Week 9, Day 5: The Future of Our Climate

Rendija Crack is a beautiful trail to hike anytime of year, but especially when the leaves begin to change in the fall. Today, we’re considering how climate change may impact the landscape that we know today. (Photo by Craig Martin)

During week nine of Take It Outside, we are learning about our climate! Join us on Monday as we kick off week ten of this initiative to learn more about reptiles and amphibians.

Today, we’re thinking about the future of our landscapes due to climate change and are considering some ideas for living in a more sustainable way.

Upcoming Event:

Tune in for tonight’s astronomy talk at 7 PM. PEEC volunteer Paul Arendt will take a look at what is coming up in May and June’s night skies by highlighting the planets, star patterns, nebulae, and constellations that may be readily observed. This program is perfect for beginner stargazers who want to learn more. The talk is free to watch, but registration is required. Find out more and sign up here.

Blog Post:

Los Alamos High School senior Kathryn Laintz reflects on how fire has changed our landscape and the ways in which climate change could continue to do so. Read her blog post here.

Craft:

We had an upcycled outfit making station at our Earth Day Festival in 2018! (Photo by Rachel Landman)

Buying something new is often the easiest solution, but not usually the most environmentally-friendly option. Take time to consider new products or toys you are planning to purchase. Are there ways to make these items with upcycled materials around your house? Plastic toys especially often build up and are eventually thrown out. 

Learn about some upcycling ideas here and how you can make your own fairy houses, planters, drums, and even a bubble refill station! Get instructions for these fun, upcycled crafts and more here. Let us know what you make!

 

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

We can learn a lot about living sustainably with our natural resources by observing native plants and animals that are adapted to our climate. Go outside today and look for beauty in the plants and animals that make do with the resources that nature provides.

Are there any ideas you can bring back for your own home and garden? Could you encourage more native plants in your yard? Could you be like a lizard and use the sun and shade to keep your home warm or cool?

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Turn off your screen and use nature for your entertainment! Take a walk with a family member, read a book under a tree, or do some stargazing.

While you’re out there, think of an action you can commit to that will help mitigate climate change. It could be a change you make in your personal life, like adding one meatless meal a week, or walking instead of driving. It could be something you do with an organization, like changing processes and procedures at your work or school, or it could be something at the public level, like deciding to run for office, or organizing or participating in a climate movement. Tell a friend or family member your idea, and let them help you stay accountable!

If you want, you can send your idea to us at takeitoutside@peecnature.org or by using the form below, and we can check back with you and see how you’re doing!

How You Can Help:

  • There are lots of things people of all ages and means can do to help mitigate climate change. Here are some ideas from NASA for things kids can do.
  • Here are some other ideas that adults can do. We have started doing many things differently during the coronavirus crisis, and some of them, like cutting back on travel, have positive environmental impacts. Challenge yourself to think of a change you can make permanent in your life.
  • You can increase your impact by involving your organization. Learn more about what PEEC is doing to try to be more sustainable in this Nature Notes article. We recently challenged the Los Alamos Chamber of Commerce to adopt sustainability goals and practices of their own and hope they will continue to pass the challenge around town!
  • Make your voice heard! If you are eligible to vote in New Mexico, you have until May 28 to request an absentee ballot for the primary election at NMVote.org. The deadline to register to vote in the primary election has passed, but now is a good time to get registered for future elections if you aren’t registered.
  • Ensuring that you are properly recycling is an easy way to live more sustainably! If you missed the live-stream, check out our Recycling 101 presentation on our YouTube channel.
  • Some Los Alamos youths are organizing a local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement focused on stopping climate change and creating green jobs in the process. Check out Sunrise Movement Northern New Mexico on Facebook or Instagram, or email them for more information.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our climate this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us next week to discover more about reptiles and amphibians!

Reflecting on Our Home’s Future

The Sierra de los Valles viewed from the Los Alamos townsite after the Cerro Grande Fire. (Photo by Terry Foxx)

By Kathryn Laintz

Twenty years ago, the Cerro Grande Fire permanently altered Los Alamos. The devastation brought on by this fire is something so many people had to live through. I’m too young to have experienced life pre-Cerro Grande, so I can only imagine how hard it was for people to see the once densely forested Jemez completely decimated.

I did live through the Las Conchas fire in 2011. It was difficult for me to revisit the areas of wilderness I spent so much of my life exploring after they had been destroyed. I, like so many other New Mexicans, am incredibly fond of our ponderosa pine and aspen forests, and hope for their preservation. Unfortunately, these ecosystems are currently under threat. 

Compared to places that have been ravaged by wildfire, any well-forested area in the Jemez might outwardly appear healthy. However, there are many factors acting against our forests that make them great vectors for megafires — a scientific term used to categorize forest fires that burn over 150,000 acres, which is an unnatural occurrence. Both the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas Fires fall into this category. 

