This morning’s wildfire smoke started me thinking about our last big snow. It was December 2006 and it was a whopper for the upper Middle Rio Grande. A record-setting 11.3 inches landed on the airport in Albuquerque. We got close to a couple of feet up here in Placitas. That is my late dog Cooper looking a little baffled by developments.
But my brain is such a hollow vehicle when it comes to data-keeping, anecdotes adrift like hot air balloons. Kept inside by the smoke this morning, I wondered if we now have more smoky days than we used to. The real question probably is whether we have more wildfires. I suspect that is the case but I also remembered another day in 2006, my 57th birthday in August. Cooper and I walked up the fire road to the radio towers above the Santa Fe ski area. All we could see to the west, from nearly 12,000 feet up, was smoke.
It does seem that we got more consistent snows in the 1970s. I think this impression stems mostly from another dog and I, Mus — short for Mustafa — being overtaken by a big, slow storm in the Bandelier backcountry on Christmas day around 1973. I got a hint of what was to come the night before when Mus aligned himself with my sleeping bag inside the tent on Upper Frijoles Creek. (I think the backcountry rules were different in those days). We hurried out after a Christmas Eve on frozen ground in Capulin Canyon. It started snowing as we passed the Stone Lions and was dumping a couple of feet by the time we got back to Santa Fe.
I skied with Mus, too. In the 1970s around Santa Fe, it seemed there was sometimes enough snow to ski on Atalaya mountain, before Wilderness Gate, and gloriously down the long, smooth arroyos running southwest from my rented guest house on Nine Mile Road. I think this photo of Mus from the 70s is probably from somewhere around St. John’s.
Then there were days when the snow at the Valles Caldera hid the “No Tresspassing” signs on the barbed wire fence and you just happened to have skis in the back of the truck.
Although I am easily fooled by the latest rain or snowfall, I have read in environment writer Laura Paskus reports that it is warmer in New Mexico these days and not so far in the future my stomping grounds will look like El Paso. It already looks drier. Much drier.
Paskus quotes climate change scholar Jonathan Overpeck in her 2020 book At the Precipice: “What we’re seeing now in the drought that’s going on is that it’s more due to temperature increase and less due to precipitation deficit.” Paskus notes: “Even during wet years, which will still occur as the climate changes, warmer conditions dry out landscapes.”
John Fleck of the University of New Mexico Water Resources Program tweeted earlier this spring, “The last 12 months in New Mexico have been the driest April-March period in the history of weather record-keeping here.”
I suppose mostly because of the dryness, climate change is on my mind every day. Clumps of old grass turn to dust under my boots. Below are Sadie and Molly bounding home in Placitas in 1992, snow not smoke in the background, when spring moisture primed the hills for wildflowers and a little grass still lived to green.
Poor Cowboy has seen snow in the past, here in January 2019, and wildflowers three months later in April.
But this morning we’re just looking for a little clear sky.