Snowpack peaks early--still kills

Plus an excerpt from Behind the Slickrock Curtain

Today’s a traveling day for me (for the first time in a long, long time and, yes, I’m nervous.) So instead of the usual Wednesday deep Data Dump, I have a Data-follow-up followed by a little excerpt from my novel, Behind the Slickrock Curtain. If you’re a Land Desk free-rider, you missed out on my combo piece on Monday about the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan and the rise of the Land-healing Industry. But you can still read it! Just sign up for a paid subscription, don’t miss another post, and unlock the gates to the archives! 

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There’s a saying around these parts: He who tries to predict the weather is either a fool or from out of town. I’m not from out of town, but I am going to make a prediction. So I guess that makes me … well, you know. But really, I’m not stepping out onto a very fragile limb to say that the snowpack in the Southwest (and beyond) hit its peak on April 1, which is on par with recent years but a week or two earlier than the 40-year norm (and the 40-year norm is earlier than the norm for the previous 40 years, and so on). And all of that is in line with what researchers have been finding, repeatedly: A warming climate is shrinking—both in space and time—the vast reservoir known as the mountain snowpack. And that will have dire consequences for the water supplies of the Western United States.

That’s not to say that it won’t snow again this spring. It will, surely. But the likelihood of it snowing enough to offset the rapid melt, the result of record breaking high-temperatures region-wide, is extremely slim. 

Remember last week when I wrote about the way yukigata, the snow-pattern planting calendars, are disappearing earlier and earlier thanks to climate change? And how I said that most of the West’s yukigata were still sticking around? Not for long. Check out how quickly the blanket of snow on Ute Mountain in southwest Colorado is going away (in opening photo above).

But just because the snow’s melting fast, doesn’t mean it can’t slide, bury, and kill a person. It can and, most likely, it will. This winter just became the deadliest avalanche season since 1950 for the United States as a whole with 37 dead so far. Twelve have died in Colorado, which ties the 70-year record. 

So, enjoy the spring skiing, even if it is a bit earlier than usual. But please be careful.

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And now, the excerpt from the novel

Brautigan saw the street as a riverbed and all the cars on it as a river—a river of wealth pouring out of the oil wells and coal mines and flowing through the city before being siphoned out to Houston, Denver, or London. The fancy-car drivers, the chosen few, had managed to harness the current and divert it into their bank accounts and their multitude of belongings. Meanwhile, the guy on the bike or the person flipping the burgers back there in the incessant heat of Blake’s Lotaburger’s kitchen were able to catch just a few drops. And still others missed out on the bounty entirely, getting pummeled by it, instead. The current picked them up, emptied their pockets and their souls, then tossed them back in, where they fell prey to the undertow, only finding relief when they ended up dead in the gutter after a long February night, or shot down by a frightened cop in one of the poor neighborhoods. They were the ones who go missing, really go missing, until they are accidentally found, bruised and battered and buried in a shallow grave out at the end of a gas patch service road. 

“Let them eat Blake’s,” Brautigan said a little too loudly as his fist clenched around his burger, squeezing a blob of mayonnaise-grease-mustard juice onto the red plastic tray. 

He felt people looking at him. He had overstayed the ten minutes or so it takes to choke down a burger, talking to himself all the while, thereby morphing from paying customer into a vagrant or a squatter or a maniac who would soon start screaming about the mind-reading powers of microwave ovens. 

Reluctantly he got up and headed back out into the blast-furnace parking lot and the stagnant air of his car and settled himself gingerly onto the searing seat, fired up the engine, and pulled out onto the busy boulevard. He took the next right turn, not knowing where it would lead, then turned again, passing through residential neighborhoods, meandering along curvy streets, checking out cul-de-sacs, ignoring the looks his old car drew. He passed a woman smoothly pedaling a nice road bike, decked out in lycra and a pollution mask, her tanned skin shimmering with perspiration. He passed kids playing in sprinklers in green yards and slowed down almost to a stop as he drifted by a front-yard get-together. Three women sat in lawn chairs, drinking cocktails or wine. The men gathered conspiratorially around the grill, taking long draws off of beers and talking and laughing. The smell of charred meat wafted through the hot air. A Kenny Chesney country song about getting along played loud. Brautigan felt a stab of covetousness, a sudden longing for the comfort of domesticity, for financial and emotional security, for the carefree air they all wore so loosely. 

Of course it was a lie. There is no security anymore, maybe there never was. Brautigan's envy turned to exasperation. He wanted to warn them, wanted to shake them out of their serenity. “Don’t you see?” he said, under his breath. “You should be the anxious ones. You have so much to lose.” Less than a mile away fish lay rotting upon dry and dusty rocks where once ran a river. The sprinklers would sputter out soon, too, the lush lawns becoming brittle and hard and lifeless. The hydrocarbon reservoirs were waning. The big oil companies that once lorded over the community, sponsoring everything from the symphony to the school of energy, had collapsed under their own weight, the executives scurrying off quietly, taking the high-paying jobs, the workers’ pensions, the health benefits with them, following the old cycles of colonization, exploitation, and abandonment. The foreclosures and financial instruments would soon descend like a swarm of locusts, laying waste to the suburban scene. Even the Applebees would one day deliquesce to dust. 

As the planet dies, as the insects and the birds and the beasts give way to extinction, perhaps a new species of scavenger will rise up in their wake. A terrible conglomeration of the detritus of the extraction society—pumpjacks and distillation towers and mud pumps and suction lines—a monster that emerges from the ruins of the refineries, resides in the abandoned shells of big box stores, that stomps across the charred landscape respiring hydrogen sulfide, guzzling fracking fluid, and gobbling up pipelines and transmission lines as it goes. 

“I guess we all get what we deserve,” Brautigan told his bug-spattered windshield, knowing it wasn’t true, that a mass comeuppance would never come.

As the waxy blob of the sun dipped below the horizon, Brautigan pulled onto the highway, joining the flow of traffic heading northward. Suburban sprawl gave way to rural sprawl and he turned onto an undulating back road. His little car passed dusty yards and late-model modulars, their vinyl siding already warping from the recalcitrant heat, and dropped down into a miniature valley shaded by river-bank cottonwoods that were just then dropping their fluffy seeds. For a brief moment Brautigan sped through a summer whiteout, the cotton swirling chaotically in his car’s slipstream. Off to his right, the Animas, the River of Lost Souls, was little more than a warm and stagnant trickle, its once abundant flows pilfered by the heat and the meagre winters and the ditches that spilled onto fields. 

He cursed the irrigators for pilfering the waters. Then he praised them for creating this little oasis, this reminder of what once was. He inhaled the aroma of verdant alfalfa, of fresh-cut hay, baled and stacked in grid-like rows. The ephemeral fragrance of early summer wafted through the car, triggering, as always, a sad kind of hope that the long days to come will somehow heal all the wounds, will lift us up and carry us back to that one, brief, fugacious moment in our lives when we were whole, when everything was possible, when we ran heedlessly through fields on dusky lavender-hued evenings, when we kissed under the whispering leaves of the old weeping willow, the nighttime grass cool against our skin, and we lay on our backs in the warm dirt between corn rows at dusk, marveling at the tassels blowing against the star-studded bowl of the June sky. 

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As a postscript, an even more dramatic picture of snowmelt. This is Mt. Taylor in New Mexico on March 27 and April 6: