By Jim Miller
I recently had the pleasure of spending some time at Devils Postpile National Monument basking in the stunning beauty of that geological marvel and the accompanying reminder of the deep time that underlies the shallow surface history that we mistake for all that is.
Indeed, if there is a heaven, places like this are surely part of it. Nonetheless, while pondering the unintentional artistry of glaciers it was impossible not to notice how dry the mountains are now after several years of drought.
In and around Yosemite, the creeks, rivers, and waterfalls are drying up far earlier than usual, and the forests are perpetually vulnerable to fire. During my stay, I had to, as one always has to in the summer now, keep my eye on reports of fires—this time one was threatening the western edge of Yosemite near El Portal and had closed the Crane Flat, Bridalveil Creek, and Yosemite Creek campgrounds leaving firefighters to hold the line and keep the National Park open for the time being.
Alas, as I’ve written here before, this kind of drought and perpetual fire danger is our new normal and when you talk to people old enough to remember camping, hiking, or just spending time in nature in California for several decades, the thing that many of them observe is how much more arid it seems now–even further north in areas that used to have less risk than the southern part of the state.
Thus, like the villagers who alerted skeptical scientists to the fact that now-extinct frogs were disappearing from the rainforests in Central America, long time Californians, who are paying attention to the world outside our insulated urban bubbles, know something is going very wrong.
One such indication came last week in a bit of very bad news about the Colorado River that provides water for seven western states. According to a report in the Washington Post those states “are drawing more heavily from groundwater supplies than previously believed, a new study finds, the latest indication that an historic drought is threatening the region’s future access to water.” The scientists at UC Irvine who did the study were shocked to see how much of the water depletion was from groundwater. This is dismaying because, as one of the scientists explained, “It can take years, or hundreds of years, to refill groundwater basins.”
Why did this happen? Overconsumption. We have used 30 percent more water from the river than was actually available. And the future will be even starker as the report reminds us:
Climate change and pressures wrought by booming populations in cities like Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego will only stress water supplies more in the coming decades, the study concluded. Those stresses will mean reservoir storage won’t be enough to quench the region’s thirst, putting even more pressure on underground supplies. “We really don’t know how much water is down there. We’ve already depleted a lot of it. There could be more, but when we have to start to dig deeper to access it, that’s a bad sign,” Castle said. “If [ground water basins] continue to be depleted, they don’t come back up.”
But fire, drought, and the coming water crisis in the American west are only part of the story that is unfolding before our eyes. Another study of changing ocean temperatures reported on last week noted that scientists are finding similar temperatures in the northern Pacific Ocean and Greenland, an unusual finding that may signal a dramatic shift to come. As Scientific American tells us, “The findings are relevant to scientists concerned about tipping points resulting from future climate change. As levels of carbon dioxide rise in our atmosphere, the planet may hit a threshold beyond which today’s world ceases to exist. The planet may enter a new climate state.”
One shudders to think what some of the costs of an even more dramatic “new climate state” will be when we can already see horrors coming from our current state of altered climate. Last week, The New Republic had a nice roundup of the grim low lights of our new normal, noting how climate change is already allowing parasites and rare diseases to spread further, helping insects wipe out forests, killing coral and fish, and causing floods to overwhelm our sewer systems which helps feces leak into the drinking water supply.
If things like yet more warnings about mass extinction and feces in your drinking water aren’t enough to raise concern, a series of new studies are predicting that, along with a lack of drinking water, the future will likely hold more famine. As Think Progress reported last week:
According to two new studies published in the journals Nature Climate Change and Global Change Biology, rising global temperatures are increasingly harming crop yields in certain areas of the world — a phenomenon that could eventually lead to more famine. Warming combined with worsening air quality from ground level ozone pollution could exacerbate the problem even further, the study in Nature showed.
So in one week of news in late July there would seem to be enough compelling evidence to convince all but the most heedless among us that something significant needs to be done to stop the worst of the worst outcomes from happening as a result of human-caused climate change.
Then, as the Daily Kos relayed, there was this from the Alabama Republican Party: “coal was created in Alabama by God, and the federal government should not enact policy that runs counter to God’s plan.” I could go on about how future generations will curse this kind of pernicious nonsense, but I won’t.
Sadly, insanity such as this is no longer shocking, but it does remind me of a striking section of Peter Matthiessen’s last novel, In Paradise, where the main character (at a retreat in Auschwitz with a group of interfaith religious leaders designed to come to terms with what drives evil in the world) reminds a nun of an old story:
Christ crucified is importuned by a penitent thief in agony on his own cross on that barren hillside. “I beseech you, Jesus, take me with you this day to Paradise!” In traditional gospels, Jesus responds, “Thou shalt be with me this day in Paradise,” but in older texts—Eastern Orthodox or the Apocrypha perhaps?—Christ shakes his head in pity, saying, “No friend, we are in Paradise right now.”