I’ve been talking about climate change more than about Chaco lately, which is a pretty big shift from the earlier days of this blog. In part this just reflects the major changes in my life: while before I was living and working at Chaco, now I’m going to school and spending a lot of time learning and thinking about things like climate change. I’ve also, frankly, been getting a little bored with Chaco and archaeology, so I’m taking a bit of a break from it. I’ll definitely come back to it at some point, don’t worry, but for now it’s not among my highest priorities.
One of the major points I’m trying to make with this blog, however, is that climate change and other environmental challenges today are by no means disconnected from Chaco and the past. This is true in various ways, some more abstract than others, but a major report just released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (via Keith Kloor) on threats to national parks from climate change points to one quite concrete connection.
Like many other parks, Chaco is threatened by the effects of global warming, effects that are starting to become apparent in changes to weather patterns and climatic trends. It’s not listed as one of the parks most at risk, although Bandelier and Mesa Verde are, but the fact sheet for New Mexico does describe Chaco as being subject to the same pressures as other parks in the region.
The main effects of climate change on these parks are decreased snowpack, the closely related problem of reduced water supplies, increased erosion resulting from heavier and more frequent downpours, and loss of flora and fauna as a result of habitat changes.
These are indeed serious problems, and pretty unambiguously linked to global warming, but they are matters of degree, not kind. Problems of this sort have always been major concerns in the southwest, where water supplies and the vagaries of precipitation are and always have been hugely important to human settlement patterns and decision-making. The intensification of these processes due to climate change is of major concern, but it’s not very flashy and it’s unlikely to attract much attention in and of itself. No major catastrophes to grab headlines and focus attention are likely to result from these changes, but they are serious threats nonetheless. As so often in the southwest, natural disasters are long and slow, subtly and almost imperceptibly changing the landscape until the status quo become untenable and major, often painful, changes suddenly become necessary.
This gives ample opportunity for people to react and to minimize the damage, of course, but it also gives little incentive for them to do so until it’s too late, which is what makes it so pernicious. Life in arid environments is always lived on the edge, and the margin for error is minimal, so adaptation to a certain environmental context is always very risky, a huge bet on a particular outcome with unknown odds. There’s a lot more I could say here about gambling as a metaphor for economic and environmental decision-making, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.
On a lighter note, I was amused to see this in the New Mexico fact sheet:
In some parks, such as Bandelier and Chaco, snow does not linger that long, but with less snow in winter fewer visitors would get to see the parks at their scenic best.
Chaco’s definitely at its scenic best in the winter, but I can say from experience that very few visitors ever see it. Winter at Chaco is a very quiet time of year.