In order to fully explain why megafires like these happened, and understand why the forests of the Jemez are still at risk today, it is necessary to examine the historical environment of the area, and what the forest looked like before people first settled here. 

The truly undisturbed environment of the Jemez dates back before the 1900s. Back then, forest fires in the Southwest were categorized as low-intensity, surface fires that mostly burned through grassy undergrowth. Frequent, but small and slow-burning fires were beneficial for healthy forest conditions by maintaining an open understory and maintaining large stands of coniferous trees. 

The balanced forest structure between mature and old-growth trees, aspen, and openings with understory grasses, flowering plants, and shrubs prevented uncharacteristically high-intensity and severe fires. When severe fires did occur, they were a result of prolonged drought and lightning strikes during the summer months. These patterns are evidenced in fire scars in old-growth trees, however these fires were rare and typically burned in small patches. 

Then, when railroads connected New Mexico to the rest of the country in the 1880s, people settled in the Jemez and human activity started to impact the environment. Activities such as overgrazing cattle, logging, and fire suppression all had detrimental effects on the ecosystem that have made it more susceptible to fires. 

What proves to be the biggest threat to Jemez’s forest ecosystems is the same factor jeopardizing all at-risk ecosystems across the globe — climate change. On top of human activity dramatically shifting the natural state of the forest for over a century, climate change has brought increasing temperatures, drought, less available water (due to increasing demand for it), and extreme weather to the Jemez. All of which contribute to more severe fires that burn hotter and are harder to contain.

Today, the forest ecosystem of the Jemez looks a lot different than what it would be if left undisturbed by people and climate change. The natural forest structure of the Jemez should be groups of trees of different ages and sizes. Instead, there is a dense, continuous canopy of young and mid-age trees. Additionally, continual fire suppression has also allowed conifers to invade once naturally-occuring meadows, shrinking them down. 

Climate change and human activity have shifted the forest structure in the Jemez, and the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires have dramatically damaged the environment. Not only have the trees and meadows been affected, but riparian and aquatic systems also have been degraded. Watershed areas without meadows or big trees allow more sediment to pass into stream banks and stream-road crossings, harming both plant and animal life. Streams have also become straighter and narrower due to shrinking meadows, reducing quality habitat for fish.

Beyond the watersheds and aquatic environments, the aftermath of megafires in the Jemez has led to habitat loss for important species like the Jemez Mountain salamander and the Mexican Spotted Owl. Non-native and invasive species introduced by humans have decreased biodiversity and weakened ecological communities in the Jemez environment. Examples of invasive plant species currently growing in this area include Pigweed, Ragweed, and False Tarragon.

A Jemez Mountain Salamander. They are an endemic species, and can be found only in this area. (Photo by J.N. Stuart)

On a more positive note, there are many ongoing efforts to restore the environment in the Jemez back to a healthy state and repair some of the areas that have been ravaged by megafires. Some examples of current ecological repair are: 

Even still, the threat of climate change is on the global scale. I cannot help but continue to worry about the future of the forests surrounding Los Alamos, and if they will still be here for future generations to enjoy — as I have been so lucky to. My greatest hope is that New Mexicans will continue to support efforts to understand and help alleviate climate change, and that we continue to support agencies that are working to repair our forests so that they are less susceptible to megafires.

Week 9, Day 3: Our Climate

New Mexico receives swings in precipitation, a lot of sun exposure, and great variation in temperature. (Photo by Craig Martin)

During week nine of Take It Outside, we are learning about our climate!

Here in Northern New Mexico, we have a challenging climate for life that includes variable precipitation, strong sun exposure, and large temperature swings. Learn more about our local climate, the factors that control it, and the organisms that are adapted to survive here in today’s post.

Blog Post:

PEEC founder and volunteer Chick Keller discusses our local climate in New Mexico, as well as how we can expect it to change with anthropogenic climate change. Read today’s blog post here.

Craft and Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

The Southwest has a unique climate that supports a diverse ecosystem. Learn more about the difference between weather and climate here. Each species that lives here is adapted to survive our harsh, dry climate.

Make a collage to celebrate all the plant and animal species that make the Southwest a beautiful place to call home! Start by going on a nature walk. Observe and collect different natural things you find along the way. When you get home, make a collage with your collection! Share it with us by emailing takeitoutside@peecnature.org or by tagging us on Facebook or Instagram.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Coyotes are iconic creatures of the desert, but these animals still need access to fresh water to survive. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Examine some of the specific adaptations that allow organisms to live in our climate. Some of the conditions present in our climate include dry air, large seasonal and daily temperature variations, bright sun, strong winds, and low moisture.

For plants, you might notice:

  • Small leaves have less surface area to preserve moisture. A trade-off is that they can’t produce as much sugar for the plant to grow.
  • Narrow, upright leaves don’t shred easily in high winds.
  • Hairy or fuzzy leaves can trap moisture near the surface of the plant to insulate it from temperature variations.
  • Waxy leaves can help keep moisture from evaporating, and reflect some sunlight.
  • Succulents have shallow root systems and water-storage capacity in their leaves and stems that allow them to thrive during infrequent rains.

