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The Flowers of August

It’s called “whiplash weather” and that is certainly what’s happened where I live. I just don’t know if I should be complaining or not.

That’s because of the wildflowers.

An exceptional run of dry weather from January through June was followed by record-breaking rains in July, creating ideal conditions for an explosion of vegetation across the land in August, including lots and lots of wildflowers. Normally, I don’t very excited about flowers but this cornucopia was so unusual and uplifting I had to get my camera out and take a picture or two. The psychology wasn’t very deep: I was damn grateful to see them. Things were so grim at the end of June that I felt certain that most of the plants near our home had died. How wrong I was! The desert greenbelt were we walk has exploded in purple, yellow, white, pink, and orange.

While the relief was palpable in the area – we barely dodged a serious bullet for the moment – I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whiplash effect. Scientists say this is exactly what we should expect under climate change: weather see-saws of increasingly extreme proportions. Indeed, a couple of years ago violent thunderstorms over two successive days dropped so much rain on the greenbelt that three-foot headcuts (dry waterfalls) were created in sixty-year old ranch roads where none had existed before!

But if this is whiplash, no one’s running to the Emergency Room.

Partly, that’s because we’re accustomed to edgy, ever-shifting climatic conditions in northern New Mexico. Often called a “high, cold desert,” the region is vulnerable to drought, even at 7000 feet. Prehistorically, not many people lived here and for good reason – there isn’t much water. Bouts of drought pushed aboriginal populations around, evidenced by the sheer quantity of prehistoric ruins in the region. When droughts struck hard, as they often did, people packed up and moved, following the water. Everything depended on moisture – the crops of native corn, beans, and squash, as well as game, fish, timber, springs – and wildflowers. Alternating rounds of scarcity and abundance ruled the lives of prehistoric peoples, giving them whiplash of a slower and perhaps more painful sort.

Over the past century or so, however, we’ve managed to inoculate ourselves against these see-saws. We built reservoirs on the meager rivers to trap the water; we dug wells into the ground and attached electric pumps in order to draw out precious water from the deep; and lately, we’ve inserted long metal straws into the Rio Grande and have begun sucking on their ends like someone trying to siphon gasoline from a car’s tank with a plastic hose. It’s worked, at least temporarily. The upshot has been a lack of serious whiplash, though we’ve had to swerve sharply a few times to avoid a bad accident. We’ve become so accustomed to this state of affairs, in fact, that we believe a lack of neck pain is normal, even in a high, cold desert.

At the same time, pain or not, we still pray for rain. We know our reservoirs are still too low, our aquifers are still not producing like they once did, the Rio Grande is still anemic, and the monsoon rains – until this year – were still meager. We know we’re still in a drought. Instead of chile green and turquoise blue, the official colors of New Mexico have become the deep browns and vivid reds of weekly federal drought maps, colors which covered nearly all of the state in mid-June like spilled paint. Then the colors were diluted by the extraordinary rains of July. Now we’re awash in purple, yellow, white, pink, and orange.

All of this will cause many residents here to shrug their shoulders and say “Welcome to New Mexico” – and they would be right. Unfortunately, the rains have largely stopped. August has been dry – and the federal drought map for the region this week is covered in deep brown and red again. More whiplash, I fear.

So, should I cheer or jeer the wildflowers?

Cheer, of course. They’re just lovely. Here’s a photo of purple verbena:

Copy of Summ 032

Whiplash weather is hard on the carbon cycle as well.

It should not surprise anyone to learn that the flow of carbon from the atmosphere to the soil via green plants and back into the atmosphere again happens more slowly in arid environments than temperate ones, due to slower plant growth, and it should be even less surprising to learn that the cycle slows way down in a drought. If plants aren’t growing, they’re not cycling carbon very much – and if they’re dormant (or dead, god forbid), they’re not cycling it at all.

While this may be intuitive, there’s a major new scientific paper out in Nature that confirms it. Titled ‘Climate Extremes and the Carbon Cycle’ the authors of the study, according to a news release, “have discovered that terrestrial ecosystems absorb approximately 11 billion tons less carbon dioxide every year as the result of the extreme climate events than they could if the events did not occur. That is equivalent to approximately a third of global CO2 emissions per year.”

The study found that one particular type of extreme weather event is worse than the others: drought. It reduces the amount of carbon absorbed by forests, grasslands and agricultural land significantly. “We have found that it is not extremes of heat that cause the most problems for the carbon balance, but drought,” wrote Markus Reichstein, the lead author. “Drought can not only cause immediate damage to trees; it can also make them less resistant to pests and fire. It is also the case that a forest recovers much more slowly from fire or storm damage than other ecosystems do.”

Ditto for grasslands – which has important implications for carbon ranching. Not only does the carbon cycle work more slowly in a drought, if grass plants die then CO2 in the soil will eventually reenter the atmosphere via microbe respiration and organic decomposition (albeit slowly in arid lands). This becomes a self-reinforcing loop: more climate change = more extreme weather = more droughts = reduced carbon cycling = more CO2 being released = more climate change.

No one said this was going to be easy!

Reichstein went on to say that the ongoing drought in the Southwest could be particularly damaging to the United States’ overall efforts to mitigate climate change. In other words, if we’re banking on arid and semi-arid rangelands to soak up a lot of carbon dioxide in future decades, we’d better lower our expectations. Here’s how Reichstein put it: “I think counting on the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon is a risky thing because you don’t know how long it will continue to take up carbon dioxide that we emit.”

While all of this seems rather self-evident, two thoughts come to mind. First, don’t forget the wildflowers. There’s been a decent amount of carbon cycling in the past month where I live, even in a drought. It is evidence of nature’s resilience. We can’t just throw in the towel. Nature bounces back, especially if managed properly. In fact, managing land for the other benefits of carbon sequestration, such as improved water cycling, should be the primary focus of our work. Mitigation of climate change is a co-benefit of our management, not vice versa.

Second, we must never take our eyes off the prize: reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I like what climatologist Michael Mann wrote in response to the Nature study – it’s “another sober reminder that uncertainties in the science of climate change are a reason for concern rather than complacency.”

So, take time to stop and smell the wildflowers, as I did this month, but don’t allow their pretty colors to instill a sense of complacency. Whiplash, after all, can cause a serious injury, even if it takes a while to become evident.

Here’s a photo of poor carbon cycling near where I live:

Copy of IMG_2925

For more info on the study see: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v500/n7462/full/nature12350.html

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