Updated: Feb 18
A new 6 part miniseries..."This Is What Drought Looks Like". Here we are, in the middle of a bunch of atmospheric river storms, but that severe drought is still lurking behind the scenes, at least in the southwest. Every hopeful forecast that ends up being a half inch of snow or less is a reminder that while people forget or get distracted, Nature remembers, and is keeping track of the deficit. This picture says it all: the clouds come, but refuse to drop their moisture on the faithful congregates below, pray as we might. There will be consequences.
Part 2 in Drought miniseries. There's more snow on the ground this week, but that doesn't mean the drought is over. Just under the snow is soil that's quick to dry out at the first touch of wind or sun. It dries out so quickly--even in the best of years--that the only thing to thrive on it is the cryptogam crust, aka the biological soil crust, with a particularly spectacular lichen shown here. When conditions are super dry, conventional approaches like roots and leaves just don't work. It's time for extreme cooperation (fungus + algae), serious dormancy capabilities (whenever there's no water), and finding alternative sources of water and minerals (airborne dust and dew). So if this drought carries on, at least there's one life form out there that's up for it!
Part 3 in Drought Miniseries: Notice something strange about this pinyon pine? It looks robust, thickly needled, several fat cones... and dead as can be. Pretty red needles in a thick coat of snow. Irony #1, the snow came a year too late to save it from the drought, which started back in the fall of 2017. Irony #2: those cones were not a sign of vigor but of desperation--a last ditch effort to procreate. That's what drought does to trees and other plants.. it makes them bear the biggest mast crops, the sweetest fruit, the most flowers. It's a conservative bet because they are betting that the drought will continue and there won't be enough water to maintain themselves, so they put all their life into the drought-hardy seeds. I guess you could say they are pessimists...or is that optimists? Either way, it's been a strategy that's worked!
Part 4 in Drought... I found just the cure for a long term drought--start posting a miniseries about it on social media! Ever since I set out on this 6 part miniseries, we've had unusually wet weather. Go figure! So in this obviously photoshopped image, you can see the National Drought Monitor map where the sky ought to be (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/) showing the remains of the drought lingering across the west. In the foreground is a recently dead pinyon pine. They are the ultimate measures of drought in our neighborhood. A little more than a year of 50% normal precipitation has long term impacts on the land and its inhabitants. This little tree was probably 40 years old, and it just got culled!
Part 5 Drought...Piles of snow and days of rain may have broken this drought in the southwest. But another will come just because that's how things roll here. In the good years you'd think everything would prosper, from the biggest trees down to the tiniest wildflowers. But the truth is, too much moisture doesn't help every species. There will be winners (the moisture lovers will grow bigger, taller, and greedier), and losers (the plants that can't put on a ton of growth when there's more than enough water.) Like this Mormon tea--its special skill is enduring dry times while the plants around it die. In the long run, it's a zero-sum game that's part of Nature's balance.
Part 6- the series finale
Late again because I've been out enjoying Nature, among other things. A few days in Arizona's Sonoran Desert--which had an unusually wet last few months--have once more made it hard to take drought seriously. It was so wet every canyon bottom had a stream running down it, and water was oozing out of the rocks up on the ridges. The explosion of annual grasses made the normal desert vegetation look puny and drab. But the cacti were still there, with all of their adaptations for desert conditions. And the pinyons at the so-called Pinyon Camp had all died long ago. These plants are the gages for long-term climate effects in this landscape, not the grasses. And they show that drought is the rule at this latitude. So while the short-lived grasses may temporarily be the main show in town, before you know it they'll be dried out and gone to seed.
While all that praying and posting may have worked to bring our most recent drought to an end, the plants know another one's coming. And if the climate continues to get warmer and drier, they'll be more frequent. So it's good to know that here in the Colorado Plateau country, there are cholla like this Arizona specimen, perfectly suited for hot and dry, and standing right at our doorstep.