Book Offers Glimpse of Climate Transformation Underway in U.S. Southwest

Written by Patrick McCarthy on . Posted in Learn

Editor’s Note: Today’s post features a book review by Patrick McCarthy, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Programs in New Mexicowho also serves as Director of the Southwest Climate Change Initiative, a multi-state collaboration to use research on the effects of climate change to better manage fire, water and forests to withstand its impacts. McCarthy reviews the new book: A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest, by William deBuys (Oxford University Press, 2011, 369 pp.).

If you want to know what climate change will bring to the Earth’s aridlands, look to the North American Southwest. Better yet, talk to landscape ecologist Craig Allen, who has been working to understand and conserve New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains for 30-plus years, and who is featured in A Great Aridness, William deBuys’ well-researched new book on the region’s ongoing transformation.

Allen, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist and Conservancy New Mexico trustee, has borne witness to the deadly combination of drought and warming that has brought severe fires, ravaged watersheds, torn-out stream channels, and transformation of deep-green forests into ash-gray moonscapes that will not recover for decades, if ever. Deeply involved in both the science of global change and in the conservation of this singular landscape, Allen says “I don’t think we really give enough credence to how much things can change, how fast the natural order can change, beyond what we know and care about today.”

A Great Aridness offers an eloquent account of how rising temperatures and extreme events are transforming ecosystems and society in this transcendently beautiful region.

Ever-deeper drought, unprecedented mega-fires, forest die-off and extremes of heat and cold are already occurring in the Southwest, warning signs of deeper changes to come. Author deBuys tells chapter-long stories of places like the Jemez Mountains and the Janos Grasslands that are changing in ways that call into question the conceptual foundations of contemporary conservation: preservation, the balance of nature, and the historical range of variation as lodestar for ecological restoration. These accounts quietly call out for a new vision that embraces uncertainty and non-linear ecological change.

While steady composition, structure and function of ecosystems might be desirable, they are no longer attainable. The thoughtful scientists and managers who are DeBuys’ protagonists testify that, to sustain the beauty and function of ecosystems and society, we must set qualitatively different goals, such as resilience and sustainability, that are better fitted to a world in which nature is constantly adjusting to a rapidly changing climate.

After recounting the toll taken on people and nature by the recent spate of extreme climate-driven events and identifying the prospects for even greater transformation ahead, deBuys lays out a climate adaptation agenda for the Southwest. This “unfinished business,” he writes, amounts to “what we should have been doing all along”: achieving water security, rehabilitating forests, and devising a responsible program for dealing with displaced and work-starved populations.

A Great Aridness provides a glimpse of what’s to come for regions that haven’t yet been significantly affected by climate change, and a prescription for responding with grace when the inevitable changes arrive.

Patrick McCarthy is Director of the Southwest Climate Change Initiative and the Conservancy’s Director of Conservation Programs in New Mexico.

Photo © Craig D. Allen, USGS (Colin Haffey, a National Park Service biologist, surveying pinyon-juniper woodlands incinerated by the 2012 Las Conchas Fire, the largest in New Mexico history, in Bandelier National Monument in the Jemez Mountains).

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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