doesn't evaporate in the heat of the day. And of course, the land has loved it.
But I can't shake that nagging feeling that somewhere, somehow, there's a steep price to be paid for this drastic change in the arrival of the desert's chief blessing.
We will, of course, pay a drastic price here anyway. We already are. You see, in all of New Mexico, we here in this part of the north are at Ground Zero for drastic (and negative) climate change impacts. In what the experts call 100% probability. The population centers — Santa Fe, to say nothing of Albuquerque — have escaped that designation; they're too far south. Oh, they'll be affected. Very much so, and very badly. But nothing like what will hit this circle in the north.
And we're actually lucky: We're at the eastern edge of it. The epicenter is the Jemez — Bandelier and Jemez Pueblo. Old ruins, old forests, and, as here, an old people living in the way of their ancestors.
It's probably no accident that so much of the area projected for the greatest devastation is Indian Country.
The hummingbirds have been gone for a couple of days. Not completely gone, of course; merely sheltering from the storm. But I've become accustomed to seeing them this year — in numbers like never before, three separate species, pairs and entire clans. The rufous pair (it's the female shown in the photo at top). One of them, that is. The black-chinned pairs. The broad-tailed pairs — including the ones who, last month, were brave enough one evening to bring out all four of their children and teach them to perch on the edge of the feeder to eat. I have never before seen, close-up, six hummingbirds feeding together.
One of our greatest blessings of the last two summers has been their return — the hummingbirds and the dragonflies and the butterflies and the bumblebees and the honeybees.
I hope it's a sign that they're going to make it. That we're all going to make it. That somehow, some way, we'll be able to stop what's stoppable, reverse what's reversible, and adapt to everything else.
But in the meantime, their presence — and their absence this day — is reminder to me to be one of them: I will do what I can.