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Arid Arizona Points to Global Warming as Culprit

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  • mtneuman@juno.com
    Arid Arizona Points to Global Warming as Culprit Climate Shift Is Blamed as Livelihoods Are Affected By Juliet Eilperin Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday,
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2005
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      Arid Arizona Points to Global Warming as Culprit
      Climate Shift Is Blamed as Livelihoods Are Affected
      By Juliet Eilperin
      Washington Post Staff Writer
      Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page A03

      TUCSON -- Reese Woodling remembers the mornings when he would walk the
      grounds of his ranch and come back with his clothes soaked with dew,
      moisture that fostered enough grass to feed 500 cows and their calves.

      But by 1993, he says, the dew was disappearing around Cascabel -- his
      2,700-acre ranch in the Malpai borderlands straddling New Mexico and
      Arizona -- and shrubs were taking over the grassland. Five years later
      Woodling had sold off half his cows, and by 2004 he abandoned the ranch.

      "How do you respond when the grass is dying? You hope to hell it starts
      to rain next year," he says.

      When the rain stopped coming in the 1990s, he and other Southwest
      ranchers began to suspect there was a larger weather pattern afoot.
      "People started talking about how we've got some major problems out
      here," he said in an interview. "Do I believe in global warming?

      Dramatic weather changes in the West -- whether it is Arizona's
      decade-long drought or this winter's torrential rains in Southern
      California -- have pushed some former skeptics to reevaluate their views
      on climate change. A number of scientists, and some Westerners, are now
      convinced that global warming is the best explanation for the higher
      temperatures, rapid precipitation shifts, and accelerated blooming and
      breeding patterns that are changing the Southwest, one of the nation's
      most vulnerable ecosystems.

      In the face of shrinking water reservoirs, massive forest fires and
      temperature-related disease outbreaks, several said they now believe that
      warming is transforming their daily lives. Although it has rained some
      during the past three months, the state is still struggling with a
      persistent drought that has hurt its economy, costing cattle-related
      industries $2.8 billion in 2002.

      "Everyone's from Missouri: When they see it, they believe it," said Gregg
      Garfin, who has assessed the Southwest's climate for the federal
      government since 1998. "When we used to talk about climate, eyes would
      glaze over. . . . Then the drought came. The phone started ringing off
      the hook."

      Jonathan Overpeck, who directs the university- and government-funded
      Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona,
      said current drought and weather disruptions signal what is to come over
      the next century. Twenty-five years ago, he said, scientists produced
      computer models of the drought that Arizona is now experiencing.

      "It's going to get warmer, we're going to have more people, and we're
      going to have more droughts more frequently and in harsher terms,"
      Overpeck said. "We should be at the forefront of demanding action on
      global warming because we're at the forefront of the impacts of global
      warming. . . . In the West we're seeing what's happening now."

      There are dissenters who say it is impossible to attribute the recent
      drought and higher temperatures to global warming. Sherwood Idso,
      president of the Tempe, Ariz.-based Center for the Study of Carbon
      Dioxide and Global Change, said he does not believe the state's drought
      "has anything to do with CO{-2} or global warming," because the region
      experienced more-severe droughts between 1600 and 1800. Idso, who also
      said he did not believe there is a link between human-generated carbon
      dioxide emissions and climate change, declined to say who funds his

      The stakes are enormous for Arizona, which is growing six times faster
      than the national average and must meet mounting demands for water and
      space with scarce resources. Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is urging
      Arizonans to embrace "a culture of conservation" with water, but some
      conservationists and scientists wonder whether that will be enough.

      Dale Turner of the Nature Conservancy tracks changes in the state's
      mountaintop "sky islands" -- a region east and south of Tucson that hosts
      a bevy of rare plants and animals. Human activities over the past century
      have degraded local habitats, Turner said, and now climate change
      threatens to push these populations "over the edge."

      The Mount Graham red squirrel, on the federal endangered species list
      since 1987, has been at the center of a long-running fight between
      environmentalists and development-minded Arizonans. Forest fires and
      rising temperatures have worsened the animals' plight as they depend on
      Douglas firs at the top of a 10,720-foot mountain for food and
      nest-building materials. The population has dipped from about 562 animals
      in spring 1999 to 264 last fall.

      "They are so on the downhill slide," said Thetis Gamberg, a U.S. Fish and
      Wildlife biologist who has an image of the endangered squirrel on her
      business card.

      Atop Mount Graham, the squirrels' predicament is readily visible. Mixed
      conifers are replacing Douglas firs at higher altitudes, and recent fires
      have destroyed other parts of the forest, depriving the animals of the
      cones they need.

      Environmentalists such as Turner worry about the disappearance of the
      Mount Graham squirrel, the long-tailed, mouselike vole and native wet
      meadows known as cienegas, but many lawmakers and state officials are
      more focused on the practical question of water supply.

      Arizona gets its water from groundwater and rivers such as the massive
      Colorado, a 1,450-mile waterway that supplies water to seven states:
      Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

      The recent drought and changing weather patterns have shrunk the western
      snowpack and drained the region's two biggest reservoirs, lakes Mead and
      Powell, to half their capacity. More precipitation is falling as rain
      instead of snow, and it is coming earlier in the year, which leads to
      rapid runoff that disappears quickly.

      Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict that by 2090
      global warming will reduce the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which accounts for
      half of California's water reserves, by 30 percent to 90 percent.

      "It makes water management more challenging," said Kathy Jacobs, who
      spent two decades managing state water resources before joining the
      University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center. "You can either
      reduce demand or increase supply."

      Water managers have just begun to consider climate change in their
      long-term planning. Forest managers have also started asking for climate
      briefings, now that scientists have documented that short, wet periods
      followed by drought lead to the kind of giant forest fires that have been
      devastating the West.

      This month, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in
      Boulder, Colo., published a study showing that worldwide, regions
      suffering from serious drought more than doubled in area from the early
      1970s to the early 2000s, with much of the change attributed to global
      warming. A separate recent report in the journal Science concluded that
      higher temperatures could cause serious long-term drought over western
      North America.

      C. Mark Eakin, a paleoclimatologist at the National Oceanic and
      Atmospheric Administration who co-wrote the study in Science, said
      historical climate records suggest the current drought could just be the

      "When you've got an increased tendency toward drought in a region that's
      already stressed, then you're just looking for trouble," Eakin said.
      "Weather is like rolling the dice, and climate change is like loading the

      Still, Arizona politicians remain divided on how to address global
      warming. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has led the national fight to impose
      mandatory limits on industrial carbon dioxide emissions that are linked
      to warming, though his bill remains stalled.

      "We'll win on this issue because the evidence continues to accumulate,"
      McCain said in an interview. "The question is how much damage will be
      done until we do prevail."

      But other Arizona Republicans are resistant. State Sen. Robert Blendu,
      who opposed a bill last year to establish a climate change study
      committee, said he wants to make sure politicians "avoid the public
      knee-jerk reaction before we get sound science."

      That mind-set frustrates ranchers such as Woodling, who is raising 10
      grass-fed cows on a leased pasture. At age 69, he will never be able to
      rebuild his herd, he said, but he believes politicians have an obligation
      to help restore the environment.

      "Man has been a great cause of this, and man needs to address it," he


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