A GREAT ARIDNESS by William deBuys

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“Remarkable work!” Bill McKibben

With its soaring azure sky and stark landscapes, the American Southwest is one of the most hauntingly beautiful regions on earth. Yet staggering population growth, combined with the intensifying effects of climate change, is driving the oasis-based society close to the brink of a Dust-Bowl-scale catastrophe.

In A GREAT ARIDNESS, William deBuys paints a compelling picture of what the Southwest might look like when the heat turns up and the water runs out. This semi-arid land, vulnerable to water shortages, rising temperatures, wildfires, and a host of other environmental challenges, is poised to bear the heaviest consequences of global environmental change in the United States. Examining interrelated factors such as vanishing wildlife, forest die backs, and the over-allocation of the already stressed Colorado River- upon which nearly 30 million people depend -the author narrates the landscape’s history and future. He tells the inspiring stories of the climatologists and others who are helping untangle the complex, interlocking causes and effects of global warming. And while the fate of this region may seem at first blush to be of merely local interest, what happens in the Southwest, deBuys suggests, will provide a glimpse of what other mid-latitude arid lands worldwide -the Mediterranean Basin, southern Africa, and the Middle East -will experience in the coming years.

Written with an elegance that recalls the prose of John McPhee and Wallace Stegner, A GREAT ARIDNESS offers an unflinching look at the dramatic effects of climate change occurring right now in our own backyard.

  • From Chapter 1, High Blue: the Great Downshift of Dryness

    I remember the first time I saw the maps from Chris Milly's article. It was at a conference in January 2006, not long after the article appeared. Jonathan Overpeck was speaking. I am an indifferent conference attender: short on attention, quick to daydream. I had been in the hallway chatting with friends when Overpeck began. But then the hallway emptied. Overpeck was well into his presentation when I finally slipped into a chair in the back of the room and thumbed through my program to learn who he was. I expected to settle into a restful thirty minutes of dozing. Then Overpeck put one of Milly's maps on the screen. The Southwest was as red as an open sore. So was a band that stretched across northern Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East and deep into central Asia. High agreement among the models, Overpeck said. And the models agreed that surface water availability — the blood of the oasis civilization of the Southwest and all those other arid and semi-arid regions — would substantially, perhaps precipitously, decline.

    In a sense, this book was born at that moment, although I did not know it at the time. The room was still. No shuffling. No coughing. I remember the colors of the room, the design of the chair in front of me, the texture of the cushions. I felt cold. I tried to remember a statistic I had cited in something I had written — how many people relied on the Colorado River for all or part of their water more or less currently, and how many would do so in the near future. I have since looked the numbers up: 23 million people dependent on the Colorado in 1996, 38 million projected for 2020. It is widely known that the Colorado is already dangerously overallocated. If its water yield were to decline, let's say, 20 percent, or even just 10 percent, what would be the effect on the lives and livelihoods of 38 million Mexicans and Americans (or Norteamericanos, as the Mexicans prefer to say)? And if you made a similar calculation for the overtaxed Rio Grande, beside which live several million more Americans and Mexicans in uneasy codependence, and if you factored in thousands of other communities scattered throughout the region that rely on sources of water less secure than either of those two big rivers, well then, the trouble we were in was of a scale to match the giant, sprawling, brawny Southwest itself....

    One of the reddest regions on Milly's map, which is to say one of the portions of the planet most threatened by a decline in water supply, stretches from Lebanon and Israel through Iraq and Iran to Afghanistan, lands beset by generations of intense conflict, where the stress of water shortage can inflame old grudges. The downshifting lands of North America have seen their share of conflict, too, and more seems on the way, presaged by the hundreds of miles of border wall the United States has built and the tens of thousands of border police it has employed to enforce the separation of its aridlands from the aridlands of Mexico. The maps we stared at said that the screws of want and thirst in these regions would only tighten. Milly and I sat in silence for an awkwardly long time. There was nothing more to say, without saying too little or too much.

    Finally I broke the silence and asked another question. It was not an important question. It was just another on my list.

  • From Chapter 5, Lava Falls: the Blood of Oasis Civilization

    The only feasible route began on river right, around the end of a long pour-over ledge. The trick for us would be to float down to the ledge, nip in under its right corner with a burst of velocity, and dig with our paddles for the center of the river. Then we'd slam into a big wave like a whale’s back just below the pour-over, and the collision would veer our boat downstream, aligning it (we hoped) to take on a massive V-wave more or less at its apex. The V-wave channels you into a convergence of water eruptions that blast like fire hoses from all directions. It’s an orgy of aquatic fury, which one wit has called "the world's biggest car wash." At that point you put your head down, hold onto your breath and the boat, and try to keep your paddle from flying loose and remodeling your own nose or that of your neighbor. A lot of the rapid still lies ahead, but from there on, pretty much your only option is to place your trust in dumb luck and chaos.

