Local communities need to prepare for the impacts of climate change, New Mexico State climatologist David DuBois said at the Four Corners Air Quality Group meeting Wednesday in Farmington.
The Air Quality Group consists of state agencies from Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico as well as federal and tribal agencies working together to improve air quality in the region of Four Corners.
This group started more than 15 years ago. At the time, the area was on the verge of violating federal ozone standards, said Michael Baca of the New Mexico Department of Environment’s Air Quality Bureau. He said air quality has improved, but ozone levels remain a challenge and federal standards have become stricter.
“We have a huge task ahead of us to address the climate challenge,” said Claudia Borchert, climate change policy coordinator for NMED.
Borchert pointed to state efforts to address emissions, including the Energy Transition Act, the Natural Gas Waste Rule and the Ozone Precursor Rules.
Dubois provided statistics focused on the northwest corner of the state. Since 1970, the region has warmed at an average rate of 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
At the same time, the southwestern United States has been plagued by drought for more than 20 years.
Although the drought is not as dry as past droughts, Dubois said warmer temperatures are exacerbating conditions.
“Drought is more complex than just lack of water,” he said.
Dubois said the dry soil and increased evaporation means less water is available even when it rains.
Dubois said temperatures will continue to rise and there will be more heat waves in the future.
Climate change has impacts on human health. Heat waves cause an increase temperature-related health conditions like heat stroke. Wildfires produce smoke that can cause respiratory distress, and burn scars can threaten drinking water supplies.
But these are not the only impacts on human health.
Dubois said a longer growing season also means an increase in allergies, and conditions such as valley fever, caused by a fungus found in dust, increase under future weather conditions.
Communities must take steps to prepare for these health risks, Dubois said. He gave the example of setting up cooling stations to help people at risk during heat waves.
And it is not only human health that is at risk. Forest health can also deteriorate as temperatures warm and drought stresses trees.
Anita Rose, air program manager and climate change coordinator for the US Forest Service, spoke about the mitigation and adaptation strategies the federal agency is implementing in light of climate change. She also spoke about the future impacts of climate change, including the growth of deserts and the shrinking of subalpine and montane forests.
Rose said climate change can impact forests in several ways, including insect outbreaks, drought and increased wildfires.
As an example of an adaptation method, Rose said the Forest Service has proposed a 10-year period forest fire crisis strategy This year. This plan calls for what the Forest Service calls treatments to reduce fire risk. This may include prescribed burns as well as mechanical thinning.
“The wildfire crisis is not simply due to climate change, it is a much more complex problem than that. But climate change has certainly made it worse,” she said.