For animals, you might notice:

  • Burrowing in the ground allows many species to shelter against large temperature variations.
  • Some animals find hospitable microclimates, like shady spots under rocks or trees, or gravitate toward riparian areas, to take advantage of the variations in our landscape.
  • Some animals shed their thick winter coats for summer. The Abert’s squirrel has a thinner coat and smaller ear tufts in the summer than in winter.
  • Birds can dilate blood vessels in their legs to transfer heat out of their blood to the environment.
  • Some animals, like pocket mice, do not need to drink water, and get all of their needed water as a byproduct of metabolizing food. Others, like packrats, eat juicy critters and plants for water. Still others, like coyotes, need access to fresh water.

Other Resources:

  • The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a bit of a different climate and ecosystem than ours here in Northern New Mexico, but the organisms that live in the Sonora Desert have similar adaptations to their dry climate. Find out more here.
  • Learn more about the plants and animals of the American Southwest from the National Park Service.
  • If you’d like to explore how birds could be impacted by climate change, check out the National Audubon Society’s Survival by Degrees project.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our climate this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about paleoclimates of New Mexico!

How Will Climate Change Impact the Pajarito Plateau?

Monsoon season tends to last from mid-June to late September in New Mexico. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Chick Keller

With the advent of human caused climate change, there has been much speculation about what will happen in the Southwest. Will there be droughts that will change our environment? Are there already signs?

New Mexico is geographically situated in a curious position. Many winter storms come from the northwest, but turn east just north of our state. This is because of the location of the jet stream, which has come south and moves north and south in a weekly rhythm. However, there are times when the moisture comes from the southwest and we get large snowstorms. In summer the jet stream retreats north to Canada, so no west-to-east traveling storms happen. Instead, the timing of the start of our moisture-giving “monsoon” season is dependent on a particular setup of high and low pressure systems. These are in turn dependent upon what is happening in the Pacific Ocean.

There are two major cycles in the ocean: the 20 – 30 year (variable) Pacific Decadal Cycle, and the shorter, 5 – 10 year El Niño/La Niña cycles called “El Niño Southern Oscillation — ENSO.” The Pacific decadal cycles are felt in the Southwest as alternating wet and dry decades. The ENSO alternates warm and cold water in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific off the coast of Peru. When warm (El Niño), the Southwest gets lots of moisture both in winter and summer. When cold (La Niña), it becomes dry. So during the dry phase of the Pacific cycle, if there is a La Niña, it gets really dry in New Mexico.

Global climate change has an additional effect. During the summer monsoon season there is a high pressure region that sits still over Oklahoma and a corresponding low pressure region over Nevada. These cause moisture air to be drawn up from the Gulf of California and nearby Pacific Ocean and also from the Gulf of Mexico. Global warming often reverses these systems — high over Nevada and low over Oklahoma. These both block moist air from the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, and the monsoon is delayed. In recent years, this has been happening more often and our monsoon rains have come later and produced less than normal moisture.

This area has been the scene of culture-changing droughts in the past, particularly the migration-causing 12th century drought that emptied out Chaco Canyon and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, and established the native cultures along the Rio Grande.

Most computer simulations and climatologists suggest that warmer temperatures will result in more droughts and more drying of soils. It would be as if the deserts of Mexico migrated north. To counteract this, more precipitation would be needed. This might actually happen, because warmer air holds more moisture and so our monsoons might actually bring more rain. The downside is that it will probably come in more intense storms and much of it will run off into the flooded streams and so be lost to the land.

Warming climates may impact the American Pika, a species that lives at high-elevations and is sensitive to high temperatures. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

But the warming might cause other climate changes over the Pacific that would counter this.  For now the prediction is for a drier climate on the Pajarito Plateau.

A note about signs of climate change. There has been little observed change in our native plants, but the growing season seems to have come earlier by one to two weeks. Some southern birds have drifted north. The Acorn Woodpecker was unknown here until the 1980s, but is common now. There are concerns that warming conditions might exterminate the American Pika from high-elevation places like the Jemez Mountains.

Various community science and volunteer-led efforts can help us track how climate change is impacting our local flora and fauna. For instance, PEEC volunteer Craig Martin personally records early and late wildflower sightings; eBird tracks time distribution for bird species in the county (and around the world!); and other community science efforts like Butterflies and Moths of North America, iNaturalist, and Journey North are used by both enthusiasts and scientists to gather data on the sightings of various plants and animals.

You can help our community better understand how climate change is impacting our local species by learning to use and contributing sightings on one or more of these platforms. Be sure to also check out PEEC’s interest groups if you’d like to join in the local conversation that is happening within our community about plants, birds, butterflies, and more.