We camped by Butler Wash, west of Bluff, Utah, October 16-18, 2020. The goal was to climb on the slick rock of Comb Ridge, on the other side of the Wash.

I am amazed at how life exists even in very harsh conditions. There is evidence that this area is in a state of severe drought, yet some life persists.

Although they may not be as exciting as plants, the mosses and lichens are colorful. We try to avoid walking on the cryptobiotic soil, which helps to hold the water and binds the soil together–and even make new soil.

I have been intrigued by these little pothole gardens which contain small samples of life.

There are limits to what can live without water. The people who lived in this area, the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) left during a severe drought and moved south, along the Rio Grande.Their numbers had risen during moist years to a level that the land couldn’t support them during a drought.

Some of the potholes are larger and support multiple species of plants. The larger ones may even have vertebrate animals living in them!

Many potholes are barren. The rock slopes down to the left in this picture; the little surviving life lives where the water lasts the longest.

It has been a long time since the last rain. We’re amazed that anything is still alive; some of the plants are barely holding on in the drought.

Even the prickly pear cactus is shriveled.

A recent article states that human activity is responsible for about half of the drought. For more information, see below.

Although most of the colors are muted deserty, there are a few bright spots.

Having spread its seed, a dried yucca stands on the horizon.

A “megadrought” is defined as a drought lasting 20 years or longer. For comparison, the Dust Bowl of the midwest, although it was terrible, did not qualify as a megadrought.

There isn’t much sign of animal life; we strain to find as much as we can. Gail sees a rabbit, but it’s gone before I turn.

We debate if this comes from big horn sheep or cow,

and wonder if this is deer or sheep, but saw neither animal.

However, we found deer skat in one of the larger pothole gardens.

This tiny fly rested on my thumb after a lizard lunged at it, but missed.

We are amazed to see water in a series of potholes down low. Ty, our old black dog, takes a dip and a drink. The water came down from the rock above when it rained and was collected in a series of little pools. The last rain was September 7th; we were there 40 days since that rain. is a convenient source of information. This map shows the Four Corners Region; the blue pointer aims at Bluff. Rose color is D3 (Extreme Drought) while the brown is D4 (Exceptional Drought–the driest level). Bluff is D3 while the Durango area is D4.

When I asked Jim Hook of Recapture Lodge (in Bluff) when the last rain before October 17th was, he wrote: “The last rain I recorded was on September 7 when we received 0.5 inch. September ends the water year so we ended the last 12 months with 4.57 inches of moisture. Average over the last 100 years is 7.76 inches which isn’t much but it means Bluff only received 59% of “Normal” precip. October actually is our wettest month 🙁 “

The figure above is from the article “Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an Emerging North American megadrought” by Williams et al., Science, May 2020.

The graph shows soil moisture with the straight line being average, and the red line departure from average, by year. The yellow square on the map is the area of interest–southwest North America. Brown shading denotes the local degree of drought.

The summary of this article states: “Anthropogenic trends in temperature, relative humidity and precipitation from 31 climate models account for 47%… of the 2000-2018 drought severity….” That means that human activity is responsible for about half of the drought that we are facing.

Thank you for reading. Although I have written about drought in my monthly essays, our visit to Comb Ridge made the current drought visible in a way that I wanted to share.


P.S.: While this photoessay talks about drought in an abstract way, there is an excellent article that speaks to the problems that the drought is causing people, animals and plants: I strongly recommend the video that is embedded in the article.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2020


Fend off Famine

By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water -stressed areas                   World Health Organization

When I wrote Julys essay on the mega-drought in southwestern North America, we were in “extreme drought”. The rain started toward the end of July, although the drought hasn’t ended. Unfortunately, we are not the only area contending with drought.

Natural variability in weather patterns combined with anthropogenic climate heating have created drought in some places and flooding in others. Although those “natural” disasters are destructive in a rich country, they are often devastating in a low resource area. An example is found on the southeast coast of Africa, where some areas have too much rain and others have too little.

In March through May massive storms hit parts of Eastern Africa. From Ethiopia south to Tanzania heavy rains caused landslides, overflowing rivers and flash floods. Tens of thousands of people were displaced and hundreds killed. Crops were destroyed and many animals drowned.

The climate is much dryer in regions of the south of Africa. We visited Cape Town in November of 2018 and were careful to obey the water restrictions at that time: quick showers, only flush when you have to. The water in the reservoirs had been down to just weeks’ supply when, fortunately, the rains returned.

Some other areas in the south are not so fortunate. Currently, the Global Disaster Alerting and Coordination System reports serious droughts in parts of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and South Africa. Many people in these countries are subsistence farmers who depend on rain to nourish the crops they raise to feed their children. When it is dry, the land cannot support as many people as when rains are normal. A drought can put people’s livelihood–indeed their lives–in jeopardy. All too many starve to death in a serious drought, unless external aid comes to the rescue.

There is another plague haunting the Horn of Africa. In just one day unbelievable swarms of desert locusts consume enough food for thousands of people. Vast numbers of these insects, which can eat their body weight each day, proliferated in last year’s heavy rainfall. Scientists blame the unusual moisture on record high temperatures in the Indian Ocean, which in turn were caused by climate heating.

As these examples show, anthropogenic climate change causes different effects in different areas, even on the same coast of Africa. Although Africa is suffering, people in South America may feel the effects even more strongly.

At least 9 Latin American countries are experiencing drought. Even worse, some places have flooding, which washes away some crops, followed by drought, which kills what’s left. A recent report “Where Will Everyone Go?” (available at looks at the effects of climate heating on the people in Central America. Co-researched by the New York Times and ProPublica, the authors tell the story of Jorge, a farmer in Guatemala. His crops suffer first from drought, then are washed away by flooding, then drought destroys any hope to feed his family.

Jorge pawned his last 4 goats to hire a “coyote”. He left his wife and 2 youngest children at home and entered the USA illegally over the border fence. Jorge and son are now in Houston, perhaps trying to earn enough money to bring his wife and children to safety.

This reminded me of my father’s trip to the USA. At age 4, in 1906, Louis arrived with his mother to be met by his father at Ellis Island. My grandfather had come over a year earlier to earn boat fare for the rest of the family. However, that was a different era when refugees were welcomed–in my father’s case, from religious persecution–and the barriers they faced didn’t include a 20-foot border wall.

As in all parts of the world, people in Guatemala want the best for their children. They have realized that kids do better when families are smaller. In the past decade the average number of children a woman will bear during her life has dropped from 4.4 to 2.7. However, more than a third of Guatemalans are under 15 years old, meaning that rapid growth will continue for many years.

What can we do? Fortunately, there is local action that will help make more water available locally and also slow climate change. Fossil fuel fired power plants use huge volumes of water for cooling. Trillions of gallons of Colorado water will be made available for agriculture and other uses as we shut down fossil fuel power plants and switch to wind and solar electrical generation.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2020