Warmer, drier might be the new ‘normal’

The people in charge of managing firefighting for big wildfires in Colorado’s forests often declare them “contained and controlled” but then add that they’ll be burning until the snow falls. Typically, that happens in mid-autumn. While some spots may smolder well into winter, the conventional wisdom, based on years of experience, is that those fires aren’t going to grow.

This weekend — the first weekend in December, which is not officially winter but which is almost always characterized by winter weather — a wildfire near Rocky Mountain National Park, burning for nearly two months, made a major run and more than doubled in size to 3,500 acres. Although the wind was howling, it carried no snow to dampen the fire.

Elsewhere in Colorado, Salvation Army bellringers, who typically bundle up in layers for their charitable stint, were comfortable in hoodies, and at least one, on a sunny corner, wore shorts and flip-flops.

Coloradans expect some unseasonably warm days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they don’t expect daytime highs in the 50s for weeks on end. When they look up at the La Platas, they expect to see the snow line descending almost daily, not fluctuating up and down. When they check the weather forecast, they expect to see some major winter storms predicted as California rainstorms become Rocky Mountain blizzards, not “partly cloudy with 15 percent chance of snow flurries.” When they head for the slopes, they expect enough snow for a fast ride; they don’t want to scan the slopes ahead for bare patches.

Most years, those are reasonable expectations, but not this year. Last year’s winter was slow to start and quick to end.

Almost all the terrain west of the Mississippi, with the exception of the Pacific Northwest, is abnormally dry, with most of that map labeled “severe drought,” “extreme drought” or “exceptional drought.” Western Colorado ranges from severe to extreme. Reservoirs are low. The ground is parched. And so far, runoff predictions are not optimistic.

Weather fluctuates, of course. The West has always alternated dry spells with “wet” spells (which, generally, are actually only less dry than the long-term average), and warm winters with harsh ones. December 4 is early; a lot of snow could fall between now and late spring. Still, the same group of people most likely to call climate change a myth are the ones who insist that when they were children, winters were colder and snowier than those in recent years.

It’s past time to consider the question, “What if this is a glimpse of the future?” What if this is the direction we’re moving? What will we do for water?

Whether climate change has a human component — which is nearly beyond debate — and even whether the current drought is a part of it, adaptation is still essential. Don’t expect the interior West to get the attention, or the funding, commensurate with a flooded New York City coastline. New York isn’t going to send water to Kansas in exchange for wheat and corn. FEMA isn’t going to bring it in plastic bottles. California isn’t going to decide it needs less.

What runs down from the high peaks is all the water there is to be had, and it’s past time to realize that’s not always going to be enough.