Climate Spotlight: Are We Seeing Climate Disasters in Northern Arizona? | Columnists



We now see the headlines about global weather disasters every day. Here are some examples over the past two weeks: “Heavy rains and landslides have claimed dozens of lives in Brazil.” “Heat waves in India threaten maternal and child health.” “South Korea: Wildfire triggers mass evacuation.” “Severe drought threatens food security in India.” So is it just the rest of the world that is suffering from climate change, or are we feeling the effects here too?

Certainly, our average temperature is rising, just like in the rest of the world. In Flagstaff it’s mainly the low winter temperatures that we’ve lost and of course this affects our snow and ski season. But we are also seeing higher summer temperatures, and people are considering installing heat pumps for cooling on the hottest days.

We are yet to see the extreme temperatures of Phoenix, where people are desperate to escape the 110-120°F heat. But we’re “feeling the heat” as central Arizona residents buy second homes in Flagstaff or escape on weekends to saturate our cooler AirBnB market. These trends affect our housing availability and drive up house prices. Is it a “climate disaster?” Well, if you ask anyone trying to buy a house or rent an apartment in time for the fall semester.

People also read…

  • First hearing held for suspect arrested in connection with pipeline fire
  • Pipeline Fire, Day 3 Updates: Fires continue to spread north of Flagstaff, some evacuations lifted
  • Thousands Evacuated, One Arrested As High Winds Drive Pipeline Fire To Country’s Worst
  • Two dead and one injured in shooting in Flagstaff
  • Pipeline fire burns more than 4,000 acres north of Flagstaff, forcing evacuations
  • Pipeline Fire, Day 4 Updates: Pipeline at 22,888 Acres, 31% Contained; Haywire 5,065 acres, 0% confined
  • The City of Flagstaff will enter Stage 3 fire restrictions on Friday
  • Another fire, another evacuation as Pipeline Fire north of Flagstaff causes more distress
  • Pipeline Fire Day 2 Updates: Blaze listed at 4,500 acres, joined by Haywire, Double fires
  • Lot owner makes suggestions for impounded vehicle belonging to pipeline fire suspect
  • Sunset Crater National Monument ‘dodged a bullet’ in tunnel fire
  • Fires north of Flagstaff continue Tuesday as response increases
  • Riser remains in custody after a second hearing in Flagstaff
  • Pipeline and Haywire fires still burning Thursday, additional closures announced
  • Favorable winds allow depletion operations Wednesday on the northern edge of Pipeline Fire

Wildfires are increasingly frequent and intense across the western United States and on every continent except Antarctica. Our fire risk in Flagstaff is skyrocketing, so to speak, as temperatures rise. Our forests have dried up due to variable rainfall and higher evaporation losses as warmer air temperatures and winds carry away moisture.

Is it a “climate catastrophe”? Just ask people in the Timberline, Fernwood, Lenox Park, Girls Ranch Road, Wupatki Estates and Antelope Hills neighborhoods. Due to the Tunnel, Pipeline and Haywire fires, people there had to evacuate, some twice, and many lost their homes completely. Just ask people in neighborhoods near the Schultz Fire, Museum Fire, Rafael Fire, Railroad Fire, Crooks Fire, Mangum Fire, Spur Fire, Slide Fire, Yarnell Fire, and Wallow Fire.

Monsoon shower events have also become more intense. As we inject more heat energy into our atmosphere, its ability to transport water also increases. Last summer we saw many massive downpours. One of them was estimated at 200 years old and another at 400 years old.

In the University Heights neighborhood, we had such a heavy downpour that at 1:30 we suddenly had a lake between our house and our neighbor’s house. The water in this “lake” only came from what fell on our two roofs. Of course, our never-before-seen lake was nothing compared to what people saw in other neighborhoods. Other neighborhoods saw cars floating in the streets. Was it a “climate disaster?” Just ask the folks who had to shell out for cleanup and repairs in Grandview, Mount Elden Estates, Sunnyside, Fort Valley and many neighborhoods along the Rio de Flag.

Heat, variable rainfall, and winds also affect our ranges and wildlife habitats throughout northern Arizona. A 2018 study by Iric Burden, then a rangeland management specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, documented an over 80% reduction in rangeland plant growth on 1.2 million acres in Coconino, Navajo and Apache counties. This study also showed 50-80% reduced growth on an additional 2.7 million acres.

When asked how climate change was affecting ranchers, the late Jim Babbitt said, “Our family business ranch managers tell me we now have strong winds every fall. We didn’t have any 20 years ago, and these fall winds are hard on the grasses and shrubs on the course. We now have to haul more food and water for our livestock every fall and winter.

Not only livestock, but many wildlife species depend on springs and streams for their water. Not surprisingly, many springs are drying up and stream flow is becoming more seasonal. Irrigation “reservoirs” dry out more quickly due to less rainfall and because higher temperatures lead to more evaporative losses. Is it a “climate disaster? Just ask the deer and the bobcats. Ask the coyotes and coatimundis. Ask the wild horses and ask the ranchers.

Stefan Somner, [email protected], is with the NAU Center for Adaptable Western Landscapes,

Spotlight on Climate is sponsored by the Northern Arizona Climate Change Alliance,


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