A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest
William deBuys
384 pages, hardcover: $27.95.
Oxford University Press, 2011.

 

Cracking open yet another book about climate change requires a certain amount of resolve. Most readers already know the facts: In the past 50 years, average temperatures in the United States have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and carbon levels in the atmosphere continue to climb. Rather than contemplate the catastrophes that could result from that rise, some have already surrendered to depression or apathy. Books about climate change are always a hard sell. But author William deBuys' three-decade-long love affair with the Southwestern United States is such that he can't help but tell a beautiful story, even when its subtitle is the ominous "Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest."

In A Great Aridness, deBuys explores climate change models, the tree-ring data that allow researchers to reconstruct the region's climatic past, and phenomena such as Hadley cells (the circulation of hot, moist air from near the Equator), explaining how their expansion will further dry out latitudes on the edge of the cells, including the Southwest. He does this while traveling the region with water managers -- including Las Vegas' legendary and terrifying water czar, Patricia Mulroy -- scientists, archaeologists, planners, attorneys and even human-rights activists along the U.S.-Mexico border.

From the civilization of the original Native inhabitants to the appearance of Coronado and his Spanish army at Zuni in 1540 to the still-ongoing real estate bust in the Sunbelt, deBuys traces the ways in which the people of the region have perished, survived, adapted and thrived over the course of the centuries.

Writing of the Four Corners, where archaeologists have sifted through ruins and other scientific evidence to study enormous prehistoric communities and theorize about their abandonment, deBuys takes the long view: "However one parses matters, today much of the fascination of Southwestern antiquity derives not from worn-out nineteenth century myths about disappearance, but from the saga of Puebloan continuity across oceans of time," he writes. "It is a story as much about adaptation as loss, as much about tenacity and endurance as abandonment."

This isn't an optimistic book; the likely impacts of higher temperatures and increasingly variable precipitation on water supplies, farming, forests and cities are disruptive and alarming. On the bright side, however, people living here today have both history and science as guides. And deBuys' book reminds readers of yet a third guide necessary for those who want to remain in this increasingly challenging region: a deep and unconquerable love for the land itself.