For the Ages

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. I hope Mr. Smith doesn’t mind if I borrowed his excellent photo.

So it’s hot. And dry. Dry and hot. Lest you think we are unique, here in Gunnison, this is the situation pretty much everywhere in the American West. Hot and dry, just waiting for the fires that are bound to happen.

Some fires have already erupted, but a meteorologist a couple weeks ago showed last year’s drought map, with prominent spots all across the arid West, noting what a horrible fire year it was, and then he put up this year’s drought map, which is a solid blotch of ever-darkening tones stretched from the Midwest to the Pacific, northern border to southern border. The weather guy predicted this year’s fires would be “catastrophic.”

Yesterday’s news brought the fun word that this is the worst 20-year drought in 1,200 years. You know how I am with numbers, but let’s look at these anyway.

First, I did not know that droughts operated in 20-year cycles. And I still don’t know that, because I am not devoting my usual five minutes of research to this. So I will just go with the part where the media and weather types seem to be saying it as if it’s a real thing. And we know we can always trust the media, right?

Next, 1,200 years. I know how they know this: our friends the trees (friends everywhere except Gunnison, Colorado, a Tree City USA where the town fathers — and I do mean paternalistic men — keep chopping down trees in the name of public good, good being concrete and asphalt) tell us the story of time through their growth rings, and apparently 1,200 years ago their lack of growth suggests a mega-drought not seen until now. What I don’t know is if we’re in Year One or Year 20 of our current drought.

Before I set out to do either math or research on 1,200 years ago, I kind of assumed that might take us to the time of the cliff-dwellers of southwestern Colorado, famous for having abandoned their elaborate, expensive houses. While I thought they left due to drought, and there was one, some people like to point to other issues such as violence and overcrowding, which I think still comes back to: not enough water.

However, and here I would like to express disappointment with the National Park Service for failing to provide any sort of timeline or history context on their official Mesa Verde website, once you research beyond the Park Service you learn that the cliff dwellings were abandoned around 1300 AD/CE in the 23rd year of a 20-year drought. (So much for scientific precision.)

If I’m doing my math correctly, that is only 721 years ago, so this mega-drought that I have been taught for most of my life was responsible for the de-peopling of the area just south of where I call home is not up to the current standards of mega-drought. And we’re still here. For now.

My research didn’t take me far enough to learn what was happening on “This Day in History” back in the early 800s, so I don’t know how it impacted anyone or anything other than our tree friends, who survived, but not heartily so.

At what point do modern-day people, spoiled by our creature comforts, decide we need to start husbanding our resources better in times of crisis?

In Texas, where the electrical grid is once again in crisis, mere months after officials assured residents that the state would be better prepared going forward, people are being asked to set their thermostats to 78 and to not use appliances like clothes dryers. And instead of sucking it up for the good of the order, people are complaining. And probably setting their thermostats to a much more comfortable 70 as they dry their clothes for an hour at a time because that’s their right as Texans.

The CBS anchor team asked its field correspondent if he was complying with these requests/suggestions/never mandates, and he said he was “trying,” but that it was hard with a 5-year-old in the house. My immediate response, while watching television in a 66-degree house, was: Lots of humanity have managed 5-year-olds without air conditioning or clothes dryers just fine.

But when you live in a rich country where you’re used to doing what you want, changing habits is hard. No matter how much we study history, we arrogantly assume ours will be the culture that is different.

Petra, the city of stone in the Jordanian desert (made more famous than it was by whichever Indiana Jones movie filmed there), is nothing more than hot, dry, dusty rocks these days — no human occupation save for tourists and archaeologists. But those archaeologists have found that in its heyday, Petra boasted lots of running water and public pools and fountains. The residents could afford excess, and so they did. But now they’re no longer there.

So today the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, is paying people to remove grass. The city is also removing it from many public places, and one of their standards is: if the only person to walk on it is the one mowing it, it needs to go. They’re not ripping up city parks, but roadway medians will no longer contain grass.

Down in Phoenix, however, they are still encouraging people to install lawns. Their argument, I gather, is against making an unholy hot place even hotter as an urban heat island. (City fathers of Gunnison, take note.) But what the entire city should probably be doing is making an exit plan, much like the Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde.

That’s because Lake Meade, formed by the Hoover Dam in the water-lucrative 1930s, is at its lowest level ever, already triggering one set of down-river cutback protocols and rapidly approaching a second, never-before-reached set. If it drops below that, electrical generation may come to a standstill.

This all seems to be passing news, not even rating as top stories. Perhaps it is in local markets like Phoenix and Los Angeles, but millions upon millions of people need to be aware that it’s not just their lawn-watering that lies in jeopardy this summer. Depending on where we are in this drought cycle — we may not have reached the epic mouse overrun of Australia, but it could be coming — this could be existential, and you may find yourself grumbling not about sitting in a hot house with wet clothes, but sitting in a dark, superheated house with zero access to electricity.

Those wacky climate scientists are now starting to tell us that the 20th Century was the wettest on tree-ring record in the American Southwest, possibly the entire West, and that was the century that fueled exponential growth and may have put the population well over carrying capacity. We may all have to learn with more discomfort than we’re used to and to share our resources equitably — which humans are horrible at — or we’ll have to pack up our expensive, elaborately constructed houses and abandon them.

Maybe we can move to the coasts, just in time for them to flood from global sea-rise.

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