Climate Change in the Southwest
The following information is adapted from the U.S. Global Change Research Program 2013 Draft National Climate Assessment:
Compiled by scientists and engineers from around the world, evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. It tells an unambiguous story: The planet is warming. In the United States, the most recent decade was the nation’s hottest on record.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southwest Region includes Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, part of the broader geographical southwest—the hottest and driest part of the country, and also the one with the fastest growing population. The availability of water has defined this landscape more than anything else. It is an issue that is as directly vital to people as it is to wildlife.
“Our most consequential environmental challenge right now is extended drought. A good example of the effect of drought is that the playas aren’t wet in the spring so waterfowl have fewer places to stopover during migration. The increased demand for water throughout the region makes every other challenge even more difficult.” --James Broska, Science Coordinator, Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative
That’s why climate change poses major challenges for an already parched region that is expected to get hotter and, in southern parts, significantly drier. Increased heat and changes to rain and snowpack create ripple effects throughout the region, as water scarcity is an issue for municipalities, irrigation-dependent agriculture, forestry, and the overall hydrology and ecology of the landscape. More widespread wildfire and insect outbreaks are creating significant economic and environmental losses. Some populous coastal areas are experiencing disrupted water flow, such as sea level rise, increased flooding, storm surges, and more extreme erosion, affecting municipal infrastructure, major transportation and shipping routes, and fragile, wildlife-rich habitats.
The most difficult aspect of dealing with climate change is the uncertainty of it. Climate change is especially disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the variable one of the present and future.
“There were a lot of extreme effects of the 2002 mega-drought [in southern Arizona] that we’d never seen before. There was mortality across the board. Even decades-old desert trees such as ironwood and mesquite that withstood lots of dry seasons before then died that year.” --Jim Atkinson, Sonoran Pronghorn Recovery Coordinator
This is relevant to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s approach to conservation as well. Today, we have to focus much more on predicting rapid and sometimes extreme environmental changes so that we can develop the information, tools, and applications needed to sustain wildlife populations in this new arena of complex ecological, sociological, and economic interactions.
This recognition is what has spurred the Fish and Wildlife Service’s investments in advancing emerging climate science, establishing Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, and designating “surrogate species” to focus our efforts alongside a broad community of partners. All of these are key elements of the agency’s modernized approach to conservation, called Strategic Habitat Conservation.
Climate Science Centers
The U.S. Department of the Interior operates a National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center at the national headquarters of the U.S. Geological Survey. Eight regional Climate Science Centers are now expanding the scope and geographic reach of climate-science efforts nationwide. The centers provide scientific information, tools, and techniques to help conservation professionals and others anticipate, monitor, and adapt to changing climate conditions at regional and local scales.
How You Can Help
Small changes in our everyday lives can make a big difference for the environment, now and in the future. Click here to learn more about how you can help mitigate the effects of climate change and support wildlife conservation where you live.
For more information on the Science Applications program and how we’re helping the conservation community deal with climate change, please contact:
How we are carrying out Strategic Habitat Conservation in the Southwest
Regional Reports and Research
National Reports and Research
Global Reports and Research
The following are links to other leading organizations that have extensive information on climate change.