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New Mexico's 4-season climate is at risk
Higher temps and less water lead to changing ecosystems in the LoE
When my great grandfather first moved from Yeso, NM to Moriarty (just east of Albuquerque), he said the grass was so tall and green that you’d have to be horseback in order to see your cows. With moderate temperatures and lush grass, Moriarty more resembled a small Irish town than the southwestern US desert. It was this greenery and ideal climate that first convinced Michael Moriarty, the man Moriarty is named after, to settle there in 1887.
Fast forward to today, temperatures are reaching record highs around the world, and those same areas around Albuquerque are looking and feeling more and more different. It still gets green in the Estancia Valley, but the effects of drought, rising temperatures, and overgrazing have drastically changed what was once Ireland-like, lush, grass.
As the climate changes and droughts become longer, New Mexico has already undergone change, but we have only seen the beginning. As temperatures rise around the world, places like New Mexico are at risk of irreversible ecological change. The record heat waves coming through the US should be a wake-up call that helps us understand just how fragile our little paradise really is.
According to Axios, the southern part of North America, from Florida to California, is in the middle of an extreme heat wave. Right in the eye of the worst heat is New Mexico:
Axios states that 90 million people in the US will be under an extreme heat alert with temperatures souring past the 100ºF mark across New Mexico. To put that in context, here are the historical temperature averages for each month in Albuquerque:
And here is Albuquerque’s weather forecast for the next five days:
Not only is this much hotter than it typically gets, Albuquerque’s hottest day of all time (107ºF), could be broken this summer.
Historically, Albuquerque exists within a sweet spot of the North American climate. It’s at just the right altitude and latitude that we get to enjoy all four seasons, and they’re all relatively mild.
Summers rarely get unbearable (like Phoenix), despite having 310 days of sunshine per year. And our winters exist with some snowfall, but are mild compared to places like Denver. The spring is typically windy, but the fall is so pleasant that I think it makes up for it.
Combine that four season balance with our access to the Rio Grande and surrounding mountains, New Mexico would be a very comfortable place to live for thousands of years (as it has been for Native Americans) if our climate never changed.
Now that the climate is changing, and is projected to keep changing, we are finding that our fragile climate is tipping into the uncomfortable territory and will eventually become unbearable:
Matt Fitzpatrick, a climatologist at the University of Maryland, warns that, by 2080, the Sandias will look like the mountains around El Paso - hotter, dryer and more barren than today’s Sandias. Fitzpatrick explains the unfolding phenomenon in this KOB 4 article:
“You could be looking at multiple year or decade-long what we call mega-drought, so that of course, all translates into increased probabilities of wildfires,” Fitzpatrick said. “So Albuquerque in 2080, you know, I think if things continue to go the way they are, there’s a high probability the lowest elevation forest will be lost.”
That future is not hard to imagine as the two largest fires in New Mexico history wiped out large swaths of forest just last year. If a fire like that were to erupt in the Sandias, it would be hard to come back from with our now inconsistent rain and temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) state that water storage levels in the Elephant Butte Reservoir have not been able to bounce back from droughts in the past couple decades:
NOAA also projects that annual precipitation will continue to decrease in New Mexico:
Less water and higher temperatures will undoubtedly spark more and bigger wildfires in New Mexico, and that’s just the beginning. Hotter temperatures will, among other things, increase food insecurity, insurance premiums, and heat-related deaths, and we could lose more of our favorite outdoor activities.
When I was a kid, the Sandia Ski area opened every year. These days it’s rare to see it open two years in a row. Ben Abruzzo, Sandia Peak’s general manager expressed the following concerns:
Sandia Peak has for sure had less snow and shorter winters in the past five years than we had seen in the past 20… We’ve been operating this mountain for 50 years and every year we’ve made an attempt to open. We’re like a lot of businesses – we’re struggling with reality right now. Having these really short ski seasons in a row, you’re not guaranteeing people enough employment.
As the climate continues to change, who’s to say that Ski Santa Fe won’t realize the same fate?
Fortunately, it is not too late. New Mexico has made strides toward decarbonizing, but there’s always more that we can do. There are great climate (and business) friendly bills coming through the NM legislature every year that will help the global effort to stop climate change. As I often preach, we don’t lack technology or ideas, we lack urgency.
I hope this extreme heat that we are experiencing in the Southwest can instill in our lawmakers, business owners, and voters, an urgency that lasts through the winter and into the 2024 regular legislative session. Even though Albuquerque is changing, experts say that we can reverse all the negative effects if we act in more drastic ways.
I cannot guarantee that Moriarty will ever see green grass taller than a cow again, but it’s a sight worth striving for as we try to keep New Mexico the same beautiful, four-season state it has always been.