Desertification of New Mexico

The drought monitor map tells the story:

Screen shot 2013-05-21 at 9.38.43 PMWell, okay, it was dry to start with. But the AP says:

New Mexico is slipping further into drought, having marked the driest two-year period in nearly 120 years of record-keeping.

National weather forecasters and water managers shared the latest statistics on New Mexico’s devastatingly dry conditions during a meeting Tuesday. They say the last 12- and 24-month periods have eclipsed even those dry times of the early 20th century and the 1950s.

The Santa Fe New Mexican elaborates:

This week’s U.S. Drought Monitor shows a swath of red and dark red across New Mexico, indicating extreme and exceptional drought conditions. The ominous colors stretch up through the Midwest, showing conditions have also worsened over the past year in parts of Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

“These kinds of conditions will certainly persist for a while,” said Tim Shy, a senior forecaster with the National Weather Service in Albuquerque. “Even if we do get repeated rains over a long period of time, for them to crack the threshold and get us back out of the deep brown color is going to be pretty difficult indeed.”

New Mexico is in its third year of drought. Following a winter with dismal snowpack, little spring rain and windy conditions have combined to leave the state’s reservoirs at record lows. Parts of the Rio Grande have dried up in Southern New Mexico, and many communities have rain deficits of a few inches just since the start of the year.

Farmers in Southern New Mexico are being hit the hardest. With little to no irrigation water expected to come from the Rio Grande and Pecos River this growing season, they are again relying on groundwater wells.

Along the Rio Grande, the wells have been dropping and there are limited options for drilling deeper.




  1. Droughts are indeed somewhat sticky though I think "cyclic" is too deterministic.

    Time will tell if this one is far out of the ordinary, but it's already uncommon.

    Certainly increasing temperatures further dry out the landscape, and we expect the subtropical dry zone to expand for dynamical reasons, so this is likely at the least a harbinger of the future.

  2. "Similar drought?" The current drought is distinguished by the fact that it's more intense than the ones Steven mentions, as mentioned in black and white near the beginning of the post:

    "New Mexico is slipping further into drought, having marked the driest two-year period in nearly 120 years of record-keeping."

    So, contra Steven the drought is already worse than anything previously recorded. A further difference is that the current drought is intensifying. That's not "similar," that's distinctly and uniquely worse than anything we can point to in our record.

    But let's assume for a moment that Steven's claim of drought cycles is correct, as opposed to us instead seeing plain old variability. If a cyclical drought is superimposed on a new regional secular trend to less rainfall we're looking at a novel, worse problem.

    In fact we do have good reasons to believe there will be and possibly already is a secular trend to intensifying drought in the SW United States. In the face of that Steven is delivering very bad news, presuming he's right. Far from being a comfort, the onset of a cyclical drought now will only make this unfolding disaster worse.

    Let's hope that Steven's cyclic drought hypothesis is wrong.

  3. Precipitation was similarly low in the 1950s, but temperatures are higher this time. The current drought follows, (or else is a continuation of) that of 2000–2003. That's been blamed for a regional die-off of up to 80% of mature pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) trees in the mid-2000s. The 1950s drought killed trees, but not at the wetter sites and higher elevations of the recent die-off.

    A study published in PNAS shows how water stress, combined with higher temperatures, resulted in carbon starvation for the trees. Carbon starvation hampered the trees' ability to resist infestation by bark beetles (Ips confusus), at a time when higher winter temperatures reduced beetle mortality. Beetle attack was the proximate cause of some tree mortality, but the deciding factor was elevated temperature.

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  5. I grew up in New Mexico, 4th through 6th grades and then 8th through high school graduation in 1958. Dry? I didn't think so nor did anybody else as far as I know. The pinyons survived jus' fine thank you and there is plenty of snow for skiing.

    But recent photographs of the mesas near Los Alamos that I used to ride horses upon are deeply saddening to see.

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