NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Recent updates to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Climate Change Indicators website reveals the extent of climate change in New Mexico according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). From longer, more frequent heatwaves in Albuquerque to a drop in precipitation in the northwest corner of the state, the administration’s data shows New Mexico has undergone significant change over the years, but it’s not all bad news.
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While most of the updated site is dedicated to examining the regional effects of climate change, the EPA updates reveal a hopeful trend in nationwide greenhouse gas emissions. From 1990 to 2007, US greenhouse gas emissions were on the rise according to the administration’s calculations. But over the last ten years, total emissions have been decreasing.
EPA data shows that this slight decrease has largely been due to changes in electricity production across the nation, including shifts from coal-burning power plants to natural gas. Peter Fawcett, a professor and chair of the University of New Mexico Earth & Planetary Sciences Department says the positive change in electricity generation has been happening in New Mexico as well.
“If you look in the southwest, wind farms are going up everywhere,” he says. “So are solar farms, and they’re replacing the conventional coal-fired power plants.”
In fact, wind-based electricity generation has been on an upward trend since 2015, and as of February 2021, renewable energy-based electricity generation in New Mexico outpaced coal-based electricity generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration. But, as the updated EPA data shows, many effects of climate change are already here. Many of the symptoms are visible in droughts that have recently hit the state.
Over the last decade, total emissions have been declining thanks to changes within the electricity generation industry. Data: EPA
New Mexico is no stranger to hot, dry conditions. In fact, as of May 19, more than 50% of the state is still experiencing “exceptional drought.” The updated data from the EPA and NOAA show that over much of the last decade, the US has seen above-average precipitation — but not across New Mexico.
In the Land of Enchantment, only the south and southeast part of the state have seen a slight increase in annual precipitation since 1901. The rest of the state has experienced either unchanged amounts of precipitation over the last 120 years, or has seen a drop in annual precipitation. Still, that puts us in better shape than out neighbor to the west. All of Arizona has seen a decrease in precipitation since 1901, according to NOAA.
Decades of precipitation data show only southern and southwestern New Mexico have seen an increase in precipitation since 1901. Data note: Regional data may not be statistically significant.
Alongside decreased precipitation, the EPA shows some parts of the state have seen an increase in heat. Albuquerque, like many large US cities, has seen an increase in the number of heat waves each decade, according to the updated NOAA data.
Technically speaking, NOAA measures heat waves as two or more days when the minimum daily temperature in a given city is hotter than 85% of the July and August temperatures in that area from 1981 to 2010. In other words, heat waves are multiple days that are “unusually hot.” The updated NOAA data shows that across the US, the average number of heat waves per year increased from around two in the 1960s to about six in the 2010s — a threefold increase.
In the last decade, Albuquerque has experienced an increase of about four additional heat waves per year. This increase puts Albuquerque in the middle of the pack of 50 large US cities represented in the data. San Juan, Puerto Rico topped the list, with an increase of more than 13 heat waves per year in the last decade. El Paso, Texas, has seen an increase of more than five heat waves per year, according to the data.
Heat waves in major US cities are occurring more frequently, according to NOAA data. Albuquerque has experienced an increase of about four heat waves per decade. Data: EPA/NOAA
The EPA shows that it’s not just temporary heat waves that have increased in the southwest. The average seasonal temperature has also increased from 1896 to 2020.
“In the southwest, average temperatures have increased by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit with some areas over 4 [degrees] warmer,” the EPA told KRQE. Summer temperatures in New Mexico have increased by 2.07 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 124 years.
“That’s a pretty striking trend,” says Fawcett from UNM. “The biggest impact has to do with our number one water source.”
He’s talking about surface water, most of which comes from snowmelt in New Mexico’s mountains. Although a two degree temperature increase doesn’t necessarily seem like a big change over more than a century, he says it has big implications for water in the state.
“If you look at the snowpack — and when you’re getting the primary melt — for the peak runoff, it’s actually coming almost a full month earlier compared to say the 1940s,” Fawcett says. “And that has a big influence on irrigation season, because what it means is you’re moving all of that runoff forward by about a month.”
As a result, he explains, not only do farmers have to adapt their watering schedules to match availability, but the change in snowmelt timing also changes how much water is lost to the atmosphere before it can be used. And with hotter temperatures, there’s more water lost to the atmosphere.
The NOAA data shows that in addition to an overall warming trend in New Mexico, the state has seen an increase in the number of “unusually hot” days. Los Lunas, New Mexico, for example, saw an increase of about 40 days per year that were hotter than 95% of all days from 1948 to 2020.
The American Southwest has seen both an increase in average summer temperatures (state colors) as well as increases in the number of “unusually hot” days (circles). Data: EPA/NOAA
The changes in temperature come with changes to the growing season in New Mexico and across the US. The growing season in the contiguous 48 states is now more than two weeks longer than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, according to the data. New Mexico’s growing season has increased by a little over 13 days.
“We’re seeing the final frost coming, on average, earlier. And the first frost in the fall is being pushed back,” explains Fawcett. “But there’s still a lot of year-to-year variability in that, like I remember last year we had a pretty strong freeze that killed off some of my tomato plants.”
Fawcett says the implications of a longer growing season aren’t totally clear. After all, the EPA notes that having more days in the growing season could let farmers grow a larger or more diverse harvest. “Crops in some individual locations may benefit,” the EPA’s Climate Change Indicators website notes. But a longer season could also increase water demand, according to the EPA.
The length of the growing season has changed most dramatically in the southwestern US. While New Mexico’s growing season has lengthened, Arizona and California have seen the biggest increase in the length of their growing seasons. Data: EPA/Kunkel, 2021
Together the data points to a New Mexico that is warmer and drier in the near future. “When you look at the next 50 years or so,” Fawcett says, “one of the ways that you can sort of think about: ‘How is climate change going to impact us?’ is think about cities that are a little bit further south.”
A good analogue, he says, is El Paso. “In 50 to 100 years Albuquerque could have a climate a lot more like El Paso, Texas — maybe a little bit less winter precipitation [and] hotter temperatures overall.”
He says us humans will be able to adapt without much trouble, but the environment will have to change rapidly. “Think about the kind of vegetation around El Paso versus what we have here [in Albuquerque],” he says. “There’s going to be a transition that’s going to come really quickly.”
Fawcett points out that when it comes to large scale climate change, personal actions — like installing solar panels or driving a hybrid — don’t amount to much more than “nibbling around the edges.” They are helpful, but alone, they are not going to make a big difference. It takes large-scale, systematic change to make an impact at the global level. But, he adds, New Mexicans’ actions do have a big impact on water within the state.
“The city and the state put in a lot of public education through the 90s,” which led to many New Mexicans installing water efficient toilets, switching to xeriscape, and taking on all sorts of water conservation efforts, he says. “It made a huge difference.”
In fact, in Albuquerque, there are indications that groundwater levels are recovering. “In terms of the water use, we’ve made actually a big, big difference,” Fawcett says.