A Glimpse of Future Climate on My Summer Vacation, Part 1

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Learn

Laden with backpacks full of supplies for six days in the wilderness, my 14-year-old son Max and I set off from Indian Creek. From the trailhead in Utah’s remote Tushar Mountains, you can just see the 12,122-foot summit of Mt. Baldy, which appropriately has no trees or even bushes gracing the last several hundred feet of its rocky domed summit.

I was looking forward to spending some quality time with my son, and taking a relaxing break from my work at The Nature Conservancy helping people and nature adapt to a changing climate. But it wasn’t long into the trip before I was reminded of my work.

With climate change exacerbating Southwestern droughts and subsequent wildfires, more and more of this region looks somewhat similar to Mt. Baldy – even at elevations where pines and fir usually grow. Such loss of vegetation has real-world consequences for backpackers, horseback riders and ATV users, as we were to learn first-hand.

As we hiked through the forests and mountains, we could see and smell the evidence of a huge wildfire. The Twitchell Canyon Fire had burned for nearly three months after a July 2010 lightning strike and consumed more than 44,000 acres of national forest.

The Tushars are so remote that there was limited effort to fight the fire because the rugged terrain would have put firefighters at great risk. But after the fire, Forest Service scientists who evaluated the watershed worried about floods coming down the now-devegetated slopes. They got that right, but it’s too bad I didn’t find their study till after my vacation.

Towards the end of our first day’s hike, we climbed toward the 9,300-foot pass between the Indian Creek and Picnic Creek watersheds. Based on the name, we pictured Picnic Creek with open, sunny meadows and wildflowers — the perfect place for a picnic, of course. But to get there, we had to cross the high pass, and the trail wound its way up slopes of loose volcanic rock that slipped under our feet, with occasional patches of trees on less steep ledges. By 4 pm, clouds were gathering ominously in the distance and we could see flashes of lightening and sheets of rain pouring down.

Not wanting to cross the open pass in the storm, we decided to hole up for half an hour. We stashed our packs (with their metal frames — perfect lightning rods) under one tree, and moved a hundred and fifty feet away to wait out the storm. We took out a rubber camping pad to sit on, so we would be even less likely to get hit by lightning, and quietly watched the rain move up the valley towards us.

We took turns counting seconds after each lightning strike to estimate the distance of the storm — three miles, two, one, half a mile. And then the rain hit, followed shortly by blueberry-sized hail.

But the amazing thing was how long it lasted. It hailed not for a few seconds or a minute but for a full half hour. The intense downpour soaked us to the skin despite our rain gear. And all around us the ground began to move. Without vegetation, the rain turned it from a solid into a black slurry of ground-up volcanic rock, charcoal and water, flowing downhill around our feet.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2 of Frank and Max’s adventure to find out if it ever stopped raining and if the ground completely fell out from under them.

Frank Lowenstein is Adaptation Strategy Lead for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.

Photo by: Frank Lowenstein (The summit of Mt. Baldy, from a trail in the Tushar Mountains of Utah).

Inset Image by: NASA (The crew aboard the International Space Station photographed smoke plumes from the 33,000-acre Twitchell Canyon Fire in central Utah on Sept. 20, 2010, which started with a lightning strike on July 20).

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