Wilder weather

New extremes hurt the West too

Keywords: Durango Herald,

When the more temperate parts of the country are experiencing the kind of winter that Southwest Colorado needs, it is easy to chuckle at communities paralyzed by an inch of snow.

The residents of those unexpectedly snowy regions shoot back snarky replies: “We would like to see you northerners cope with a hurricane.”

The truth is that the 24-hour news cycle has given Coloradans more than an inkling of how to deal with tropical weather, just as it has surely shown southerners how to deal with ice and snow. Ample information is out there, most of it obscured by the attitude that “It can’t happen here.”

It can. With increasing frequency, it does, and Americans must adjust, both individually and socially, to weather that can be warmer, colder, wetter, drier and more violent than “normal.”

Along with wider weather swings and more frequent extremes come higher costs, because at some point, blizzards in balmy states aren’t anomalous any more. At a certain frequency, they should trigger the acknowledgment that preparing for their likely recurrence makes sense.

Maybe that just means better notification mechanisms to keep people off the streets. Maybe it involves encouraging schools and businesses to plan for snow days or hurricane closures or floods. Perhaps it includes education, e.g., “When you have to scrape ice off your windshield, the road is probably icy too. (Or the Colorado version: “No, four-wheel drive really won’t help you stop.”)

Those are baby steps, and they are not terribly costly, but maybe more extensive measures are needed: revised building codes and funding to retrofit some older public structures; evacuation plans and adequate shelters; new equipment, whether it be snowplows or flood-rescue boats.

Those are ways to mitigate bad weather, but what happens when the weather just does not come? While the South and the Northeast are scoffing at global warming because they have been hit with miserable cold and deep snow, residents of Southwest Colorado are looking at the sky and waiting for winter, even as spring appears on the horizon.

A lot of snow could fall between now and May 1, but that is what everyone said last year. They kept saying it, kept hoping, kept gazing upward, and the snow did not fall. By this time in 2013, the winter was pretty much over.

As fun as it is to laugh at how unprepared other folks are, it is time to ask a probing question: Is the rural West any better prepared for protracted drought?

Many of the places where newcomers to this continent settled were chosen to avoid the climatological extremes that make life difficult. Others were occupied because the benefits of living there — gold in the mountains, grazing land on the vast plains, easy transportation along the Great Lakes, tall timber in the rain forest — outweighed the disadvantages.

But that calculation can be changed by shifting just one variable, and the number of permutations is daunting. What if the average daily high temp in July remains the same but January temperatures move upward? What if total precipitation does not change much but most of it falls in late summer rather than late winter?

Those are more subtle changes than the winter weather that have pounded the eastern half of the country this year. But like those storms, they do not have to happen every year to wreak havoc. Even if western weather is not consistently warmer or drier (or cooler or wetter), when the extremes swing wider, the costs of adapting grow higher.

Americans do have effective tools for dealing with weather-related problems, but denial is not among them. Closing schools and government offices for a few days because of a snowstorm is one kind of problem. Not being able to raise food is a problem of an entirely different magnitude, and it is no joke at all.