Southwest US: Ground Zero for Climate Change


The Southwest is the most unrelentingly hot and dry region in the United States. Future predictions—of increased fires, drought and floods—border on biblical. Gregg Garfin is a climatologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and a coordinating lead author for the Southwest-region chapter of the National Climate Assessment, released in May. In this Q&A, he reflects on the dire situation, his “apocaloptimist” nature and the bright spots he sees on the horizon.

Published August 27, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Shaped by scouring winds and a dearth of water, the Southwestern landscape has been winnowed down to a bare-bones composition of species adapted to its harsh conditions. Still some of them may not be able to withstand what climate change will bring.

I grew up surrounded by sagebrush and Juniper trees, steep sandstone precipices jutting above the horizon, in a remote corner of northwestern New Mexico. The landscape is disarmingly barren and vast, pocked with oil fields and gas derricks seesawing in the distance, and hemmed in by a patchwork of American Indian reservations.

It’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around how this region is being altered by the changing climate. Yet the people living here face unprecedented challenges in the coming decades: the population is expected to swell to 94 million—a 68 percent increase—and, by 2050, agricultural traditions and energy production will be strained by a dwindling water supply. Wildfires and floods are becoming more severe and frequent, while snowpack is shrinking—accelerated by increasing heat and…

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Gregg Garfin: The report speaks to both sides of my apocaloptimist nature. That is, somebody who knows that the future looks dismal if we continue on the current path, but has faith in our ability to innovate and collaborate our way to solutions. The projections are dire, but the assessment brought together more region-specific data as well as examples of adaptation strategies.