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Climate heating Global Climate Change Population

Pray for Rain

Trees killed by drought and spruce beetles on Wolf Creek Pass

            It is windy, hot and dry, dry, dry here. According to www.drought.gov, Durango is in an extreme drought. What’s going on? Do we need to start doing rain dances?

            Past droughts have brought us some pretty destructive fires. Remember the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires in 2002? More recently the 416 fire in 2018 did dreadful things to the local economy and burnt 52,000 acres of forest. Fortunately there were no serious injuries or burnt structures. Thank you, firefighters! Very dry conditions predispose us to wildfires, of course. Even if your property isn’t burnt, we all suffer from the costs of firefighting and many of us from smoke-worsened respiratory problems.

            Much of our water supply falls in the winter as snow. Snowfall this past winter started off looking good. However, in March precipitation dwindled so it seemed as though somebody turned off the tap. The cooler-than-average spring helped hold some of the moisture in the mountains, but now the snow has melted. We need the monsoons to bring us rain!

            A large area in the southwest of the USA has been affected by drought—but that isn’t anything new for this region. Tree ring records tell us the Ancestral Puebloans (also called “Anasazi”) survived dry periods in the 9th and 12th centuries. Finally, after about 1150 it got so dry here they started migrating to the Rio Grande valley, archeologists tell us.

            Reality appears more complex, however. The human population grew during the wetter years between droughts. When the megadrought hit in the 1150s, violence erupted, just as it did in Rwanda when people were starving. There were even signs of possible cannibalism in the 12th century at Cowboy Wash, near Mesa Verde.

            What are “megadroughts”? People who study droughts rely on dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) to look at the prehistoric past. A drought lasting 20 years or longer qualifies as a megadrought. Another definition is that it is any drought worse than anything the USA experienced in the 20th century—including the Dust Bowl. From a sociological standpoint, megadroughts usually cause mass migrations of people. What is unusual is that is that people are migrating toan area of drought. We are so disconnected from the natural world that we can live in comfort with air conditioning and imported food.

            The natural variability of weather and climate is thought to be the main cause of megadroughts, but there are at least two other contributing factors that are human caused. An example of a local effect is in Rajasthan, India, where the Thar Desert was once forested. Alexander the Great’s army, amongst others, cut down trees to build ships to cross the Indus River in the 320s, BCE. It is thought that this destruction of forests may have been a factor in this desertification.

             Global climate heating has had a much wider effect on our climate than in just one location. It is generally accepted that the climate crisis is anthropogenic, so the more people there are and the more each of us consumes, the worse the heating.

            Rajasthan is an example of how cutting down trees can change the local climate. Can planting trees help? The amazing Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai, started a movement that may help answer the question. The Green Belt Movement she started did much more than just plant 51 million trees; Dr. Maathai used trees as an entry point for community development. Increasing women’s income, justice and reduction of poverty are among the humanitarian goals. The environmental goals are to combat deforestation, provide firewood for cooking and protect the watershed. This quote from a UN report shows success:

“’Because of the deforestation, natural springs that fed the Chania River dried up, making the river’s water levels very low. The reforestation efforts of the women in the watershed have led to the rejuvenation of 65 springs. And the microclimate is enhanced in the planted areas: “We have noticed more rain since we planted the trees. When I came in 2008, you could walk across the river; now, it is almost back to historic levels,’ said Joyce Nyambura, a Green Belt Movement Extension Officer.’”

            Back to the American Southwest. We are in the midst of a megadrought which started in 2000. It made worse by the increasing number of people and their demand for water almost doubling. A study has looked at the causes of this dryness and found that climate heating is a major factor for our drought. The authors calculated that only half is due to natural variation; the other half of the cause of the scarcity of water is anthropogenic.

            It is too late to prevent our current megadrought, but hopefully the natural cycles of nature will bring rain to this parched land. What we can do to protect the next generations—indeed, must do—is to decrease our consumption and slow population growth. 

© Richard Grossman MD 2020

Categories
Consumption Environment Global Climate Change Population

Use More Renewable Electricity

Photo of a solar array image from Wikipedia

While our government in Washington is struggling to deny climate change, we can take action locally. Our electric coop, La Plata Electric Association (LPEA), offers easy ways to do this by purchasing renewable power.

Isn’t all electricity the same? Yes, it is, if it comes through wires attached to the electrical grid. Let’s look at reasons you might want to use electricity generated in a renewable way. Do you have asthma like I do? Millions of other people in our country suffer from this and other respiratory afflictions. Breathing is made more difficult by the fine particles that escape from coal fired power plants and by smog that comes from the ozone generated by natural gas development. Those tiny particles are invisible but cause atmospheric haze. Worse is that they are also responsible for loss of life due to cancer and heart attacks.

We are already suffering the effects of climate change. Despite the welcome snow this month, southwest Colorado is still at the worst level of drought. The huge 416 wild fire last summer was much too close to home. Climate change has prolonged the forest fire season and has helped to create many more mega-fires. We are seeing the effects of anthropocentric climate disruption already! One action that we can take to slow climate change is to use less electricity generated by burning fossil fuels.

In addition to fouling the air, power plants are some of the biggest users of fresh water, which they use for cooling. Although some of the water is returned to streams or rivers, it is hotter, which can be fatal for fish and other animals. Some think that nuclear is the safest source since it is less polluting.

Every source of electricity has its drawbacks, unfortunately. This is why I sometimes write about energy in columns that focus on human population. Almost everything that people do has detrimental effects to the natural world. We can decrease that impact by decreasing the number of people, by consuming less and by technology. Using renewable power is one way of minimizing our impact.

LPEA has 2 voluntary programs to promote renewable or “green” power generated by solar, wind or hydro. Our electrical cooperative can provide part or all of your electricity from these renewable sources. The extra cost is minimal, only about 50¢ a month for the average LPEA member. A call to their friendly office staff can give you more information. They also have a program to fund local solar arrays. This Renewable Generation Fund is currently helping to support 4 projects at nonprofits. 

Your first step should be to look for ways to use less energy. That saves money and diminishes one’s impact. Turn off lights you don’t need, and install dimmers if you don’t always need to run lights at full brightness. Our local 4CORE specializes in home energy efficiency. It offers ideas to decrease waste of electricity and rebates for Energy Star® appliances.

LPEA has a great program to reimburse you for half of the cost of certain efficient LED bulbs. These use only a fraction of the “juice” of traditional incandescent bulbs and are more efficient, and safer than compact fluorescents. I’ve taken advantage of this program in the past, buying a few LEDs at a time, but I went hog-wild this year since it is the last year of the program. Soon almost all the light in our home will come from the sun or LED bulbs! LEDs are much improved and the price has come down dramatically. To find out more about this rebate program go to www.LPEA.coop—but be careful to follow the instructions carefully.

We are tied to Tri-State Generation and Transmission for all of our electricity except what is generated locally. Despite the decreasing costs of solar panels, soon people won’t be able to install solar arrays because the contract with Tri-State, which limits the amount of power that can be generated locally. Because so much of their energy comes from burning coal, they are rumored to be the most polluting power supplier in the country. Tri-State has been slow to convert to renewable sources but it appears that they are finally seeing the light; they are installing a huge solar array north of Trinidad, Colorado.

We can be proud of our electric coop for its support of renewable power, especially with its new policy to cut its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030, while keeping rates low. We need to keep pressure on Tri-State to increase their low limit on locally generated renewable power.

©Richard Grossman MD 2019