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Trends in Global Climate Change: when will Phoenix die?

Posted on March 14th, 2013 in Climage Change,Culture by Robert Miller

Arid Land: Phoenix of the Future?

William deBuys, who wrote the highly recommended book “A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest,” (Oxford University Press, 2011) has written a TomDispatch article, Phoenix in the Climate Crosshairs: We Are Long Past Coal Mine Canaries. A bit earlier I posted an article on the new projections for water runoff in the southwest, which seemed to have Arizona as a special target. Different climate models converge for the Southwest and project that by mid-century the state will experience a 20-40 percent decline in river runoff and this in an already parched region of the country. While my article focused on Arizona, deBuys’ article describes the city of Phoenix, which is already leading the nation as the trend-setter for global climate change and oddly serves as a hotbed for climate change denial. In 2011 the city set a new record of summer days with the temperature over 110 degrees: it had 33 of them; routinely Phoenix has 100 days with temperatures over 100 degrees. It is characteristic of the desert, that while temperatures during the day can get very hot, at night one can often experience uncomfortably cool if not cold evenings. But Phoenix is built on an asphalt-laden sprawl. Nighttime temperatures that didn’t get above 90 degrees sixty years ago, before the urban expansion began in earnest, are now routinely above 100 degrees, because the city is built on a heat sink. Black asphalt traps heat. Every driver has experienced the wavy lines appear just above the distant asphalt on a hot summer day, created by thermal radiation. The asphalt stores heat energy during the day and radiates it at night.

Writer deBuys is an authority on the Southwest—he lives there. The details of his book rely on conversations with scientists who study the archeology of the region and he confers with global climate change models relevant for the Southwest. His book details the history of the region going far enough back to cover how Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde experienced a drought which forced the occupying people to move—archeological evidence suggests it got very ugly in the end. And this happened before humans changed the heat equation. It was part of the normal weather pattern, simply a low probability event perhaps in the extreme. But the drought lasted long enough to force a once vibrant community, with perhaps as many as 19,000 people spread throughout the region, to walk away because the cost of staying got too high. Given what we know about Phoenix, with its anti-science, pro-Christian fanaticism, characterized by deep paranoia over illegal immigrants, it is hard to imagine the city facing global climate change with any sense of intelligence and deBuys comments on the character of the city that does not imbue a sense of wholesome predictions about the outcome. As he points out, floods come on suddenly and force people to band together and aid each other in finding safety,  but heat is different. It isolates and gives rise to an uncertainty about broad participation in finding solutions for everyone.  End of Days believers may tough it out until the very end. Is there such a thing as human extinction created by excessive ideology? If so, what is the archeology of such an event? I suppose it would include Christian burial sites for all involved, with orderly human skeletons lacking evidence of blunt instruments penetrating the skull, something akin to the archeology of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried citizens while they slept, resting peacefully, asphyxiated no doubt by instant heat and toxic fumes. Somehow I can’t imagine the citizens of Phoenix going gently in the dark of night. But heat, more arid, parched land conditions and less water have just gotten underway. Right now Phoenix lives on air conditioning to abate summer temperatures, but this requires lots of electricity and the grid supporting electric current in the region is also under enormous stress, such that a nightmare for the city is a hot day with no electricity, bringing on regrets about our failure to invest in infrastructure.


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