A Great Aridity


There's an old Doors song which tells us that "The future's uncertain and the end is always near." That pretty well sums up the message I got from the new book by William deBuys, A Great Aridity: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.

He takes us around the region -- its heart, he writes, is a stretch from the Four Corners south to where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Chihuahua and Sonora almost come together -- to meet climatologists, archaeologists, river runners, forest rangers and border crossers, among many others.

DeBuys draws a river-running analogy:

You might say that the West, together with the rest of the world, is somewhere in the flat water above the rapids of global change. Not that we haven't felt some of the early effects of an altered climate, but the big excitement lies ahead. Our trip through the hazards will be a first run -- which is to say we will have the benefit of no one else's experience. Still, enough good science exists to constitute a decent scouting. Looking downstream, for instance, we know that the Southwest will become hotter and drier, with greater extremes of both storm and drought. Increased aridity is assured by higher temperatures, even if precipitation does not decline, which it is likely to do. A greater proportion of that precipitation will come as rain, less as snow, and runoff from winter snowpack will peak roughly a month or so earlier than it used to. These are some of the big rocks and ledges we know about. Other hazards -- waves of hyper-powerful forest fires, ecological die-offs, and dust storms -- lie downstream, but we are less sure where; we only know to look out for them. Additional and as yet unidentified dangers may also crowd our path, but their present invisibility could be just as well; if we seriously attend to what we already know about, our hands and our agenda will be full.

While that's a fair summary of the book, deBuys also touches on many other topics. I was glad to see that someone respectable agrees with me about water conservation. My city government is always encouraging us to conserve water, and as deBuys points out, that's usually so they have water for more subdivisions, not so there will be more in the river.

Despite the lively writing,  the book seems rather depressing. Yet deBuys offers some guarded optimism at the end, that we can be better at our "age-old duty to extend kindness other beings, to work together and with discipline on common challenges, and to learn to live in the marvelous aridlands without further spoiling them."

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colo.