    Our calculation, as we stood on the scouting rock, was a series of ifs: if we tucked in quickly under the ledge, if the whaleback wave turned us just so, and if we hit the V-wave close to the apex, then we just might punch through the ten-foot wave at the end of the carwash and be in position to paddle away from a boulder like a lost remnant of Stonehenge at the end of the run. If we missed our entry, well, a lot of things could happen. It all came down to having the right position, angle, and velocity at the outset.

    You might say that the West, together with most of the rest of the world, is somewhere in the flat water above the rapids of global change. Not that we haven't already felt some of the early effects of an altered climate, but the big excitement lies ahead. Our trip through the hazards will be a first run — which is to say we will have the benefit of no one else’s experience. Still, enough good science exists to constitute a decent scouting. Looking down-stream, for instance, we know that the Southwest will become hotter and drier, with greater extremes of both storm and drought. Increased aridity is assured by higher temperatures, even if precipitation does not decline, which it is likely to do. A greater proportion of that precipitation will come as rain, less as snow, and runoff from winter snowpack will peak roughly a month or so earlier than it used to. These are some of the big rocks and ledges we know about. Other hazards — waves of hyper-powerful forest fires, ecological die-offs, and dust storms — lie downstream, but we are less sure where; we only know to look out for them. Additional and as yet unidentified dangers may also crowd our path, but their present invisibility could be just as well: if we seriously attend to what we already know about, our hands and our agenda will be full.

  • From Chapter 9, Mogollon Plateau: Fires Present and Future

    Swetnam recalls another "aha!" moment. He'd been working alone in the crypt he calls his office, plotting big and small fire years against a master list of El Niños and La Niñas based on Peruvian historical documents. The graph surpassed his dreams: it was a complete corroboration of the hypothesis he and Betancourt had hatched. He was so excited he ran down the corridor to tell someone. The first person he encountered was a crusty, skeptical, senior colleague, a top scientist "who rarely acknowledged my existence." Swetnam showed him what he had. The older fellow pondered a moment, and then, in language that for him verged on effusion, said, "Yep, you've got something there."

    Swetnam and Betancourt produced a paper, published in Science in 1990, that established a link between regional fire and macroclimatic processes. It was the first of many journeys Swetnam would make into that subject matter. The potential for connection did not end with the Southwest. By then people were also noticing that the forests of Borneo burned when El Niño was strongest. There was a lot of what meteorologists were calling teleconnection between phenomena separated by half the globe. Powerful forces that inhered in the interplay of atmospheric and oceanic currents were shaping events tens of thousands of kilometers away, and for a scientist like Swetnam, the implication was clear that if the patterns of these forces might be deduced, then maybe, just maybe, drought, fire, and other expressions of climatic variation might become predictable.

  • "This is on the short list of key books for anyone who lives in or loves the American southwest — with scientific precision and understated emotional power, it explains what your future holds. If you live elsewhere: it's a deep glimpse into one place on our fast-changing planet, and you'll be able to do many extrapolations. Remarkable work!" —Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

    "DeBuys delivers thoughtful portraits of efforts to ameliorate conditions ... readers will appreciate this intelligent account of water politics, forest ecology and urban planning in a region seriously stressed even before global warming arrived to make matters worse." —Kirkus Reviews

    "DeBuys takes a broad approach in a manner that affirms his standing beside John McPhee and Wallace Stegner... With wide-eyed wonder and the clearest of prose, deBuys explains why we should care about these places, the people he portrays, and the conundrums over land and water he illuminates. No longer are aridity and climate change in the Southwest only of regional interest; deBuys is writing for America and we should all listen to what he has to say." —Booklist (starred review)

    "Drawing on the work of climatologists and other scientists, deBuys's analysis of the eco-crisis — rising temperatures, wildfires, water shortages, disappearing wildlife — is a reasoned warning to heavily populated arid regions round the world." —Nature

    "A GREAT ARIDNESS is his most disturbing book, a jeremiad that ought to be required reading for politicians, economists, real-estate developers and anyone thinking about migrating to the Sunbelt." —American Scientist

    "Non-experts who want a concrete sense of climate change's impact — and a lyrical reading experience — should turn to A GREAT ARIDNESS." —Washington Post

    DeBuys "has come to see and understand the phenomenon of the Southwest's tragic and violent environmental history so clearly an full that he perfectly illuminates how we are affecting the future of all life on the planet, including our own." —Tucson Weekly

    "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." —High Country News

    "A GREAT ARIDNESS is about the forcing pressure of global climate change. The author's imaginatively conceived overview of the interrelated problems — economic, social, biological — is highly informed, and his comprehensive vision will resonate in threatened communities far outside the American Southwest. Well-reported and story-driven, the book is a model of sophisticated environmental concern." —Barry Lopez