Los Alamos scientists are looking at how climate-driven impacts such as drought, wildfire, and insect outbreaks will affect ecosystems and regional water supplies. Halfway through a three-year, $3 million project, the team’s research already shows that climate-driven disturbances could reduce annual flows in parts of the Colorado River Basin by 20 percent.
As the region continues warming, New Mexico’s forest managers are facing a suite of challenges, ranging from wildfires and flooding to insect outbreaks, disease, and large-scale tree dieoffs. There are ways to deal with some of the problems. But the clock is ticking.
Scientists now say earlier forest mortality estimates were too low—and project that by 2100, pine-juniper forests in the southwestern U.S. will have disappeared and more than half the evergreen trees in the northern hemisphere will have died.
Drought-stressed trees are vulnerable to insect outbreaks. As the trees die, they provide fuel for wildfires. And while big fires haven’t ravaged the Sandia district of the Cibola National Forest, thousands of acres of dead conifer trees pose a hazard.
For University of New Mexico graduate student Shaleene Chavarria, understanding stream flows and climate change is personal. She’s from the Pueblo of Santa Clara which, like many of New Mexico’s tribes, relies on stream flows for irrigation as well as for ceremonies that are tied to the planting and harvest seasons.
Drought is not unusual in New Mexico. But unlike in the past, when changes in long-term, large-scale precipitation patterns drove drought in the Southwest, changes in temperature will drive drought in the future.