Still snowed in? We missed this one. It hit Cedar and St George but we just got rain—go figure! We deserved to be missed after the December 2013 snow. I drove home in that blizzard–in the dark pulling a trailer full of horse feed (both ways)–and then had to shovel my way into the barn! Gawd! I got stuck (at the barn) with the god-damned trailer full of feed still hooked up, AND the god-damned dog locked the keys in the truck when she (who would not get out in the never-before seen 18″-deep snow) stepped on the all-door lock with the lights on and engine running. Oh fergodsake. I was about to leave her and the whole shebang there and walk the mile home through the knee-deep snow (both ways) when I envisioned her hitting the accelerator, tearing down a fence or two, and leading the horses on a chase through town and down the highway in the dark following her wake of spilled bran and hay pellets. Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ. My friend Lynne Cobb says that hearing about my day is like watching an I Love Lucy episode. And I don’t even make this stuff up!
Of course, five days later that snow storm turned truly deadly when it brought down the rock across the street that killed our friends Maureen and Jeff. Now, in the wake of every hard rain or heavy snow, I thank the gods for the moisture to grow grass, and spend alotta time away from the house.
Last week a tropical storm’s swirling clouds uncoiled overhead like a galaxy’s spiral, the only evidence of their passing successive waves of heavy rain. This was a September rain, one that lingered and turned days to jackets and umbrellas, not the usual August afternoon monsoon of suddenly refreshed hikers. A winter storm when great storms hove off the heavy, grey-waved Pacific, desert skies mirror roiling oceans, and mountain ponderosa warm desert adobes aswirl in sea-cast winds.
But today the breeze blows warm, and rain falls from monsoons bubbling off overheated southern deserts. Mr. Harris, taken by the cancer long-ago, used to say that’s where the big storms came from, the big flash floods. Not the west, from out across the Great Basin where the Pine Valley Mountains’ drain a storm’s last waters, but from the south, “Down off The Sand,” he’d say, “Down off The Sand up to Pipe Spring, following the Mail Trail over from Kanab.” He said southern storms were big because they got caught by the canyon, circled around and came in the wrong way. Angry. The biggest floods he’d seen.
When I moved to Zion Canyon in the 1980s, afternoon monsoons and summer flash floods were clockwork reliable. Every day about 3 or 4 p.m. the day’s wadded-tissue clouds, inflated by desert-heated thermals and dead-headed by the Troposphere, burst with their accumulated moisture. Monsoons and floods were common in Mr. Harris’ day too, and in the late 1800s, but not so much in the 1990s – 2000s, although this summer has certainly been wet! Whyizat?
Zion sits precisely at the monsoon’s western extent, and when that boundary shifts, summer rains never come. Our monsoon-edge location also means more of our annual precipitation arrives in winter than summer. Canyonlands and Arches, with similar elevations and rainfall, are more centered in monsoon boundary and thus receive their annual precipitation about equally between summer and winter—a small difference with great effect.
Winter’s slow rains soak more deeply into the soil, benefiting deeply rooted plants such as shrubs and trees. Summer rains flash across the soil, aiding shallow-rooted species, forbs, for instance. Thus winter rains create different plant (and thus animal) communities than summer-shifted precipitation. Further, different plant species use water at different times. That way, one species or another will survive no matter when it rains. Ingenious.
But some plants use water only during certain seasons; if rains arrive at the wrong time, these plants ignore it. That’s one reason environments can differ: the seemingly inconsequential difference of when rain falls.
Now for the kicker: scientists anticipate that global climate change will not only shift (is shifting, has shifted) the monsoon boundary, but also has/is/will affect seasonal precipitation. The U.S. Geological Survey states a switch to a drier climate, particularly reduced winter rainfall, will reduce groundwater recharge, lessen perennial stream water, increase strong winds and dust storms, weaken biological soil crusts, reduce plant cover and change species composition, remobilize sand from stable dunes, and increase forest and range fires.
What will this mean for us humans besides having to dust more often? In Zion, reduced winter rainfall will shift vegetation boundaries; different species will invade and replace the Colorado Plateau species we’ve come to know and love. Economic plants such as ponderosa pine (lumber) will survive only in the smaller acreages available at higher elevations; piñon and juniper will die off or move to higher elevations, leaving lower elevations to heat-adapted species, creosote for example. Grasslands will fill not with native grasses, but with such invasive exotics as unpalatable cheatgrass (there goes the wildlife neighborhood). The lifestyle and economy we’ve based on the present regime will change—drastically.
With luck, there will be time for us to change with it—for ranchers to learn new skills, for farmers to switch to crops adapted to hotter, dryer summers. Less water might mean mass human movement away, just as it did for Anasazi and pioneer alike. The species Zion hoped to protect will be gone. It’s something managers have never confronted before: their park up and moving away. If we hope to protect a certain species, we may have to set aside lands now where we think that species might end up later. Bizarre to be sure, but also necessary if we hope to plan for the future. This is not idle speculation. Scientists who study butterflies are already predicting that with climate change, the monarch’s Mexican refuge will be too cold and wet for the species to survive the winter. Can you imagine a summer without monarchs? I don’t want to.
