Extreme Weather Report From Santa Fe

People across half of the US just experienced unprecedented cold, snow and ice brought in by a record setting winter storm. Climate deniers have been wondering, we thought it’s gonna be warm with global warming, so why is it so cold? The climate scientists on the other hand have been pointing out that as the Arctic warms we’ll experience more frequent and severe intensity winter storms with colder temperatures and more snow—all due to human–made climate change.

I wanted to share a short report from my home town, Santa Fe in New Mexico, where temperatures have not only been extreme this past year, but record setting on both ends of the spectrum.

Last summer Santa Fe broke the high temperature record for both June (100 degree F) and July (100 degree F). While I was reasonably cool inside an old adobe house where I live, such high temperatures are no good news for plants and animals of our region. Between 2001 and 2005 sustained drought combined with high temperatures killed off 90% of mature piñons in northern New Mexico—our state tree. This continuing heat is killing newly planted trees as well, redefining the idea of reforestation in the 21st century. Last summer I wrote about the massive global forest deaths caused by climate change.

If you live in Boston or New York, you might be thinking (if you can afford it) of taking a vacation to New Mexico to warm up. But you’ll be surprised to know that on Wednesday Santa Fe broke the minimum temperature record for February with a minus 15 degrees F. Add to that 25 miles per hour wind that brought the wind–chill down to minus 40 degrees F. This is my way of saying it’s too cold for New Mexico.

I was fine inside the adobe home, but what about the plants and animals of our region? If asked that question, climate deniers will respond: all animals and plants will adapt to changes in the climate. That is like saying to a homeless person, too bad its 40 below outside, you’ll just have to adapt. If no one takes care of her, she will die from hypothermia. The same is true with plants and animals—many of them are unable to adapt to extreme and rapid changes in weather. They go extinct and they are going extinct. Our planet is currently experiencing the greatest human–made loss of biodiversity—primarily due to climate change and habitat loss.

Have you ever heard of a cactus getting frostbite? With extreme cold, a cholla cactus in Santa Fe can turn from bright summer green to deep red. It’s a visual spectacle for sure, but it also gives us a pause to wonder what happens to all other plants and animals of the desert Southwest with such extreme cold weather? I don’t have an answer and I surmise no one does at this point.

Wednesday was also significant for a different reason—Representative Fred Upton (R–Michigan), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee unveiled a draft legislation that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act.

So far the US hasn’t taken any significant step toward reducing atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. In his State of the Union address, President Obama avoided the use of such unpleasant phrases as “climate change” or “global warming.” He instead focused on the positive by talking about clean energy. The absolute bare minimum US can do right now is limit toxic emissions from some of the worst polluters through the EPA Clean Air Act.

For sometime now in the international climate negotiations, the US has been looking like a great emperor wearing only a thong and going around with a big whip to set a global moral order. If Upton succeeds, the thong will drop.

Subhankar Banerjee’s photographs can be seen this spring in a solo exhibition Where I Live I Hope To Know at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth (May 14–August 28, 2011) and in a group exhibition Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (April 8–August 28, 2011). Subhankar is currently editing an anthology titled “Arctic Voices” (Seven Stories Press, 2012). He has been appointed Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for fall term 2011.

Copyright 2011 Subhankar Banerjee