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A Fresh Look at New Mexican Wilderness
I grew up on a small organic farm located on the edge of the driftless region (unglaciated region) of midwestern Wisconsin lying at 981’ elevation. This meant that my playground, when I wasn’t feeding chickens or weeding crops, was a hilly, forested landscape—where trees were heavily laden with snow in the winter and provided a green cloak of comfort to adventurers in the summer.
Although the landscape of Wisconsin is an interesting and dynamic one, its history filled with multiple periods of glaciation and deglaciation, it does not boast extreme topography by western standards. Instead extremity in Wisconsin is found in very low winter temperatures and high winds, contrasted by humid summer air and thunderstorms that are occasionally accompanied by tornados.
Following my childhood in Wisconsin, I’ve pursued higher education and outdoor teaching jobs in multiple locations, moving from the United Kingdom to Maine to Alaska, back to Wisconsin and find myself now based in Albuquerque, New Mexico at a much higher elevation than that in which I’ve lived previously at 5,312’.
This landscape, and its contrasts to the higher latitude locations I have previously inhabited, has blown me away.
In what other location can you be inhabiting spaces that boast cities, low desert, high desert, forested mountains, subalpine and previously glaciated terrain, aa and pahoehoe volcanic lava fields, cryptobiotic soil, petroglyphs and petrified wood within a two hour drive of a single location? Maybe the answer to that question is a lot of places, but this is the first time I have experienced that sort of accessibility and I have allowed it to fully blow me away. In addition, I have used my perception of the specialness of this place to inform how I communicate how unique these spaces are to the kids I have taken out on treks.
One thing that each of those diverse places accessible from Albuquerque have in common is the importance of water to landscape evolution and supporting life.
As a climate scientist and person who has operated in academic spaces for most of my life, in the weeks leading up to moving to New Mexico I spent my free time perusing the academic literature for any and all information I could find regarding the effects of climate change on the southwest and more specifically, New Mexico. Given the climate-related news over the past several years, I don’t think it will come as any sort of surprise that the literature showed increases in air temperatures, water resource scarcity and related decreases in soil-water content and evapotranspiration have occurred over the past 50 years (Heo et al., 2015). Decreased water content in soil is also projected to alter the composition of plant communities across New Mexico, even despite the increased availability of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere for plant consumption (Polley et al., 2013).
Given water scarcity as an issue for the region, it is striking to me that evidence of water is visible everywhere you look in this New Mexican landscape. Canyons, mesas and sedimentary rock washes are all shaped by water-erosive processes, and the bosque (translating to forest in Spanish) boasts a riverside, water-reliant ecosystem of vegetation that has been actively altered to become drier by human installations of systems designed to prevent flooding during the past century. The drying of the bosque has been exacerbated by increased dryness caused by climate change in the region.
Water is what gives this dry, arid region all the incredible life you can see in the environments accessible within two hours from Albuquerque. Water is what gives us as humans life, and its future availability in this region is in jeopardy. So let’s stop debating whether or not climate change is anthropogenically (human) caused, and start doing something about reducing our emissions and preventing the problem in the first place. This planet is home to all of us—let’s start treating it like it is.
Heo, J., Yu, J., Giardino, J.R. and Cho, H., 2015. Water resources response to climate and land-cover changes in a semi-arid watershed, New Mexico, USA. TAO: Terrestrial, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, 26(4), p.463.
Polley, H.W., Briske, D.D., Morgan, J.A., Wolter, K., Bailey, D.W. and Brown, J.R., 2013. Climate change and North American rangelands: trends, projections, and implications. Rangeland Ecology & Management, 66(5), pp.493-511.
Mariama Dryak has spent most of the past six years studying glaciology and climate change, and earned an MS in Earth and Climate Sciences from the University of Maine in August 2019. Mariama’s interest in the environment was honed whilst growing up on a sustainable organic farm in driftless Wisconsin, and was further developed whilst studying geography at Durham University in the UK. She enjoys running through wild places, going on exploratory adventures, learning wherever she can and is constantly on the search for the best cup of coffee.