All these dire predictions remind me of pre–Hurricane Katrina warnings of what New Orleans would experience after being hit by a massive hurricane whipped to a frenzy by global warming: broken levees, flooded wards, stranded populations, decimated wetlands. The preceding forecast is the Southwestern version of Hurricane Katrina—a list of things that will change so slowly we won’t notice until they hit us unprepared and head-on.
A recent climate study predicts that at our current rate, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will double from preindustrial levels by 2070, triple by 2120, and quadruple by 2160. The study predicts “profound transformations; some potentially beneficial, but many disruptive. Climate zones will shift hundreds of miles north.”
It’s true that the Zion we see today is just one data point on an evolving continuum. Zion has always changed; that’s the one constant. But now, we’re the agent and we’re moving too fast. At one time a large forest covered Zion and extended to Grand Canyon’s lowest level; as ancient climate changed, sotoo did the forest. The difference was that the transition happened slowly, giving plants and animals time to adapt. But when climate change happens quickly, well, ask the dinosaurs how well that worked.
It’s easy to feel powerless against such overwhelming forces. But the real take-home message is act now. The longer we wait, the worse the consequences.
Fire on the mountain, catastrophic to man, of passing annoyance to the mountain. I Ching
The day after Yarnell, I restocked my tiny travel trailer with evacuation’s irreplaceables: 23 filled journals, my British mother’s 19th Century sepia photographs of people and places long gone, a painting of my heart’s companion, Bo the Adventure Dog, now-deceased. In an enthusiasm of labor, I also fixed the flat on my horse trailer, bought a new spare, finished the dangling wiring, and loaded the hay rack. I stowed a five-gallon water can, full, in the trailer bay, along with saddles, halters, bridles, and whatever other costly-to-replace gear I could manage. I put the horses’ favorite treats in the mangers and set the incentive stick on the wheel well. I should have done all this the day before Yarnell because this is fire country and because I knew it was coming. Just last week I’d said, “It’s gonna burn this year, and burn big.” And then, forgetting, I went home, propped my feet in my small home’s sweet air-conditioning, and basked in the green, irrigated oasis that is Rockville, Utah. But it could, just as easily, have been us.
Yarnell, Rockville, a thousand other small towns throughout the West, remote and compact, aggregated in the only places possible: Rockville where water and irrigable land drew farmers in 1860, and Yarnell where water and gold drew miners in 1865. People stayed long beyond the initial impulse, living a modern life on antiquated townsites, disengaged from original purpose and desert reality. Yarnell, bigger than Rockville, has more than three streets and three times the population, but like most Western towns both grade from watered trees and gardens to brittle, boulder strewn hills with few exit routes where, even in good years, meager precipitation nurses a scruffy fire-prone forest of sage, blackbrush, juniper, scrub oak.
In years past clockwork monsoons relieved summer’s drought, and lightning sparked cleansing fires. Regular burns consumed light accumulations of downed wood and autumn debris, moving slowly through desert grasses, pine needles, and spiny oak leaves. But settlement brought fear: for 150 years fires were doused, wood accrued, and fires turned wild. Increasing summer temperatures, precipitation’s slow dwindling, shifting monsoons, and stockpiled combustibles fuel wildfire’s new ferocity. The last two decades’ combined controlled-burn acreages are small consolation in a West ready to burn. There isn’t much to be done except pack the trailer.
This, if and when it comes, will be my fourth evacuation: twice for fire and once for flood, though I didn’t leave that time, choosing to stay in my darkened town where my horses stood, heads hanging, in improvised day-glow-orange emergency blankets, fetlock deep in mud. It was December and after more rain than I’ve seen in all my desert years, belly-heavy, gunmetal clouds rested like slipped lids far below Zion Canyon’s redrock lip. Upstream, the sodden, earthen dam on Short Creek threatened, and I didn’t know where to take the horses. I do now.
Today, men dressed in crinkly nomex, fire-crew green and yellow, mill about the town fire station, waiting. No one speaks of Yarnell. In this town where everyone has worked, knows someone who has worked, or now works for fire, the 19 are not mentioned. No one says, “Did you hear…?” No one says, “What do you think…?” We all know. It’s as if, like freshly provisioned fire packs sitting by front doors and riding in pickup beds all over town, the news is almost too heavy to carry.
This summer I cannot irrigate, sprinkle, or haul enough water to keep my garden alive. Tomatillos wilt, honeysuckle stunts, pasture grass browns. Having livestock ups the ante: dead grass means hungry horses, costly hay, a more serious evacuation. My tenuous connection with Rockville’s past beats a bit more true, but I can buy my way out of a drought, shop my way past failed crops; I can leave.
Today the acrid smell of smoke fills the canyon, the sun’s odd eclipsed light. The world throbs orange haze. A fire south near Las Vegas, someone says, or north near Minersville puffs signals on strong, hot winds. I look to the travel trailer, askew in the yard, my “I-can-only-pull-one-trailer-at-a-time” plans thwarted by the latest flat. I planned to move it to a friend’s house deep in the Big City’s irrigated green, leaving me free to deal with the horses’ panic and mine. I hate evacuation’s grab-everything adrenalin confusion, the irritating nag of something forgotten. As evening settles, storm clouds grading violet to blue-black thicken over the canyon. Do they bring rain’s release? Lightning’s fire? Slickrock’s flood? Evacuation?