Friday, June 30, 2017

On the "Problem" of Climate Change in the West

The unfortunate news is that the western half of the present United States has a long history of dryness and bleak conditions that well and thoroughly predates white occupation. We are just getting to see one of it’s major shifts as it happens. In the map provided below, you see the major desert ecoregions that we recognize today in North America. They are, by number,
Cold Deserts   
1. Thompson-Okanagan Plateau
2. Columbia Basin
3. Northern Basin and Range
4. Wyoming Basin
5. Central Basin and Range
6. Colorado Plateaus
7. Arizona/New Mexico Plateau
8. Snake River Plain
Hot deserts:
9. Mojave Basin and Range
10. Sonoran Desert
11. Baja Californian Desert
12. Chihuahuan Desert

Notice that they take up a sizable chuck of what we think of as the Rocky Mountain west. What we do NOT recognize as desert today is the area (that is encircled by an aqua line) to the east of the Rocky Mountains, more formally referred to as the high plains (the western part of the so called Great Plains west of the Mississippi). Notice that this area exceeds the boundaries of the present United States. This area was a desert 6 thousand years ago. As we were driving across this area last year I told my wife to look for any area where the soil might have been thinned by wind or rain, like the base of a rock outcropping, and notice the composition of the soil. It was very pale and tan colored. This is because we were seeing that desert exposed. It takes about 1000 years for 3 centimeters of soil to form. That’s more than an inch but not by much. That means that about 18 centimeters of soil (or 6-10 inches) of soil have formed in the intervening time. Not much when it gets right down to it. That desert is still there and it will be coming back over the next 10-20 years as global warming and climate change really hit with full force.

6000 years ago, the western part of the present United States was much more inhospitable to human life than it is now. A period of relative increase in moisture and decrease in regional temperatures (hold that thought for later) resulted in increased forests, increased ecological opportunity for everything we have come to know and love about those mountains during this life time. All that is about to change. What I am describing, is, unfortunately the direct impact, on a continental scale, of “average global temperatures” rising by 1-2 degrees Centigrade. Ecological zones change. Land ecosystems gain heat and lose moisture. Most of the entire ecosystem has to adapt, move, or die because that much of a change (which seems like “so little” to so many) takes most of the life in an ecosystem out of the narrow ranges we call their “Goldilocks Zone” - that space where everything is “just right” for them to thrive.

Mankind is an amazingly adaptive animal - but when will we be outside of OUR Goldilocks Zone? We rely on our technology to maintain the processes of adaptation that we apply in every climate zone of Earth. What will happen when massive human migration - on the North American continent alone, not counting anywhere else - cause a complete restructuring of society and our way of life as we know it. Will that technology be available? What of “localized” agriculture, in the form of permaculture and the like? How localized can your agriculture be when the heat and the sun and the wind don’t really support the growth of typical moderate zone perennials and annuals that we rely on for our staple food supply? The so called growing zones of the United States have already shifted north by one whole zone worth in the last twenty years. Was no one paying attention?

I have been saying, for some time now, that if you want a rule of thumb draw a line from the n.e. corner of the state of Washington down to about the city of Charleston S.C. I call that line the line of progressive depopulation. Everything south west of that line will become progressively more inhospitable to humans as we proceed into the century with pockets of habitability and vast areas uninhabitable by humans by the end of the century and we’ll be well on the way to that by mid-century. The human population of the current United States will have suffered a relatively HUGE area of habitat loss. Remember that habitat loss isn’t just about living conditions for humans, it’s about living conditions for EVERY OTHER LIVING THING we depend upon for functional human life. That doesn’t just mean crops that won’t grow, fruit trees that will die, and a relative sudden lack of fresh water supplies, that means every form of ecological service that Nature provides today that will change our world as the ecological conditions change, as well as the availability of food, water, and shelter.

We turned the rudder on the human ship of civilization over 150 years ago, and we’re baffled that the ship is starting to turn. Had we known the intricacies of ecological inter-relationship then that we are just beginning to understand now, things might have been different… but I doubt it. We are a greedy and lazy animal at the baseline. We have a minimum of 40 more years of continuing offense to the natural world, based on the aggregation of effect for greenhouse gases over a forty year period. The effects we are feeling today are the cumulative effects of the last 40 years of our offensive and egregious behavior with greenhouse gases and the last 150 years of human disregard for the natural world. If we stopped doing EVERYTHING offensive - and unsustainable - to our way of life TODAY we’d STILL have another 40 years minimum to ride out. There you have it. Read it and weep.

Thanks for being there and being you. Keep up the good work.

Keep the candles lit, and your powder dry.

The Smokemaster

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