Cover of 'A Great Madness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest'. Photo by Patricia Wall / The New York TimesBy CORNELIA DEAN
26 December 2011

The intense, deep blue skies of the American Southwest, skies that have drawn painters and photographers for a century or more, are a product of the region’s extremely dry air.

Yet here’s another interesting fact: Though we think of the Southwest as dry — and it is dry — its development and population took off during a period in the 20th century when it enjoyed perhaps its wettest weather in hundreds of years. The killing droughts that have lately gripped the region were unusual by recent standards but otherwise all too typical and all too likely to recur — a prospect the National Research Council has called “sobering.”

That prospect is the subject of two new books, “A Great Aridness,” by William deBuys, a conservationist based in New Mexico, and “Bird on Fire,” by Andrew Ross, a social scientist at New York University.

“The story of the West is essentially a story about water,” Dr. deBuys writes.

Water, that is, “and its lack.”

In his hands, it is a sweeping story, encompassing global weather patterns, the mysterious histories and farming practices of the native people whose settlements rose and vanished in the desert, and the firefighters, biologists, anthropologists, water administrators and others who deal with increasing dryness today and seek to plan for an even drier tomorrow.

In interviews in their offices and in the field, they tell him they fear the story will play out — in forest fires, invasions of insects that prey on trees weakened by drought and heat, die-offs of native grasses, and prolonged dryness and thirst. Rains, when they come, will fall less often in the gentle, soaking precipitation Native Americans call “female rain” and instead will be its “male” counterpart — short, sharp downpours that flood the arroyos, erode the canyons and run off before they can do much to recharge underground water supplies already burdened by overuse.

A few steps might alter things, Dr. deBuys writes. Among them are weather modifications like cloud seeding, vegetation management to increase runoff, desalting water or importing it from the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, he tells us, none of these options is good.

Importing water and desalination are “gluttonous” in terms of energy and money, he says, and efforts to manipulate vegetation will probably fail in the face of rising temperatures. As for weather modification, wringing water out of the skies over Point A will only deprive the landscape at Point B.

Dr. Ross raises similar issues in Bird on Fire. […]

Portraits of the Southwest in the Shadow of Drought



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